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Netflix settles ‘Queen’s Gambit’ defamation suit brought by Soviet chess grandmaster

Nona Gaprindashvili argued that her accomplishments were disparaged when a chess announcer in the Netflix series wrongly stated that she had “never faced men.”
Chess Champion Nona Gaprindashvili
Georgian chess player and women's world chess champion, Nona Gaprindashvili of the Soviet Union, plays at the International Chess Congress in London in 1964.Stanley Sherman / Daily Express via Getty Images
/ Source: Variety

Netflix has agreed to settle a lawsuit filed by a Georgian chess master who alleged that she was defamed in an episode of “The Queen’s Gambit.”

Nona Gaprindashvili argued that her accomplishments were disparaged when a chess announcer in the Netflix series wrongly stated that she had “never faced men.” In fact, Gaprindashvili had faced 59 male competitors by 1968, the year in which the series was set.

Anya Taylor as Beth Carmon in "The Queen's Gambit."
Anya Taylor-Joy as Beth Harmon in "The Queen's Gambit."Charlie Gray / Netflix

Netflix had tried to have the lawsuit dismissed, claiming that the show’s creators had broad license under the First Amendment. But in January a federal judge rejected that argument, holding that fictional works are not immune from lawsuits if they defame real people.

Netflix appealed the ruling to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, but on Tuesday the case was dismissed.

“The parties are pleased that the matter has been resolved,” said attorney Alexander Rufus-Isaacs, who represented Gaprindashvili.

The terms of the settlement were not disclosed. A Netflix spokesperson also said, “We are pleased the matter has been resolved.”

“The Queen’s Gambit” portrays Beth Harmon, a fictional American who becomes an international chess champion. In the final episode, Harmon defeats a male competitor at a tournament in Moscow. An announcer explains that her opponent underestimated her. “The only unusual thing about her, really, is her sex. And even that’s not unique in Russia. There’s Nona Gaprindashvili, but she’s the female world champion and has never faced men.”

Gaprindashvili, now 81, argued that the reference was “grossly sexist and belittling.”

Netflix argued that the reference was intended to recognize Gaprindashvili, not disparage her. The series employed two chess experts in an effort to get the details correct.

The streamer also relied on a 2018 ruling in the California Court of Appeal involving the FX show “Feud.” In that case, Olivia de Havilland claimed that she had been falsely portrayed as a “vulgar gossip.” The appeals court sided with FX, finding that creators have a First Amendment right to interpret history and that real-life subjects do not have veto power over how they are depicted.

Nona Gaprindashvili, a Soviet-era chess grandmaster
Nona Gaprindashvili speaks in Tbilisi, Georgia, in 2019. Irakli Gedenidze / Reuters via Alamy

In the Gaprindashvili case, however, U.S. District Judge Virginia Phillips found that does not mean that creators have an unfettered right to defame people.

“Netflix does not cite, and the Court is not aware, of any cases precluding defamation claims for the portrayal of real persons in otherwise fictional works,” the judge wrote. “The fact that the Series was a fictional work does not insulate Netflix from liability for defamation if all the elements of defamation are otherwise present.”

The settlement means that the 9th Circuit will not get to weigh in — at least for the time being — on where the line should be drawn when real people are portrayed in fictional works.