Chess Champ Bests Netflix in MTD Phase of ‘The Queen’s Gambit’ Defamation Case

A Los Angeles, California federal judge ruled in favor of plaintiff Nona Gaprindashvili last Thursday, permitting her defamation claim against Netflix Inc. to proceed. In so ruling, District Judge Virginia A. Phillips declined Netflix’s defenses including its failure to state a claim, “substantial truth,” and free speech contentions.

The case was filed last September and concerns a statement made about Gaprindashvili in the popular Netflix miniseries, “The Queen’s Gambit.” The line at issue came in the final episode of the series when a commentator remarked, “‘There’s Nona Gaprindashvili, but she’s the female world champion and has never faced men.’”

Gaprindashvili first contacted Netflix and asked for the statement’s removal, given its patent falsity because she had, at the time of the fictional scene set in the Soviet Union in 1968, faced many men. Netflix reportedly dismissed her request, calling the statement “innocuous.” 

For its part, the court described the plaintiff as “a trailblazing woman chess player, who throughout her career won many championships, defeated some of the best male chess players in the world, and became the first woman in history to achieve the status of international chess grandmaster among men.”

Gaprindashvili’s amended complaint stated claims for false light invasion of privacy or in the alternative, defamation per se. Netflix moved to dismiss in November. 

In last week’s opinion, the court quickly disposed of Gaprindashvili’s first claim, finding that the plaintiff failed to plead that the statement made about her intruded upon her private life. Most of the 25-page opinion scrutinized arguments about the California law defamation claim.

Starting with falsity, Judge Phillips considered and agreed that the plaintiff presented a statement of fact that was provably false. As to whether “the line carries a defamatory implication” that would have been understood as such by a reasonable viewer, the court ruled that though the series was fictional, that fact alone could not insulate Netflix from the charge. Instead, the court found that viewers may reasonably have believed the comment to be a historical detail Netflix incorporated into the story.

Importantly, Judge Phillips concluded that an average viewer, at minimum, would have found the line “dismissive of the accomplishments central to Plaintiff’s reputation,” and therefore defamatory.

The court also discredited Netflix’s “substantial truth defense,” finding that the statement about Gaprindashvili served the storyline, by elevating the fictional protagonist Beth Harmon above the plaintiff, whereas in reality, the plaintiff paved the way for Harmon’s achievements against male players. 

As to the final element, actual malice, the court found that though the show’s creator Scott Frank believed the line to be accurate, its inclusion “evinces a reckless disregard that viewers would interpret the Line as defamatory.” As the opinion stated in reliance on a declaration submitted by Gaprindashvili, a simple Google search would have revealed the truth about her history facing men.

Gaprindashvili is represented by Rufus-Isaacs Acland & Grantham LLP and Netflix by King & Spalding LLP.