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The Queen’s Gambit

A chess ace puts Netflix in check

Nona Gaprindashvili at a tournament in London, 1964. Getty Images

In the final scene of The Queen’s Gambit, the fictional female chess player Beth Harmon competes against men. Harmon is revolutionary, says an announcer. “There’s Nona Gaprindashvili, but she’s the female world champion and has never faced men.” Gaprindashvili, a real Georgian chess star who is still alive, was furious. At the time when the episode was set, I’d played against 59 men – and won, she tells The New York Times. “This is my entire life that has been crossed out, as though it is not important.” Netflix, which made the show, denies her claims, and she is now suing the company for $5m.

Gaprindashvili got into chess by accident, says Yekaterina Sinelschikova in Russia Beyond. Her brother was meant to play at a chess tournament, but fell ill. The 12-year-old Nona took his place, breezily checkmated her opponent and charmed the founder of the Georgian women’s chess school. At 15 she was the female champion of Georgia. At 21 she was the female champion of the world.

But she wanted to beat men, so she spent hours studying tactics and perfecting her strategies. Soon she was knocking out men around the world. They were furious. “There was the so-called ‘Gaprindashvili club’ for men who had lost to her,” says modern chess master Maria Fomkina. “They fought tooth and nail not to join it.” Gaprindashvili wasn’t fussed – she just played more. Most chess masters manage 20 opponents at a time. Gaprindashvili once juggled 38. “I thought ‘Hell, I’m going to have to walk miles’,” she says. “In the end, it wasn’t difficult. I quickly started beating them.”

In 1978 she became the first female grandmaster. Now 80, she still plays in tournaments – but veterans only. “There’s no point competing with the young at my age,” she says. “You can’t cheat nature.”