Last week the Soviet Georgian chess grandmaster Nona Gaprindashvili announced that she is suing Netflix, claiming that the platform’s wildly popular miniseries The Queen’s Gambit belittles and undermines her achievements. In one of the later episodes, during a chess tournament held in the USSR, the narrator explains how the only unusual thing about the show’s main character, Beth Harmon, a fictionalized American chess player,
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.
While the series kept most of the characters fictional, it leaves in Nona’s real name and even changed the line from the book, which was adapted for the series. The reason this line sparked a lawsuit is simple — Gaprindashvili did face dozens of men during her decorated career, was awarded the International Chess Federation’s (FIDE) first woman grandmaster title, and became Women’s World Champion. The series erases not only Nona’s incredible achievements but those of women in the USSR more widely — in the meantime, blanketly dismissing this multiethnic country as all so many “Russians.”
In truth, the USSR enjoyed a decades-long reign in the world of chess. There was a particular golden age for Soviet Georgian women, with the small Caucasus republic producing world champions for some thirty years. The first FIDE grandmaster title was given to Nona Gaprindashvili, and the second grandmaster title given was also to a Soviet Georgian, Maia Chiburdanidze. Nona held on to the Women’s Championship for sixteen years. Maia held on to it for fourteen years and, until 2010, remained the youngest player to hold this accolade. These were the second- and third-longest reigns in the history of international women’s chess; the woman who held the title for longest, Vera Menchik, was also from the USSR. For comparison’s sake, there are only thirty-nine women out of 1,600 grandmasters, and the United States didn’t have any women grandmasters until 2013. Most of the winners to this day are from either the USSR, ex-communist countries (including others from Georgia), or latter-day China.
So, while Soviet women were winning tournaments on the global stage, the best the United States could do was produce a short Netflix series about a fictitious woman who beats the top men chess players. While in fiction there are no limitations to the writer’s imagination, in the real world the Soviet Georgian women’s triumphs owed not to chance but to effective social policies that cleared barriers from their path.
The evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould once famously grasped the importance of this distinction, commenting that
I am, somehow, less interested in the weight and convolutions of Einstein’s brain than in the near certainty that people of equal talent have lived and died in cotton fields and sweatshops.
The present writer (full disclosure: I am Georgian) knows that the USSR was far from perfect. But it also gave people working in factories and fields better working conditions, as well as a welter of clubs and centers to discover their talents. This provided what the liberals love to promise but never create — “an equal playing field.”
The Queen’s Gambit may be compelling TV, but ultimately it’s still interested in “Einstein’s brain.” Beth triumphs in the show because of her incredible genius. Her marvelous God-given talent is often referred to in the show despite severe hardships like having a dead mother, living in an orphanage, and not owning a chess set. But what’s even worse is that the world of The Queen’s Gambit explicitly undercuts the real woman, Nona (and others like her), who had both the brains and the social, economic, and moral support to help her become the world’s best player. There is a reason one is real and the other one is fiction.
After the Russian Revolution in 1917, Georgia’s Social Democrats expropriated the most magnificent palace in Tiflis (Georgia’s capital, now called Tbilisi) on the city’s main thoroughfare, Golovinskii Prospect. The palace had been built in the nineteenth century by the tsarist authorities and functioned as imperial Russia’s seat of power in the Caucasus up until 1917. From 1921 to 1937, it was the seat of Soviet Georgia’s government, before it was transformed into the Pioneer Palace for children. Hence this building went from being the seat of imperial Russian power and subjugation in the Caucasus to producing the world’s most extraordinary scientists, sportsmen, artists, and chess grandmasters. More such palaces were built across Soviet Georgia and elsewhere.
The Youth Palace, as it is now called, today has a display of its past and present students. There is a whole room devoted to chess, with a large set donated by Nona Gaprindashvili herself. The palace is filled with minerals, rocks, and artifacts extracted by kids, and photos of bygone excursions. Then there are artworks and sculptures and films made by the former students. Most of the works displayed are from the USSR, but there are more recent ones, too. When I commented how the Soviet figurines looked so professional, my guide told me that’s because they had expensive materials to work with back then. The “talent is the same, the materials are just less now.” I inquire more about what they offer now. She tells me they have a fraction of the programs they used to offer — and summer camps or trips haven’t been happening for a while. As she talks, I look at the crumbling, stained walls.
Since the release of The Queen’s Gambit, a couple of articles appeared drawing connections with the career of Nona Gaprindashvili and Georgian women’s dominance in Soviet chess. Yet, with a typical glib erasure of the Soviet past, the story is told starting in the twelfth century, when “Georgian” brides were given chess sets as a dowry. But the noble origins of these brides are never discussed. Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, chess existed, just as theater, books, and seaside resort vacations existed — but these luxuries were reserved for the nobles and the burgeoning capitalist class in the cities, not for the serfs or workers who made up most of the population.
It was a later period — when the Soviet Union provided the material, time, places, and expertise for chess to take off en masse among the working class — that the platform for these women’s success was created. There was an inversion of the hierarchy of who was at the top both morally and politically — no longer the upper classes and clergy but the working classes. The broad access to art and sport defined Soviet social development from the very beginning. Lenin was himself concerned with these trends in the youth. As he wrote to Clara Zetkin,
Young people, particularly, need the joy and force of life. Healthy sport, swimming, racing, walking, bodily exercises of every kind, and many-sided intellectual interests. Learning, studying, inquiry, as far as possible in common.
Rags to Riches
So, between Netflix and the USSR, we have two contrasting ideas of class politics: in the first, fictional case, a working-class girl “makes it big” through hard work against the odds and even against elite opposition; in Soviet historical reality, a platform is provided so that it doesn’t have to be an individual struggle.
This contrast is fundamental to the feel-good story The Queen’s Gambit wants to tell. The narrative begins with the fictional Beth moving to a Christian orphanage, where she begs a reluctant janitor in a basement to let her play chess, against his initial resistance owing to her gender. When this working-class man realizes the young girl has talent, he tries to connect her to someone who can develop her skills as a player. But Beth is addicted to psychotropic drugs, with the orphanages routinely administering the children pills to keep them well-behaved. As punishment, the headmistress — already uncomfortable with Beth’s lack of ladylike manners — forbids her from playing chess for what looks like the next six years of her stay.
When Beth is finally adopted, her mother doesn’t support her at first — it’s the working-class janitor who sends her the entrance fee for her first proper chess tournament. The mother only starts supporting her when she realizes she’s broke and needs her to make money.
This fictional story contrasts starkly with the history of a real-life woman player like Nona Gaprindashvili. Growing up in Soviet Georgia, chess was widespread and common. And there’s a reason: a concerted effort by the Soviet state to disseminate sports and arts widely. Her brothers and she played all the time, and one day her brother asked her to join him in a tournament because they were missing a girl for the team.
After she showed great talent, she was begged by renowned chess master Vakhtang Karsadze to come to Tbilisi, where he trained her at the Pioneer Palace. She went on to win the Women’s World Chess Championship in 1961, only losing her title to the other leading Soviet Georgian player, Maia Chiburdanidze, in 1978. Nona’s success and a huge concentration of state resources inspired many women to go into chess. Yes, there was sexism in the Soviet Union, and from early on Nona had to navigate problems like many men refusing to honorably resign in the face of impending defeat, forcing her to play longer. But unlike the success of her Netflix counterpart, Beth, hers wasn’t the stuff of fiction.
Cold War Tropes
There are clear swipes at the Soviet Union and its citizens (referred to as Russians) in The Queen’s Gambit, like when we hear how “bureaucratically” the Soviet grandmaster played against Beth when he defeated her the first time. There’s also an embarrassing lack of attention to detail — like when the young Russian player introduces himself as “Jiorgi,” pronounced with a j sound when it should’ve been a hard g.
That said, there is some divergence from braindead Hollywood anti-communism — including a discussion about the “Russians” being good at chess because “they work as a team, unlike individualist Americans.” Ultimately, Beth winning is the work of a collective of chess masters helping her out. She is not some typical bourgeois girl — she has suffered tragically. Her success also rests on a janitor, a chess player turned grocer, and a black woman who was an orphan with her who didn’t get adopted and wasn’t a prodigy. All of this helps establish moral authority when Beth defeats her Soviet opponent.
The class politics, founded on an idealization of making it from rags to riches, also sit rather oddly with some of the Cold War tropes at work here. Beth is constantly spending time trying to find funds to attend tournaments, especially the one in Moscow. Only an anti-communist church organization is willing to send her there in exchange for publicly announcing her Christian beliefs and anti-communism, whereas the State Department won’t fund her but wants to surveil her.
In contrast, the Soviet chess players didn’t have to fundraise. They are portrayed as a society of suit-wearing poshos honing their craft in gorgeous buildings — we are also told that these players had been learning since they were four, thus framing chess as an elite pastime. This is counterposed to an American queer orphan who had been fighting her whole life to get to that table. The show thus weaponizes disenfranchised identities in the United States to cast the Soviet players as having had it easy.
In a way, they did, but only insofar as the awesome surroundings put on display here reflect the original experiment in “luxury communism.” Far from Soviet players being aristocratic, here the very things that the bourgeoisie enjoyed in imperial Russia were given to the proletariat to be enjoyed as well. For the USSR also insisted on the importance of bringing high culture to the masses — including opera, ballet, literature, sports, health resorts, chess, and so on.
One of the American chess players comments to Beth, “You should see where the Russians play, while we have to play in this small college.” Well, there was a reason for that. Those beautiful buildings used for chess were either palaces expropriated from the nobility or newly built halls.
In the final scene, the show tells us the real workers are outside playing chess in the streets — and the final episode even ends with Beth escaping her State Department chaperone to play with them. So, it seems that she is quitting the Cold War, and joining chess players outside who seem a lot like her janitor friend, Shaibel.
Yet, if Beth is unwilling to be part of the Cold War, in many ways the entire show perpetuates it. All these details set up the moral authority of the American girl over the Soviets. Though the barbs against the Soviet Union are usually more or less subtle, the swipe at Nona Gaprindashvili as being a woman chess player who never faced men was not. Once again, the real progress for women in the Soviet Union is simply ignored or derided in favor of “girlboss” feminism from the United States. Tellingly, there are no Russian or Georgian women in the show, and even the actress who plays Nona Gaprindashvili is barely visible. For The Queen’s Gambit, the glamorous American Beth is the first woman “to beat the Russians at their own game.”
We need more than fake histories that absolve the system and lay blame on individuals’ gumption or lack of it. Women and working people generally need real social programs and policies that value them and allow them to realize their talents. The makers of The Queen’s Gambit claim that interest in chess has gone up after the series debuted — highlighting the show’s influence. Yet a documentary on Soviet Georgian women chess players that appeared around the same time, Glory to the Queen, won’t have a fraction of the views Netflix has.
It is distressing that when most people think of trailblazing woman chess players, they’ll think of fictional Beth — and never know of Nona Gaprindashvili or Maia Chiburdanidze, or the fact they, along with two other Georgian chess players, were called Druzina, meaning “combat unit.” Such viewers will know little of the social platforms that gave women a chance to succeed, that didn’t just rely on them battling against the odds. We can only hope Nona Gaprindashvili wins her lawsuit against Netflix — and puts that money toward supporting more women like her.