You probably think you’ve never heard of Nona Gaprindashvili. But if you watched the entire Netflix series The Queen’s Gambit, you’ve heard her name at least once, spoken in the final episode by the radio announcer who provided voiceover commentary during the climactic chess match. Remarking on the series’ central character, Elizabeth Harmon, the invisible voice says:
“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.”
You probably don’t remember this line from the show. If it landed with you at all, you may have assumed that Nona Gaprindashvili was a fictional name, like Vasily Borgov, the fictional world chess champion of the series.
I’m a lifelong chess fan, and I know quite well who Nona Gaprindashvili is.
I do not, however, remember that line from the show.
Then again, over 60 million people watched the series. Probably someone remembers having heard it, besides just Nona herself.
As for Nona, she was displeased. Here is why.
Yes, she was the real-life women’s world champion … and a formidable opponent to players of both sexes. By 1968, the year in which the fictional match in the series is set, she had already faced – and in many cases defeated – dozens of the world’s top male grandmasters. In fact, that very year, 1968, she held the legendary former world champion Mikhail Tal to a draw in a serious tournament game.
For those of us who follow chess, she is an iconic figure. Not just because she was a trailblazing woman chess player, but because she leaves behind a treasure trove of sensational games that chess fans still learn from, and play over for aesthetic pleasure.
Now 80 years old and living in the country of Georgia (bordering Russia), she is suing Netflix for $5 million in compensation for (as the brief states) “personal humiliation, distress, and anguish, as well as damages to her profits and earnings, and her ongoing capacity to engage in her professional livelihood in the world of chess.”
Everything after “anguish” above may be a tad disingenuous. I feel certain she is not playing serious chess nowadays (I still follow chess, and would know if she made an appearance in an important tournament), and her legacy and stature amongst the chess faithful are not in any danger, Netflix or no Netflix.
But … over 60 million people heard that lie about her. That’s A LOT more people than ever gave a damn about a real-world chess match.
As Nona put it in an interview, “This is my entire life that has been crossed out, as though it is not important.”
I feel her.
But Why Should She Care?
You could make the case that this is all a big nothingburger. Why should she care what the ignorant non-chess-playing masses think about her, or if they think of her at all?
And yet … her extraordinary chess career is her life’s work.
I think this really goes to the whole question of why we care at all what other people think about us, especially if their thoughts about us do not impact our lives.
When I’m 80, will I care what people are going to think of me after I die? Will I want them to have a story about me, a good story? Will the story of my life matter to anyone? Why should I care? At some point – it is certain – no one will remember I ever existed. In a blink of an eye in eternal time, all vestiges of me – as a story, as a distinct person – will be erased.
Hopefully, Nona’s story will last longer than mine. Her accomplishments merit as much. But still, the days of her life story, as well of her actual life, are numbered.
Why do we care about the stories people hold of us, or tell about us, or will tell about us after we are gone? Why does it matter?
Does it matter?
Who We Are
We’re changing all the time anyway. We are never set in stone.
Ultimately, all of our “life stories” are made up. They’re fiction. We are not the identities we construct. We are much “looser” than our identities. And larger too.
Thank you, Barbara!
My friend Barbara answered last newsletter’s question, “If sleep could speak, what would it say?” thusly:
“I will cradle you. I will rock you. I sometimes get a little rough. I’m sorry.”