A 1968 story in the New York Times reports that “Nona Gaprindashvili of the Soviet Union, the women’s world chess champion,” defeated seven men at an international chess tournament in Sweden, where she was the only woman in the field. In the 1983 book, The Queen’s Gambit, which tells the fictional story of an American girl who rises from humble beginnings to become a top chess player, the author mentions Ms. Gaprindashvili by name in the book’s final chapter set at a prestigious chess tournament in Moscow, noting that she had “met all these Russian Grandmasters many times before.” Netflix released a popular series based on the book which concludes as the book did with the climactic tournament. And just as in the book, Netflix invoked Gaprindashvili’s name for dramatic effect. But they changed one detail. “There’s Nona Gaprindashvili,” an announcer says, while the camera pans to an actress resembling her. “But she’s the female world champion and has never faced men.”
Gaprindashvili, now 80 years old and living in Tbilisi, Georgia, was appalled to learn that her professional accomplishments had been diminished by the series and filed a lawsuit in California last week for defamation and “false light.” To me, the case provides a good illustration of the limitations of defamation law and the reasons some states recognize a cause of action for “false light.” (I should note here that Virginia is not one of those states.)
I sympathize with Gaprindashvili. She was the first woman to be awarded the title of Grandmaster by FIDE and has beaten many of the best players in the world, male or female. It must have hurt to see herself portrayed falsely as a mere “female champion” presumably incapable of taking on her male counterparts. But there’s a major problem with her defamation claim, which is that even if you overlook the fact that the Netflix show was a work of fiction and assume that some segment of viewers knew Nona Gaprindashvili was a real chess player and came away from the show with the false impression that Gaprindashvili had never beaten a man at chess, that’s not the sort of thing that would cause a person to be shunned from society. Defamatory statements are generally those that cause listeners to think less of the subject as a person due to a perceived defect in the person’s character. Even if some viewers mistakenly believe as a result of watching the show that Gaprindashvili never played a professional chess match against a man in her life, she’s not likely going to be kicked out of any country clubs as a result.
In other words, to describe a world champion in terms that diminish that person’s perceived greatness but that don’t instill feelings of hatred or contempt for the person may not be sufficient to support a defamation claim due to lack of defamatory meaning.
Conceivably, there could be a small cadre of professional chess players who viewed The Queen’s Gambit on Netflix and now hold Gaprindashvili in lower esteem as a result. There’s some authority for the proposition that defamatory meaning may exist if a false statement would affect a person’s reputation in the mind of a substantial and respectable minority of the community, even if not in the minds of most. (See Peck v. Trib. Co., 214 U.S. 185, 190 (1909) (“If the [statement] obviously would hurt the plaintiff in the estimation of an important and respectable part of the community, liability is not a question of a majority vote.”). But I think it’s pretty unlikely the Netflix show will cause her to be held up to ridicule and scorn by anyone. That one line in the show portrays her as less great than she really was, but still acknowledges her as the best female chess player in the world at the time.
So if a chess champion’s legacy has been tarnished by a misrepresentation that is highly offensive to her but that doesn’t really damage her reputation among the rest of us, what legal options does she have? This is where I think the “false light” claim comes in, a tort recognized in California but not Virginia.
False light is a claim “based on publicity that places a plaintiff before the public in a false light that would be highly offensive to a reasonable person, and where the defendant knew or acted in reckless disregard as to the falsity of the publicized matter and the false light in which the plaintiff would be placed.” (Balla v. Hall, 59 Cal. App. 5th 652, 687 (2021)). This sounds a lot like a defamation claim, but notice what’s missing: the requirement of defamatory meaning! False light doesn’t require that a person’s reputation is adversely affected. Instead, the focus is on whether the statement is “highly offensive to a reasonable person.”
I don’t practice law in California and don’t know whether Gaprindashvili’s false light claim will succeed. But I think she has a much stronger chance of convincing the court the misrepresentation by Netflix was “offensive” than she does convincing them it damaged her reputation or held her up to hatred and contempt. The big question in my mind is this: who is this “reasonable person” who would need to be offended by the false light? Are we talking about the typical Netflix viewer (a person unlikely to know or care who Gaprindashvili is) or are we talking about a reasonable person in Gaprindashvili’s position?
Some jurisdictions that recognize false light claims address this directly; California, as far as I can tell, does not. To state a claim of false light in Arizona, for example, a plaintiff must demonstrate “(1) the defendant, with knowledge of falsity or reckless disregard for the truth, gave publicity to information placing the plaintiff in a false light, and (2) the false light in which the plaintiff was placed would be highly offensive to a reasonable person in the plaintiff’s position.” (Pinder v. 4716 Inc., 494 F. Supp. 3d 618, 627 (D. Ariz. 2020) (emphasis added)). In Connecticut, “the essence of a false light privacy claim is that the matter published concerning the [claimant] (1) is not true … and (2) is such a major misrepresentation of [her] character, history, activities or beliefs that serious offense may reasonably be expected to be taken by a reasonable [person] in [her] position.” (See Borg v. Cloutier, 200 Conn. App. 82, 239 A.3d 1249, 109 (2020)).
Is there anything inherently shameful in never having beaten a man at chess in a professional tournament? Certainly not. Lots of people have never beaten a man at chess in a professional tournament. But by falsely asserting that Gaprindashvili was one of those people, did Netflix misrepresent Gaprindashvili’s accomplishments in a way that would offend a reasonable person in Gaprindashvili’s position? I think so.