TBILISI, Georgia — In a bedroom painted purple, where a picture of chess great Bobby Fischer hangs alongside posters of Ariana Grande and characters from "Game of Thrones," 17-year-old Kato Pipia sits at her computer, nailing chess victories over her opponents.
For decades, tiny Georgia has been punching above its weight on the global chess scene. And for Georgian women, the trail was blazed by its own heroine, Nona Gaprindashvili, whose Cold War-era rise to the top of the chess world has its own parallels to the fictional Beth Harmon of “The Queen’s Gambit.”
Gaprindashvili in 1978 made history by becoming the first woman to earn the ranking of grandmaster. At 79, she still plays tournaments — she won the women’s 65 and older section at the World Senior championship in Bucharest, Romania, in November 2019 — and inspires a new generation of girls and young women in a nation where a chess champion can get star status.
“She’s truly legendary for us,” Pipia said.
Gaprindashvili recalled how her groundbreaking title of grandmaster propelled her to stardom all over the Soviet Union. As she traveled back to Georgia by rail from Moscow, crowds of supporters would gather at every station, hoping to shake her hand or merely catch a glimpse.
“My father even lost his shoe in the crowd,” said Gaprindashvili, who lives in a Tbilisi apartment gifted by Soviet authorities.
“Nona was the first woman who brought women’s chess to the men’s level,” said former Yugoslavian chess star and journalist Milunka Lazarevic in a film released this year about the Georgian chess luminaries, “Glory to the Queen.” “It was like landing on Mars or Jupiter — unimaginable until her!”
Gaprindashvili’s success inspired a wave of prominent players, including Nana Alexandria, who won the Soviet Union’s women’s championship three times before the age of 20 and became a “woman international grandmaster,” among other titles. (The International Chess Federation has women-specific rankings up to woman international master for female-only tournaments, but many tournaments are mixed gender.)
Another, Maia Chiburdanidze, idolized Gaprindashvili growing up — only to beat her in 1978, taking the title of women’s world chess champion and holding on to it for 13 years. Chiburdanidze became the second woman — after Gaprindashvili — to become a grandmaster. (To date, out of 37 women who have earned the title of grandmaster, six are Georgian.)
“Playing chess is in our blood,” said Sophie Nikoladze, head of public relations at the Georgian Chess Federation, as she stepped inside the main hall of Georgia’s Chess Palace in Tbilisi’s Vera Park.
The ceiling — above rows of Soviet-era wooden straight-backed chairs — is a startling three-dimensional design of spaced cubes that conjure a chess board in the air. It’s not unlike the one imagined by the character Harmon from her orphanage bed in “The Queen’s Gambit.”
Outside, on a cold November day, a group of pensioners clad in masks played games of chess and backgammon.
Nikoladze mused that Georgian women are particularly suited for the strategic demands of chess. The reason, she added, is Georgia’s history of facing invasions from neighbors.
“Women had to fight and work alongside men,” said Nikoladze, an international chess master who played on the country’s national team. “It’s part of our character. I think it’s been passed on from generation to generation.”
The country’s most celebrated ruler, who presided over a golden age in the 12th century, was female, Queen Tamar, who carried the title of “king.” In the past, there was a tradition of including a chess set with a bride’s dowry.
During the Cold War era, chess carried a geopolitical symbolism, reaching a peak in 1972 when Fischer, an American, famously beat Russian Boris Spassky for the World Chess Championship title.
Within the Soviet Union, meanwhile, the state apparatus routinely discriminated against Georgians and other non-Russians. “Some Communist officials were not too happy to see a Soviet women’s team made up entirely of Georgian women,” Alexandria added.
In 1978, the Kremlin stepped in just as a Soviet chess team of Georgians was due to play at the Chess Olympiad in Buenos Aires.
“One hour before the plane for Buenos Aires was due to take off, the youngest Georgian player on the team, Nana Ioseliani, was substituted for a Russian player by Soviet officials,” Alexandria said. “Such things do not happen one hour before a flight.”
A similar substitution was attempted in 1980 at the Olympiad in Malta.
“But the Georgian minister of sport flew to Moscow to intervene, and the team made up of Georgian women was left intact,” she added.
Back home in Georgia, the female chess stars became celebrities.
“In that period — the 1980s, 1990s, almost every newborn girl was named Nona, Maia or Nana, in honor of our famous women,” explains Nana Dzagnidze, whose father named her after Nana Alexandria. Dzagnidze became a chess grandmaster in 2008.
Currently, a new generation of young women is representing Georgia in international chess tournaments. Some of them grew up in the difficult years following the collapse of the Soviet Union, when most people survived on four hours of electricity a day, amid rampant crime, chronic food shortages and a civil war.
“I remember I had to read books and play chess at home by candlelight,” said Nino Batsiashvili, 33, a three-time Georgian women’s chess champion and the most recent Georgian woman to become a grandmaster, in 2018.
Nor was there support from the state, unlike Soviet times. “Aged 18, I was traveling to play in competitions with a luggage full of books while others were bringing their computers to analyze chess games,” said Batsiashvili.
This year, because of the coronavirus pandemic, players have been unable to travel.
“A chess player lives by winning tournaments — and this year we’ve only had two. It’s not enough to live on,” said Nino Khomeriki, a 22-year-old who achieved the ranking of woman grandmaster in 2019.
As the pandemic rages, the chess clocks in Tbilisi’s cavernous chess palace — dedicated to Gaprindashvili — are silent. The hall, once overflowing with spectators, stands empty. Yellowing posters of bygone chess superstars are piled up, gathering dust and mildew.
Gaprindashvili is not traveling to any tournaments for the time being but is hoping to return as soon as possible.
“Chess for me is my life,” she said, describing games with everyone from professional grandmasters to amateur players during visits to prisons.
“There are no nationalities; it’s just a meeting of people. It gives energy. I forget everything else.”