"Glory to the Queen": A Tribute to the Georgian Queens of Chess

by Stefan Löffler
11/25/2020 – The movie "Glory to the Queen" is a tribute to the four Georgian Grandmasters who once dominated womens' chess. At the Slobodna Zone movie festival in Belgrade, the Austrian-Georgian-Serbian co-production has now been awarded the audience prize. Over the course of the project, Stefan Löffler remained in touch with documentary filmmaker Tatia Shkirtladze. | Images: Berghammer Film

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Nona and her daughters

When compared to the Netflix-fable "The Queen's Gambit", chess in the 1960s was a fairly disappointing affair. No fancy clothes, no glamorous tournament locations, not a single woman in sight who could best the world's finest, just rampant sexism. However, the fictional character of Beth Harmon being literally besieged by fans during her voyage to the Soviet Union is fairly realistic. 

In the Netflix show, a reporter mentions the name Nona Gaprindashvili and claims that she plays against women only. But the real Nona Gaprindashvili did indeed play against men. After all, she greatly surpassed all female players of her generation. And the ambitious Georgian was eager to earn the title of Grandmaster, a feat which she eventually was the first woman to achieve. When Gaprindashvili came back to Tiflis after winning the Women's World Championship in 1962, there were hundreds of excited compatriots waiting for her at the train station. Someone held up a sign bearing the inscription which would later serve as title for the documentary.

This kind of archival footage is featured heavily in "Glory to the Queen". After all, the glory days of Georgian womens' chess dates back a few decades. It's greatest moment was the Chess Olympiad 1982 in Lucerne, where Nona Gaprindashvili, Maia Chiburdanidze, Nona Alexandria and Nino Ioseliani won gold for the Soviet Union.

For her movie, Tatia Shkirtladze decided to get the four of them together and in front of the camera. "The Encounter" served as a working title for the project. Eventually, it became "Glory to the Queen", a nod to the strongest piece on the board, as well as the only female one. Why it had to be women from Georgia - a country, in which men like to push themselves to the front all the time, unless there is work involved - who managed to get this far in the world of chess is not explicitly addressed in the movie. However, those who have seen it will understand that it was Nona Gaprindashvili who paved the way for all of them. She is the mother of Georgian chess and full of energy to this very day. While the other three have long since retired from tournament chess, she is the only one who is still an active player. This is in spite of her being the oldest of them. In March, she will be celebrating her eightieth birthday. 

I first heard of the movie project at the Chess Olympiad 2018 in Batumi. A few weeks later, I met Tatia Shkirtladze during the World Championship match between Carlsen and Caruana in London, where the first thing she did after entering the press room was to immediately occupy two of the already limited seats, while daily correspondents such as I had to periodically switch their places. Our second meeting at a café in Vienna was more relaxed.

Tatia, who had moved to Vienna to study, is actually an artist. And she is just like Nona Gaprindashvili - that is, tenacious. Once she has her mind set on something, she always goes through with it. Why was there no movie about these magnificent women whom she had already heard about as a little girl? If nobody else would do it, then it was up to her.

She managed to win over Karin Berghammer for the project, a movie producer who in turn ensured financial support from a grand total of four Austrian and two European movie funds and also established a Serbian co-production company. Georgian director and producer Ana Khazaradze joined the team later. This way, the fact that Tatia did not have a background in filmmaking or a lot of experience in the field became irrelevant.

Part of the movie was filmed at the Rathaus Open in Vienna, with chess historian Michael Ehn serving as a consultant. Belgrade contributed an interview with Grandmaster and chess journalist Milunka Lazarevic, conducted shortly before her death in autumn of 2018. The then 85 year old appears a number of times in front of a dark background, smoking and providing additional context. Most of the movie was, of course, filmed in Georgia.

Over the couse of filming I got the chance to visit Tiflis, as it was on the way to a conference about scholastic chess in Armenia which I had planned to attend. There, I saw the film crew meet Nona Gaprindashvili at the Chess Palace, which bears her name and houses the office of the chess federation as well as tournament rooms, studying facilities with computers and a library. In this building, which had previously been known as the Pioneers' Palace, the camera and I got to witness Nona Alexandria staging an award ceremony with boys and girls dressed in chess themed costumes.

What a contrast! Nona the first, serious and deliberate, and Nona the second, smiling and always in motion. Let us call her that, even if Maia Tschiburdanidze, who was practically still a teenager at the time, managed to snatch away Nona's title of World Champion in 1978. Upon showing Nona Alexandria's tears, a Soviet television host phrased his response as if he were trying to console her directly: "Nitshewo, nitshewo! After all, the most important thing is that the title of World Champion remains in the Soviet Union, in the Soviet Republic of Georgia."

Their trainers, which include Vakhtang Karseladze, whose name has almost been forgotten outside of Georgia, as well as Eduard Gufeld, do not appear in the movie, and neither do the Polgar-Sisters. After all, a direct confrontation never took place. When the Polgars won the Chess Olympiad 1988 and beat the Soviet team, which back then was used to winning almost all events in which it started, the only one left in the race had been Chiburdanidze.

Sequences from "Glory to the Queen" were first shown at the last London Chess Conference in December of 2019, very much in line with our theme of "Chess and Female Empowerment". At the time, Tatia was about to have her first child, which is why she had asked a friend living in London to present the movie and answer questions.

The final cut had just been completed in spring when Covid-19 threw all festival plans into disarray. "Glory to the Queen" later saw its premiere at the movie festival in Tiflis, with its four protagonists among the audience.

The movie was even shown a second time as the festival's closing film. In October, it was featured at CinEast in Luxembourg and in November at the Serbian festival Slobodna Zone, where it has now been awarded the audience prize.

Berghammer Film...

- Translation by Hugo B. Janz

Stefan Löffler writes the Friday chess column in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and succeeds Arno Nickel as editor of the Chess Calendar. For ChessBase the International Master reports from his adopted country Portugal.


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