Wall Street bankers beaten in ‘Smartest’ chess tournament

Estimated read time 14 min read
Forget M&A league tables. Wall Street banks took to the chessboard over the past few days to decide who is the brightest.

Turns out, none of them.

Bankers and traders from companies including Goldman Sachs Group Inc., BlackRock Inc. and Deutsche Bank AG were beaten by players from online chess platforms Chessify and Chessmood in the final rounds of the World Corporate Chess Championship in New York.

UBS Group AG and Susquehanna International Group were the only two financial firms that made it through to the semifinals. In an intense final on Monday afternoon, Chessify clinched the title in three rounds.

The competition, run by FIDE, the International Chess Federation, crowns the “smartest company in the world” through the sport of chess. Twelve four-person teams – eight of which fought through qualifying rounds in March and April and four wild cards that were invited to play – tested their intellectual prowess through rapid-round chess games held in the Financial District’s historic Cunard Building. It was the first time the tournament was held in person, after debuting virtually during the pandemic. The event featured at least one notable side match. World-ranked chess player Boaz Weinstein, a hedge fund manager and founder of Saba Capital Management, played to a draw and then lost against Woman Grandmaster Keti Tsatsalashvili of Georgia, he wrote in a post on X. During the tournament, players were penned in by velvet ropes on three sides as spectators circled the perimeter commenting on the game play in whispers. The onlookers ranged from retirees interested in the sport to college-age chess enthusiasts who have been playing since childhood. Some were recent newcomers to the game after being inspired by the hit Netflix TV show Queen’s Gambit.

The rapid-fire format meant the rounds weren’t “long enough for you to have that much training” and being well-rested was a priority, said Alice Dong, a product manager at BlackRock.

Most teams included high-ranking players with impressive records, such as BlackRock’s chess club founder and FX trader Rusa Goletiani. Chessify, ChessMood and Susquehanna each had at least one grandmaster on their teams.

“We knew coming into this we were a bit outgunned,” said Alexander Krol, managing director and head of derivatives alpha at BlackRock. “We came for the experience.”

To prepare, William Graif, an associate engineer at Deutsche Bank, studied his opponents’ past games. He played his first rated tournament when he was about 5 years old and from then on, he said, chess has always been a “part of my life.”

“When I was little and mostly throughout my childhood, I wanted to compete,” Graif said. “I wanted to be the best.”

Chess competitions have taken him to Turkey, Vietnam, Hungary and Portugal. While he still has a competitive spirit for chess, he now focuses more on “enriching other people’s lives through the game of chess” and has taught at summer chess camps for kids.

Over the 10 rounds played across the weekend, teams typically won or lost all four of their matches. In the two rounds Susquehanna faced off against Goldman, the investment bank lost each time except when Len Ioffe, a managing director, played to a draw against Nan Zhao, a quantitative researcher at Susquehanna.

The winning team from Chessify included two grandmasters, Zaven Andriasian and Gevorg Harutjunyan, along with Tigran R. Sargsyan and Ani Harutyunyan.

The tournament experience helped draw players in the companies closer. Igor Shneider, vice president of the Financial Institutions Group at Deutsche Bank, said his team had “really good camaraderie.” He started playing chess around age 9 and was ranked as high as 80th in the US in his youth. Shneider has played in Spain, Greece and China, and earned a chess scholarship to the University of Texas, Dallas.

Shneider was locked in a “time scramble” in a match against a ChessMood team member.

“I was attacking throughout the game; my opponent conducted a counterattack” that ultimately left them with less than 30 seconds on the clock each. The time pressure, Shneider said, meant he “missed some good chances to win the game.”

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