Google and Goldman Sachs are battling for global supremacy—in chess

The FIDE World Corporate Chess Championship pits the cleverest pawn-pushers at some of the biggest blue-chip companies on earth against one another. (Image: Pixabay)
The FIDE World Corporate Chess Championship pits the cleverest pawn-pushers at some of the biggest blue-chip companies on earth against one another. (Image: Pixabay)


The two behemoths are part of a global corporate championship that the chess governing body says will be a test of who’s the “smartest company in the world.”

Len Ioffe remembers exactly how he celebrated his promotion to managing director at Goldman Sachs. He didn’t go out to a fancy dinner or pop open vintage champagne.

Instead, he sat down in a quiet room and hunched over a table and chose to compete in a match as a member of Goldman’s corporate chess squad.

“The team offered me to skip and not play that night and to celebrate," Ioffe says. “I said, ‘No, I will play.’"

Winning, it turned out, was celebration enough. But now, as Ioffe prepares to represent Godman over the board once again, the stakes are about to get much higher than career milestones and sacrificing a night on the town. This weekend, Ioffe will compete alongside a handful of co-workers in the FIDE World Corporate Chess Championship, a competition that pits the cleverest pawn-pushers at some of the biggest blue-chip companies on earth against one another.

Teams from Goldman, Google, Deutsche Bank and BlackRock, among others, are vying not for prize money, but to be recognized by chess’s world governing body as the “smartest company in the world."

A total of 12 teams will battle it out in New York this weekend, and unlike typical corporate chess leagues in the city, this one has a distinctly global flavor. It’s a big enough deal that Google’s top player, international master Ritvars Reimanis, is flying in from Lithuania.

Chess has undergone a worldwide boom since the pandemic and the proliferation of easy-to-use chess apps, and it’s no surprise that the ancient game is especially popular in high-achieving offices from Wall Street to Silicon Valley. There tends to be some overlap between quants with Ph.D.s and players who have mastered the Sveshnikov defense.

“There are multiple places in the offices that you can just go and get a good game," says Kola Adeyemi, a product strategy and operations lead for Google Workspace. “There is a very strong community."

At Google, an internal group of chess players is 2,500 people strong, Adeyemi says, and they compete several times a week in online tournaments. Other times they venture into highly competitive corporate events. When the popular chess streamer Levy Rozman, also known as “Gotham Chess," recently stopped by Google’s New York headquarters to speak, the office was so packed that people couldn’t get in.

Adeyemi is so plugged in to the tech behemoth’s chess scene that it wasn’t hard for him to pick a squad for the championship, which begins on Friday. The rules state each team is only allowed one player rated above 2400, the level for FIDE international masters.

Squads are also allowed to bring one nonemployee. So just like corporate softball, where it isn’t unusual for teams to show up with someone who arouses suspicion by mashing the ball like Aaron Judge, corporate chess has ringers. And the king of the ringers this year is an American named Sam Shankland.

Not only is he a grandmaster, Shankland is also a former U.S. national champion. He has published books on passed pawns and training guides on the Berlin Defense. In other words, this isn’t a man who has time for a day job. Being a world-class chess player is his day job. And this weekend, he just happens to be doing it for Susquehanna International Group, a high-speed trading firm.

“Chess is a big part of the culture at SIG," said team captain Ella Papanek, who had previously skippered the chess team at Harvard. “At least 10% of the firm plays chess in some capacity."

Still, when she found that a Susquehanna employee was friends with Shankland, she jumped at the chance to invite him. (Susquehanna said that Shankland isn’t being paid.)

“Honestly, I don’t know what Sam Shankland is doing in this tournament," Adeyemi says. “But great for him…it’s amazing to be in the same space as some of those guys."

Susquehanna, which has a regular pool of nearly 100 players, has been spoiled for choice. When it qualified for the tournament, American grandmaster and speed chess wizard Andrew Tang was a member of the team, because he worked for the company as a quantitative trader at the time.

His contributions helped Susquehanna reach the final weekend from a crowded field that included no fewer than five separate squads from Microsoft—none of which advanced. Others, such as Google and Goldman, were given special invitations to this weekend’s throwdown.

Bringing along a professional doesn’t always guarantee success. Three years ago, Grenke Bank of Germany upset SBER of Russia in the final despite the Russians bringing along grandmaster Ian Nepomniachtchi, who would go on to become a two-time runner-up at the chess world championship.

Goldman is in the odd position of being hurt by the limits on naming players rated above 2400. That’s because the investment giant happens to employ two of them, meaning one has to stay home. It only serves to underline how high the standard can be when an office is crazy about chess.

Ioffe, a portfolio manager in Goldman’s quantitative strategy group, has been playing corporate chess for the company since 2000. One of his career highlights came when Susan Polgar, the former Women’s World Chess Champion, visited in 2005 and played 23 different games against Goldman employees simultaneously. She won 20 of them, drew two—and lost to Ioffe.

Polgar, afterward, called it “one of the strongest simuls I have ever given."

Write to Andrew Beaton at and Joshua Robinson at

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