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From Wall Street to the 64 squares: In conversation with international chess master Dmitri Shneider

CFO of the Play Magnus Group. Credits-Play Magnus Group
CFO of the Play Magnus Group. Credits-Play Magnus Group
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Modified 22 Dec 2020, 16:19 IST
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Dmitri Shneider is an International Master in chess as well as a professional in the financial world. He received a chess scholarship to study at the University of Texas at Dallas, and then went on to work at the J.P. Morgan Private Bank.

His interests in finance and chess brought him back to working as the Chief Financial Officer of the recently publicly traded company Play Magnus, which is named after the current world number one and world champion player, Magnus Carlsen. In this interview, we get to hear about his journey from his early days in the game to his journey to the International Master title, and to his later career. So, moving on to the questions now.

1.How did you get acquainted with chess?

My father taught me when I was around 6 and a half years old. He took me to a local chess club in Riga, Latvia, where we were living. This club was also where the local instructor Alberts Cimins was teaching classes in a way that showed the beauty of chess. I was immediately absorbed by the game. We then moved to New York, and I had some early successes, so I never looked back.

2.You received the International Master title and played for the UT Dallas team. Can you talk about the entire journey from your beginnings in the game till your graduation from University?

It all happened quite quickly after I learned chess. I won some early tournaments and was lucky with my coaches. Not only were they bringing out the best in my game, but they also really took personal care and that helped build up confidence in me.

I was ranked #1 or #2 in my age group in the United States from Under 8 until Under 20. I became a U.S. National Master at 12 in 1997, which at that time was considered pretty young. My final norm for the International Master title came at the US championship in 2002 when I was 17.

What really hooked me was being able to go to my first World Youth Championship in U12 on a scenic Spanish island. I was impressed with the ability to travel to beautiful places, and to meet people from all over the world, all while playing chess. Ever since, I wanted to be good enough to be able to be invited to international tournaments. I’ve been fortunate in this regard and have traveled all across the world- South America, Europe, and China.

I went to the University of Texas at Dallas for my undergraduate studies on a chess scholarship. The whole administration really appreciated the chess team and was very supportive throughout my time there. They were flexible when I traveled for tournaments, especially during 2003-04, when I was training and traveling a lot as I was on the Samford Fellowship.

The Samford Fellowship was awarded to the top player in the United States under the age of 25. Probably, thanks to my chess credentials, I was selected for an exclusive internship in D.C. as part of the Archer program, which was a life-changing experience.

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During college, I was a co-owner of a chess educational company called BGS Chess, which I ran with two of my friends. We mainly conducted after-school classes in a suburb of Dallas, as well as some camps. It was a great experience in learning to run a business, and I’ve taken many of those lessons with me, even after I was no longer involved with the company. 

After graduating from college, I was planning to go for the Grandmaster title. I had fulfilled the rating requirement of having a peak ELO of over 2500 points, and I had one Grandmaster norm. I was very close in a couple of tournaments, missing by half a point. The idea was that I’d go to Europe to play a few tournaments in the spring of 2008. However, at that point, J.P. Morgan offered me a job and, as little as I knew about the investment markets back then, I thought that it was an opportunity that I couldn’t turn down!

3. You studied finance and worked at JP Morgan. How was this experience with you?

I worked at J.P. Morgan for nearly 12 years, in NY from 2008 to 2014, and then in Hong Kong from 2014 to 2019. I started as an analyst and then worked my way up to an Executive Director role on the Asia Equity Strategy team in Hong Kong.

When I began, I knew very little about the investing world. I was probably very lucky to be hired.

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The experience at J.P.Morgan was really transformative. They were patient with me early on as I was learning the ropes. Then, they gave me more opportunities. It was a steep learning curve, but I loved the ability to research stocks and discuss them with clients. J.P.Morgan has a great culture led by great people.

As I was learning the financial markets, I realized that many of the lessons from getting good at chess were directly applicable.

1) Hard work / preparation: learning as much as one can, from credible sources, on the topics at hand to make an informed decision.

2) Training the pattern recognition: to strike quickly at the opportunities when they present themselves.

3) Being objective: just like in chess, it’s not just about only your ideas or your pieces, but one has to think of what the opponent is planning to do. One must weigh the pros and cons objectively before making an investment decision.

4) Having respect for your opponent / counter party. There’s usually a reason why someone is selling a stock or leaving a piece unprotected. Know why, and then decide who’s likely right!

5) Sorting out the key drivers of a position, i.e. not missing the forest for the trees.

4.Chess is a very multi-dimensional mind sport. Can you share some of your thoughts on this?

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Chess has something for everyone. I think that’s part of the reason why hundreds of millions of people are exposed to the game every year, why kids learn it in many after school programs, and also why it’s been lurking around in pop culture for many years. Chess has its moments when Bobby Fischer played for the World Championship, as well as movies like Searching for Bobby Fischer and the Queen's Gambit Series. However, it’s no stranger to having scenes in popular movies such as Star Wars and Casablanca, not to mention that many athletes and celebrities have been known to play.

It’s an art as some of the positions and combinations are just so beautiful, unexpected, and geometric. Just like with art, the more you know, the more you can appreciate the nuances. There’s a reason why artists like Marcel Duchamp and M.C. Escher, and musicians like Wu Tang were absorbed by the game.

It’s fun, and it’s social. It’s something anyone can play. It’s a science as it can be broken down and studied with lots of precision, and yet there’s always something new coming up. It’s also a sport. It can be extremely intense. Games can take 6 hours and requires significant stamina, both mental and physical.

There’s a time element just like in other sports, and ultimately, someone has to win (even if there are some draws, there are eventually Armageddon matches). Even now, with the shorter formats, while each individual game takes less time, there are more matches, and this may even be more difficult than just one long one!

5.Now, coming to your current role as the CFO of the Play Magnus Group. Tell us how you got involved with the company. 

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My former roommate / college team-mate IM John Bartholomew was the co-founder of a start-up called Chessable. Once I found out back in 2017 that he was involved, I knew that I wanted to learn more about it. That's how I met the other co-founder, David Kramaley. He explained to me the thinking behind the MoveTrainerTM and how it was trying to gamify the chess learning experience so that users could remember and understand the material more efficiently. I knew at the moment that this is something I wish that I had when I was learning chess, and while the technology was in its infancy, I had no doubts about its potential. So, I became an early investor and advisor. 

Play Magnus then acquired Chessable in August 2019, and by that point David and I were already talking about me joining full-time. In September 2019, I joined as Chief Operating Officer of Chessable. In August 2020, I took on more responsibilities with the Play Magnus Group as its Chief Financial Officer.

6.The Play Magnus Group has in the past few years created a wholesome brand of chess and tech. What has this journey been like?

It’s been incredibly exciting to work with some really smart and ambitious people within Play Magnus as well as with our external partners to try to really grow the game of chess with innovative technology and formats. 

We’re extremely proud of what we’ve accomplished at Chessable, building out the MoveTrainer technology as well as allowing content creators make a respectable living via the Chessable platform. Of course, it’s also just exciting from a chess fan's perspective to see legends like Magnus Carlsen and Yasser Seirawan create content exclusively for our platforms.

Also, 2020 has been an incredible journey where the Play Magnus Group launched the Magnus Carlsen Invitational and now the Champions Tour via the chess24 platform, which has been a widely followed online tournament with the top players in the world competing for glory.

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When the 2nd half of the Candidates was cancelled, along with all other in-person events, we knew that we had to do something, and that’s how the idea of the Tour was born. Now, we even have a professional studio in Oslo and some amazing commentators like David Howell, Jovanka Houska, and Kaja Snare to make chess more accessible to viewers around the world. 

I think the fact that we were able to go public on the Merkur Market (Oslo Euronext Growth), being the only publicly traded chess company in the world, and raise capital from many investors, shows that our efforts are getting noticed and there are others who believe in the significant opportunities ahead. 

7.You work with the biggest brand name in chess in the world- Magnus Carlsen. Can you share your thoughts on working with the World Champion and number one player?

He’s a really nice guy, like his dad, Henrik. He is also a huge supporter of the company, whether its playing in the Tour, doing Banter Blitz sessions with our chess24 users, or filming Chessable instructional videos alongside meeting with our corporate partners. 

I’ve had the pleasure of being on set with him a few times, and he’s the ultimate professional. Also, as expected, he’s extremely competitive on the field/ chessboard. Whether you’re playing chess or football with him, be prepared to give it a 100%!

8.Finally, what advice could you give to our readers?

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If you’re going to do something, give it a 100%, whether it’s a learning an activity, school work, or a job, even if it’s not something you plan to do for a long time. Nothing lasts forever and others will notice and you will get more opportunities. If you want to do something and don’t know where to start, just get your foot in the door to something in that vicinity and prove yourself. 

Challenge yourself. Some of the most rewarding and exciting opportunities came to me when I pushed myself to the limit. It’s incredibly tough at first but is worth it even if you don’t succeed on the first try. As Naval Ravikant says, “do long-term games with long-term people, as the greatest returns, whether in relationships, learning or business come from compounded interest.“ 

Published 22 Dec 2020, 16:19 IST
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