Among Silicon Valley's many mafias, here's one you might not be aware of. Harvard Business School graduates may be more numerous; but the Valley's informal chess club has the quality. The nexus is Peter Thiel, the former Paypal founder who now runs a hot hedge fund, Clarium Capital — who's astonishingly well-connected for someone so socially uncomfortable.
Thiel, a chess master, plays often with Barney Pell, one of the founders of Powerset, the next-generation search engine which Thiel's venture capital firm has funded. Pell, whose hand makes a peculiarly birdlike motion when he swoops in to take a piece, tends to beat his investor at Thiel's parties, though he says, tactfully, that the bossman often wins private games when there are fewer distractions.
Pell's Powerset colleague, Manny Rayner, is a strong player; as is one of Thiel's employees at Clarium Capital, Patrick Wolff. He should be, as a former US Chess Champion. Other players include Auren Hoffman, the uber-networker, and David Cowan of Bessemer Ventures.
It's to be expected that chess would be the sport of the tech industry's smartest entrepreneurs and financiers. If America were high school, Silicon Valley would be the geek table. What is surprising is that it's taken so long to for the autistic geeks to meld their passion for chess with their need to network. Pell's pondering a tech industry chess league: but the search engine founder worries that rival Google, with the reservoir of Russian computer scientists at the its Moscow research center, will have — in this as in all other things — an unfair advantage.