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How chess helped me become a trader at Citadel Securities

When Citadel and Citadel Securities hire, they like to hire people who have "demonstrated a commitment to excellence," in the words of Matt Mitro, the two firms' joint head of graduate recruitment. That excellence doesn't necessary have to be in a STEM subject. "We look at every single application and try to work out what makes that applicant different – what have they accomplished and what are they proud of?” Mitro adds.  

For Aidan Reilly, a trader at Citadel Securities in New York who joined in fall after graduating in mathematics from Berkeley, the differentiators were both academic and extracurricular. On one hand, Reilly graduated with the highest honors from one of America's top universities. On the other, he's a chess player. When applying to Citadel Securities, the chess playing seems to have made a big difference. 

“During my interview for the Citadel Securities internship, I was asked about chess," says Reilly. "I got the sense that they were looking for genuine passion and interest in a hobby that I’d dedicated a lot of time to.” 

Reilly isn't just a good chess player; he's an exceptional chess player. He ranks in the 99th percentile for rapid chess on Much of his childhood was spent on the US chess circuit. "I began playing when I was six and dropped off when I was 12," he says. "What I really enjoyed was finding a player who was a virtuoso, and playing a beautiful game."

While it's become standard practice for banks to filter their hundreds of applicants for graduate jobs using video interviews run by companies like Hirevue, Citadel and Citadel Securities don't automate the application process. Even their telephone screening interviews involve a human being. This means that if you have a point of differentiation - like being excellent at chess - it's likely to become a topic of discussion early on. "The questions were very specific to me," says Reilly of his interview. Chess and his mathematical interests featured highly. 

Reilly participated in last summer's internship. Before doing so, he says he'd considered a career in academia, but then he realized - like other aspiring academics before him, that working in markets is actually pretty interesting. “The first project I worked on during my internship made me realize that I absolutely wanted to work in the financial services industry," says Reilly. "I started pretty naively, trying to attack the problem with linear regressions without considering the market dynamics at play, but as I got into it, I had the kind of creative eureka moment you get when you solve a really interesting academic math problem.” 

Reilly received an offer at the end of last summer's internship and has been working as a trader at Citadel Securities for a couple of months. He doesn't tour the country playing chess anymore, but he does still play. "Learning chess is like learning a language, you never entirely forget it,” Reilly says. 

Being fluent in chess can help in trading. Pete Becker, director of the early career trading program at Citadel Securities, says there's an overlap between the two talents: “Skilled chess players—and skilled traders—have developed an ability to make sound, systematic decisions in dynamic environments."

For this reason, playing chess and other board games is encouraged at Citadel Securities. Reilly says he and his new team members often play together. "The longer tenured traders play games like Ticket to Ride and Agricola. I’ve also started playing backgammon. When I went to sign up online, who did I see at the top of the global leaderboards but one of the senior traders here....”  

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Photo: eFinancialCareers/Dall-e

AUTHORSarah Butcher Global Editor
  • ph
    10 December 2022

    It makes sense to hire people who can think logically, and also plan ahead, integrating everything they can see to make a decision under pressure. Having said that, outside of trading and banking (IB, working with major clients to get projects done, etc.), banks tend to hire and promote for far different reasons. Cronyism is extremely important, especially in Ops areas, which are critical but in far too many banks (and other 'investment' firms) are loaded with very poor management and their friends. There are exceptions, of course. Some truly care about all parts of the business. But, I'm thinking of one US firm, where mediocrity rules the roost in certain areas. The years I spent at one of the largest banks in the US, where compliance was worse than a bad joke, and where financial figures an even bigger joke. An Oriental bank where no one from head office working in the US wants anything to do with ops, so those areas are full of incompetence. I had one boss who could barely use an office phone, let alone email, and couldn't run a conference call because he couldn't learn how to use the equipment. Same firm, one 'director' who cost the firm nearly $1 million in fines and penalties from critical vendors - when her area kicked her out, my boss was happy to take her in with a do nothing job.

    Not all firms are anywhere near this bad. But too many are.

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