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DeepMind's cofounder Demis Hassabis is a chess champion who landed funding from Peter Thiel by talking about a key tension in the game

Hassabis and Thiel
Demis Hassabis used his knowledge of chess to win DeepMind's first major investment from Peter Thiel. Samuel de Roman/Getty Images/Peter Thiel

Before DeepMind's Demis Hassabis became a leading figure in AI, he was a chess master who had won multiple world championships.

So Hassabis arrived for a party at the home of veteran Silicon Valley investor Peter Thiel with an idea: He would use his knowledge of the game to impress the investor and win funding for DeepMind, the AI company he cofounded in 2010, The New York Times reported.

Hassabis told Thiel that the best chess players understood the unique strengths of the bishop and the knight, even though both pieces hold the same value.

"I was preparing for that meeting for a year," Hassabis said, according to the Times. "I thought that would be my unique hook in: I knew that he loved chess."

That was enough to impress Thiel. So the investor agreed to meet with Hassabis and his cofounders, Shane Legg and Mustafa Suleyman, the following day. Thiel would go on to invest about $2.25 million into their endeavor, the Times reported.

It was not only DeepMind's first significant investment but also one of Thiel's first investments outside the Silicon Valley orbit.

"I remember the first time I pitched to him, he decided to invest within the first meeting," Hassabis said about the encounter during a talk in 2017. "At that time he'd never invested outside of the US, maybe not even outside of the West Coast. He felt the power of Silicon Valley was sort of mythical, that you couldn't create a successful big technology company anywhere else. Eventually we convinced him that there were good reasons to be in London."

DeepMind, which was eventually acquired by Google in 2014 for more than $500 million, has seen several breakthroughs over the past few years. In 2016, one of its machines beat one of the world's best players at the ancient game of Go — a feat that many researchers didn't expect to see for another decade, according to the Times.

More recently, it has made an AI breakthrough that has catalyzed the hunt for new drugs and made new medical cures more possible. It's also at the forefront of developing AGI, a so far hypothetical form of AI that could perform any intellectual task a human can. Hassabis believes that an AI as intelligent as the human brain isn't far off.

DeepMind did not immediately respond to a request for comment from Business Insider, made outside regular working hours.

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