In the ping pong game of life, even your most trusted blade can't swat away an opponent with super-sized balls.---Unknown
On Monday morning, Grand Central Publishing will release Why I Left Goldman Sachs: A Wall Street Story, a memoir penned by former Goldman employee Greg Smith, based on his op-ed for the New York Times entitled, "Why I Am Leaving Goldman Sachs." When Smith's piece came out last March, few if any senior executives inside the bank were pleased, in part because it came as a total shock. No one at Goldman had known Smith was planning to have his resignation letter printed in the paper. No one had known he had issues with the firm's supposedly new and singular focus on making money at all costs. No one, at least at the top, even knew who Greg was. Obviously all this left the bank at a competitive disadvantage in terms of fighting back and for the time being, Smith appeared to be handing Goldman its ass. Getting cocky, even. Perhaps thinking to himself, "When all of this is over, I could be named the new CEO of Goldman Sachs." As anyone who has ever won a bronze medal in ping-pong at the Maccabiah Games will tell you, however, winners are determined by best of threes. And that anyone going to to the table with Goldman Sachs should be prepared for things to get ugly.
Which is why it should not have come as a surprise that after getting hydrated, regrouping, and coming up with a plan of attack, Goldman kicked off round two with a delightfully bitchy, exceptionally underminery comment to the press re: Smith's tale being no more interesting than that of a disgruntled first-year analyst who thinks he's got a story to tell and then followed it up with a leak of Greg's less than flattering performance reviews to the Financial Times. What probably did come as a surprise, however, was today's hilariously aggressive Bloomberg article re: Mr. Smith wherein:
* He's described as a petulant child with unrealistic expectations for his career advancement
* It's suggested, by saying outright, that his op-ed complaints about the firm were nothing more than him having "an axe to grind" on account of not advancing beyond vice-president, as demonstrated by the fact that as of 2010, he was happy with the firm, wanted to become a managing director and had no intention of leaving
* People are left to connect the dots re: Smith and lady bosses ("Goldman Sachs put a different managing director in charge of Smith as it considered giving him a sales job. The report says he 'found the transition difficult' and considered the female MD who ran the desk a peer at not his boss")
Anyway, as we head into the final game of the set with a tie score, the following is a tremendous anecdote from Chapter 3 of Why I Left Goldman Sachs involving an actual game of ping-pong, John Whitehead's Business Principles, and the lessons one learns as a first-year at GS about the importance of throwing a match to a client despite knowing full-well you could wipe the floor with him or her (and thinking you were sent to Boston to do just that), if you so chose.
After hearing of my past sports success, Rudy immediately fired off an e-mail to Ted Simpson, saying "Springbok will be representing the New York desk at the Ping-Pong tournament."
Simpson wrote back: "Who's Springbok?"
In response, Rudy e-mailed him a photograph of a springbok, the actual animal. You had to be there, but I thought it was hilarious.
So I flew to Boston on Goldman's tab-- the justification being that while there, I could meet with Prakash and talk Israeli tech stocks-- and met Ted Simpson.
The backstory of the annual Goldman Sachs Ping-Pong Tournament, Ted told me, was that the same guy, an Indian portfolio manager from Putnam, had won it five years in a row, and that winning the tournament was the highlight of the guy's year. But from the moment I walked into Jillian's- a pleasure palace replete with free-flowing alcohol, spicy chicken wings, bowling alleys, plasma TVs, and dozens of Foosball, pool and table tennis tables-- and saw my alleged competition practicing, I knew he didn't have a chance against me.
I'm not trying to brag. But competitive table tennis, like every sport, has its levels. Any number of internationally ranked players could have (and had) made mincemeat out of me, yet simply put, the Putnam portfolio manager (let's call him PPM) and I were not in the same league. I was confident he wouldn't be able to return my serve, and if it came to a rally, he wouldn't be prepared for the kind of sever spins I could put on the ball. I could see he was a very good basement player, nothing more. I could have beaten him in my sleep.
The tournament draw was posted. Thirty-two people, and PPM was seeded number one. Since the organizers knew I was good, I was the number two seed. Play began.
I was rusty-- I'd been working such long hours since joining Goldman that I'd barely picked up a paddle-- but soon I remembered my form. And nobody gave me a serious challenge. PPM and I plowed through our halves of the draw, heading toward an inevitable confrontation. I watched a couple of his matches. PPM's opponents were easy pickings: recreational players dressed in jeans and polo shirts. And PPM, looking very professional in his special sneakers and running shorts, T-shirt, and headband, was mopping them up. Of course he'd brought his own paddle-- a serious player would never show up without his own stick. And of course I'd brought along my trusty Donic Appelgren blade, red on one side, black on the other.
Ted Simpson and I were looking on as PPM took down another player. "So what are we thinking here?" I asked Ted. "I"m going to meet this guy in the final, and if play properly, I'm going to beat him twenty-one to two. What' the right course of action?"
Ted looked thoughtful. "Well," he said after a moment, "this guy is one of our biggest clients; he takes this stuff really seriously." At that moment, PPM whaled away at a forehand that just clipped the table edge and skipped off, unreturnable; he raised his arms in victory. "We need to make it a close game," Ted said. "Get some good rallies going."
I told Ted I had been thinking along the same lines. That I should beat PPM, because it was obvious I could beat him, but that I should keep it close. Not embarrass him. I knew how to do that, I said. You just make a few unforced errors here and there.
"Hmm," Ted said.
"You have a different idea?" I asked.
"Well, the guy is one of our biggest clients," he repeated, giving me a significant look.
"Maybe," he said. And then: "Watch for my signal."
I gave Ted a look-- he was smiling-- and took my Donic out of its case.
The match began. A crowd had gathered to watch us play. Everybody was having fun-- except for my opponent, who was taking the match very seriously. When I won a few points in the early going, I could see him getting upset.
So I eased up. I could have really turned on the heat, hit some crazy shots past him that would have whizzed by his ear-- but I didn't. My whole plan was to keep the ball in play. To give the crowd a good show, instead of slicing the ball back when PPM smashed it at me, I would lob it up for him so he could smash it again. Smash, lob. Smash, lob. Oohs and has from the onlookers. After three or four exchanges like this, I'd either hit it into the net or give PPM such an easy pop-up that he could make a legitimate put-away on me. I was letting him show off for his fellow clients a little bit. He loved it.
The matches were best two out of three, and my plan was to squeak out a win in the second game, then maybe win by just a little more in the third. But when I was ahead 15 to 12 in the second, Ted Simpson caught my eye. He gave a little shake of the head, and then, using his left hand as a shield, gave me a quick thumbs-down with his right. I'm quite sure nobody but Ted and I knew what was going on. I nodded. After all, wasn't putting the client first number one of John Whitehead's 14 Business Principles?
The Putnam portfolio manger was very magnanimous in victory-- as i was in defeat.
Earlier: Greg Smith: Goldman Sachs Interns Taught Harsh But Important Lessons By Demanding But Affable Managing Directors;What Else Does Goldman Sachs Have In Store For Greg Smith?;Goldman Sachs Unimpressed By Sophomoric Writing Efforts Of Former Employee;Resignation Letter Reveals Goldman Sachs Is In The Business Of Making Money, Hires People Who Don’t Know How To Tie Their Shoes;Jewish Ping-Pong Tournament Participant / Sixth-Year Goldman Sachs Vice President Is Looking For His Next Challenge;Goldman Sachs Accuser Greg Smith (Might Have) Lied About That Which He Holds Most Sacred