“This game is going to end up like the tortoise and the hare,” Michael Lewis declares, halfway through his inaugural game of Saint Petersburg. Lewis’s green wooden pawn is well ahead on the board, but he’s already picked up enough of the game to realise that – to paraphrase one of the characters he describes in his book The Big Short – he’s about to get his eyeballs ripped out.
It is hard to understand quite why Lewis has agreed that I will teach him an obscure modern German board game while he is interviewed. Poker would have seemed the obvious choice. Liar’s Poker, Lewis’s description of the surreal Wall Street world he inhabited for two years as a bond trader at Salomon Brothers, was definitive of an era and, to some extent, of Lewis’s own career as a narrative writer. But Lewis isn’t interested.
“I haven’t played poker since I was in high school,” he says. “It would be false to portray me as a gambler. It bores me. It’s always bored me.”
Was that why he left Salomon Brothers to become a writer? “No. It was fun gambling with other people’s money. I liked that.”
In a small meeting room in a Mayfair hotel, the logistics are awkward: I can’t take notes and it’s hard even to talk because we’re concentrating on the board. Even a simple game can be baffling to a first-timer, and Saint Petersburg is not a particularly simple game. It describes the building of the city by Peter the Great and his minions (but the theme is very loose: the artwork depicts Czarist Russia).
Players buy cards which provide a flow either of roubles – the currency to buy more cards – or of victory points, which advance the player’s pawn and bring victory closer. There are four types of cards: aristocrats, who supply money and victory points and a bonus at the end; buildings, which supply victory points; peasants, who supply money; and upgrades, which improve the other three types. Returns on investment are very high, but there are never enough roubles to buy all the bargains on offer.
I am about to offer some opening hints when Lewis cuts me off. “Don’t tell me tactics. You don’t have to tell me. I’ll screw up. I’d rather just get beaten, and learn that way.”
We play in fits and starts, for the first half hour talking only about the game and its rules, before switching to Lewis himself while the game is forgotten for a while.
I’ve been reading The Big Short, his account of the men who bet against the subprime bubble, and express my baffled admiration at his ability to get inside the heads of his characters. One, the hedge fund owner-manager Michael Burry, gave him access to every e-mail he had ever sent. “God’s gift to the narrative writer was Michael Burry’s e-mail trove. He lived his life via e-mail.”
But how does he persuade people to give him such access?
“I never really thought about it. I’ve had so many people enter into the spirit of the arrangement. It starts with the relationship before it becomes a literary engagement. It’s a very long-term investment.”
The only time he’s had someone pull out after beginning such a relationship was with George Soros, whom he had accompanied on a private plane all over eastern Europe in 1994. Lewis published a magazine piece which suggested that Soros’s qualities as a philosopher were overrated.
“He was furious with the piece. It just said what I thought. Is it my turn?”
Lewis is fascinated at the revelation that Germany is the world’s board-game heartland. “This game is all about trade-offs … it’s made for the Anglo-Saxon Protestant work ethic. The Greeks would never appreciate it.” He tries to persuade me to write a piece about the German response to the euro crisis, using board games as a motif.
Although I am building a winning position, producing a flow of roubles that will in due course allow me to buy what I need to overtake Lewis, he understands what is going on. He knows why he’s going to lose. After I reap a particularly profitable investment, Lewis expresses alarm.
“Sorry,” I offer.
Talk turns to Lewis’s upbringing in New Orleans. His father had a largely hands-off philosophy, but begged Lewis not to turn down Princeton in favour of a life in New Orleans with his high-school sweetheart. “He went white and said, ‘I’ve never told you what to do, but don’t do this.’”
Lewis followed his father’s advice. “It was the right decision. But I really was in love with that girl, and it ended up ending our relationship. And I always felt I violated something in me, making that decision.” When the time came to quit Salomon, he steeled himself against any further paternal entreaties.
Explaining his decision to leave Salomon, he casually compares the $40,000 book contract to the $250,000 salary and potentially millions more – big sums in the late 1980s. But he insists that money does not motivate him.
“I grew up with a mother who came from a pretty wealthy family – in fact a very wealthy family by New Orleans standards – and my father was kind of a poor boy.” By the age of nine he’d abandoned any sense that money brought fulfilment, because “my father’s family was so happy and my mother’s family so miserable”.
Although there is outrage in Lewis’s descriptions of high finance, it is muted by the fact that he seems to regard much of life on Wall Street as risible. His former tutor at the London School of Economics, a certain Mervyn King, didn’t always see the funny side.
“Four or five months after I got the job at Salomon, the head of the London office comes over to me and says, ‘We’ve got this guy in the lobby. He’s the academic adviser to the new FSA, and he’s been sent in to see how the markets really work and nobody wants to sit with him. Could you sit with him?’ It was Mervyn.”
After three hours “listening to me selling people stuff”, King asked what Lewis was paid.
“It was two-and-a-half times what they were paying him to teach me at LSE. And he was, ‘This is just criminal, this is outrageous.’ He couldn’t believe it.”
I realise that Lewis has been hoping to overtake me, banker-style, by scooping a big bonus score at the last gasp, but he has missed a subtlety of the scoring and gets less than he hoped. He is, in any case, too far behind for any bonus to help him. The final score – 197 to 147 – is a comfortable win for me, but no disgrace to my pupil. We’ve been playing and talking for two hours.
“How do you feel?” he asks me.
“Pretty scummy, actually.”
“No that’s alright, that’s alright. I learned.”
‘The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine’, by Michael Lewis, is published by Penguin at £9.99; ‘Liar’s Poker’ is published by Hodder at £8.99
Tim Harford is the FT’s Undercover Economist