Michael Lewis and Tim Harford play a game of Saint Petersburg.

FT
Stories from the Financial Times. 
Feb. 6 2011 7:15 AM

Board Gaming With Michael Lewis

The author of The Big Short discusses his career over a game of Saint Petersburg.

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"That's OK."

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 favor 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.

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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 fulfillment, 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 realize 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 all right, that's all right. I learned."

This article originally appeared in Financial Times. Click here to read more coverage from the Weekend FT.

Correction, Feb. 6, 2011: Because of a production error, this article originally included a photograph of Michael V. Lewis, CEO of the 3-D tech company Real D.

Tim Harford is a Financial Times columnist. His latest book, The Logic of Life, will be published in paperback on Feb. 10.