Board Gaming With Michael Lewis
The author of The Big Short discusses his career over a game of Saint Petersburg.
"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 realize 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 Bros., 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 Bros. 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 rubles—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 rubles 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 rubles 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.
Tim Harford is a Financial Times columnist. His latest book, The Logic of Life, will be published in paperback on Feb. 10.