How Michael Lewis’s Book on Sam Bankman-Fried Went Off the Rails

How Michael Lewis’s Book on Sam Bankman-Fried Went Off the Rails

I knew a guy who was asked, when interviewing for a job at a supply and logistics firm in the late 1990s, to figure out how many golf balls could fit inside a commercial airliner. With the proper information—the diameter of a golf ball, the general dimensions of the fuselage, whether the volume was empty or full of seats and bulkheads—it would be simple enough to come up with a reasonable answer for anyone with some high school geometry and common sense. How many spheres of identical size will fit inside a large cylinder with cones at either end? But the interviewers did not provide the diameter of the ball, or the length and radius of the fuselage. The purpose of this question was not to test mathematical reasoning or geometric logic. It was to see if candidates could make wildly speculative guesses that approximated quantitative thinking and calculation, and do so with the supreme confidence of a salesman. That was the actual job, after all: not doing math, but convincing manufacturers to use the company’s proprietary auction software to (presumably) save money on machine parts.

I thought of this story when, early in Going Infinite, Michael Lewis’s new real-time biography of the briefly billionaire boy genius and crypto impresario Sam Bankman-Fried, the author recounts his young subject’s initial interviews with Jane Street Capital, the proprietary trading firm where he would first get his stripes as an investment savant. The initial tests are actually mathematical in nature, albeit awfully elementary, and larded with that same emphasis on confident pronouncement over simple correctness: “What’s twelve times seven; how sure are you of your answer?” They ask him to solve a simple probability problem related to the odds of rolling a particular number with a pair of dice. The answer is slightly counterintuitive, but barely so. These are the sorts of puzzles that smart sixth graders solve at math Olympiads. Lewis seems to want us to be duly impressed, but wasn’t this guy a physics major and math minor at MIT at the time? Well, he goes on to interview in person, and any pretense that this is actually about the human capacity for calculation collapses. Instead, they play poker, with the Jane Street interviewers making wild and arbitrary rule changes. “Sam saw right away that the key to the game was to make quick judgments about the expected value of bizarre situations, and act on them.” Guessing, but with certainty.

Going Infinite: The Rise and Fall of a New Tycoon

by Michael Lewis

W.W. Norton & Company, 288 pp., $30.00

Throughout the book runs this bizarre sleight of hand: a constant invocation of SBF’s genius, his Little-Man-Tate capacity for calculation, his utter boredom in school, in jobs, in life, in relationships, at a world that simply moves at a slower pace … with virtually no evidence that this guy was particularly smart or good at math. He is good at video games, apparently, but so are millions of teenage Twitchstreamers. The puzzles that Sam loves to create for his few friends are mostly word and logic puzzles of the sort that I can still remember playing as a “gifted” student at a mediocre public school in small-town Western Pennsylvania, or that you can hear on a lazy Sunday morning on NPR.

In the run-up to the publication of Going Infinite, in part because Lewis had already shared a stage for a chummy—some said fawning—interview with a pre-collapse SBF, and in part because Lewis appeared to suggest in an ill-considered 60 Minutes interview that Bankman-Fried’s crypto firm FTX was “a great real business” and that, bad as they were, the events leading to its collapse were not necessarily criminal (the trial will tell), there was speculation that Lewis had written an apologia of sorts for the now-despised figure. It was, after all, the formula that had made Michael Lewis himself a national celebrity, one of the great bestsellers of the age: to turn a quirky, iconoclastic, and even unlikeable figure into the real protagonist in a story of how they took on greater fools. And the circumstances of the book’s release, which was shadowed by rumors of hasty last-minute rewrites and copies not being made available to reviewers until the publication date, added to conjecture. Had Lewis been taken in by the con man? Was this Boswell too close to his Johnson?

He has not written an apology, but he was taken in. “His judgment of other people,” Lewis writes of SBF, “was always far more acute than their judgment of him.” Like his employees, his marks, his dupes, his cheated counterparties, SBF’s biographer cast this figure—shambolic, often dirty, rude, condescending, wildly unpleasant, and, I am afraid to say, not evidently nearly as smart as everyone gave him credit for—as a once-in-a-generation-intellect, not because he was one but because he had to be. This boy, with neither affect nor depth, neither emotional intelligence nor intellectual insight, was a blank canvas on which to paint the image of a great mind that did not exist: a scammer and sociopath cast as neurodivergent genius. He was the worst possible thing for a biographer of real but limited talent: He was boring.

The spoiled, greedy child of spoiled, greedy parents, SBF resembles no popular fictional character more than A.J. Soprano, one of the most ingeniously inane, selfish, rotten kids ever invented for TV. Ensconced in a world of insane privilege, entirely protected from judgment or consequence, failing forward in life without any effort, endlessly forgiven by parents, teachers, peers, and employers who ignore all the obvious signs of a deeply unwell individual by telling themselves that’s just Sam, he continually succeeds despite himself.

He is an indifferent student, though his boredom isn’t the result of precocity but of disinterest and not a little disdain. He goes to good schools because of who his parents are. He does embrace their callow brand of utilitarian thinking, an inane application of pseudoeconomic principles to moral and practical decision-making that purports to evaluate choices and policies on the basis of some calculation of the greatest good for the greatest number of people. This eventually leads him into the intellectual arms of the “Effective Altruism” movement, about which Lewis is—credit where due—appropriately and amusingly skeptical. E.A., as it styles itself, is very little more, at its root, than a collection of parlor-room imponderables. Why become a doctor and go to work in Sudan if you can get rich enough to hire hundreds of doctors in Sudan? Yes, well, and if everyone applied that logic, no one would be rich, and there would be no doctors. It makes Ayn Rand look like Spinoza. But it would turn out to be a potent moral excuse for the wild fraudulence of SBF’s crypto empire, since any acquisition of wealth could be justified as sponsoring some vague future social good.

At MIT, Bankman-Fried continues to be bored by school, but there are notable slippages in the story he presents to Lewis. He had “sort of implicitly assumed that academia was the center of morality … where people were at least thinking of how to have the most impact on the world.” But “two years of college classes and the previous summer’s internship, during which he’d helped MIT researchers with their projects, had killed that assumption. During college lectures, he’d experienced a boredom that had the intensity of physical pain. He had no ability to listen to a canned talk.”

Note the elision there. Helping MIT faculty on their own research projects is emphatically not listening to lectures in a classroom. The subtle substitution of the latter for the former is really just a clever lie, a bit of prestidigitation to take the eye off the quarter as it disappears. The truth—if one reads between the lines, if we are less weirdly charitable to SBF than Lewis is—is that SBF plainly did not like hard work. The rigor and exactitude of academic research in a quantitative field in a place like MIT wasn’t fun. It wasn’t a game. The incremental advancement of specialized knowledge certainly wasn’t going to make anybody fantastically rich.

Instead, he goes into finance. More to his liking. He does well enough at Jane Street, although his bosses clearly find him off-putting and perplexing. At one point, while still an intern, he ritually humiliates a co-worker who makes an ill-advised workplace bet that SBF simply will not let go, to the embarrassment and chagrin of everyone else involved, until he finally loses a coin flip and seems to grow bored of the game. We are meant to interpret this as a sign that Sam just wasn’t like other people. Lewis cannot seem to conceive that perhaps this kid was just a cruel and callous piece of work. Eventually he manages to lose $300 million in a convoluted bet that markets will tank on a Donald Trump victory—which they manage to “predict” before it becomes official by tracking early returns. The markets do not tank. Capitalism, it turns out, loves a confident con man.

SBF decides that he needs to make more money, though he is already well along a path to getting rich in traditional finance. If he can make a billion dollars—or many billions of dollars—then he can save the human race from plagues or wars or killer A.I. or a meteor impact. Lewis is, again, skeptical of the attainability of these titanic goals, but perhaps not skeptical enough of their sincerity. Sam identifies crypto as an untapped and unregulated market where it would be possible to corner enough real estate to in effect become a zillionaire by default. He hires a programmer and uses some of what he learned in the world of proprietary trading to arbitrage price differences across crypto’s hacked-together, geographically diverse, anarchic markets and exchanges for profit.

This central section of the book is its weakest. Lewis does not understand cryptocurrency—he admits explicitly, in a bizarre footnote, that he finds crypto “elusive” to understand—and makes a poor guide for an already convoluted tale. Despite his formidable narrative gifts, it’s quite difficult to follow what exactly is happening, when, and to whom. There is also a preponderance of minor characters who show up, get a pocket biography of a page or a paragraph, and settle into some indeterminate role in the Rube Goldberg ecosystem of FTX and its sister trading firm, Alameda Research. It is difficult to figure out who is a bit player and who is truly important to the business. Maybe none of them is.

To be fair, some of this muddiness may be the inevitable outcome of trying to narrativize the creation of a genuinely chaotic, ad hoc organization, whose ostensible founder and leader spent half his time locked in a dirty office playing games and half his time flying around the world without bothering to tell his staff where he was going. He leaves the management of his people to other people, who leave the management of people to other people. No one seems to sleep, but no one ever seems to work. He meets with actually influential people—Anna Wintour! Mitch McConnell!—but little ever seems to come of it, except when he hires a cadre of feckless and greedy celebs to shill his product. We learn about his massive political contributions, but, in a classic case of grifters grifting each other, everyone seems perfectly happy to exchange money and then do … nothing. Of more recent revelations, most glaringly the personal, political, and financial involvement of SBF’s parents in the entire enterprise, we learn nothing at all.

Lewis is back in his element in the gripping but too-brief concluding section. Soon after SBF has established a vast empire of real buildings and temporary huts in the Bahamas at the short-lived height of his empire, the whole thing comes crashing down. FTX is already shaky internally, when a rival crypto magnate, Binance CEO Changpeng Zhao, sparks a run on FTX’s customer assets. FTX can’t keep up with the withdrawals. The house of cards collapses in a single weekend. Law enforcement—Bahamian and American—arrives and jockeys for territory and jurisdiction. Employees, many of whom took all of their compensation in now worthless FTX tokens and assets, flee the island. Lewis is there when it happens and finds himself wandering the abandoned, trash-strewn jungle compound like Marlowe in the world’s dorkiest adaptation of Heart of Darkness. He does have a wonderful eye for the perfect absurd detail, for example, a sole remaining employee, a young Chinese woman, who has stayed on this windy compound because she has two cats but has so far been able to get permission only to bring one of them back to China with her. And I must say, the book’s final sentence, and final image, is itself a marvel of withheld payoff.

What did we learn, Palmer?” asks J.K. Simmons’s annoyed, befuddled CIA chief at the end of the Coen brothers’ now-cult classic Burn After Reading. His colleague replies that he doesn’t know. “I don’t fucking know either,” says Simmons. “I guess we learned not to do it again. I’m fucked if I know what we did.” Hard to escape that same exhausted know-nothingness here, and hard to escape a nagging sense that Lewis simply encountered something too weird and too stupid for his own otherwise considerable skills. He set out to write about how this one strange, fidgety, off-putting guy got really rich, only to discover that there was nothing there at all: not a fortune, and not a man.

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