February 16, 2011

TURTLEBALL:

Board Gaming With Michael Lewis: The author of The Big Short discusses his career over a game of Saint Petersburg. (Tim Harford, Feb. 6, 2011, Slate)

"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."



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Posted by Orrin Judd at February 16, 2011 6:29 AM
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