Liar’s Poker: how they cooked the golden goose | Review

Close-up of a thick stack of folded ten-dollar bills.

Liar’s Poker lifts the lid on Wall Street’s money games: very profitable, occasionally absurd, and totally ruthless.

If your background is more small change than Big Finance, you might expect Liar’s Poker to be a less than thrilling read about stocks and shares. Not so: Michael Lewis’s insider history of the rise and fall of an investment bank is fast-paced and fascinating.

Liar’s Poker details the author’s unexpected excursion into investment banking as a fresh-faced graduate in the 1980s. While the book is part personal memoir, it overlaps an era when his employer, Salomon Brothers, became the most profitable outfit on Wall Street – and made a killing.

Lewis, a journalist on the side, evidently had quite the nose for a story. His obsessive notes, together with interviews and insider gossip, create a fascinating fly-on-the-wall contemporary account.

Personal history aside, the book largely tells the story of how the bank became a golden goose … then scrambled its eggs.

Why Liar’s Poker still feels fresh

Liar’s Poker feels fresh almost 40 years later – perhaps more so as many readers are now more aware of the consequences of such high-stakes gambling in the finance world (Wolf of Wall Street, The Big Short, etc).

Lewis’s knack for character study brings this to life, revealing what life was like for the traders who made and lost billions every day.

Their back-stabbing, foul-mouthed tirades and feeding frenzies don’t quite reach Wolf of Wall Street depths of depravity. Still, they’re pretty astonishing given the profits Salomon was churning out at the same time.

These stories hang on characters like Lewis Ranieri, a mail-room clerk who went on to pioneer mortgage-backed securities, making the bank billions in the process.

Such larger-than-life characters feel familiar, though not just from similar cultural lore like Wall Street and The Big Short. The suits, sabotage, gambling and greed could be lifted from the pages of Vegas mob history, Casino.

That was how a Salomon bond trader thought: he forgot whatever it was that he wanted to do for a minute and put his finger on the pulse of the market. If the market felt fidgety, if people were scared or desperate, he herded them like sheep into a corner, then made them pay for their uncertainty.”

Liar’s Poker

If this sounds cut-throat for investors, it’s just as dicey for traders: both are regularly fleeced.

The world of Liar’s Poker is by turns bizarre, despicable and fascinating, but most of all because we still dance to its tune, however remote the 80s may seem.

Liar’s Poker, by Michael Lewis (1989)

Quoted edition published by Hodder & Stoughton

What to read or watch next
  • The Big Short (same author, Wall Street)
  • Wall Street, The Wolf of Wall Street (finance, greed)
  • Rogue Trader (the fraud that broke Barings Bank)
  • American Psycho, Bonfire of the Vanities (money)
  • You may also like this Freakonomics podcast episode, in which Michael Lewis talks Moneyball, and why he doesn’t read his first book.

Picture credit: Nathan Dumlao