When underdogs break the rules.
When Vivek Ranadivé decided to coach his daughter Anjali’s basketball team, price he settled on two principles. The first was that he would never raise his voice. This was National Junior Basketball—the Little League of basketball. The team was made up mostly of twelve-year-olds, and twelve-year-olds, he knew from experience, did not respond well to shouting. He would conduct business on the basketball court, he decided, the same way he conducted business at his software firm. He would speak calmly and softly, and convince the girls of the wisdom of his approach with appeals to reason and common sense.
The second principle was more important. Ranadivé was puzzled by the way Americans played basketball. He is from Mumbai. He grew up with cricket and soccer. He would never forget the first time he saw a basketball game. He thought it was mindless. Team A would score and then immediately retreat to its own end of the court. Team B would inbound the ball and dribble it into Team A’s end, where Team A was patiently waiting. Then the process would reverse itself. A basketball court was ninety-four feet long. But most of the time a team defended only about twenty-four feet of that, conceding the other seventy feet. Occasionally, teams would play a full-court press—that is, they would contest their opponent’s attempt to advance the ball up the court. But they would do it for only a few minutes at a time. It was as if there were a kind of conspiracy in the basketball world about the way the game ought to be played, and Ranadivé thought that that conspiracy had the effect of widening the gap between good teams and weak teams. Good teams, after all, had players who were tall and could dribble and shoot well; they could crisply execute their carefully prepared plays in their opponent’s end. Why, then, did weak teams play in a way that made it easy for good teams to do the very things that made them so good?
Ranadivé looked at his girls. Morgan and Julia were serious basketball players. But Nicky, Angela, Dani, Holly, Annika, and his own daughter, Anjali, had never played the game before. They weren’t all that tall. They couldn’t shoot. They weren’t particularly adept at dribbling. They were not the sort who played pickup games at the playground every evening. Most of them were, as Ranadivé says, “little blond girls” from Menlo Park and Redwood City, the heart of Silicon Valley. These were the daughters of computer programmers and people with graduate degrees. They worked on science projects, and read books, and went on ski vacations with their parents, and dreamed about growing up to be marine biologists. Ranadivé knew that if they played the conventional way—if they let their opponents dribble the ball up the court without opposition—they would almost certainly lose to the girls for whom basketball was a passion. Ranadivé came to America as a seventeen-year-old, with fifty dollars in his pocket. He was not one to accept losing easily. His second principle, then, was that his team would play a real full-court press, every game, all the time. The team ended up at the national championships. “It was really random,” Anjali Ranadivé said. “I mean, my father had never played basketball before.”
David’s victory over Goliath, in the Biblical account, is held to be an anomaly. It was not. Davids win all the time. The political scientist Ivan Arreguín-Toft recently looked at every war fought in the past two hundred years between strong and weak combatants. The Goliaths, he found, won in 71.5 per cent of the cases. That is a remarkable fact. Arreguín-Toft was analyzing conflicts in which one side was at least ten times as powerful—in terms of armed might and population—as its opponent, and even in those lopsided contests the underdog won almost a third of the time.
In the Biblical story of David and Goliath, David initially put on a coat of mail and a brass helmet and girded himself with a sword: he prepared to wage a conventional battle of swords against Goliath. But then he stopped. “I cannot walk in these, for I am unused to it,” he said (in Robert Alter’s translation), and picked up those five smooth stones. What happened, Arreguín-Toft wondered, when the underdogs likewise acknowledged their weakness and chose an unconventional strategy? He went back and re-analyzed his data. In those cases, David’s winning percentage went from 28.5 to 63.6. When underdogs choose not to play by Goliath’s rules, they win, Arreguín-Toft concluded, “even when everything we think we know about power says they shouldn’t.”
Consider the way T. E. Lawrence (or, as he is better known, Lawrence of Arabia) led the revolt against the Ottoman Army occupying Arabia near the end of the First World War. The British were helping the Arabs in their uprising, and the initial focus was Medina, the city at the end of a long railroad that the Turks had built, running south from Damascus and down through the Hejaz desert. The Turks had amassed a large force in Medina, and the British leadership wanted Lawrence to gather the Arabs and destroy the Turkish garrison there, before the Turks could threaten the entire region.
But when Lawrence looked at his ragtag band of Bedouin fighters he realized that a direct attack on Medina would never succeed. And why did taking the city matter, anyway? The Turks sat in Medina “on the defensive, immobile.” There were so many of them, consuming so much food and fuel and water, that they could hardly make a major move across the desert. Instead of attacking the Turks at their point of strength, Lawrence reasoned, he ought to attack them where they were weak—along the vast, largely unguarded length of railway line that was their connection to Damascus. Instead of focussing his attention on Medina, he should wage war over the broadest territory possible.
The Bedouins under Lawrence’s command were not, in conventional terms, skilled troops. They were nomads. Sir Reginald Wingate, one of the British commanders in the region, called them “an untrained rabble, most of whom have never fired a rifle.” But they were tough and they were mobile. The typical Bedouin soldier carried no more than a rifle, a hundred rounds of ammunition, forty-five pounds of flour, and a pint of drinking water, which meant that he could travel as much as a hundred and ten miles a day across the desert, even in summer. “Our cards were speed and time, not hitting power,” Lawrence wrote. “Our largest available resources were the tribesmen, men quite unused to formal warfare, whose assets were movement, endurance, individual intelligence, knowledge of the country, courage.” The eighteenth-century general Maurice de Saxe famously said that the art of war was about legs, not arms, and Lawrence’s troops were all legs. In one typical stretch, in the spring of 1917, his men dynamited sixty rails and cut a telegraph line at Buair on March 24th, sabotaged a train and twenty-five rails at Abu al-Naam on March 25th, dynamited fifteen rails and cut a telegraph line at Istabl Antar on March 27th, raided a Turkish garrison and derailed a train on March 29th, returned to Buair and sabotaged the railway line again on March 31st, dynamited eleven rails at Hediah on April 3rd, raided the train line in the area of Wadi Dhaiji on April 4th and 5th, and attacked twice on April 6th.
Lawrence’s masterstroke was an assault on the port town of Aqaba. The Turks expected an attack from British ships patrolling the waters of the Gulf of Aqaba to the west. Lawrence decided to attack from the east instead, coming at the city from the unprotected desert, and to do that he led his men on an audacious, six-hundred-mile loop—up from the Hejaz, north into the Syrian desert, and then back down toward Aqaba. This was in summer, through some of the most inhospitable land in the Middle East, and Lawrence tacked on a side trip to the outskirts of Damascus, in order to mislead the Turks about his intentions. “This year the valley seemed creeping with horned vipers and puff-adders, cobras and black snakes,” Lawrence writes in “The Seven Pillars of Wisdom” of one stage in the journey:
We could not lightly draw water after dark, for there were snakes swimming in the pools or clustering in knots around their brinks. Twice puff-adders came twisting into the alert ring of our debating coffee-circle. Three of our men died of bites; four recovered after great fear and pain, and a swelling of the poisoned limb. Howeitat treatment was to bind up the part with snake-skin plaster and read chapters of the Koran to the sufferer until he died.
When they finally arrived at Aqaba, Lawrence’s band of several hundred warriors killed or captured twelve hundred Turks, and lost only two men. The Turks simply did not think that their opponent would be mad enough to come at them from the desert. This was Lawrence’s great insight. David can beat Goliath by substituting effort for ability—and substituting effort for ability turns out to be a winning formula for underdogs in all walks of life, including little blond-haired girls on the basketball court.
Vivek Ranadivé is an elegant man, slender and fine-boned, with impeccable manners and a languorous walk. His father was a pilot who was jailed by Indira Gandhi, he says, because he wouldn’t stop challenging the safety of India’s planes. Ranadivé went to M.I.T., because he saw a documentary on the school and decided that it was perfect for him. This was in the nineteen-seventies, when going abroad for undergraduate study required the Indian government to authorize the release of foreign currency, and Ranadivé camped outside the office of the governor of the Reserve Bank of India until he got his way. The Ranadivés are relentless.
In 1985, Ranadivé founded a software company in Silicon Valley devoted to what in the computer world is known as “real time” processing. If a businessman waits until the end of the month to collect and count his receipts, he’s “batch processing.” There is a gap between the events in the company—sales—and his understanding of those events. Wall Street used to be the same way. The information on which a trader based his decisions was scattered across a number of databases. The trader would collect information from here and there, collate and analyze it, and then make a trade. What Ranadivé’s company, TIBCO, did was to consolidate those databases into one stream, so that the trader could collect all the data he wanted instantaneously. Batch processing was replaced by real-time processing. Today, TIBCO’s software powers most of the trading floors on Wall Street.
Ranadivé views this move from batch to real time as a sort of holy mission. The shift, to his mind, is one of kind, not just of degree. “We’ve been working with some airlines,” he said. “You know, when you get on a plane and your bag doesn’t, they actually know right away that it’s not there. But no one tells you, and a big part of that is that they don’t have all their information in one place. There are passenger systems that know where the passenger is. There are aircraft and maintenance systems that track where the plane is and what kind of shape ‘s in. Then, there are baggage systems and ticketing systems—and they’re all separate. So you land, you wait at the baggage terminal, and it doesn’t show up.” Everything bad that happens in that scenario, Ranadivé maintains, happens because of the lag between the event (the luggage doesn’t make it onto the plane) and the response (the airline tells you that your luggage didn’t make the plane). The lag is why you’re angry. The lag is why you had to wait, fruitlessly, at baggage claim. The lag is why you vow never to fly that airline again. Put all the databases together, and there’s no lag. “What we can do is send you a text message the moment we know your bag didn’t make it,” Ranadivé said, “telling you we’ll ship it to your house.”
A few years ago, Ranadivé wrote a paper arguing that even the Federal Reserve ought to make its decisions in real time—not once every month or two. “Everything in the world is now real time,” he said. “So when a certain type of shoe isn’t selling at your corner shop, it’s not six months before the guy in China finds out. It’s almost instantaneous, thanks to my software. The world runs in real time, but government runs in batch. Every few months, it adjusts. Its mission is to keep the temperature comfortable in the economy, and, if you were to do things the government’s way in your house, then every few months you’d turn the heater either on or off, overheating or underheating your house.” Ranadivé argued that we ought to put the economic data that the Fed uses into a big stream, and write a computer program that sifts through those data, the moment they are collected, and make immediate, incremental adjustments to interest rates and the money supply. “It can all be automated,” he said. “Look, we’ve had only one soft landing since the Second World War. Basically, we’ve got it wrong every single time.”
You can imagine what someone like Alan Greenspan or Ben Bernanke might say about that idea. Such people are powerfully invested in the notion of the Fed as a Solomonic body: that pause of five or eight weeks between economic adjustments seems central to the process of deliberation. To Ranadivé, though, “deliberation” just prettifies the difficulties created by lag. The Fed has to deliberate because it’s several weeks behind, the same way the airline has to bow and scrape and apologize because it waited forty-five minutes to tell you something that it could have told you the instant you stepped off the plane.
Is it any wonder that Ranadivé looked at the way basketball was played and found it mindless? A professional basketball game was forty-eight minutes long, divided up into alternating possessions of roughly twenty seconds: back and forth, back and forth. But a good half of each twenty-second increment was typically taken up with preliminaries and formalities. The point guard dribbled the ball up the court. He stood above the top of the key, about twenty-four feet from the opposing team’s basket. He called out a play that the team had choreographed a hundred times in practice. It was only then that the defending team sprang into action, actively contesting each pass and shot. Actual basketball took up only half of that twenty-second interval, so that a game’s real length was not forty-eight minutes but something closer to twenty-four minutes—and that twenty-four minutes of activity took place within a narrowly circumscribed area. It was as formal and as convention-bound as an eighteenth-century quadrille. The supporters of that dance said that the defensive players had to run back to their own end, in order to compose themselves for the arrival of the other team. But the reason they had to compose themselves, surely, was that by retreating they allowed the offense to execute a play that it had practiced to perfection. Basketball was batch!
Insurgents, though, operate in real time. Lawrence hit the Turks, in that stretch in the spring of 1917, nearly every day, because he knew that the more he accelerated the pace of combat the more the war became a battle of endurance—and endurance battles favor the insurgent. “And it happened as the Philistine arose and was drawing near David that David hastened and ran out from the lines toward the Philistine,” the Bible says. “And he reached his hand into the pouch and took from there a stone and slung it and struck the Philistine in his forehead.” The second sentence—the slingshot part—is what made David famous. But the first sentence matters just as much. David broke the rhythm of the encounter. He speeded it up. “The sudden astonishment when David sprints forward must have frozen Goliath, making him a better target,” the poet and critic Robert Pinsky writes in “The Life of David.” Pinsky calls David a “point guard ready to flick the basketball here or there.” David pressed. That’s what Davids do when they want to beat Goliaths.
Ranadivé’s basketball team played in the National Junior Basketball seventh-and-eighth-grade division, representing Redwood City. The girls practiced at Paye’s Place, a gym in nearby San Carlos. Because Ranadivé had never played basketball, he recruited a series of experts to help him. The first was Roger Craig, the former all-pro running back for the San Francisco 49ers, who is also TIBCO’s director of business development. As a football player, Craig was legendary for the off-season hill workouts he put himself through. Most of his N.F.L. teammates are now hobbling around golf courses. He has run seven marathons. After Craig signed on, he recruited his daughter Rometra, who played Division I basketball at Duke and U.S.C. Rometra was the kind of person you assigned to guard your opponent’s best player in order to shut her down. The girls loved Rometra. “She has always been like my big sister,” Anjali Ranadivé said. “It was so awesome to have her along.”
Redwood City’s strategy was built around the two deadlines that all basketball teams must meet in order to advance the ball. The first is the inbounds pass. When one team scores, a player from the other team takes the ball out of bounds and has five seconds to pass it to a teammate on the court. If that deadline is missed, the ball goes to the other team. Usually, that’s not an issue, because teams don’t contest the inbounds pass. They run back to their own end. Redwood City did not. Each girl on the team closely shadowed her counterpart. When some teams play the press, the defender plays behind the offensive player she’s guarding, to impede her once she catches the ball. The Redwood City girls, by contrast, played in front of their opponents, to prevent them from catching the inbounds pass in the first place. And they didn’t guard the player throwing the ball in. Why bother? Ranadivé used that extra player as a floater, who could serve as a second defender against the other team’s best player. “Think about football,” Ranadivé said. “The quarterback can run with the ball. He has the whole field to throw to, and it’s still damned difficult to complete a pass.” Basketball was harder. A smaller court. A five-second deadline. A heavier, bigger ball. As often as not, the teams Redwood City was playing against simply couldn’t make the inbounds pass within the five-second limit. Or the inbounding player, panicked by the thought that her five seconds were about to be up, would throw the ball away. Or her pass would be intercepted by one of the Redwood City players. Ranadivé’s girls were maniacal.
The second deadline requires a team to advance the ball across mid-court, into its opponent’s end, within ten seconds, and if Redwood City’s opponents met the first deadline the girls would turn their attention to the second. They would descend on the girl who caught the inbounds pass and “trap” her. Anjali was the designated trapper. She’d sprint over and double-team the dribbler, stretching her long arms high and wide. Maybe she’d steal the ball. Maybe the other player would throw it away in a panic—or get bottled up and stalled, so that the ref would end up blowing the whistle. “When we first started out, no one knew how to play defense or anything,” Anjali said. “So my dad said the whole game long, ‘Your job is to guard someone and make sure they never get the ball on inbounds plays.’ It’s the best feeling in the world to steal the ball from someone. We would press and steal, and do that over and over again. It made people so nervous. There were teams that were a lot better than us, that had been playing a long time, and we would beat them.”
The Redwood City players would jump ahead 4–0, 6–0, 8–0, 12–0. One time, they led 25–0. Because they typically got the ball underneath their opponent’s basket, they rarely had to take low-percentage, long-range shots that required skill and practice. They shot layups. In one of the few games that Redwood City lost that year, only four of the team’s players showed up. They pressed anyway. Why not? They lost by three points.
“What that defense did for us is that we could hide our weaknesses,” Rometra Craig said. She helped out once Redwood City advanced to the regional championships. “We could hide the fact that we didn’t have good outside shooters. We could hide the fact that we didn’t have the tallest lineup, because as long as we played hard on defense we were getting steals and getting easy layups. I was honest with the girls. I told them, ‘We’re not the best basketball team out there.’ But they understood their roles.” A twelve-year-old girl would go to war for Rometra. “They were awesome,” she said.
Lawrence attacked the Turks where they were weak—the railroad—and not where they were strong, Medina. Redwood City attacked the inbounds pass, the point in a game where a great team is as vulnerable as a weak one. Lawrence extended the battlefield over as large an area as possible. So did the girls of Redwood City. They defended all ninety-four feet. The full-court press is legs, not arms. It supplants ability with effort. It is basketball for those “quite unused to formal warfare, whose assets were movement, endurance, individual intelligence . . . courage.”
“It’s an exhausting strategy,” Roger Craig said. He and Ranadivé were in a TIBCO conference room, reminiscing about their dream season. Ranadivé was at the whiteboard, diagramming the intricacies of the Redwood City press. Craig was sitting at the table.
“My girls had to be more fit than the others,” Ranadivé said.
“He used to make them run,” Craig said, nodding approvingly.
“We followed soccer strategy in practice,” Ranadivé said. “I would make them run and run and run. I couldn’t teach them skills in that short period of time, and so all we did was make sure they were fit and had some basic understanding of the game. That’s why attitude plays such a big role in this, because you’re going to get tired.” He turned to Craig. “What was our cheer again?”
The two men thought for a moment, then shouted out happily, in unison, “One, two, three, ATTITUDE!”
That was it! The whole Redwood City philosophy was based on a willingness to try harder than anyone else.
“One time, some new girls joined the team,” Ranadivé said, “and so in the first practice I had I was telling them, ‘Look, this is what we’re going to do,’ and I showed them. I said, ‘It’s all about attitude.’ And there was this one new girl on the team, and I was worried that she wouldn’t get the whole attitude thing. Then we did the cheer and she said, ‘No, no, it’s not One, two three, ATTITUDE. It’s One, two, three, attitude HAH ‘ “—at which point Ranadivé and Craig burst out laughing.
In January of 1971, the Fordham University Rams played a basketball game against the University of Massachusetts Redmen. The game was in Amherst, at the legendary arena known as the Cage, where the Redmen hadn’t lost since December of 1969. Their record was –1. The Redmen’s star was none other than Julius Erving—Dr. J. The UMass team was very, very good. Fordham, by contrast, was a team of scrappy kids from the Bronx and Brooklyn. Their center had torn up his knee the first week of the season, which meant that their tallest player was six feet five. Their starting forward—and forwards are typically almost as tall as centers—was Charlie Yelverton, who was six feet two. But from the opening buzzer the Rams launched a full-court press, and never let up. “We jumped out to a thirteen-to-six lead, and it was a war the rest of the way,” Digger Phelps, the Fordham coach at the time, recalls. “These were tough city kids. We played you ninety-four feet. We knew that sooner or later we were going to make you crack.” Phelps sent in one indefatigable Irish or Italian kid from the Bronx after another to guard Erving, and, one by one, the indefatigable Irish and Italian kids fouled out. None of them were as good as Erving. It didn’t matter. Fordham won, 87–79.
In the world of basketball, there is one story after another like this about legendary games where David used the full-court press to beat Goliath. Yet the puzzle of the press is that it has never become popular. People look at upsets like Fordham over UMass and call them flukes. Basketball sages point out that the press can be beaten by a well-coached team with adept ball handlers and astute passers—and that is true. Ranadivé readily admitted that all an opposing team had to do to beat Redwood City was press back: the girls were not good enough to handle their own medicine. Playing insurgent basketball did not guarantee victory. It was simply the best chance an underdog had of beating Goliath. If Fordham had played UMass the conventional way, it would have lost by thirty points. And yet somehow that lesson has escaped the basketball establishment.
What did Digger Phelps do, the season after his stunning upset of UMass? He never used the full-court press the same way again. The UMass coach, Jack Leaman, was humbled in his own gym by a bunch of street kids. Did he learn from his defeat and use the press himself the next time he had a team of underdogs? He did not.
The only person who seemed to have absorbed the lessons of that game was a skinny little guard on the UMass freshman team named Rick Pitino. He didn’t play that day. He watched, and his eyes grew wide. Even now, thirty-eight years later, he can name, from memory, nearly every player on the Fordham team: Yelverton, Sullivan, Mainor, Charles, Zambetti. “They came in with the most unbelievable pressing team I’d ever seen,” Pitino said. “Five guys between six feet five and six feet. It was unbelievable how they covered ground. I studied it. There is no way they should have beaten us. Nobody beat us at the Cage.”
Pitino became the head coach at Boston University in 1978, when he was twenty-five years old, and used the press to take the school to its first N.C.A.A. tournament appearance in twenty-four years. At his next head-coaching stop, Providence College, Pitino took over a team that had gone 11–20 the year before. The players were short and almost entirely devoid of talent—a carbon copy of the Fordham Rams. They pressed, and ended up one game away from playing for the national championship. At the University of Kentucky, in the mid-nineteen-nineties, Pitino took his team to the Final Four three times—and won a national championship—with full-court pressure, and then rode the full-court press back to the Final Four in 2005, as the coach at the University of Louisville. This year, his Louisville team entered the N.C.A.A. tournament ranked No. 1 in the land. College coaches of Pitino’s calibre typically have had numerous players who have gone on to be bona-fide all-stars at the professional level. In his many years of coaching, Pitino has had one, Antoine Walker. It doesn’t matter. Every year, he racks up more and more victories.
“The greatest example of the press I’ve ever coached was my Kentucky team in ’96, when we played L.S.U.,” Pitino said. He was at the athletic building at the University of Louisville, in a small room filled with television screens, where he watches tapes of opponents’ games. “Do we have that tape?” Pitino called out to an assistant. He pulled a chair up close to one of the monitors. The game began with Kentucky stealing the ball from L.S.U., deep in L.S.U.’s end. Immediately, the ball was passed to Antoine Walker, who cut to the basket for a layup. L.S.U. got the ball back. Kentucky stole it again. Another easy basket by Walker. “Walker had almost thirty points at halftime,” Pitino said. “He dunked it almost every time. When we steal, he just runs to the basket.” The Kentucky players were lightning quick and long-armed, and swarmed around the L.S.U. players, arms flailing. It was mayhem. Five minutes in, it was clear that L.S.U. was panicking.
Pitino trains his players to look for what he calls the “rush state” in their opponents—that moment when the player with the ball is shaken out of his tempo—and L.S.U. could not find a way to get out of the rush state. “See if you find one play that L.S.U. managed to run,” Pitino said. You couldn’t. The L.S.U. players struggled to get the ball inbounds, and, if they did that, they struggled to get the ball over mid-court, and on those occasions when they managed both those things they were too overwhelmed and exhausted to execute their offense the way they had been trained to. “We had eighty-six points at halftime,” Pitino went on—eighty-six points being, of course, what college basketball teams typically score in an entire game. “And I think we’d forced twenty-three turnovers at halftime,” twenty-three turnovers being what college basketball teams might force in two games. “I love watching this,” Pitino said. He had a faraway look in his eyes. “Every day, you dream about getting a team like this again.” So why are there no more than a handful of college teams who use the full-court press the way Pitino does?
Arreguín-Toft found the same puzzling pattern. When an underdog fought like David, he usually won. But most of the time underdogs didn’t fight like David. Of the two hundred and two lopsided conflicts in Arreguín-Toft’s database, the underdog chose to go toe to toe with Goliath the conventional way a hundred and fifty-two times—and lost a hundred and nineteen times. In 1809, the Peruvians fought the Spanish straight up and lost; in 1816, the Georgians fought the Russians straight up and lost; in 1817, the Pindaris fought the British straight up and lost; in the Kandyan rebellion of 1817, the Sri Lankans fought the British straight up and lost; in 1823, the Burmese chose to fight the British straight up and lost. The list of failures was endless. In the nineteen-forties, the Communist insurgency in Vietnam bedevilled the French until, in 1951, the Viet Minh strategist Vo Nguyen Giap switched to conventional warfare—and promptly suffered a series of defeats. George Washington did the same in the American Revolution, abandoning the guerrilla tactics that had served the colonists so well in the conflict’s early stages. “As quickly as he could,” William Polk writes in “Violent Politics,” a history of unconventional warfare, Washington “devoted his energies to creating a British-type army, the Continental Line. As a result, he was defeated time after time and almost lost the war.”
It makes no sense, unless you think back to that Kentucky-L.S.U. game and to Lawrence’s long march across the desert to Aqaba. It is easier to dress soldiers in bright uniforms and have them march to the sound of a fife-and-drum corps than it is to have them ride six hundred miles through the desert on the back of a camel. It is easier to retreat and compose yourself after every score than swarm about, arms flailing. We tell ourselves that skill is the precious resource and effort is the commodity. It’s the other way around. Effort can trump ability—legs, in Saxe’s formulation, can overpower arms—because relentless effort is in fact something rarer than the ability to engage in some finely tuned act of motor coördination.
“I have so many coaches come in every year to learn the press,” Pitino said. Louisville was the Mecca for all those Davids trying to learn how to beat Goliaths. “Then they e-mail me. They tell me they can’t do it. They don’t know if they have the bench. They don’t know if the players can last.” Pitino shook his head. “We practice every day for two hours ” ” he went on. “The players are moving almost ninety-eight per cent of the practice. We spend very little time talking. When we make our corrections”—that is, when Pitino and his coaches stop play to give instruction—”they are seven-second corrections, so that our heart rate never rests. We are always working.” Seven seconds! The coaches who came to Louisville sat in the stands and watched that ceaseless activity and despaired. The prospect of playing by David’s rules was too daunting. They would rather lose.
In 1981, a computer scientist from Stanford University named Doug Lenat entered the Traveller Trillion Credit Squadron tournament, in San Mateo, California. It was a war game. The contestants had been given several volumes of rules, well beforehand, and had been asked to design their own fleet of warships with a mythical budget of a trillion dollars. The fleets then squared off against one another in the course of a weekend. “Imagine this enormous auditorium area with tables, and at each table people are paired off,” Lenat said. “The winners go on and advance. The losers get eliminated, and the field gets smaller and smaller, and the audience gets larger and larger.”
Lenat had developed an artificial-intelligence program that he called Eurisko, and he decided to feed his program the rules of the tournament. Lenat did not give Eurisko any advice or steer the program in any particular strategic direction. He was not a war-gamer. He simply let Eurisko figure things out for itself. For about a month, for ten hours every night on a hundred computers at Xerox PARC, in Palo Alto, Eurisko ground away at the problem, until it came out with an answer. Most teams fielded some version of a traditional naval fleet—an array of ships of various sizes, each well defended against enemy attack. Eurisko thought differently. “The program came up with a strategy of spending the trillion on an astronomical number of small ships like P.T. boats, with powerful weapons but absolutely no defense and no mobility,” Lenat said. “They just sat there. Basically, if they were hit once they would sink. And what happened is that the enemy would take its shots, and every one of those shots would sink our ships. But it didn’t matter, because we had so many.” Lenat won the tournament in a runaway.
The next year, Lenat entered once more, only this time the rules had changed. Fleets could no longer just sit there. Now one of the criteria of success in battle was fleet “agility.” Eurisko went back to work. “What Eurisko did was say that if any of our ships got damaged it would sink itself—and that would raise fleet agility back up again,” Lenat said. Eurisko won again.
Eurisko was an underdog. The other gamers were people steeped in military strategy and history. They were the sort who could tell you how Wellington had outfoxed Napoleon at Waterloo, or what exactly happened at Antietam. They had been raised on Dungeons and Dragons. They were insiders. Eurisko, on the other hand, knew nothing but the rule book. It had no common sense. As Lenat points out, a human being understands the meaning of the sentences “Johnny robbed a bank. He is now serving twenty years in prison,” but Eurisko could not, because as a computer it was perfectly literal; it could not fill in the missing step—”Johnny was caught, tried, and convicted.” Eurisko was an outsider. But it was precisely that outsiderness that led to Eurisko’s victory: not knowing the conventions of the game turned out to be an advantage.
“Eurisko was exposing the fact that any finite set of rules is going to be a very incomplete approximation of reality,” Lenat explained. “What the other entrants were doing was filling in the holes in the rules with real-world, realistic answers. But Eurisko didn’t have that kind of preconception, partly because it didn’t know enough about the world.” So it found solutions that were, as Lenat freely admits, “socially horrifying”: send a thousand defenseless and immobile ships into battle; sink your own ships the moment they get damaged.
This is the second half of the insurgent’s creed. Insurgents work harder than Goliath. But their other advantage is that they will do what is “socially horrifying”—they will challenge the conventions about how battles are supposed to be fought. All the things that distinguish the ideal basketball player are acts of skill and coördination. When the game becomes about effort over ability, it becomes unrecognizable—a shocking mixture of broken plays and flailing limbs and usually competent players panicking and throwing the ball out of bounds. You have to be outside the establishment—a foreigner new to the game or a skinny kid from New York at the end of the bench—to have the audacity to play it that way. George Washington couldn’t do it. His dream, before the war, was to be a British Army officer, finely turned out in a red coat and brass buttons. He found the guerrillas who had served the American Revolution so well to be “an exceeding dirty and nasty people.” He couldn’t fight the establishment, because he was the establishment.
T. E. Lawrence, by contrast, was the farthest thing from a proper British Army officer. He did not graduate with honors from Sandhurst. He was an archeologist by trade, a dreamy poet. He wore sandals and full Bedouin dress when he went to see his military superiors. He spoke Arabic like a native, and handled a camel as if he had been riding one all his life. And David, let’s not forget, was a shepherd. He came at Goliath with a slingshot and staff because those were the tools of his trade. He didn’t know that duels with Philistines were supposed to proceed formally, with the crossing of swords. “When the lion or the bear would come and carry off a sheep from the herd, I would go out after him and strike him down and rescue it from his clutches,” David explained to Saul. He brought a shepherd’s rules to the battlefield.
The price that the outsider pays for being so heedless of custom is, of course, the disapproval of the insider. Why did the Ivy League schools of the nineteen-twenties limit the admission of Jewish immigrants? Because they were the establishment and the Jews were the insurgents, scrambling and pressing and playing by immigrant rules that must have seemed to the Wasp élite of the time to be socially horrifying. “Their accomplishment is well over a hundred per cent of their ability on account of their tremendous energy and ambition,” the dean of Columbia College said of the insurgents from Brooklyn, the Bronx, and the Lower East Side. He wasn’t being complimentary. Goliath does not simply dwarf David. He brings the full force of social convention against him; he has contempt for David.
“In the beginning, everyone laughed at our fleet,” Lenat said. “It was really embarrassing. People felt sorry for us. But somewhere around the third round they stopped laughing, and some time around the fourth round they started complaining to the judges. When we won again, some people got very angry, and the tournament directors basically said that it was not really in the spirit of the tournament to have these weird computer-designed fleets winning. They said that if we entered again they would stop having the tournament. I decided the best thing to do was to graciously bow out.”
It isn’t surprising that the tournament directors found Eurisko’s strategies beyond the pale. ‘s wrong to sink your own ships, they believed. And they were right. But let’s remember who made that rule: Goliath. And let’s remember why Goliath made that rule: when the world has to play on Goliath’s terms, Goliath wins.
The trouble for Redwood City started early in the regular season. The opposing coaches began to get angry. There was a sense that Redwood City wasn’t playing fair—that it wasn’t right to use the full-court press against twelve-year-old girls, who were just beginning to grasp the rudiments of the game. The point of basketball, the dissenting chorus said, was to learn basketball skills. Of course, you could as easily argue that in playing the press a twelve-year-old girl learned something much more valuable—that effort can trump ability and that conventions are made to be challenged. But the coaches on the other side of Redwood City’s lopsided scores were disinclined to be so philosophical.
“There was one guy who wanted to have a fight with me in the parking lot,” Ranadivé said. “He was this big guy. He obviously played football and basketball himself, and he saw that skinny, foreign guy beating him at his own game. He wanted to beat me up.”
Roger Craig says that he was sometimes startled by what he saw. “The other coaches would be screaming at their girls, humiliating them, shouting at them. They would say to the refs—’That’s a foul! That’s a foul!’ But we weren’t fouling. We were just playing aggressive defense.”
“My girls were all blond-haired white girls,” Ranadivé said. “My daughter is the closest we have to a black girl, because she’s half-Indian. One time, we were playing this all-black team from East San Jose. They had been playing for years. These were born-with-a-basketball girls. We were just crushing them. We were up something like twenty to zero. We wouldn’t even let them inbound the ball, and the coach got so mad that he took a chair and threw it. He started screaming at his girls, and of course the more you scream at girls that age the more nervous they get.” Ranadivé shook his head: never, ever raise your voice. “Finally, the ref physically threw him out of the building. I was afraid. I think he couldn’t stand it because here were all these blond-haired girls who were clearly inferior players, and we were killing them.”
At the nationals, the Redwood City girls won their first two games. In the third round, their opponents were from somewhere deep in Orange County. Redwood City had to play them on their own court, and the opponents supplied their own referee as well. The game was at eight o’clock in the morning. The Redwood City players left their hotel at six, to beat the traffic. It was downhill from there. The referee did not believe in “One, two, three, attitude HAH.” He didn’t think that playing to deny the inbounds pass was basketball. He began calling one foul after another.
“They were touch fouls,” Craig said. Ticky-tacky stuff. The memory was painful.
“My girls didn’t understand,” Ranadivé said. “The ref called something like four times as many fouls on us as on the other team.”
“People were booing,” Craig said. “It was bad.”
“A two-to-one ratio is understandable, but a ratio of four to one?” Ranadivé shook his head.
“One girl fouled out.”
“We didn’t get blown out. There was still a chance to win. But . . .”
Ranadivé called the press off. He had to. The Redwood City players retreated to their own end, and passively watched as their opponents advanced down the court. They did not run. They paused and deliberated between each possession. They played basketball the way basketball is supposed to be played, and they lost—but not before making Goliath wonder whether he was a giant, after all.
At a hearing on Capitol Hill in May, viagra order James Moroney, page the publisher of the Dallas Morning News, more about told Congress about negotiations he’d just had with the online retailer Amazon. The idea was to license his newspaper’s content to the Kindle, Amazon’s new electronic reader. “They want seventy per cent of the subscription revenue,” Moroney testified. “”I get thirty per cent, they get seventy per cent. On top of that, they have said we get the right to republish your intellectual property to any portable device.” The idea was that if a Kindle subscription to the Dallas Morning News cost ten dollars a month, seven dollars of that belonged to Amazon, the provider of the gadget on which the news was read, and just three dollars belonged to the newspaper, the provider of an expensive and ever-changing variety of editorial content. The people at Amazon valued the newspaper’s contribution so little, in fact, that they felt they ought then to be able to license it to anyone else they wanted. Another witness at the hearing, Arianna Huffington, of the Huffington Post, said that she thought the Kindle could provide a business model to save the beleaguered newspaper industry. Moroney disagreed. “I get thirty per cent and they get the right to license my content to any portable device—not just ones made by Amazon?” He was incredulous. “That, to me, is not a model.”
Had James Moroney read Chris Anderson’s new book, “Free: The Future of a Radical Price” (Hyperion; $26.99), Amazon’s offer might not have seemed quite so surprising. Anderson is the editor of Wired and the author of the 2006 best-seller “The Long Tail,” and “Free” is essentially an extended elaboration of Stewart Brand’s famous declaration that “information wants to be free.” The digital age, Anderson argues, is exerting an inexorable downward pressure on the prices of all things “made of ideas.” Anderson does not consider this a passing trend. Rather, he seems to think of it as an iron law: “In the digital realm you can try to keep Free at bay with laws and locks, but eventually the force of economic gravity will win.” To musicians who believe that their music is being pirated, Anderson is blunt. They should stop complaining, and capitalize on the added exposure that piracy provides by making money through touring, merchandise sales, and “yes, the sale of some of [their] music to people who still want CDs or prefer to buy their music online.” To the Dallas Morning News, he would say the same thing. Newspapers need to accept that content is never again going to be worth what they want it to be worth, and reinvent their business. “Out of the bloodbath will come a new role for professional journalists,” he predicts, and he goes on:
There may be more of them, not fewer, as the ability to participate in journalism extends beyond the credentialed halls of traditional media. But they may be paid far less, and for many it won’t be a full time job at all. Journalism as a profession will share the stage with journalism as an avocation. Meanwhile, others may use their skills to teach and organize amateurs to do a better job covering their own communities, becoming more editor/coach than writer. If so, leveraging the Free—paying people to get other people to write for non-monetary rewards—may not be the enemy of professional journalists. Instead, it may be their salvation.
Anderson is very good at paragraphs like this—with its reassuring arc from “bloodbath” to “salvation.” His advice is pithy, his tone uncompromising, and his subject matter perfectly timed for a moment when old-line content providers are desperate for answers. That said, it is not entirely clear what distinction is being marked between “paying people to get other people to write” and paying people to write. If you can afford to pay someone to get other people to write, why can’t you pay people to write? It would be nice to know, as well, just how a business goes about reorganizing itself around getting people to work for “non-monetary rewards.” Does he mean that the New York Times should be staffed by volunteers, like Meals on Wheels? Anderson’s reference to people who “prefer to buy their music online” carries the faint suggestion that refraining from theft should be considered a mere preference. And then there is his insistence that the relentless downward pressure on prices represents an iron law of the digital economy. Why is it a law? Free is just another price, and prices are set by individual actors, in accordance with the aggregated particulars of marketplace power. “Information wants to be free,” Anderson tells us, “in the same way that life wants to spread and water wants to run downhill.” But information can’t actually want anything, can it? Amazon wants the information in the Dallas paper to be free, because that way Amazon makes more money. Why are the self-interested motives of powerful companies being elevated to a philosophical principle? But we are getting ahead of ourselves.
Anderson’s argument begins with a technological trend. The cost of the building blocks of all electronic activity—storage, processing, and bandwidth—has fallen so far that it is now approaching zero. In 1961, Anderson says, a single transistor was ten dollars. In 1963, it was five dollars. By 1968, it was one dollar. Today, Intel will sell you two billion transistors for eleven hundred dollars—meaning that the cost of a single transistor is now about .000055 cents.
Anderson’s second point is that when prices hit zero extraordinary things happen. Anderson describes an experiment conducted by the M.I.T. behavioral economist Dan Ariely, the author of “Predictably Irrational.” Ariely offered a group of subjects a choice between two kinds of chocolate—Hershey’s Kisses, for one cent, and Lindt truffles, for fifteen cents. Three-quarters of the subjects chose the truffles. Then he redid the experiment, reducing the price of both chocolates by one cent. The Kisses were now free. What happened? The order of preference was reversed. Sixty-nine per cent of the subjects chose the Kisses. The price difference between the two chocolates was exactly the same, but that magic word “free” has the power to create a consumer stampede. Amazon has had the same experience with its offer of free shipping for orders over twenty-five dollars. The idea is to induce you to buy a second book, if your first book comes in at less than the twenty-five-dollar threshold. And that’s exactly what it does. In France, however, the offer was mistakenly set at the equivalent of twenty cents—and consumers didn’t buy the second book. “From the consumer’s perspective, there is a huge difference between cheap and free,” Anderson writes. “Give a product away, and it can go viral. Charge a single cent for it and you’re in an entirely different business. . . . The truth is that zero is one market and any other price is another.”
Since the falling costs of digital technology let you make as much stuff as you want, Anderson argues, and the magic of the word “free” creates instant demand among consumers, then Free (Anderson honors it with a capital) represents an enormous business opportunity. Companies ought to be able to make huge amounts of money “around” the thing being given away—as Google gives away its search and e-mail and makes its money on advertising.
Anderson cautions that this philosophy of embracing the Free involves moving from a “scarcity” mind-set to an “abundance” mind-set. Giving something away means that a lot of it will be wasted. But because it costs almost nothing to make things, digitally, we can afford to be wasteful. The elaborate mechanisms we set up to monitor and judge the quality of content are, Anderson thinks, artifacts of an era of scarcity: we had to worry about how to allocate scarce resources like newsprint and shelf space and broadcast time. Not anymore. Look at YouTube, he says, the free video archive owned by Google. YouTube lets anyone post a video to its site free, and lets anyone watch a video on its site free, and it doesn’t have to pass judgment on the quality of the videos it archives. “Nobody is deciding whether a video is good enough to justify the scarce channel space it takes, because there is no scarce channel space,” he writes, and goes on:
Distribution is now close enough to free to round down. Today, it costs about $0.25 to stream one hour of video to one person. Next year, it will be $0.15. A year later it will be less than a dime. Which is why YouTube’s founders decided to give it away. . . . The result is both messy and runs counter to every instinct of a television professional, but this is what abundance both requires and demands.
There are four strands of argument here: a technological claim (digital infrastructure is effectively Free), a psychological claim (consumers love Free), a procedural claim (Free means never having to make a judgment), and a commercial claim (the market created by the technological Free and the psychological Free can make you a lot of money). The only problem is that in the middle of laying out what he sees as the new business model of the digital age Anderson is forced to admit that one of his main case studies, YouTube, “has so far failed to make any money for Google.”
Why is that? Because of the very principles of Free that Anderson so energetically celebrates. When you let people upload and download as many videos as they want, lots of them will take you up on the offer. That’s the magic of Free psychology: an estimated seventy-five billion videos will be served up by YouTube this year. Although the magic of Free technology means that the cost of serving up each video is “close enough to free to round down,” “close enough to free” multiplied by seventy-five billion is still a very large number. A recent report by Credit Suisse estimates that YouTube’s bandwidth costs in 2009 will be three hundred and sixty million dollars. In the case of YouTube, the effects of technological Free and psychological Free work against each other.
So how does YouTube bring in revenue? Well, it tries to sell advertisements alongside its videos. The problem is that the videos attracted by psychological Free—pirated material, cat videos, and other forms of user-generated content—are not the sort of thing that advertisers want to be associated with. In order to sell advertising, YouTube has had to buy the rights to professionally produced content, such as television shows and movies. Credit Suisse put the cost of those licenses in 2009 at roughly two hundred and sixty million dollars. For Anderson, YouTube illustrates the principle that Free removes the necessity of aesthetic judgment. (As he puts it, YouTube proves that “crap is in the eye of the beholder.”) But, in order to make money, YouTube has been obliged to pay for programs that aren’t crap. To recap: YouTube is a great example of Free, except that Free technology ends up not being Free because of the way consumers respond to Free, fatally compromising YouTube’s ability to make money around Free, and forcing it to retreat from the “abundance thinking” that lies at the heart of Free. Credit Suisse estimates that YouTube will lose close to half a billion dollars this year. If it were a bank, it would be eligible for TARP funds.
Anderson begins the second part of his book by quoting Lewis Strauss, the former head of the Atomic Energy Commission, who famously predicted in the mid-nineteen-fifties that “our children will enjoy in their homes electrical energy too cheap to meter.”
“What if Strauss had been right?” Anderson wonders, and then diligently sorts through the implications: as much fresh water as you could want, no reliance on fossil fuels, no global warming, abundant agricultural production. Anderson wants to take “too cheap to meter” seriously, because he believes that we are on the cusp of our own “too cheap to meter” revolution with computer processing, storage, and bandwidth. But here is the second and broader problem with Anderson’s argument: he is asking the wrong question. It is pointless to wonder what would have happened if Strauss’s prediction had come true while rushing past the reasons that it could not have come true.
Strauss’s optimism was driven by the fuel cost of nuclear energy—which was so low compared with its fossil-fuel counterparts that he considered it (to borrow Anderson’s phrase) close enough to free to round down. Generating and distributing electricity, however, requires a vast and expensive infrastructure of transmission lines and power plants—and it is this infrastructure that accounts for most of the cost of electricity. Fuel prices are only a small part of that. As Gordon Dean, Strauss’s predecessor at the A.E.C., wrote, ” ” Even if coal were mined and distributed free to electric generating plants today, the reduction in your monthly electricity bill would amount to but twenty per cent, so great is the cost of the plant itself and the distribution system.”
This is the kind of error that technological utopians make. They assume that their particular scientific revolution will wipe away all traces of its predecessors—that if you change the fuel you change the whole system. Strauss went on to forecast “an age of peace,” jumping from atoms to human hearts. “As the world of chips and glass fibers and wireless waves goes, so goes the rest of the world,” Kevin Kelly, another Wired visionary, proclaimed at the start of his 1998 digital manifesto, “New Rules for the New Economy,” offering up the same non sequitur. And now comes Anderson. “The more products are made of ideas, rather than stuff, the faster they can get cheap,” he writes, and we know what’s coming next: “However, this is not limited to digital products.” Just look at the pharmaceutical industry, he says. Genetic engineering means that drug development is poised to follow the same learning curve of the digital world, to “accelerate in performance while it drops in price.”
But, like Strauss, he’s forgotten about the plants and the power lines. The expensive part of making drugs has never been what happens in the laboratory. It’s what happens after the laboratory, like the clinical testing, which can take years and cost hundreds of millions of dollars. In the pharmaceutical world, what’s more, companies have chosen to use the potential of new technology to do something very different from their counterparts in Silicon Valley. They’ve been trying to find a way to serve smaller and smaller markets—to create medicines tailored to very specific subpopulations and strains of diseases—and smaller markets often mean higher prices. The biotechnology company Genzyme spent five hundred million dollars developing the drug Myozyme, which is intended for a condition, Pompe disease, that afflicts fewer than ten thousand people worldwide. That’s the quintessential modern drug: a high-tech, targeted remedy that took a very long and costly path to market. Myozyme is priced at three hundred thousand dollars a year. Genzyme isn’t a mining company: its real assets are intellectual property—information, not stuff. But, in this case, information does not want to be free. It wants to be really, really expensive.
And there’s plenty of other information out there that has chosen to run in the opposite direction from Free. The Times gives away its content on its Web site. But the Wall Street Journal has found that more than a million subscribers are quite happy to pay for the privilege of reading online. Broadcast television—the original practitioner of Free—is struggling. But premium cable, with its stiff monthly charges for specialty content, is doing just fine. Apple may soon make more money selling iPhone downloads (ideas) than it does from the iPhone itself (stuff). The company could one day give away the iPhone to boost downloads; it could give away the downloads to boost iPhone sales; or it could continue to do what it does now, and charge for both. Who knows? The only iron law here is the one too obvious to write a book about, which is that the digital age has so transformed the ways in which things are made and sold that there are no iron laws.
Banks, cheapest battles, more about and the psychology of overconfidence.
In 1996, viagra buy an investor named Henry de Kwiatkowski sued Bear Stearns for negligence and breach of fiduciary duty. De Kwiatkowski had made—and then lost—hundreds of millions of dollars by betting on the direction of the dollar, and he blamed his bankers for his reversals. The district court ruled in de Kwiatkowski’s favor, ultimately awarding him $164.5 million in damages. But Bear Stearns appealed—successfully—and in William D. Cohan’s engrossing account of the fall of Bear Stearns, “House of Cards,” the firm’s former chairman and C.E.O. Jimmy Cayne tells the story of what happened on the day of the hearing:
Their lead lawyer turned out to be about a 300-pound fag from Long Island . . . a really irritating guy who had cross-examined me and tried to kick the shit out of me in the lower court trial. Now when we walk into the courtroom for the appeal, they’re arguing another case and we have to wait until they’re finished. And I stopped this guy. I had to take a piss. I went into the bathroom to take a piss and came back and sat down. Then I see my blood enemy stand up and he’s going to the bathroom. So I wait till he passes and then I follow him in and it’s just he and I in the bathroom. And I said to him, “Today you’re going to get your ass kicked, big.” He ran out of the room. He thought I might have wanted to start it right there and then.
At the time Cayne said this, Bear Stearns had spectacularly collapsed. The eighty-five-year-old investment bank, with its shiny new billion-dollar headquarters and its storied history, was swallowed whole by J. P. Morgan Chase. Cayne himself had lost close to a billion dollars. His reputation—forty years in the making—was in ruins, especially when it came out that, during Bear’s final, critical months, he’d spent an inordinate amount of time on the golf course.
Did Cayne think long and hard about how he wanted to make his case to Cohan? He must have. Cayne understood selling; he started out as a photocopier salesman, working the nine-hundred-mile stretch between Boise and Salt Lake City, and ended up among the highest-paid executives in banking. He was known as one of the savviest men on the Street, a master tactician, a brilliant gamesman. “Jimmy had it all,” Bill Bamber, a former Bear senior managing director, writes in “Bear Trap: The Fall of Bear Stearns and the Panic of 2008” (a book co-written by Andrew Spencer). “The ability to read an opponent. The ability to objectively analyze his own strengths and weaknesses. . . . He knew how to exploit others’ weaknesses—and their strengths, for that matter—as a way to further his own gain. He knew when to take his losses and live to fight another day.”
Cohan asked Cayne about the last days of Bear Stearns, in the spring of 2008. Wall Street had become so spooked by rumors about the firm’s financial status that investors withdrew their capital, and no one would lend Bear the money required for its day-to-day operations. The bank received some government money, via J. P. Morgan. But Timothy Geithner, then the head of the New York Federal Reserve Bank, didn’t open the Fed’s so-called “discount window” to investment banks until J. P. Morgan’s acquisition of Bear was under way. What did Cayne think of Geithner? Picture the scene. The journalist in one chair, Cayne in another. Between them, a tape recorder. And the savviest man on Wall Street sets out to salvage his good name:
The audacity of that prick in front of the American people announcing he was deciding whether or not a firm of this stature and this whatever was good enough to get a loan. Like he was the determining factor, and it’s like a flea on his back, floating down underneath the Golden Gate Bridge, getting a hard-on, saying, “Raise the bridge.” This guy thinks he’s got a big dick. He’s got nothing, except maybe a boyfriend.
Since the beginning of the financial crisis, there have been two principal explanations for why so many banks made such disastrous decisions. The first is structural. Regulators did not regulate. Institutions failed to function as they should. Rules and guidelines were either inadequate or ignored. The second explanation is that Wall Street was incompetent, that the traders and investors didn’t know enough, that they made extravagant bets without understanding the consequences. But the first wave of postmortems on the crash suggests a third possibility: that the roots of Wall Street’s crisis were not structural or cognitive so much as they were psychological.
In “Military Misfortunes,” the historians Eliot Cohen and John Gooch offer, as a textbook example of this kind of failure, the British-led invasion of Gallipoli, in 1915. Gallipoli is a peninsula in southern Turkey, jutting out into the Aegean. The British hoped that by landing an army there they could make an end run around the stalemate on the Western Front, and give themselves a clear shot at the soft underbelly of Germany. It was a brilliant and daring strategy. “In my judgment, it would have produced a far greater effect upon the whole conduct of the war than anything [else],” the British Prime Minister H. H. Asquith later concluded. But the invasion ended in disaster, and Cohen and Gooch find the roots of that disaster in the curious complacency displayed by the British.
The invasion required a large-scale amphibious landing, something the British had little experience with. It then required combat against a foe dug into ravines and rocky outcroppings and hills and thickly vegetated landscapes that Cohen and Gooch call “one of the finest natural fortresses in the world.” Yet the British never bothered to draw up a formal plan of operations. The British military leadership had originally estimated that the Allies would need a hundred and fifty thousand troops to take Gallipoli. Only seventy thousand were sent. The British troops should have had artillery—more than three hundred guns. They took a hundred and eighteen, and, for the most part, neglected to bring howitzers, trench mortars, or grenades. Command of the landing at Sulva —the most critical element of the attack—was given to Frederick Stopford, a retired officer whose experience was largely administrative. Stopford had two days during which he had a ten-to-one advantage over the Turks and could easily have seized the highlands overlooking the bay. Instead, his troops lingered on the beach, while Stopford lounged offshore, aboard a command ship. Winston Churchill later described the scene as “the placid, prudent, elderly English gentleman with his 20,000 men spread around the beaches, the front lines sitting on the tops of shallow trenches, smoking and cooking, with here and there an occasional rifle shot, others bathing by hundreds in the bright blue bay where, disturbed hardly by a single shell, floated the great ships of war.” When word of Stopford’s ineptitude reached the British commander, Sir Ian Hamilton, he rushed to Sulva Bay to intercede—although “rushed” may not be quite the right word here, since Hamilton had chosen to set up his command post on an island an hour away and it took him a good while to find a boat to take him to the scene.
Cohen and Gooch ascribe the disaster at Gallipoli to a failure to adapt—a failure to take into account how reality did not conform to their expectations. And behind that failure to adapt was a deeply psychological problem: the British simply couldn’t wrap their heads around the fact that they might have to adapt. “Let me bring my lads face to face with Turks in the open field,” Hamilton wrote in his diary before the attack. “We must beat them every time because British volunteer soldiers are superior individuals to Anatolians, Syrians or Arabs and are animated with a superior ideal and an equal joy in battle.”
Hamilton was not a fool. Cohen and Gooch call him an experienced and “brilliant commander who was also a firstrate trainer of men and a good organizer.” Nor was he entirely wrong in his assessments. The British probably were a superior fighting force. Certainly they were more numerous, especially when they held that ten-to-one advantage at Sulva Bay. Hamilton, it seems clear, was simply overconfident—and one of the things that happen to us when we become overconfident is that we start to blur the line between the kinds of things that we can control and the kinds of things that we can’t. The psychologist Ellen Langer once had subjects engage in a betting game against either a self-assured, well-dressed opponent or a shy and badly dressed opponent (in Langer’s delightful phrasing, the “dapper” or the “schnook” condition), and she found that her subjects bet far more aggressively when they played against the schnook. They looked at their awkward opponent and thought, I’m better than he is. Yet the game was pure chance: all the players did was draw cards at random from a deck, and see who had the high hand. This is called the “illusion of control”: confidence spills over from areas where it may be warranted (“I’m savvier than that schnook”) to areas where it isn’t warranted at all (“and that means I’m going to draw higher cards”).
At Gallipoli, the British acted as if their avowed superiority over the Turks gave them superiority over all aspects of the contest. They neglected to take into account the fact that the morning sun would be directly in the eyes of the troops as they stormed ashore. They didn’t bring enough water. They didn’t factor in the harsh terrain. “The attack was based on two assumptions,” Cohen and Gooch write, “both of which turned out to be unwise: that the only really difficult part of the operation would be getting ashore, after which the Turks could easily be pushed off the peninsula; and that the main obstacles to a happy landing would be provided by the enemy.”
Most people are inclined to use moral terms to describe overconfidence—terms like “arrogance” or “hubris.” But psychologists tend to regard overconfidence as a state as much as a trait. The British at Gallipoli were victims of a situation that promoted overconfidence. Langer didn’t say that it was only arrogant gamblers who upped their bets in the presence of the schnook. She argues that this is what competition does to all of us; because ability makes a difference in competitions of skill, we make the mistake of thinking that it must also make a difference in competitions of pure chance. Other studies have reached similar conclusions. As novices, we don’t trust our judgment. Then we have some success, and begin to feel a little surer of ourselves. Finally, we get to the top of our game and succumb to the trap of thinking that there’s nothing we can’t master. As we get older and more experienced, we overestimate the accuracy of our judgments, especially when the task before us is difficult and when we’re involved with something of great personal importance. The British were overconfident at Gallipoli not because Gallipoli didn’t matter but, paradoxically, because it did; it was a high-stakes contest, of daunting complexity, and it is often in those circumstances that overconfidence takes root.
Several years ago, a team headed by the psychologist Mark Fenton-O’Creevy created a computer program that mimicked the ups and downs of an index like the Dow, and recruited, as subjects, members of a highly paid profession. As the line moved across the screen, Fenton-O’Creevy asked his subjects to press a series of buttons, which, they were told, might or might not affect the course of the line. At the end of the session, they were asked to rate their effectiveness in moving the line upward. The buttons had no effect at all on the line. But many of the players were convinced that their manipulation of the buttons made the index go up and up. The world these people inhabited was competitive and stressful and complex. They had been given every reason to be confident in their own judgments. If they sat down next to you, with a tape recorder, it wouldn’t take much for them to believe that they had you in the palm of their hand. They were traders at an investment bank.
The high-water mark for Bear Stearns was 2003. The dollar was falling. A wave of scandals had just swept through the financial industry. The stock market was in a swoon. But Bear Stearns was an exception. In the first quarter of that year, its earnings jumped fifty-five per cent. Its return on equity was the highest on Wall Street. The firm’s mortgage business was booming. Since Bear Stearns’s founding, in 1923, it had always been a kind of also-ran to its more blue-chip counterparts, like Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley. But that year Fortune named it the best financial company to work for. “We are hitting on all 99 cylinders,” Jimmy Cayne told a reporter for the Times, in the spring of that year, “so you have to ask yourself, What can we do better? And I just can’t decide what that might be.” He went on, “Everyone says that when the markets turn around, we will suffer. But let me tell you, we are going to surprise some people this time around. Bear Stearns is a great place to be.”
With the benefit of hindsight, Cayne’s words read like the purest hubris. But in 2003 they would have seemed banal. These are the kinds of things that bankers say. More precisely—and here is where psychological failure becomes more problematic still—these are the kinds of things that bankers are expected to say. Investment banks are able to borrow billions of dollars and make huge trades because, at the end of the day, their counterparties believe they are capable of making good on their promises. Wall Street is a confidence game, in the strictest sense of that phrase.
This is what social scientists mean when they say that human overconfidence can be an “adaptive trait. In conflicts involving mutual assessment, an exaggerated assessment of the probability of winning increases the probability of winning,” Richard Wrangham, a biological anthropologist at Harvard, writes. “Selection therefore favors this form of overconfidence.” Winners know how to bluff. And who bluffs the best? The person who, instead of pretending to be stronger than he is, actually believes himself to be stronger than he is. According to Wrangham, self-deception reduces the chances of “behavioral leakage”; that is, of “inadvertently revealing the truth through an inappropriate behavior.” This much is in keeping with what some psychologists have been telling us for years—that it can be useful to be especially optimistic about how attractive our spouse is, or how marketable our new idea is. In the words of the social psychologist Roy Baumeister, humans have an “optimal margin of illusion.”
If you were a Wall Street C.E.O., there were two potential lessons to be drawn from the collapse of Bear Stearns. The first was that Jimmy Cayne was overconfident. The second was that Jimmy Cayne wasn’t overconfident enough. Bear Stearns did not collapse, after all, simply because it had made bad bets. Until very close to the end, the firm had a capital cushion of more than seventeen billion dollars. The problem was that when, in early 2008, Cayne and his colleagues stood up and said that Bear was a great place to be, the rest of Wall Street no longer believed them. Clients withdrew their money, and lenders withheld funding. As the run on Bear Stearns worsened, J. P. Morgan and the Fed threw the bank a lifeline—a multibillion-dollar line of credit. But confidence matters so much on Wall Street that the lifeline had the opposite of its intended effect. As Bamber writes:
This line-of-credit, the stop-gap measure that was supposed to solve the problem that hadn’t really existed in the first place had done nothing but worsen it. When we started the week, we had no liquidity issues. But because people had said that we did have problems with our capital, it became true, even though it wasn’t true when people started saying it. . . . So we were forced to find capital to offset the losses we’d sustained because somebody decided we didn’t have capital when we really did. So when we finally got more capital to replace the capital we’d lost, people took that as a bad sign and pointed to the fact that we’d had no capital and had to get a loan to cover it, even when we did have the capital they said we didn’t have.
Of course, one reason that over-confidence is so difficult to eradicate from expert fields like finance is that, at least some of the time, it’s useful to be overconfident—or, more precisely, sometimes the only way to get out of the problems caused by overconfidence is to be even more overconfident.
From an individual perspective, it is hard to distinguish between the times when excessive optimism is good and the times when it isn’t. All that we can say unequivocally is that overconfidence is, as Wrangham puts it, “globally maladaptive.” When one opponent bluffs, he can score an easy victory. But when everyone bluffs, Wrangham writes, rivals end up “escalating conflicts that only one can win and suffering higher costs than they should if assessment were accurate.” The British didn’t just think the Turks would lose in Gallipoli; they thought that Belgium would prove to be an obstacle to Germany’s advance, and that the Russians would crush the Germans in the east. The French, for their part, planned to be at the Rhine within six weeks of the start of the war, while the Germans predicted that by that point they would be on the outskirts of Paris. Every side in the First World War was bluffing, with the resolve and skill that only the deluded are capable of, and the results, of course, were catastrophic.
Jimmy Cayne grew up in Chicago, the son of a patent lawyer. He wanted to be a bookie, but he realized that it wasn’t quite respectable enough. He went to Purdue University to study mechanical engineering—and became hooked on bridge. His grades suffered, and he never graduated. He got married in 1956 and was divorced within four years. “At this time, he was one of the best bridge players in Chicago,” his ex-brother-in-law told Cohan. “In fact, that’s the reason for the divorce. There was no other woman or anything like that. The co-respondent in their divorce was bridge. He spent all of his time playing bridge—every night. He wasn’t home.” He was selling scrap metal in those days, and, Cohan says, he would fall asleep on the job, exhausted from playing cards. In 1964, he moved to New York to become a professional bridge player. It was bridge that led him to his second wife, and to a job interview with Alan (Ace) Greenberg, then a senior executive at Bear Stearns. When Cayne told Greenberg that he was a bridge player, Cayne tells Cohan, “you could see the electric light bulb.” Cayne goes on:
[Greenberg] says, “How well do you play?” I said, “I play well.” He said, “Like how well?” I said, “I play quite well.” He says, “You don’t understand.” I said, “Yeah, I do. I understand. Mr. Greenberg, if you study bridge the rest of your life, if you play with the best partners and you achieve your potential, you will never play bridge like I play bridge.”
Right then and there, Cayne says, Greenberg offered him a job.
Twenty years later, the scene was repeated with Warren Spector, who went on to become a co-president of the firm. Spector had been a bridge champion as a student, and Cayne somehow heard about it. “Suddenly, out of nowhere there’s a bridge player at Bear Stearns on the bond desk,” Cayne recalls. Spector tells Cohan, “He called me up and said, ‘Are you a bridge player?’ I said, ‘I used to be.’ So bridge was something that he, Ace, and I all shared and talked about.” As reports circulated that two of Bear Stearns’s hedge funds were going under—a failure that started the bank on its long, downward spiral into collapse—Spector and Cayne were attending the Spingold K.O. bridge tournament, in Nashville. The Wall Street Journal reported that, of the twenty-one workdays that month, Cayne was out of the office for nearly half of them.
It makes sense that there should be an affinity between bridge and the business of Wall Street. Bridge is a contest between teams, each of which competes over a —how many tricks they think they can win in a given hand. Winning requires knowledge of the cards, an accurate sense of probabilities, steely nerves, and the ability to assess an opponent’s psychology. Bridge is Wall Street in miniature, and the reason the light bulb went on when Greenberg looked at Cayne, and Cayne looked at Spector, is surely that they assumed that bridge skills could be transferred to the trading floor—that being good at the game version of Wall Street was a reasonable proxy for being good at the real-life version of Wall Street.
It isn’t, however. In bridge, there is such a thing as expertise unencumbered by bias. That’s because, as the psychologist Gideon Keren points out, bridge involves “related items with continuous feedback.” It has rules and boundaries and situations that repeat themselves and clear patterns that ——and when a player makes a mistake of overconfidence he or she learns of the consequences of that mistake almost immediately. In other words, it’s a game. But running an investment bank is not, in this sense, a game: it is not a closed world with a limited set of possibilities. It is an open world where one day a calamity can happen that no one had dreamed could happen, and where you can make a mistake of overconfidence and not personally feel the consequences for years and years—if at all. Perhaps this is part of why we play games: there is something intoxicating about pure expertise, and the real mastery we can attain around a card table or behind the wheel of a racecar emboldens us when we move into the more complex realms. “I’m good at that. I must be good at this, too,” we tell ourselves, forgetting that in wars and on Wall Street there is no such thing as absolute expertise, that every step taken toward mastery brings with it an increased risk of mastery’s curse. Cayne must have come back from the Spingold bridge tournament fortified in his belief in his own infallibility. And the striking thing about his conversations with Cohan is that nothing that had happened since seemed to have shaken that belief.
“When I left,” Cayne told Cohan, speaking of his final day at Bear Stearns, “I had three different meetings. The first was with the president’s advisory group, which was about eighty people. There wasn’t a dry eye. Standing ovation. I was crying.” Until the very end, he evidently saw the world that he wanted to see. “The second meeting was with the retail sales force on the Web,” he goes on. “Standing ovation. And the third was a partners’ meeting that night for me to tell them that I was stepping down. Standing ovation, of the whole auditorium.”