Sam Bankman-Fried is still gambling

March 29, 2024

Sam Bankman-Fried has learned nothing, and I’m not sure any of the rest of us have, either.

At his sentencing, I sat several rows behind Bankman-Fried, clad in prison khaki and clanking faintly when he walked from the shackles on his feet, while he gave his statement to the court. “I’m sorry about what happened at every stage,” Bankman-Fried said. “I failed everyone I cared about.”

What Bankman-Fried did not say was that he had, in fact, committed crimes and he wouldn’t do it again. Instead, he talked about the “mistakes” he’d made, how he’d assisted the FTX customers in dealing with the bankruptcy estate, that he hadn’t actually engaged in witness tampering, and that, in fact, the FTX estate had “billions” more than necessary to repay the customers, and that has been true the whole time. He didn’t say a word about his lenders, two of which went bankrupt, or the investors, whose money is gone.

It struck me that Bankman-Fried was going with the strategy he’d outlined in a document, submitted as evidence by the prosecution. He was simply going to blame the bankruptcy lawyers, as outlined in points 4, 5, 6, and 9 in his little Google Doc.

He’s appealing the verdict, and so that meant he had to dance through saying he was sorry without really admitting to anything. But I was absolutely astonished when he began talking about how FTX employees had been robbed of their chance to build something wonderful and that they should get together to, essentially, create an FTX equivalent.

Imagine standing up at your sentencing and saying, “Yeah, I’d do it again, your honor.”

“I guess there is a big opportunity in the world to do what the world thought I would do, what it hoped I would do, at least for a while, what I hoped I would do for the world, not what I ended up doing,” Bankman-Fried said. “And 300 people that I used to work with, incredibly talented, selfless, impressive people were looking for something to do. If that happens, if they do what they could for the world, then hopefully I’ll be able to see their success, not just my own failures, each night.”

Imagine standing up at your sentencing and saying, “Yeah, I’d do it again, your honor.”

I have heard a lot, throughout this trial, about Bankman-Fried’s vaunted intelligence. I have been told, in documents filed by the defense, that he is simply misunderstood because he is autistic. That may be true, but I absolutely witnessed him perjure himself on the stand. So did Judge Lewis Kaplan, who, in commenting on the perjury, gave three examples: that Bankman-Fried lied about not knowing Alameda spent FTX customer funds, that he first learned of Alameda’s debt in October 2022, and that he did not know that asking Alameda to repay its lenders would necessitate further dipping into customer funds. I’m not an expert or anything, but I don’t think lying on the stand is a symptom of autism.

“I did not think it a fruitful use of time to spell out every time I thought Mr. Bankman-Fried testified, willfully and knowingly, falsely at trial,” Kaplan said. “And when he wasn’t outright lying, he was evasive, hairsplitting, dodging questions, and trying to get the prosecutor to reword questions in ways that he could answer in ways he thought less harmful than a truthful answer to the question that was posed would have been. I’ve been doing this job for close to 30 years. I’ve never seen a performance quite like that.”

“It started at least as early as Jane Street and it continued to the very end. It’s his nature.”

The 25-year sentence (and $11 billion forfeiture) Kaplan gave had a lot to do with Bankman-Fried’s propensity for gambling. A math nerd who makes decisions in math, doing what we might call “cost / benefit analysis” and what Bankman-Fried called “expected value.” It was the math that did him in.

“In the head of this mathematical wizard, his own counsel tells us, in substance, that he was viewing the cost of getting caught, discounted by probability or improbability, against the gain of getting away without getting caught, given the probabilities,” Kaplan said. “That was the game. It started at least as early as Jane Street [the Wall Street firm Bankman-Fried joined straight out of college], and it continued to the very end. It’s his nature. And you don’t have to take my word for it — everybody has said that.”

Kaplan lingered on Caroline Ellison’s testimony about Bankman-Fried’s character; specifically, he told her that if there was a coin where tails destroyed the world and heads made the world twice as good, he’d gamble on flipping the coin. “A man willing to flip a coin as to the continued existence of life and civilization on Earth, if the chances were imperceptibly greater that it would come out without that catastrophic outcome, that’s really a leitmotif in my judgment of this entire case.”

Bankman-Fried rolled up to his sentencing and pitched a second FTX; he would absolutely keep flipping that coin. 

He is flipping the coin right now, actually, hoping for a win on appeal.

It’s tempting to try to double-or-nothing your way out of a hole, but that rarely works out as planned

One of the key skills in gambling is knowing when to cut your losses. It is, maybe, the skill — the only one that matters. It’s the lesson every first-time investor learns in their first bear market. It’s tempting to try to double-or-nothing your way out of a hole, but that rarely works out as planned. It didn’t work out at Alameda or FTX. It didn’t work out in Bankman-Fried’s trial. It didn’t work out in his sentencing. I suppose we will see about the appeal.

Bankman-Fried’s arrogance is of a Shakespearean scale. Arrogance can take a number of forms. One is not dressing up for an event where it is customary to wear a suit because you are so important you don’t need to follow the dress code. Another way is paying one of the biggest political bribes in history because you want to have your way. A third is determining that you, personally, must have the biggest charitable impact in the world.

Kaplan suggested that Bankman-Fried just likes the game. Maybe. It’s possible that Bankman-Fried simply cannot understand that he lost.

In order to understand that he’s lost and the jig is up, he would have to accept two things: that he isn’t as smart as he thought he was and that he’s not a good boy. I have sat through endless litanies of his good boy credentials; if we leave aside FTX’s matryoshka doll of crime, he’s better behaved than me. I have also been told many, many times that he’s smart. Private school. MIT. Jane Street. You get it.

That’s actually how he views himself. He’s smart and good. John J. Ray III, in his filing, hit the nail on the head when he said, “Mr. Bankman-Fried continues to live a life of delusion.”

In November 2022, FTX’s impending collapse triggered a 22 percent drop in the price of Bitcoin in a single day. Bitcoin’s now at about $70,000, higher than the peak of the last cycle. I have been told by a suspiciously large number of people that Bankman-Fried is a one-off, just a bad apple. Since I’ve started following crypto, this is the third bull run I’ve seen. I don’t know who the main character is going to be this time, but I know there’s going to be one.

The casino’s still open, 24 hours a day, for anyone who wants to take a seat at the table. The rules haven’t changed.

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