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  • Published: 3 October 2023
  • ISBN: 9780241651117
  • Imprint: Allen Lane
  • Format: Hardback
  • Pages: 272
  • RRP: $55.00

Going Infinite

The Rise and Fall of a New Tycoon


Most of the people who went to work for Sam Bankman-Fried ended up in jobs for which they were not obviously qualified, and Natalie Tien was no exception. She’d been raised in Taiwan by middle-class parents whose only real hope for her was that she’d find a rich husband. She was small and agreeable and ill-designed for rebellion. She still reflexively covered her mouth with her hand when she laughed. And yet she’d been determined to prove to her parents that they’d underestimated her. After college she’d gone hunting not for a husband but for work. She’d been so anxious about her own ambition that, before each interview, she’d write out and memorize exactly what she wanted to say about herself. She’d landed the first real job she’d applied for, at an English-language training company, and it had bored her to tears. But then, in 2018, at the age of twenty-eight, she’d discovered crypto.

The previous year, the price of bitcoin had risen almost twentyfold, from $1,000 to $19,000, and the daily trading volumes had boomed by some massive amount that was hard to precisely quantify. (The closest thing to an accurate accounting of what occurred was from the Coinbase crypto exchange, where trading volume in 2017 was thirty times greater than in 2016.) Across Asia, new cryptocurrency exchanges were popping up every month to service the growing gambling public. They all had deep pockets and an insatiable demand for young women. “Requirements are: pretty, big boobs, have done live streaming before, born in 2000 or later, good at chitchatting,” read the job ad for a salesperson at the fastest-growing new exchange. By 2018 a lot of young Asian women were trying to meet those requirements. Natalie took a different approach. She spent a month reading everything she could find about cryptocurrencies and blockchains. “Everyone called it a scam,” she said, and she worried about that. Once on the inside, she was struck by how few of the people who worked in crypto could explain what a bitcoin was. The businesses themselves didn’t always know what they were doing, or why. They were hiring lots of people because they could afford to, and big headcounts signaled their importance. What kept Natalie going, and ignoring the feeling that whatever talent she might possess was being wasted, was her feeling that crypto might be the next big thing. “I thought of it as a gamble with nothing to lose,” she said.

By June of 2020 she was working for her second Asian crypto exchange when she heard about the opening at FTX. Like the other exchanges, FTX hired her quickly, after a single interview, and she became the company’s forty-ninth employee. FTX was different from the other exchanges, mainly because the guy who ran it, Sam Bankman-Fried, was different. Every man Natalie Tien had ever met in crypto had been chiefly interested in money and women, and Sam was chiefly interested in neither—though it took her a while to figure out what it was he was chiefly interested in. Everything here is five times, she thought. Five times more work, five times more growth, five times more money, five times more responsibility. No one came out and said that you had to work all the time, or that there was no room for a life outside work, but anyone at FTX who tried to live a normal life simply didn’t stick. Natalie stuck, and within months of moving to FTX’s Hong Kong offices found herself named head of the company’s public relations. What was peculiar about this—apart from the fact that she had no real experience in public relations—was that FTX had no public relations. “When I joined, Sam didn’t believe in PR,” said Natalie. “He thought it was all bullshit.”

At the start, Natalie found herself trying to persuade Sam that he should talk to journalists, while at the same time trying to persuade journalists that they should talk to Sam. “In July 2020 no journalist was interested in Sam,” she said. “Zip.” The mania for crypto recalled Rotterdam circa 1637, when a single tulip bulb traded for roughly triple the price of a Rembrandt. And every day more of it was being traded on FTX. And Natalie kept pushing on journalists, and on Sam.

On the morning of May 11, 2021, Sam Bankman-Fried made his first television appearance. He sat at his trading desk and talked into his computer screen to two female reporters on Bloomberg TV. Thick black curls exploded off his head in every direction. People who tried to describe Sam’s hair would give up and call it an “afro,” but it wasn’t an Afro. It was just a mess, and like everything about Sam’s appearance felt less like a decision than a decision not to make a decision. He wore what he always wore: a wrinkled T-shirt and cargo shorts. His bare knee jackhammered up and down at roughly four beats per second, while his eyes darted left and right and collided with his interviewers’ gaze only by chance. His general demeanor was that of a kid pretending to be interested when his parents hauled him into the living room to meet their friends. He’d done nothing to prepare, but the questions were so easy that it didn’t matter. Crypto Wunderkind, read the Bloomberg chyron, while the numbers on the left of the screen showed that, in just the past year, bitcoin’s price had risen by more than 500 percent.

That first TV show Natalie watched from her own desk, but later, during future interviews, she’d walk around behind Sam to confirm that, yes, his eyes moved around so much because he was playing a video game. On live TV! Often, on live TV, Sam would not only play a video game but respond to messages, edit documents, and tweet. The TV interviewer would ask him a question and Sam would say, “Ahhhh, interesting question”—even though he never found any of the questions interesting. And Natalie knew he was just buying time to exit whatever game he was playing and reenter the conversation. Natalie didn’t know how a person was supposed to behave on live television, but she suspected it wasn’t like this. Yet even as she watched Sam’s first television performance she sensed it might play well. Sam was odd on TV, but he was also odd in real life. In real life people who encountered him often thought he was the most interesting person they’d ever met. She decided against media training—or anything that might make Sam seem less like Sam.

Not long after that first Bloomberg interview, Forbes magazine showed up. Back in 2017, when Forbes had begun to track crypto fortunes, Sam’s name hadn’t even made the list of people whose fortunes they should track; but back in 2017, Sam could not have told you what a bitcoin was, and in any case he had been worth approximately zero dollars. “He kind of came out of nowhere,” said Steve Ehrlich, the reporter Forbes assigned to figure out the net worth of this twenty-nine-year-old nobody. “It shocked me. It wasn’t that he had bought bitcoin and it had gone from zero to twenty thousand.” Inside of three years, it appeared, Sam Bankman-Fried had created a business so valuable that his share of it implied that he was now the richest person in the world under the age of thirty. “When I first looked at the numbers, I was like, Can this really be true—can this guy really be worth twenty billion dollars?” said Chase Peterson-Withorn, who led the Forbes team of investigators. “It was pretty much unprecedented. No one else had gotten richer faster except for Mark Zuckerberg, and it was very close.”

From that question they soon jumped to another: Exactly how much more than twenty billion dollars might this guy be worth? In addition to the crypto exchange, FTX, Sam also owned and controlled a crypto quant trading firm called Alameda Research. The year before, 2020, with just a handful of employees, Alameda had generated a billion dollars in trading profits, and was accumulating stakes in other companies, and crypto tokens, at a bewildering rate. The closer you got to Alameda Research, the less it seemed like a hedge fund and the more it resembled a dragon’s lair, stuffed with random treasures. The Forbes wealth analysts had always tried to keep things simple: your assets were worth only what other people were willing to pay for them. That approach had worked during the dot-com bubble, when everyone could agree that even though Pets.com was ridiculous it was still worth $400 million, because investors were willing to buy it at that valuation. But with these new crypto fortunes, the Forbes approach to wealth only got you so far. What to do, for instance, with the Solana tokens Sam owned inside of Alameda Research? Hardly anyone knew what Solana was—a new crypto currency minted to rival Bitcoin—much less how to value it. On the one hand, the current market price implied that Sam’s Solana stash was worth maybe $12 billion; on the other hand, Sam owned roughly 10 percent of all the Solana in the world. It was hard to know what anyone would pay for it if Sam tried to sell it all. Forbes pretty much just ignored Sam’s Solana holdings, along with most of the rest of the contents of his dragon’s lair.

As Sam went back and forth with the Forbes reporters, he—and Natalie—worried mainly that they’d publish a number that would require him to explain more than he wanted to explain. He’d walked the Forbes people through what they knew, or thought they knew. “There were two reasons I talked to them,” he said. “First, it was going to be in there anyway. And second, it makes them trust us more.” Still, he was worried that if he told Forbes everything, they might tell everyone that he was as rich as he thought himself to be. “I didn’t just send them the number: here’s what I’m worth,” he said. “It would set the wrong tone. The number was too big. If it comes out in Forbes that I’m worth one hundred billion dollars, it’s going to be weird and it’s going to fuck things up.” He hadn’t sent them the list of the one hundred or so businesses he’d acquired over the previous two years, for example. His story might be fantastic, but he needed it to be believable.

Going Infinite Michael Lewis

From the #1 bestselling author of The Big Short and Flash Boys, the high-octane story of the enigmatic figure at the heart of one of the 21st century's most spectacular financial collapses

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