What Makes You Tick?

On the day the Apple Watch 3 came out and I was feeling like a sucker as I do every time I needlessly upgrade my Apple products the niece who asks all the questions and does so with extra persistence when I’m speed-reading for an overdue book review, waved her paws in front of my eyes and said: “What do you mean:  “What makes you tick?””
This is what happens when you try to precee a book review. You offer a summary of the summary just to buy some time but it’s not enough. So now I found myself having to explain the book in more detail to someone who was really not very interested but did want help to pass the time. Which brings us to the present moment, reader.
As you know social media makes you feel wretched. Mental health charities warn that  comparing your self-doubting insides with everyone else’s extravagant outsides is masochistic.
You wise up eventually. You still can’t kick the habit of surfing when you shouldn’t but at least you can yell “Fake News!” at your Instagram feed from your seat in the bus or the WC and in this way the space between your humdrum existence (or mine) and everyone else’s sun-kissed-laughing-in-an-open-topped-vintage-cabriolet-in-Tuscany existence can be diminished.
But that’s social media. The trouble with dense autobiographies is they’re probably true. So if the author is brilliant and has a mind-boggling story to tell you can’t shout “fake news” with any conviction. You just have to lump it. Which in this case means that you have to compare the amazing rags-to-riches story of the author with your own Primark-to-Primark story.
Ed Thorp was a poverty-stricken child of the depression which meant he never took anything for granted whether it was an extra penny on his paper round or the attitudes and platitudes of the day.
His extraordinary mathematical ability and desire to test every theory in real life secured prizes, scholarships, a professorship at MIT and an assassination attempt by the mob. The prevailing orthodoxy was that gamblers cannot beat the casino at Blackjack. To test whether this was fact or shibboleth Thorp invented a system of card counting upon which he won a fortune. Which answered that question. When he was barred from the Blackjack tables he published his technique in a million-selling book and moved onto Roulette.
“What makes you tick?” his conspirator asked him when they set out to beat the mob’s casinos with the world’s first portable computer hidden in Thorp’s shoes. “Not an abstract academic life “, he answered by example.
And then the mob spiked his drinks and sent him packing from Vegas in a car with tampered brakes that would have killed him but for but the inevitable quick thinking.
At which point you realise you’re only half way through the book and your own autobiography, like your Instagram feed, is a bit thin. But you’re committed to the journey now and in fact it speeds up. Soon the prof turns up like Zelig at the centre of almost everything. Done with casinos he set up one of the first hedge funds and then invented derivates trading. En passant he warned everyone that Bernie Madoff was a fraud 17 years before his £34 billion Ponzi scheme was exposed. Then Zelig, I mean Thorp, nearly gets brought down as collateral damage by Rudy Giuliani’s attack on Wall Street.  Breathlessly the story runs on and Warren Buffet and Paul Newman appear because Thorp is also an outperforming money manager and they want his help.
Thorp closes by giving advice I don’t need: how to make a large endowment to a University, and much that I do need, how to invest for retirement if you’re not running a hedge fund from your Newport Beach hideaway.
But by then your niece is sighing that you’re boring and your fancy new watch doesn’t even tick.
I read this book:
A Man For All Markets: Beating the Odds, from Las Vegas to Wall Street
By Edward O. Thorp
Published by One World