In early 2022, when FTX was growing exponentially and his own powers seemed virtually limitless, Sam Bankman-Fried offered what is some of the best insight into his mathematical, sometimes alien view of the world. “Let’s say there’s a game,” the economist Tyler Cowen asked him in an interview. “51 percent, you double the Earth out somewhere else; 49 percent, it all disappears. Would you play that game? And would you keep on playing that, double or nothing?” S.B.F. responded, essentially, that of course he would keep flipping that coin, forever and ever if he could. Sure, he might destroy the world, but he also might double it, whatever the hell that means, entering into “an enormously valuable existence. That’s the other option.”
That now infamous exchange has been on my mind recently as I’ve fielded questions about why S.B.F. decided to go to trial this morning, the first day of a six-week ordeal that could end with decades in prison. Some former friends and allies—there aren’t many current ones—have been amazed that there wasn’t a last-minute settlement. Why would S.B.F. not plead guilty for a lesser sentence, given the overwhelming evidence from first-hand witnesses and plenty of Signal chats that bolster the fraud and conspiracy charges against him? Why does Sam feel the need to flip the coin when his odds are so objectively terrible?
This excessive hubris, even in the face of dire circumstances, may be the best manifestation yet of the personality—the infatuation with risk, the Billions-inspired love of schemes or “plays” as his team called them, and blithe ignorance to unpleasant outcomes—that led to the mayhem at FTX. “If a deal comes now, it will be a good one. Parents off, Gabe [Bankman-Fried] off, under 20 years in a nice place. No one wants a trial except Sam,” one friend of the family wrote to me last week. “I guarantee he is eager to bring the truth out and is more confident than one would expect.”