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Being a LIAR is alarmingly fun

10 August 2018 Suzanne Frost

When Lehman Brothers collapsed and the financial crisis unfolded, it was quite easy to see who was to blame. Bankers. Greedy, reckless, adrenaline junkie bankers. So how would you behave, given their power, given their means and their place at the trading table? £¥€$ will give you the chance to find out. Are you a cool calm risk assessor? A shrewd poker face? A stingy multimillionaire? Or an overexcited shrieking giggling gambler (guilty)? Do you even understand what you are doing…

Photo: Thomas Dhanens

The Almeida is transformed into a round open arena. It is dark, cold, quiet, corporate. What director Alexander Devriendt has created is part beautiful board game, part stock exchange room. Silently, you are guided to a place at one of the 10 shiny wooden roulette tables (the sleek elegant look of all the props really adds to the atmosphere). Couples and gangs of friends are methodically split up. You meet your fellow players and are welcomed with all the distant politeness of a 5 star hotel receptionist by your croupier, the head of the games table, the ‘market’. When they all start speaking in unison with emotionless voices, it sounds like a mantra or the prayer of a mysterious religious cult. The rules of the game are simple: you are no longer a person but a bank, with capital to invest and itching to see what you can do with it.
 
It is useful to have some cash on you. A fiver gets you 5 million – enough to get into the game but limiting your possibilities to make the riskier and more rewarding moves. You invest by rolling a dice (which is probably not much different to how real bankers make their decisions) and with anything upwards from 3 winning you a profit, the odds are ever in your favour. 5 Millions quickly grows to 10. When the market closes with the strike of a gong, it’s time to pay tax – but hey, what is one million? When your gains rise though, and you have to hand over a few more chips, it becomes annoying. One banker at our table tried cheating and was giving a red 'naughty' dice for his attempted tax evasion.
 


Our table started investing slowly and cautiously – earning us a C- rating on the board and a scolding from our croupier. We were stagnating! We needed a boost. Her advice was a “small loan” of 10 million, which some bankers were reluctant to take: “I assume we have to repay this at some point?” one banker asked. “But we all trust each other”, is the simple answer. A persuasive nod is all it takes. Our market is flooded with more capital and we up the stakes a bit. A lucky dice on a 5 million investment now earns you 15 in return! A whole pile of roulette chips! This is exhilarating!
 
Casually, the game leader introduces government bonds. We do not fully understand what they are, but we are happy to flock them to the other tables anyway. International trading begins. It get’s more and more difficult to keep track of investments, the loans we push back and forth between each other, the profits, the capital… everything becomes a bit dizzying.
 
For an extra little thrill to the game you can “short” another banks investment, betting on the outcome of their gamble. Interestingly, you don’t bet on a positive outcome for them, trusting their financial instinct - no, you bet on them failing, which feels just so mean spirited. At the heart of this entire system we try to make a profit from other people’s failure. And it works marvellously!
 


One of the banks at our table has been performing poorly right from the start. Guess how we can change that? We form a merger! This doesn’t make her investment instincts any better, mind you. It just splits the risk and we are on a roll so we roll her along with us. The next time the gong rings and the market closes, we get an A rating. The best bank in the arena! Our bonds rise in value! Success! Our competitors come to congratulate us – and want to cash in their bonds now please, since they are at the highest value they will ever be. Collectively they are worth over 100 million… we don’t have 100 million… no seriously, we do not have 100 million to pay them off. And so it begins. What went up must inevitably come down.
 
Although you can read about the financial system, and roughly understand the rules of banking and investment when you really concentrate, it is altogether different to play the game yourself, to feel the thrills. Psychologically, the loans and bonds that were just paper cards never felt as valuable as cold hard chips, so we all became much more reckless with them, flocking and buying something we hardly grasped as a concept all across the room.
 


Perhaps the most profound insight you take away from £¥€$ is that being a LIAR is terribly, dangerously fun. With 4 banks in the room crashed and not a single person ending the evening in profit, it is alarming how ready and eager you are to start playing all over again. After all, one lucky role of the dice could put you back into business…
 
It is amazing how you take this experience home and think about playing the market better, what you might try as a different tactic next time, given the chance to play again. What is much more difficult to grasp for the human brain - no matter how much you know the truth - is that your failure is already written into the system. You cannot win at this game. But damn, it was fun – and what’s the alternative anyway?
 
£¥€$ (LIES) is at the Almeida until 18 August.
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