Billions on Showtime, Season 2, Episode 3: Optimal Play

source: Showtime

I could not be happier that a game theory term makes it to the title of this week’s episode: Optimal Play. Optimal Play, also known as Best Response, is the strategy that produces the most favorable outcome for a player, taking the strategies of other players in the game as given.

Given that the entire hedge-fund industry is under siege and that he needs to adapt, Axe’s optimal play is to venture out of the city walls and straight into the NFL. We learn from his chat with NY Giants chairman Steve Tisch that Axe grew up with football on a “24-inch Trinitron knock-off” and his first ever football game in a stadium was in Tisch’s box. As Tisch shares with him that he needs to jump through quite a few hoops to impress the NFL, Axe is pretty confident about his bid and already trying to figure out where his seat will be at the stadium. Not here at MetLife Stadium, of course. NY Giants is not for sale 😀

source: Showtime

While Chuck may be a very good father, he still needs to accept the new reality and consider getting his own place: Since his money is in a blind trust, he is forced to sell his first edition of Churchill’s The Second World War, signed by Churchill himself to General Montgomery with the highlight of his “never give in” speech:

“Never give in, never give in, never, never, never-in nothing, great or small, large or petty – never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense. Never yield to force; never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.”

It turns out Chuck said these words to himself on the first morning of every trial since he passed the bar exam. I think these words are even meaningful for him now than ever because I am sure Chuck knows Churchill gave that speech after Blitz but when things started to look a bit better for the UK that it has optimism about the outcome of the war. What Chuck does not know though is that he has “company” in Chartswell Booksellers, the only Churchill bookstore in the world, as he is accepting his $40K check for his books.

source: Showtime

Krakow is keeping his promise that he will get to Axe. Wags reads his tweet saying he will kick some major Axe Capital ass again in the upcoming Alpha Cup Charity Poker Tournament that is trending in New York. Axe thinks they should let Krakow “pop off online while using the squatty potty” and that Wags should take another shower before going to the office!

Axe meets Lawrence Boyd at 3 Guys. Fun coincidence that I have just taught Stalin in my authoritarian regimes class and Boyd has just called Chuck a Stalinist: “Convict first, then have the trial.” Boyd is ready to do whatever he needs to do to beat Chuck, so Hall is ready to meet him. And Chuck’s office is under investigation. And he has been served with 127 law suits, too. And Axe is still pressing Hall to find another opening.

source: Showtime

“I hear his name in my sleep, and underneath every thought I have.”

Axe’s obsession with Chuck is now beyond reason and his people are not impressed. Sure, they go ahead and do what he asks them to do, but you see the exhaustion in their eyes and in their voices.

Given that many did not even make it to trial under Stalin, I would take Chuck over him any given day. However, Boyd is right that that he is using dirty tactics to find dirt in Boyd’s business. Chuck is doing his optimal play given the circumstances like everybody else. Bryan’s is doing nothing. Lonnie’s is playing safe. Kate, as usual, comes up with something useful: a  flight attendant, who probably overheard a conversation on a Spartan-Ives jet, makes $24K profit from a trade. Even though Bryan protests there is no crime since there is no exchange of benefit, they bring her in. Bryan playing the good cop to Kate’s bad cop bags 7-10 splits like Earl Anthony and his “particular set of skills” get him the case.

Now where does all this leave Kate? Chuck may not give her the Head of Crim while his successor may and Dake is curious if she would be up for helping to remove yet another compromised employee (Tara Mohr, anyone?) Her dad’s advice seems to be Kate’s optimal play: Be the one everyone thinks of as intelligent and no one thinks of as disloyal.

source: Showtime

Axe finds his secret weapon for the poker table: Taylor was a multi-table poker prodigy, 16 tables at a time, in high school. They played live with students as well as professors in college but then quit because they were not interested in dick measuring contests. Taylor notices, from the way he listens to their story, Axe is not receiving new information. Axe confesses he had a feeling and pulled up their CV. He wants to rely on Taylor’s game theory strengths but he cannot convince them to play.

source: Showtime

I do not play poker, but I know how relevant it is to game theory. You are holding a hand, and what you play is not just based on your own hand but on your opponent’s hand as well as his play. But you obviously do not see his hand. So what you do is to try to “read” your opponent, understand what kind of player he is, form beliefs about his hand and predict what play he will make based on that hand. And you give your best response to THAT. You also know every play you make is a signal to the other side about you as a player and so you need to mix up your play and not let your opponent “read” you. It’s about probability. It’s about information. It’s about strategy. It’s about optimal play.

source: Showtime

As I was torn about whether Axe would genuinely help Boyd, Lara helps us all to get to the bottom of this! Axe does not feel right about Boyd going down. Good answer but not the whole answer. Chuck’s attack on Boyd is so loud that if Boyd wins Chuck will be “defanged.” Almost there. Axe spills the beans eventually: Boyd is a soldier he sends upfront for intel. Even if Boyd is convicted Axe will have information about what works and what does not with Chuck. And since Axe does not feel safe, this is his optimal play — only as long as Boyd is HIS soldier.

source: Showtime

An email ruins the Axelrods’ romantic moment and it is a good thing Lara does not know who is emailing: Wendy is letting Axe know she will be at the Alpha Cup as Krakow’s performance coach.

Oh My God.

In the blink of an eye, the king of strategy turns into this desperate little boy who cannot accept the fact Wendy will sew someone else’s shadow. Damian Lewis blows me away.

source: Showtime

I think of Wendy more of a rock than a performance coach in Bobby’s life. Wendy has not only put him together after 9/11 but also been able to keep him grounded for years. As much as he exudes so much confidence, Bobby Axelrod is a human-being who is aware of his one weakness that he can act on an impulse and nobody can stop him. His three soldiers – Wags, Hall, Bach – give him exhausted looks but they ultimately go and do what he tells them to do. Wendy seems to be the only one that says “no” to Bobby and he complies.

Axe cannot let Krakow win now. He facetimes Taylor, who seems to be the last person to leave the office, to tell them they will be playing in the tournament because it is included in the 168 hours a week that he is paying them.

Welcome to Alpha Cup Charity Poker Tournament at Edison Ballroom! Billions makes it as authentic as possible with (at least) two professional poker players, Phil Hellmuth and Brandon Cantu, plus extras with poker experience. And, hey, we would not expect anything less from Koppelman and Levien, who gave us Rounders! I watched it again before Season 2 hit our screens and one quick connection is Texas Hold’em. If you want to learn the rules, this little video is quite helpful.

Boyd shows up at the Alpha Cup only to leave through the back door and meet the man who will take him to the “promised land.” But Hall never does this in threes 😀

Wendy arrives with Todd and does not have an easy time with the Axelrods. She gets “I bet that’s what his masseuse and his manicurist tell themselves, too” from a sarcastic Bobby when she says she is working for herself and “I’ve heard other people say that” from a cruel Lara when she says marriages are as hard as divorces. And I admit Axe is not the only one who does not like it when Wendy helps Krakow to relax his features.

source: Showtime

Shuffle and Deal! Axe wins against Jim “China is a pig on LSD” Chanos

source: Showtime

…whereas he loses to Krakow. I do not think Axe deliberately loses to him but he collects information about him as a player and plays to his high confidence levels to double the wager and make him sit against Taylor who wants to be THAT biker who takes their hands off the bike and let the others ride on by.

I believe Axe sees his younger self in Taylor and seems to talk to young Bobby when he does his bit to motivate them:

“Hate is nature’s most perfect energy source. It’s endlessly renewable.”

I am 100% with Taylor one should not lean on that feeling. Hate may be a motivating force to an extent and young Bobby probably used it as a fuel while he was climbing the social ladder to fulfill his dream of “getting rich and getting even” and seems to use it now in his crusade against Chuck. Yet, excessive hate may consume one’s energy and ultimately destroy him. Team Axe must take notice before it is too late.

source: Showtime

Krakow does not give Taylor the opportunity to be THAT biker. I agree with Axe that, yes, they were probably not nice to Krakow when he was a kid, but even then, he should have started it! Krakow’s anger makes him an easy read and now Taylor does not even need to have the best hand to win. This is what you get from Taylor for being a bully, Todd.

source: Showtime

Taylor gets the recognition they deserve from their Axe Capital colleagues, including Dollar Bill, who goes into Axe’s office earlier, for a real fight, upon learning Taylor getting “his seat” at the Alpha Cup! It is a delight to see Taylor’s awkwardness with the bump fists. What is the big deal? They could be the youngest and the most mature individual at Axe Capital.

source: Showtime

Wags, who leaves the tournament early with his Raya girlfriend Prianca and a bottle of Michter’s Celebration for the road, gives Lara the optimal play she has been looking for since she had to close down her Michelin-starred restaurant after Axe’s 9/11 deals were made public. She, with her cousin Mo, will NOW  provide hangover relief, $1K a drip! 😀

source: Showtime

As Taylor delivers for Axe at the Alpha Cup, Michaela delivers for Bryan on Spartan-Ives Jet.

I find it beyond hilarious that a lot of big guys get into deep shit just because they do not have restraint in the sex department. Pick your favorite! And Lawrence Boyd is no exception. While the law does not give the right to Mr. McKinnon to kill Boyd for having sex with his wife, it gives him the opportunity to give Boyd to the law. McKinnon has an idea or two about how Boyd has rigged the treasury bids. There you go, Chuck!

I am not uncertain Taylor has figured the boss out more than the boss has figured them out. The man, who does not want things to get in the way of winning, has attachments that he cannot shake. The poker game was not to beat Krakow, but it was to break him and have Wendy watch him crumble.

NFL says “thanks, but no thanks” to Axe’s bid: 9/11 revelations seem to have damaged his reputation. Axe is confident increasing his bid will buy him more love. Because if Axe wants it, he gets it. Exactly like he now has Chuck’s first signed editions in his possession. And he will make sure he has all signed first editions for sale everywhere. Expensive?

“Well then it’s a good thing I’m a rich fuckin’ man.”

Rich? Yes. Man? I would say more of a little boy. A quite angry little boy. And I certainly miss the signature smug.

source: Showtime

In closing, Alex Gibney, the director of this episode, is certainly one of the gods for a documentary film freak like me! Gibney gave us some of the best documentaries such as Enron, Taxi to the Dark Side (with which he won an Academy Award), Client Nine, Going Clear: Scientology and The Prison of Belief. I highly recommend everyone to see his work. It is surprising that he is directing his first narrative ever on Billions and not surprising at all he has done a brilliant job with it.

Author: Damianista

Academic, Traveler, Blogger, Runner, Theatre Lover, Wine Snob, Part-time New Yorker, and Walking Damian Lewis Encyclopedia :D Procrastinated about a fan's diary on Damian Lewis for a while and the rest is history!

16 thoughts on “Billions on Showtime, Season 2, Episode 3: Optimal Play”

  1. Really, really good post. I immediately thought of you when I heard game theory mentioned again, along with the title. Thank you for the Edison Ballroom locale information. Always helpful for us non New Yorkers 🙂 I just took a virtual tour of the venue thanks to the embedded quick link. I checked out the link to Oak & Barrel, too. Let me just order two bottles of Michters, shall we? Do they sell it by the thimble-full? LOL

    Danny Strong is doing such a fantastic job of playing this smug, insecure asshole Krakow. Taylor knows he’s hiding behind his own pain and love that they don’t want to ‘lean into’ the hatred. Axe should follow suit before it burns him. For the first time I got a little mad at Bobby for using Taylor as his pawn in his chess game.

    Anyone else wondering why Taylor’s poker handle was named after the Disney show ZackCody892? I immediately thought of twins…2 people…both male and female?

    And can I just say my favorite part of the entire episode was when Bobby purchased Chuck’s treasured Winston Churchill autographed first edition and every other such edition IN THE WORLD just so Chuck could never replace it. Balls out funny. #sorrynotsorry

    I don’t know if it’s just me, but I’m picking up on UK references more this season. Bobby said it in S2E1 and S2E3. Just a little nod to Damian’s viewership across the pond. Like the Harry Potter reference in season 1.

    1. I cannot thank you enough for your kind words, Krista! It makes my day. Because you know a lot of outlets do recaps but most of them get the episodes beforehand and we don’t — which means I watch an episode two times and then sit down, put my thoughts together and write until the sun rises 🙂 I went to bed at 7am and got up at 10am and have been going non-stop since. The fun thing is that I sort of enjoy this A LOT! 😀

      What a “rarefied world” these people live in — from $15M charity tournaments to $6K a bottle whiskies. And I cannot be happier I have no connection whatsoever to that kind of life. I find it quite unhealthy and I would probably not last a day anyway. Not because I would not be able to strategize, because I could, but I seriously hate competition and I cannot identify more with Taylor on that ground. They are an amazing addition to the show and I am wondering if they will be able to get used to the thin air at Axe Capital. I have no idea about ZackCody892 but from the way you describe it, I think you are on to something there!

      OMG. Danny Strong is fantastic as Todd Krakow who reminds me of this mosquito that you just cannot keep away whatever repellent you use! I wonder if Wendy regrets her decision to be his performance coach at the tournament.

      Well, Bobby: I always get a little mad with him. I find his facetime with Taylor patronizing. Even though he tells Krakow he is taking everything very seriously, we all know it is not just a game for Axe, either. Otherwise, he would not sort of force Taylor to sit at the poker table.

      I obviously giggled when Axe decided to buy all signed first editions of The Second World War so Chuck could not have a copy again ever. Outrageously funny. But when you think about it… WHO DOES THAT? I actually find it quite pathetic but also very realistic knowing that seemingly grown men have the capacity to act like 6 year olds.

      I LOVE your attention to UK references. You are absolutely right! Harry Potter is probably a more universal reference but UK has got mentions several times in the first couple of episodes this season.

  2. I know I shouldn’t have, but I read your recap before watching (it’s on past my bedtime). I’ll watch tonight.
    That being said, I do love you laying ground work for me, and giving me things to look for! I do have to admit, there are a bunch of references I will never get (I have never read/seen Harry Potter, still don’t understand the Walt Whitman ref from last week, etc.) but I DO know Jim Chanos when I see him!!

    Looking forward to watching tonight!!

    1. Hahaha I cannot tell you how much I love it that you sneaked into the recap 😀 And I am glad the recap makes sense since I pulled a serious all-nighter last night. It makes me feel young: seriously I remember long nights in college writing lab reports.

      We are pretty complementary in terms of the references we get and that is why we all rock together! I don’t get metal music, gambling, baseball and of course most of the financial references. But I admit I am an avid Harry Potter fan – read all books and saw all films – and, yes, Dolores Umbridge is a real bitch 😀 I remember Koppelman telling you at Paley that Chanos would make a cameo appearance and here he is! Happy Watching!

  3. Damianista, Thank you for applying the optimal play lens to multiple threads in this episode. On first viewing, I understood the theory as it applied to the poker tournament, but you showed us Kate’s plays, Lara’s play, and the multiple Bobby optimal plays from Lawrence Boyd to Churchill first editions. And, maybe there are more! This is a whole new frame for me to understand and appreciate as I rewatch our favorite series.

    1. Thank you! I am thinking this episode would in fact make a great homework for my graduate game theory class. Optimal play which we more often call “Best Response” is a very fundamental concept that I teach for weeks! And I always tell my students that you don’t need to be a game theorist to identify optimal play. The intuition dictates it. It is basically about, given the circumstances, what is the action I can take that will produce the best outcome for me? And you do that in your job, in your marriage, in your friendship, in any bargaining situation you have… It is true that some relationships have altruism (e.g. parent – child relationship) but when you think about the individuals in Billions, they fit the definition of a rational individual. In game theory, we assume individuals are selfish and they try to maximize their payoff in any game — a situation where the outcome does not only depend on your action but also on actions of others. Billions is all about games and every one is all about optimal play! I am sure I have given a partial list and you can find many more optimal plays in the episode. Fascinating. No wonder I repeatedly say this is my dream show.

  4. I knew as soon as I heard Bobby saying “game theory”, you’d be giddy! And quite right too!

    Bobby is a bit of a mess right now and I could not agree more with you that he is exhausting everyone around him.

    While it seems that some of the staff/people in Bobby’s life are struggling with change, I predict that by the end of the season they will all have dealt with it far better than him. He seems to be trying to convince everyone (I. e himself) that he has accepted it and dealt with it when actually he is just self destructing or putting it another way, without Wendy, he is reverting to type. Very bad idea IMO putting Hall and Boyd together and asking Orrin to find Boyd a lawyer…

    Maggie is the backbone and brings a winderful calmness to Wendy in among all the drama. She has both Axelrods figured out whike the try to put her down. She sees them both very clearly!

    I completely agree with you about hate and I believe Bobby will destroy himself…[insert Yoda quote about fear, anger and hate quite here].

    Over at the Southern District Bryan continues to give me concern. He can’t possibly still be that naive…especially not with someone who laid their ambitions out on the bar for him? He sees distracted, confused and easily knocked off his game.

    I really like Danny’s performance as Todd, but can’t stand Todd, which is probably the point.

    1. Well, you know me well! I could not help being giddy hearing “Game Theory” from Damian, ahem, Axe 😀

      Bobby has changed. He is not the calm and confident man we met in Season 1. He does not trust anyone at the moment, he has all layers of protection around him, and even his very loyal soldiers like Wags and Bill talking to him through Steph is too much. You are right that even though he talks to everyone about change he is the one that is not very good handling it! He seems to be driven by hate right now which is quite dangerous. I am not sure if he knows he is playing with fire and creating new enemies along the way. I really think he’s been to his old “animal” days without Wendy. He’s a confused lost boy! I would love to HEAR about the Yoda quote — maybe in the Previously? 🙂

      Both Axelrods have turned me off in this episode with Lara being openly cruel to Wendy, and Axe both being sarcastic with Wendy and then purchasing Chuck’s books and all other signed first editions in the world: I thought it was quite pathetic of him though outrageously funny! Oh yes Wendy sees them both very clearly.

      Bryan is another lost boy in a completely different way. I FEEL for him. I don’t think he is as naive as before, he just does not know how to deal with all the “vagaries” 😀 He has chosen to steer wide around the all new mandate thing, but hey Chuck is noticing. And he will pay more attention.

  5. On point in all areas damianista! Great recap.
    I’d like to throw in my 2 cents about the Chuck Crew. I have to say that the world’s that Billions covers have definitely ‘thinner air’ than most people will ever encounter in their lives. Axe plays a serious, calculating and on occasion crooked game. I imagine his childhood- a genius from probably the age of 5. This genius has to navigate a very average world that he has to be a part of but he must also feel very detached from. This is his foundation. I imagine Chuck’s childhood. Privledged beyond belief in money and social status. He was an outsider too, he may have been a bit under average as an athlete as a child. He is not a handsome man so wasn’t the pretty boy growing up. I’m sure Axe NEVER had an issue with the ladies. Yet Chuck has a good mind. Not a genius level like Axe. Chuck went to the best schools so had the very best in education. His father groomed him from practically infancy to carry on the family name in a pursuit of gaining titles in society- by any means necessary. His upbringing supported his ability to hone his strategic play. Chuck was given every opportunity on a silver plate and he made good use of every opportunity. Axe had to scrap his way to the top, no one gave him countless boosts growing up. So now we have Axe at the pinnacle of the financial world. His mind, operating at almost computer-like speed, powers him through and in doing so has taken a toll on his humanity as shown in his ruthless trades. As Axe said, everone outside of his immediate family is fodder. But when I finish watching Axe accomplish a feat of business gymnastics, I don’t leave those scenes feeling sick to my stomach. When I watch Chuck maneuver his team, or watch his interactions with his father ( probably the crookedest player in Biliions) , I walk away feeling dirty. They go for the below the belt approach almost EVERY SINGLE TIME. The worst I could see of Axe was his withholding the doctors info of giving his dying employee a couple of extra months (maybe) of life with the trial procedure. I found his blackmail of Wendy to be totally out of character and kind of a rare sloppy moment of writing. I think a man in Axe’s position would check and double check Wendy’s involvement before throwing her away after many years of faithful work. As written he just went head first into the blackmail. Axe wouldn’t have accomplished all he had accomplished by being so rash. His brilliance is in thinking of moves a hundred paces before a move needs to be made. But Chuck? He has people selling their souls around him. His crew was merciless in their treatment of Denny. The way they broke into his home and intimidated him every second of the way. Kate lying to the stewardess was a real low. Chuck is such a hypocrite when it comes to the law. His father is probably a billion times more of a crook than Axe and Chuck knows and just turned a blind eye to his father’s misdeeds for decades.
    Yes, I know I’m overthinking this show too much. Yes, I’ve got the hots for Axe. Ha! However, I know better than to truly take sides. Both men are in the wrong. Is the world a worse place because of Axe? I don’t know. Is the law worse off because of Chuck? I say yes. Chuck deludes himself and his people that they are the good guys. I don’t think Axe believes all his business dealings are squeaky clean. He just works the problems he sees for his own best interest. Chuck goes forth with the whole ‘we are the morally and ethically ones in the right’ and that will never sit well with me.

    1. You’re back and I cannot be happier about that! And thank you for your kind words!

      So true that most viewers, including myself, are not walking away from Axe’s and Chuck’s dirty stuff the same way. We tolerate Axe and we get angry with Chuck. My two cents would be two-fold. First, as you also rightly point out, their backgrounds are so different. Axe has done everything himself. He is self-made man coming from modest background where as Chuck was born with a silver spoon in his mouth and given every opportunity to excel and thrive. But, I believe, more than that, the expectations we have with respect to these two worlds, the world of finance and the world of law are completely different. What are our expectations about the world of finance? And what are our expectation from the world of law? As Dake says, hedge funds will be doing what they are doing but Chuck is accountable to a higher authority: law. So I think Axe does not go completely outside “the boundaries of conventional morality’ when the financial world is concerned but Chuck does, at least, in terms of our expectations. We want him to beat the bad guys using clean methods — but of course it is not what we get, and we, in fact, know, deep down, it is pretty close to what we have in the real world, too, and maybe it is breaking our hearts to an extent. I am using “we” all the time but I am talking about myself.

      Axe and Wendy: I think his betrayal was brilliant piece of writing. I agree it was completely out of character and yes, he rushed, but I think he was pretty scared about what happened since there could be a jail sentence at the end. He had to deal with it swiftly. They did not have the time to check and double check so they just brought out the pictures and blackmailed her. I believe all human beings are able to do appalling things when they need to save their asses. Remember the Axelrods were very close to fleeing the country to raise their kids as fondue-eaters 😀 And when you are trapped like that, I believe every single one of us has the capacity to do things that we would not even imagine doing. So, I really liked that betrayal. Even Wendy is not exempt from being cannon fodder.

      Keep the feedback coming, thanks so much for reading!!!

      1. Loved your take in the world of finance and the world of law! Thanks for the reply. This is SO MUCH FUN!

      2. Agreed that there is a different expectation on Chuck than Bobby, one very much linked to the office and level of responsibility he holds. If Chuck is caught obtaining evidence by dodgy means, it isn’t just the case he is working on that is called into question. It adds extra stress and puts extra pressure on those picking up the pieces…and of course public money pays for it.

        There is also the added problem that if you are obtaining evidence by dodgy means and or methods, those you are obtaining it from are in a position to exploit your position and compromise you.

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