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