Decisions Matter: Game Theory in
Billions – Part III

“What makes someone like Bobby tick, someone like Chuck tick? I think it’s the game and the game only. I think that becomes more important than the money or status and everything. It’s just the desire to win. And the greater your desire to win the greater you will compromise yourself. I think we all love watching people try to win.” – Damian Lewis

In case you missed Part I and Part II, you can see them here and here. And Part III is dedicated to the most impressive game we have seen in Billions: Chuck’s long game to get Axe.

Chuck delivers his most honest lines of the entire season as he stands in front of Axe in the last few minutes of Season 1:

source: Showtime

“You know the only enemy more dangerous than a man with unlimited resources is one with nothing to lose. And that is what you are looking at right here. ”

Now, I believe your worst nightmare is more horrendous in anticipation than when it hits you. You may get knocked down but, hey, what does not kill you makes you stronger, and you stand up and fight, and often without any fear, especially when you have nothing to lose. And we all saw how Chuck, the man with nothing to lose, turned into this sharp and focused chess player who put his long game together piece by piece and had a well-deserved cry-laugh in the end with Even The Losers by Tom Petty and Heartbreakers playing in the background. Priceless.

source: Showtime

So how about we dissect Chuck’s long game today and, in light of where everyone stands at the end of Season 2, speculate about the kind of games we may expect to see in Season 3?

First things first: While Chuck deserves a lot of credit for his smart play, the person who deserves all the credit for kicking off the entire operation is no one else but Wendy.

When the Attorney General invites him to DC after opening an investigation into his office’s methods of conduct, Chuck knows the AG will fire him. And his optimal play to AG’s move is to ask his team to come up with a case screaming for justice that could help him keep his job. Kate is bold enough to go after Spartan-Ives where as Lonnie offers GoodStop, a retail giant abusing its employees. Chuck chooses to go with the latter since Lawrence Boyd is a very close friend of the AG and she is the last person Chuck wants to piss off at the moment. Guess what? GoodStop is not good enough to make Chuck a keeper.

source: Showtime

And while Chuck is agonizing over making the trip to DC for his own execution, Wendy’s magic touch changes everything:

“180, Chuck.”

Wendy believes Chuck is a good candidate for this exercise she does with her clients in which a person should be brave enough to take the opposite way because whatever choices he has made so far are obviously not working.

Chuck has refused to go after Spartan-Ives since Lawrence Boyd is a close friend of the AG. In fact, he MUST go after Spartan-Ives especially because Boyd is a close friend of the administration. There is no way the AG can fire Chuck while he is investigating Boyd since it would look like she is protecting her friend. The only thing Chuck needs to do now is to make sure the media knows all about the investigation before he boards the train in the morning. Well, Spyros is on it.

source: Showtime

Dead Cat Bounce, the title of the episode, means a temporary recovery in share prices after a substantial fall. But, hey, if what follows “180, Chuck” is not SOME Dead Cat Bounce, what is?

Now that he is keeping his job, at least for now, Chuck sets up his long game starting with a signaling game to identify Boyd’s type: Is Boyd a low-risk or a high-risk player?

Once he has Chuck on his tail, the first person Boyd goes to is Axe, who seems to be willing to help out as long as Boyd accepts the fact “there are no fucking rules, not if you want to win.” Read: Hall.

Why does Axe help the man who invited him to his box at Barclay’s on mailroom night?!?! Lara helps us 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 finally spills the beans: Boyd is a soldier he sends upfront for intelligence. Even if Boyd is convicted Axe will have information about what works and what does not with Chuck.

Chuck needs Boyd to exhibit one weakness to get the ball rolling! And I find it hilarious that a lot of big guys get into deep shit because they do not have restraint in the sex department. Pick your favorite! Lawrence Boyd is no exception. The law may not give Mr. McKinnon, a colleague whose wife is having an affair with Boyd, the right to kill his boss, but it gives him the opportunity to serve Boyd’s head to Chuck. And McKinnon has an idea or two about how Spartan-Ives has rigged the treasury bids. He is not able to help Chuck at the moment though because there has been no treasury bid rigging since Boyd found out about the investigation.

This is a set back for the investigation but Chuck, being a true WWII aficionado, is already thinking Normandy! He will start with the first wave to ensure that the second wave stands a chance.

Chuck sends the windbreakers to Spartan-Ives headquarters in the morning and meets Boyd at The Lotos Club in the afternoon: Boyd is happy to sacrifice a few mid-level executives and coordinate press releases with Chuck so the investigation will be over and Boyd will have peace of mind on his boat off Antibes this summer.

source: Showtime

Ha! Chuck now knows the man he is dancing with is not a risk taker. Boyd will do whatever it takes, including sacrificing his own men, to save his ass. And now that they shake hands, Chuck expects Boyd to relax and get back to business as usual rigging the Treasury bids. And that is exactly what Boyd does. Team Chuck is back in business and Mr. McKinnon is ready to be a hero.

source: Showtime

The second wave is McKinnon wearing the wire and making Boyd sing about his dirty business! The wolf is bagged.

Chuck’s timing to put the cuffs on Boyd is interesting to say the least. As Axe and Boyd are waiting to go on TV for Boyd to support Axe’s Nigerian currency play, Bach calls Axe to say FBI will be there within the hour to arrest Boyd. Axe does not give Boyd a heads-up since he needs him to go on air and save his quarter. And I wonder whether it is Chuck who makes sure Axe finds out about the arrest before going on air anticipating that Axe would not give Boyd a warning and that might not sit well with Boyd.

Retrospectively, the exchange between Axe and Chuck just after the FBI arrests Boyd hurts a little.

Source: Showtime

Chuck: “I don’t believe in omens or fortune tellers, but this must feel a little like your future foretold, huh?”

Axe: “You mean watching you arrest other people as I walk right out of the door? Yeah, kinda does.”

Boyd, having made bail, leaves Bronx County Courthouse to find Axe waiting in his car. Boyd knows Chuck has already flipped his colleague Michael Arendt and Axe knows Hall will find a way to flip him back.
source: Showtime

Before they meet Boyd and his legal team, Chuck is entertaining the idea of asking for 5 years in jail. Bryan knows Boyd would never settle if they talked about jail time and that jury trial would be a challenge. What jury is sophisticated enough to understand about rigging Treasury bids?

Once Hall flips Arendt back, Boyd does not leave much room for negotiation. His cocky lawyer conveys the offer from his client who believes his presence is not required: Boyd is willing to pay a small fine but there will be no admission of guilt and no termination. Jury trial it is.

Bryan turns his fury into a weapon in the courthouse and connects with the potential jurors. One guy is a “sandhog” that built the Second Avenue Subway like Bryan’s grandfather did the Lincoln Tunnel in 1930s. Neither saw any bonus in their lives while the average bonus at Spartan-Ives is 366K and Boyd’s personal bonus is at least 50 times that.

Boyd knows he may well share the fate of Louis XVI when he hears a potential juror saying “I assume everyone hates this man at first sight. It’s not gonna color my opinion” and throws in the towel. Boyd is not a risk taker. Facing 10 years in federal prison, he is now willing to admit guilt, 5 years of probation and pay 60 million in fees.

I give it to Chuck that he pulls this off seamlessly! Chuck gives Boyd no deal, well, yes, for a personal reason! Chuck wants to keep his job and no deal leaves no other option for Boyd other than pleading guilty and no other option for the Attorney General other than dropping the investigation into Chuck’s office. Besides, no deal gives Chuck an opportunity to”own” this man. Chuck knows Boyd will do whatever it takes to get out of jail. So whyu not use him against Axe when an opportunity arises?

And the opportunity arises thanks to no one else but Axe himself!

source: Showtime

Chuck is hesitant to help out Ira when he first asks for some financial help in investing Ice Juice IPO. However, when he finds out from Kate that Axe has bought all first editions of Churchill’s WWII in the world, Chuck kicks off Operation Ice Juice on an impulse! When he tells Chuck  Sr “if this is what it takes…” Chuck is not talking about helping his dad and his best friend, he is talking about taking down Axe.

source: Showtime

It is sad “Roberto” cannot see it coming.  But I do not take points off him for it because, seriously, how could he? Firstly, Boyd only shares true information with him. Secondly, wouldn’t Boyd rationally want to destroy the man who destroyed him as much as Axe would? This is Chuck at his best trapping Axe. Axe tells Wags early in Episode 11 Golden Frog Time that his Ice Juice play will work like the poison-tip arrow going through one guy and killing another. By the end of the episode, he is the one that gets “killed” as Chuck sends the arrow through Boyd.

source: Showtime

Chuck knows Axe wants to fuck him and the greater his desire to fuck him the greater risks he will take. So Chuck arranges the last pieces for his long game complete with bringing back Oliver Dake as the interim US attorney for the Eastern District and telling him how he will get Axe. Chuck and Dake come to an agreement that Chuck’s involvement in Ice Juice will not surface in the investigation.

source: Showtime

So far so good for Chuck. Yet, there is one thing he has missed in his entire operation and may, in fact, have a fit when he finds out: Wendy’s Ice Juice short. When she learns Axe will short Ice Juice, Wendy goes to Chuck’s office, violating her contract, to warn him about Ice Juice and shorts the stock on her way out of his office.

source: Showtime

Dake will certainly notice Wendy’s short in trading records and it is not a part of his agreement with Chuck.

So where do Axe and Chuck stand at the beginning of Season 3? They seem to be stuck in a chicken game driving cars towards each other at 120 mph. They can either go straight or swerve. The best outcome for both is that they go straight where as their opponent swerves. The one that goes straight is the hero and the one that swerves is the chicken. The second best is when they both swerve to avoid the damage and they are even. The worst outcome is obviously when they have a head-on collision and lose everything they have built in their professional and possibly personal lives. No wonder this kind of game is used to describe the mutual assured destruction of nuclear warfare and, in particular, to explain the brinkmanship in the Cuban Missile Crisis.

One tactic in the chicken game is for one player to signal their intentions convincingly before the game begins. For example, if a player were to ostentatiously disable their steering wheel just before the game starts, the other player would be compelled to swerve. This shows tying one’s own hands can be a good strategy in certain circumstances.

And I believe Axe makes his intentions, when Chuck comes to meet him in jail before he makes bail, pretty clear.

source: Showtime

“When I am done, you won’t be governor. You won’t be the US attorney. You might not even be an attorney at all. Yeah I might go down behind all of this, but one thing is for sure, you are gonna be right there next to me.”

Chuck knows this is not a bluff. While he is still confident based on the false belief that he has his ass covered all may change when he finds out about Wendy’s short! Knowing that Axe has nothing to lose and so he will go straight, Chuck may well be the one to rationally swerve, that is, find a way to stop the investigation. We hear Wendy saying “If one of us goes to prison, we all do” in the new Loyalty teaser. The Ice Juice investigation has the potential to bring “mutually assured destruction” to our beloved trio and I have a feeling Wendy will orchestrate Operation Save Your Ass.

source: Showtime

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!

6 thoughts on “Decisions Matter: Game Theory in
Billions – Part III”

  1. What a closing!! Operation “Save your ass” is absolutely hilarious but may come handy in the following season.
    Loving this 3rd delivery of the series and for me if I may say so, my favorite one is part I.


  2. I truly love how you have been able to dig deep into the minds of these two titans! It is the perfect recap of S1&2 and set-up for S3. Can’t wait to see this all play out, and to see what curve balls are also thrown our way in S3!

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