Everyone loves an underdog. Most certainly so when it’s wrapped up with extraordinary financial returns, scary new technologies like Bitcoin, and an establishment villain that everyone despises.
In Bitcoin Billionaires: A True Story of Genius, Betrayal and Redemption, the best-selling author Ben Mezrich attempts all of that. A look at Mezrich’s dozens of books reveals an obsession with drama, a flair for eccentricity, and a large portion of the unbelievable.
Most people know him from some previous books-turned-movies, and clearly, Mezrich writes riveting and colorful tales with cinemas being the final target: Bringing Down the House was turned into the swindling Las Vegas movie 21 starring Kevin Spacey, and The Accidental Billionaires laid the foundation for Jesse Eisenberg to play an obnoxious Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network.
With his latest book, the paperback just released in U.S. bookstores, Mezrich is on a quest for something similar. It’s so much a sequel to The Accidental Billionaires that Mezrich didn’t even bother with crafting a new subtitle: the 2009 book emphasized the same money, “genius,” and “betrayal” that the new book does. It begins roughly where the Facebook-Winklevoss drama ended: the culmination of media-covered and lawyer-heavy settlement negotiations between Mark Zuckerberg and the Winklevoss twins we mostly remember from The Social Network – the sleazy Harvard rowers Tyler and Cameron.
Fully focused on their Olympic rowing at the time, the book fast forwards a few years to when the twins retired their oars. Drifting through the parties of the world that fame and an eight-figure net worth allows, the “Winklevii” twins were on the hunt for the next big thing. Not only because they thought themselves clever enough to discover it (again), but because they wanted to redeem themselves in the image of the world – an image that, with The Social Network’s help, painted them as ungrateful and envious Establishment jocks.
In the decade or so that has passed, the tables have certainly turned: institutions of learning are not venerated and respected as they once were, and the revolutionary Facebook has turned into the establishment itself, immersed in election fraud, privacy issues, and charged with fueling America’s political polarization. Now, and in 2012-2013 when the book is set, cryptocurrencies were the new underdogs, fighting against a legacy banking system of unbelievable slow-motion.
The twins learn about Bitcoin, invested heavily themselves, and financed Charlie Shrem’s BitInstant, events that Mezrich thrillingly recounts as if they were a novel. He attempts to “re-create the scenes in the book based on the information I uncovered from documents and interviews.” A splash of drama later, and a one-sided Winklevoss account when needed, the question of whether the book is mostly fact or mostly fiction is still in the open.
Still, tales of outcasts need unsympathetic villains to fight off and insurmountable hurdles for protagonists to overcome. The Facebook movie created an unnecessarily harsh version of the Winklevoss twins as spoiled brats, and Mezrich explicitly admits that Bitcoin Billionaires tries to paint them in a better light. A much better light: a pair of clever, hard-working twins gifted with extraordinary foresight and discipline. Add some civilizational hyperbole to the mix, and Mezrich’s captivating and adjective-heavy painting of cinematic details for the perfect portrait to emerge. The twins’ earnest attempt at reviving their reputation as staunch entrepreneurs is matched only by Mezrich’s desire to remake his Prodigal Sons.
And that perfectly matched drama doesn’t lack for underdogs, villains, and outcasts. The twins, pushing all they can to both make Bitcoin mainstream and make it like other regulated financial products. A credulous CEO in the shape of Charlie Shrem, obsessed with the spotlight and his own fanfare; “ultraradical libertarians” like Roger Ver calling for the end of government through crypto; a financial press that swayed between ridicule and the juicy news of drug purchases and money laundry. We can add Orwellian governments, confused about a technology they didn’t grasp, wielding powers over new and old money alike, enforcing laws about what they may or may not buy.
Shrem’s story is an iconic rags-to-riches-to-rags-again story – an undisciplined, drunk overachiever, too obsessed with his own persona to successfully run a booming financial business. His Orthodox Jewish background and timid high school years makes him an iconic outcast – now suddenly successful, with beautiful women left and right. Of course, his loyalty sways between the micromanaging Winklevoss twins and the government-despising Roger Ver, and his gullibility in money-laundering issues eventually lands him in prison. A well-meaning and impressionable hero who, despite serious troubles, gets the girl in the end – a fitting story arc for the nerdy demographics shoved into fame in the 2010s.
The way Mezrich portrays women in the story – as largely nameless and pretty ornaments – is a bit much even for me. Ironically, or perhaps metaphorically as the story is about tables turned and power equalized, it’s the famed twins who have the deepest, most respectful relationship with women – their clever and supportive mother, the heartbreaking devotion to their lost sister, the respect for their competent chief of staff – even though they’re frequently surrounded by pretty models. Instead, it’s the libertarians and the coders and the bitcoin millionaires, drunk with the unusual attention of women, who come off as most distasteful. No surprises there.
David Enrich in the New York Times labels these characters a little more harshly: “Shameless hucksters, hapless computer geeks and shadowy criminals.” Ridicule and sarcasm – what else is new? Thankfully, Richard Waters, in the Financial Times, showed a little more restraint when the book first came out, calling the “libertarians, opportunists and speculators” in the drama, “a colourful supporting cast.”
Despite my complaints above, it’s refreshing to read an account of early Bitcoin – not the programming, the cryptography, or the scandals, but the dreamy futurists and their financiers. Here’s no cryptography, no intricate explanation of hashrates, SHA-256, or “censorship resistance.” This is a story about early Bitcoin; not the story of early Bitcoin. Mezrich’s book is fascinating, as gripping as the next underdog drama, as epic as the Do-It-Yourself biographies that successful investors write (or others write about them). It reads almost like fiction, with digestible chapters and iconic characters made for the Big Screen. Waters says it best when he delivers his final judgment of the book: “You could read it now, or just wait for the movie.”