The Trading Game by Gary Stevenson review – cashing out

<span>A man with a conscience … Gary Stevenson.</span><span>Photograph: Ben Quinton/The Guardian</span>
A man with a conscience … Gary Stevenson.Photograph: Ben Quinton/The Guardian

Gary Stevenson had a meteoric rise from the rags of east London to the riches of Citibank, and his new book charts that journey. This is not a sleazy tell-all along the lines of the 2008 bestseller Cityboy, or the 2013 box-office hit The Wolf of Wall Street. Stevenson is exceedingly smart and a man with a conscience. Since leaving the bank at the age of 27, he started the YouTube channel GarysEconomics to explain, among other things, how massive money creation by the Bank of England has favoured the wealthy, while warning young people off get-rich-quick bitcoin schemes. In 2021 he was one of 30 millionaires to sign an open letter calling on Prime Minister Rishi Sunak to increase taxes on the rich.

Early chapters describe a childhood amid violence, poverty and glaring injustice, all within sight of the towers of Canary Wharf. A maths genius, Stevenson gets into LSE where he quickly discovers that “a lot of rich people expect poor people to be stupid”. Using this insight to win a card-based trading competition against his posh fellow students, Stevenson is offered an internship and then a job at Citibank. His first bonus arrives early in 2009, a few months after the collapse of Lehman Brothers nearly destroyed the global economy. It is £13,000, well over half of what his dad makes in a year as a Post Office worker.

On the advice of colleagues, Stevenson buys him a Sky Sports subscription as a present: “And on Saturdays, when previously we would go to watch Orient together, me, him and Harry from the street, I would instead go to Fitness First in Ilford, and lift weights” while Dad stared at the TV. Next year, Stevenson’s bonus comes to almost £400,000, and from then on the boy is hooked. Multimillion-pound bonuses follow, and being the most profitable trader in the world becomes the sole focus of his life.

You become all but unavailable to friends and family, and with every monster bonus the gap between you and them widens further

Talk to traders and investment bankers in the City and many will tell you a similar story: finance is not a job, they say, but a lifestyle that consumes you. You are permanently sleep-deprived while working long hours under immense pressure with zero job security. You become all but unavailable to friends and family, physically and mentally, and with every monster bonus the gap between you and them widens further. Investment banks are not designed to be cults or sects, but they function very much like them.

To blame Stevenson for his increasingly blinkered mentality would be harsh. Before joining Citibank, he had been fluffing pillows in a sofa shop for £40 a day. He saw most of his friends throw away their futures on drugs. But this book calls itself “a confession”. At some point you expect Stevenson to inject some self-reflection into the narrative. What did he think he was doing with his life? What made him so susceptible to the pull of ever-higher bonuses when it cost him his health, and when he so clearly doesn’t really care about all the things money can buy? Why was he unable to sustain any kind of meaningful relationship, inside or outside the bank?

That point never comes. Instead, Stevenson spends 400 pages fulminating against everything and everyone. He lashes out at his parents, at the school that expelled him, at LSE students and professors and at his fellow traders for not being as smart as he is. He bristles with contempt for the brokers who depend on him and he rages about top management deferring his bonus.

When the bank transfers him to Japan, his girlfriend, whom he calls Wizard here, follows him – but only after making sure she has her own accommodation and a teaching job. She really isn’t after his money. Indeed, she desperately wants him to quit, and who cares if that means foregoing that final £1m or £2m in deferred bonuses? “Why do you fight them, Gary?” she asks him. “You’ve got enough. Why don’t you just leave?” Stevenson writes: “She was wrong there. It’s never enough. And I’d never leave. Not if it meant letting them win.” So he breaks up, not with Citibank, but with Wizard. Earlier in the book, Stevenson’s best friend confronts him about his work addiction. “What the fuck is it for, Gary? What the fuck is it for?” he pleads. “There was nothing to say to that, so I left him.” They don’t see each other for years.

Related: Gary Stevenson, City trader turned campaigner: ‘I made money betting on a disaster’

The book ends when Citibank caves and Stevenson gets his deferred bonus. “I don’t care if I win any more,” he concludes on returning to London, “but I should really stop playing alone.”

This is a well written and often darkly funny book that makes a convincing case that high finance is as toxic, reckless and deeply cynical as ever. It is fantastic that Stevenson now uses his understanding of economics and high finance to campaign against inequality. It falls short as a confession, though, lacking any real introspection, let alone repentance or the making of amends. One wishes Stevenson had given an account of this part of his healing process, too. It might have helped others trapped in similar cages of gold.

• Joris Luyendijk is the author of Swimming With Sharks: Inside the World of the Bankers (Faber).

• Gary Stevenson’s The Trading Game: A Confession is published by Penguin (£25). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at