What Is Liar's Poker?

"Liar's Poker" is a game often associated with Wall Street traders. The game involves wagering on the aggregate amount of numbers appearing on the serial numbers of players' dollar bills.

In each round, players take turns proposing an ever-increasing number of digits (e.g., a sequence may involve: three 5s, three 6s, four 5s, etc.).

The game proceeds until somebody calls out the previous proposal as being a "lie." If such a sequence exists (e.g., there are four or more 5s between all the serial numbers held) the person who announced the proposal wins. If there are not that many (i.e., there are only three 5s), then the one who called out the hand wins.

Liars poker, like the game poker itself, relies on a mix of statistical reasoning, chance, and psychological tactics.

Liar's Poker is also the title of a best-selling finance book by author Michael Lewis, which is about bond trading at Salomon Bros. in the late 1980s.

Key Takeaways

  • Liar's Poker is a multi-player game that involves wagering on the total number of digits contained in the serial numbers of dollar bills held by the platers on a turn-by-turn basis.
  • It is a game of strategy and psychology in which players hold random dollar bills with close attention to the serial numbers on their respective bills.
  • The rules of Liar's Poker require escalating bids, thereby increasing the game's stakes.
  • The game is comparable to "Liar’s Dice," a game where players roll dice, hide the numbers they have rolled, and then make bids on the total number of dice they believe were rolled by all players with that face value.
  • Liar's Poker is also the title of a popular financial book by Michael Lewis that depicts Wall Street bond trading culture at Salomon Brother's (later Salomon Smith Barney). 
  • Along with Barbarians at the Gate: The Fall of RJR Nabisco (by Bryan Burrough and John Helyar) and The Bonfire of the Vanities (by Tom Wolfe), Liar's Poker is considered one of the books that captured Wall Street culture in the 1980s.

Understanding Liar's Poker

The rules of Liar's Poker are fairly similar to those of the card game "Cheat." Players hold randomly drawn dollar bills, with close attention to the serial numbers on their respective bills.

The objective of the game is to bluff opponents into believing that your bid does not exceed the combined sum of all of the serial numbers among the bills in play.

In Liar's Poker, if one proposes, say, three "fours," they are predicting that among all of the dollar serial numbers held by all players, there are at least three "fours." If the player's bluff is not called, the next player must either bid a higher frequency of any other digit (five "twos") or can bid a higher number at the same frequency level (three "sixes").

The game continues until somebody thinks the prior player is lying and calls the bluff. If correct, the one who called the bluff wins; if not the player who proposed the sequence wins.

Dollar Bill Serial Number
Dollar Bill Serial Number.

Strategies Used in Liar's Poker

The number of players in the game can affect the probability of winning, though the game itself largely rewards and benefits those who employ deception and trickery to win. Rather than merely bid as accurately as possible, the players are taking turns at coaxing their rivals to make a mistake as they play.

The rules of the game require bids to continue escalating, thereby increasing the game's stakes. With more than two players, it is a frequent strategy to continue to raise the bid given the likelihood of being challenged and the related likelihood of losing when challenging. The strategy relies on continuous bluffing in hopes of potentially winning.

The game is comparable to "Liar’s Dice," a game where players roll dice, hide the numbers they have rolled, and then make bids on the total number of dice they believe were rolled by all players with that face value. Here again, each player bids and bluffs until challenged by another player.

Typically if a player poses a challenge in Liar's Poker and is incorrect, they must pay the player they challenged. If the player who was challenged was found to be incorrect, then they must pay every player who posed the challenge. Usually, the payout is one dollar (the dollar used in the game), but that may be increased depending on the agreed-upon rules and stakes.

Liar's Poker (The Book)

Liar's Poker is also the title of a popular financial book by Michael Lewis that depicts Wall Street bond trading culture at Salomon Brother's (later Salomon Smith Barney). It was first published in 1989.

The book provides a behind-the-scenes look at this unique and chaotic time in US business history. Along with Barbarians at the Gate: The Fall of RJR Nabisco (by Bryan Burrough and John Helyar) and The Bonfire of the Vanities (by Tom Wolfe), Liar's Poker is considered one of the books that captured Wall Street culture in the 1980s.

Lewis, who previously worked as a bond trader, has said that he intended the book to be a cautionary tale about questionable and deceptive behavior and practices at his workplace. But, he admits that some individuals have since used the book as a blueprint to seek personal profit.

Michael Lewis is best known for critically acclaimed books The Big Short (2015), Moneyball (2011), and The Blind Side (2009), all of which have been adapted into big-screen movies.

Liar's Poker FAQs

Is Liar's Poker (Book) a True Story?

Liar's Poker is a non-fiction, semi-autobiographical book by Michael Lewis, recounting his own experiences on Wall Street in the late 1980s.

Does Salomon Brothers Still Exist?

In 1997, Salomon Brothers merged with Smith Barney and formed Salomon Smith Barney. Citigroup then merged with the bank, turning Salomon Smith Barney into its investment banking arm. In 2003, Citigroup dropped all references to the Solomon name due to its association with financial scandals.

What Are the Lowest and Highest Ranked Numbers in Liar's Poker?

In Liar's Poker, 0s are usually the lowest-ranked numbers and 9s are the highest-ranked numbers.