Meet the gamblers who won big bets on the fate of the submarine

A photographic illustration of Titan, the submarine that disappeared on the expedition to the wreck of the Titanic, in an ocean of $100 bills.

A photographic illustration of Titan, the submarine that disappeared on the expedition to the wreck of the Titanic, in an ocean of $100 bills.

Illustration by Mother Jones; Oceangate/ZUMA; Getty

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Before the debris was Discovered on Thursday, Titan, the submersible that took tourists to see the wreck of the Titanic, impending tragedy has been fodder for widely praised, if often macabre, internet content. Some Twitter users have ripped off jokes about rich people getting their desserts alone. Others have been scanning social media closely for updates. And bettors saw an opportunity.

Since Wednesday, users of Polymarket, a cryptocurrency-based futures trading platform, have wagered over $300,000 that the “missing submarine” would be “found by June 23rd.” turn out to be fatal.

[W]That phase of capitalism is investing in the death of someone, a Twitter asked the user, posting a screenshot showing evolving Polymarkets spread across the sub. The sentiment hit a nerve, and the post went viral, racking up over 9,000 retweets and over 150,000 likes. Actually crazy. Imagine making money whether or not someone will die, another user wrote in an answer that has been liked more than 1,000 times. Others began to directly criticize Polymarket for opening up the secondary market.

The truth is, you can bet on almost everything about Polymarket: light propositions like where French soccer superstar Kylian Mbapp will play next year; murky ones like whether Russia will detonate a nuclear bomb by 2023 (betting yes and expecting to cash out seems like a leap of faith); and the bizarre, how to bet if a former sex partner of NBA forward Zion Williamson will release a sex tape. So it’s no surprise that a global news event ended up generating bets on the platform. But I still wanted to know what kind of person sits down and gambles the outcome of the fate of a submarine and the people inside it. Are they calculating sick? Economically efficient to eat the rich guys? Bright-eyed hustlers trying to make it in a precarious economy? All three?

Two bettors from Polymarket who took sides on whether or not the Titan would be discovered, one who would, and one who wouldn’t agree to shed light on those matters, but on condition that I don’t use their real names. I’ll call them Rich and Brian.

It started out as a real gamble during the 2016 election cycle, Rich, a public relations professional in New York City, told me via text message. Many media professionals and forecasters thought Hillary Clinton had the election in the bag, but Rich realized he wouldn’t be surprised if Trump came out on top. He bet accordingly, even though he was a lifelong Democrat.

I did very well that year and decided to stick with it as long as I was profitable,” he says. Rich’s bets supplement his regular income, with winnings going to vacations, gifts and other splurges. Rich says he’s gotten more rigorous analytically and to avoid markets in which it does not have much experience, such as climate-friendly politics and economics.

Brian has been betting full-time since 2007, coming after a post-college stint as a full-time poker player. He started On the market, an online betting market that closed in 2013, took a short break to trade stock, but returned to betting when a more regulated betting market, PredictIt, launched in 2014. I probably could have made a lot more money if I’d gotten into finance, but this is so much funnier lol, he told me in a direct message on Twitter. Brian also mostly sticks to politics.

Rich bet that the sub would not have been found. Why? I entered this market, frankly, because a lot of expert analysis indicated that they were already dead. Quite a broad consensus, and the market was being artificially deflated by more promising layman grabs, she explained.

Brian bet “Yes” because he is optimistic and was moved by the story.

Sorry, just kidding! Brian is exactly as calculating as one might expect. At 10c[ents]”Yes,” I think is probably correct, he explained, citing a figure that means the market believed there was a 10 percent chance the submersible would be found in time. At 20c, I think “No” is probably correct. So it depends on the price. These are only slightly plausible guesses. My assessment of the event could be totally, totally wrong.

Both generally do not tell others about their bets or what they are betting on. Rich admitted that this was not the case this time and that I had some trouble from my partner in the submarine market. He says he similarly received a lot of flak for betting on Trump in 2016, despite him being an ardent Democrat.

I think my ability to be dispassionate about the subject of the market is what makes me moderately successful, he says. She pointed to other examples in politics, such as one of Trump’s impeachments, where liberal bettors weighed in on the desired outcome and created an irrational market that he took advantage of.

You might think these guys are sick monsters. They are both well aware of the sentiment and have their own justifications.

My answer would be that markets are fundamentally immoral. There is no ethical consumption under capitalism, Rich said. He also pointed out that, unlike markets that people think are unethical like buying defense contractors or oil stocks, betting that the sub wouldn’t be found has zero impact on the outcome. The purchase of these shares strengthens the value of the company at least in part.

Brian sees where people come from. In fact, his first reaction was that a submarine betting market was inappropriate. But he changed his mind after reading the description of the terms of the bet. As Brian explains, it was “just about locating the submersible, not something about the fate of the passengers…These two facets of the event are very different things. He also compared his actions to how cable news reporters talk to experts and try to find out what’s most likely to happen, based on their odds shape, he suggested.

We now know, thanks to reports based on Navy submarine monitoring systems, that the ship imploded well before Thursday, when I spoke to Rich and Brian for the first time. But by then, things seemed to be looking bad for any sort of bailout. Unexplained banging noises were reported, but the passengers were probably already out of air. Bets against the diver found by June 23 were at 90 cents and bets on his finding at around 10 cents.

The odds were reversed when the Coast Guard confirmed they had discovered debris from the sub on the ocean floor, which technically gave the win to those betting that the sub would be “found”.

Despite taking opposite sides of the bet, thanks to a clever play of odds, both Rich and Brian walked away with thousands of dollars.

I ended up making about $8k on the market, just because “Yeah” was so cheap and the odds were so skewed, Brian said.

It came out with $3250. After taxes it will run at just under 15%, Rich said. All thanks to the arrogance of man!

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