CSotD: Tegwar For Dummies

The most memorable legacy of Mark Harris’s classic baseball novel, “Bang the Drum Slowly” — which was made into a movie with Michael Moriarity and Robert De Niro — are the games of Tegwar, a ridiculous scam in which the object is to fleece some rookie or star-struck fan who doesn’t realize that “T.E.G.W.A.R.” stands for “The Exciting Game Without Any Rules,” and that the other players are simply making up reasons to take his money.

As Harris wrote of one veteran player:


I’ve told this story mostly in relation to White Water, but I’ll tell it again and I’m sorry if you’ve heard it too often but obviously not everyone has heard it enough or Pat Bagley would not have had to draw this cartoon, which really sums it up.

Commercial Real Estate is Tegwar.

I wrote for a real estate magazine for about three years back in the 80s. There was a booming housing market in Colorado Springs and this magazine went exclusively to the 3,000 Realtors in the local market, plus lenders, title companies, etc.

It was a handy guide that featured charts with which you could sort through new housing by price, by number of bedrooms, by part of town, by financing plans and by combinations of those. In an exploding market, it was a very handy tool for Realtors.

A news story came out about rising vacancy rates in commercial real estate, and my boss asked me to look into the possibility of launching a commercial version of the magazine.

I approached a friend who was very highly placed in that side of things and asked him what he thought.

He burst into laughter. “That’s the last thing anyone would want!” he guffawed and explained to me that there are no set prices, no financing plans, no standards at all. Commercial real estate is, you might say, “the art of the deal.”

Basic contract law still applies, in a somewhat general sense, but there are no rules. It’s a full-contact sport and, unlike residential real estate, it is assumed that both parties know they’re apt to get a knee in the crotch or an elbow in the nose.

It’s Tegwar, and you may come to the table thinking you can play with the big boys, but you’re apt to walk home in a barrel.

Which is why White Water was such a joke, with reporters trying to explain what rules the Clintons had broken when there weren’t any rules to break.

It’s also, BTW, why women who can’t get onto the golf course can’t get into the game.


And, as Clay Bennett ably explains here, it’s why a plunger who can’t seem to turn a profit had better have a rich daddy keeping him afloat.

When you play Tegwar, you’re supposed to be a bullshit artist. That’s how the game is played.

But you have to be good at it, or you end up going back to Daddy to cover your losses, and then, when he won’t back you anymore, perhaps going to someone to bail you out who is a bigger, and potentially more dangerous, bullshit artist than you are.

It’s not just that you deal with bigger numbers than the rest of us. Stuart Carlson makes the point: Losses that would sink the rest of us seem inconsequential to the Great Deal Maker.

But that farmer can’t simply walk away from a repossessed farm and plant soybeans somewhere else. That student can’t get her team of attorneys to sue the Education Department until they give up and accept a partial settlement. And if that woman has a medical emergency, she can’t file for anatomical bankruptcy and start over with a new body.


Bob Gorrell sees nothing wrong with writing off income year after year after year, and insists that everybody does it, including the owners of the New York Times.

When confronted in the debates over his failure to pay taxes, Trump declared that it made him smart, and people not only bought that form of “everybody does it” morality, but bought his explanation that he couldn’t release his tax forms because he was being audited.

Which is not a point of IRS law but simply another made-up rule of Tegwar.


As Ann Telnaes demonstrates, that exchange is not the only one that we ought to think about as we sit here trying to figure out this mysterious game.

You can view Trump’s dealings as amusing or as sinister but they are certainly not on the level where the rest of us operate.

There is a point at which taking legitimate losses to avoid taxes stops being smart accounting and is simply tax evasion, which may be why he is audited every year, assuming he’s telling the truth about that.

Though only in Tegwar would we assume anything.


Graeme MacKay, for instance, notes the repeated claim in Trump speeches, in which he claims that China is paying millions of dollars in tariffs.

It’s true that tariffs are making Chinese goods more expensive — which is defendable economic policy — but it’s completely false that China pays them: The people who import the goods pay them, which means that the consumer ultimately picks up the tab.

That is, Americans are paying millions of dollars more for goods because of these tariffs, and more are coming.

That’s classic Tegwar, and, when you are the sucker at the table who is constantly losing money, it doesn’t matter if the person explaining things is mistaken or deliberately lying.

Dear Leader has blocked Wharton from releasing his grades, but the honors he claims to have graduated with were not listed on the commencement program along with those of his classmates.

So perhaps he knows how tariffs work and is lying, or perhaps he honestly hasn’t a clue.

And perhaps Sarah Sanders is right and we’re all too stupid to understand his tax returns, even if he showed them to us.

She may even be right: After all, we’re the star-struck fans, sitting here playing Tegwar with the most transparent president ever.


6 thoughts on “CSotD: Tegwar For Dummies

  1. Calvinball seemed much more benign than TEGWAR, as it offered each side the ability to change rules, as I recall.
    Of course Calvin was a master of it

  2. John Q. Public may not feel the tariff effects today or tomorrow, but wait until Christmas buying season gets here. It won’t be as green a Christmas as retailers dream of.

  3. I’ve never been as big a business as Cheeto, but I thought the tax laws said you could only declare losses for six years running.

  4. According to Them Hartmann, tariffs will hurt John Q. in the short term, but they’ll encourage American manufacturers in the long term.

    In the long term, we’re all dead.

    In the short term, we could get killed.

  5. One of the important things I got out of “Bang the Drum Slowly ” was Joe Schultz’s favorite saying, which, though not a palindrome, read the same backwards or forwards, especially when he got fence-boadred in TEGWAR..

  6. I’m sure Trump cheated on his taxes, and the New York Times says that he and his father committed tax fraud, cheating the government out of hundreds of millions in taxes, but I am at a loss as to why commercial real estate is so unregulated, and so favored by the tax laws.

    It makes sense to be able to depreciate a bulldozer, or a truck, but a building lasts indefinitely. The Empire State Building is 88 years old, cost $41 million to build, including land, and sold in 2013 for $1.89 billion (not inflation adjusted). It’s probably been renovated a few times over the years.

    Banks are required to report deposits of $5,000 or more to make it harder to launder money, but apparently, someone can buy a swanky condominium that costs over a million dollars with cash, and there is no reporting requirement. WTF?

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