For a good chunk of July, an 18-year-old kid from Long Island named Harris Kupperman was beating the 9,100 other contestants_in_something_called “TheStreet.com Investment Challenge.” In just four weeks, he had turned $500,000 into $7.6 million, a 1,400 percent return. At that rate, he’d have $76 quintillion in a year. “I guess that’s O.K.,” he said. Actually, it’s unheard of. And to think-this kid couldn’t get a summer job on Wall Street this year. He was too young.
Here’s the pity: The money he’s made isn’t real. The Investment Challenge is a game. Participants_get $500,000 in fictional money and place fantasy trades. Whoever makes the most out of their half-million by Aug. 20 wins. (The winner gets to spend a day trading alongside James J. Cramer, the hedge fund manager whose column appears regularly in The Observer .) But the stocks are real, and the rules make the game a lot like the real thing. And Mr. Kupperman, who goes through a box of Lucky Charms every other day and carries a fake ID so he can get a drink when he goes out in Manhattan, really has no business being better at it than 9,100 people who do this for a living. After all,_he_doesn’t_even know_what_the_ticker symbols stand for when he’s making a trade._”I think_it’s_better_that_I don’t_know,”_he_explained._”If you_know what_it_is,_you_get_too attached to it.”
He was in first place until late last month, when he went to Woodstock, missed two days (but left before Rome burned) and fell back into second place.
Four days later, Mr. Kupperman was back in faux-business in the dark den of his parents’ house in Brookville, L.I. The shades were drawn, and the central air-conditioning was purring away. He was watching CNBC and listening to Limp Bizkit on the stereo. Empty boxes of Lucky Charms were scattered on the floor. And on his computer screen, a Big Charts stock scanner identified stocks that were on the move.
He made a trade. The ticker symbol was NTIA, the price was $22 a share. “I don’t really know what the hell it is,” he said. “I have no idea. But it hasn’t really done anything, so I just sold it because I got bored of looking at it. And I’m short PKTR. I don’t know what that is, either, but it just started moving again.”
He trades like a banshee, making as many as 50 trades a day. As a momentum trader, he’s a natural.
“I just figured when I grow up I need a job, you know?” he said. “It seems pretty interesting. I’d trade for real if I could get some money together. But I don’t have any money to trade. That’s my problem.”
He wants someone to give him money, _money. He has a summer job-at the Broadway Mall in Hicksville, L.I., where he makes six bucks an hour. He was supposed to be at work on this particular afternoon, trying to persuade shoppers to fill out market research surveys. But it was a slow day at the mall, and he got a call telling him not to bother coming in. So he stayed home to mint his fantasy millions.
His father, an oral surgeon, is behind him all the way. He just persuaded his son to keep a notebook recording trades he would make if he had the money. In three weeks, he’s up 20 percent in the notebook. “That isn’t too bad,” he said. “But I don’t know-it’s not as good as I’m doing in [TheStreet.com] competition. I usually make like 10 or 15 percent a day.” The old man is boasting about his son to his neighbors and to his buddies at the Tam O’Shanter Golf Club in Glen Head, L.I. Now the golf buddies, many of whom are stock market professionals, are calling young Harris for stock tips. The kid is a star.
Last summer, he worked for Representative Rick Lazio of Long Island (“the nicest guy,” Harris said). But this summer, various Washington jobs fell through, and no one on Wall Street would take him. “I called all of them,” he said. “J.P. Morgan, Citibank, anyone I could think of. They said, ‘You’re 18?’ They laughed and hung up. I e-mailed them. They said, ‘Send us your résumé,’ and I’m like, ‘Yeah, I sat home and watched the stock market for a couple of weeks.'”
The only people he knows on Wall Street are friends he made years ago when he was playing “Magic: The Gathering,” the card game played by teenagers. Ranked in the top 20 worldwide, he traveled to tournaments and won some prize money. “A lot of my friends who were top-rated at Magic: The Gathering, they really became good at the stock market,” he said. “I know a lot of them who said, ‘Screw college,’ and just started working as floor traders and market makers and stuff, and they usually pull in pretty good numbers.”
He first learned to trade at Philips Academy_in_Andover,_Mass.,_the_boarding school that he graduated from in June. He said there were a half-dozen kids there who spent all of their free time trading stocks on computers in the school library. “They would just sit there at this one bank of computers and day trade all day,” he said. “They did pretty well actually. They built up big stakes. I learned a lot of stuff from them.”
But Mr. Kupperman didn’t do any trading himself. He didn’t have the cash. He didn’t really fit in, either. People made fun of his Long Island accent. “I wasn’t very impressed with Andover,” he said. “I hated the people there, every last one of them. They were all really pretentious. A lot of them_were_out_to_sabotage_each_other. Everyone wanted to go to Harvard. That was their one goal in life. I didn’t do too well there. I didn’t play any sports. I got a varsity letter in track, but I didn’t go to a single practice or meet. I don’t know how I got that. They just gave it to me.”
He got into Tulane University in New Orleans, and is headed there in the fall. Now he has just one month left in the last great summer, the summer before college. “Yeah, and I’m stuck on Long Island,” he said. “There’s nowhere to go. Me and my friends, we usually just get in a car and drive around from one side of the island to the other. We never end up doing anything useful. We just go to people’s houses, pick people up, drop them off. Nothing fun ever happens. Or we go to the city and go to clubs-comedy clubs.
Curses! Foiled Again!
“We’re gonna start doing nightclubs soon. But the bouncers get kind of cranky, because I’m only 18. I have a fake [photo] ID, but it doesn’t always work. I got it in Times Square. Twenty-five bucks. Right after I got it, I went next door to pick up a pint, and the guy looks at the ID, looks at me and says, ‘Look, you’re wearing the same shirt.’ I was like, ‘Shit.’ It hadn’t even occurred to me.”
He doesn’t smoke pot or cigarettes. He doesn’t have a girlfriend. He has seen American Pie twice and thinks it’s the best movie ever. He wants to make a lot of money, then go_into_politics._”You need money to get into politics,” he said. He’s a Republican-“probably.” He_thinks_he_might change his name someday. “Harris Kupperman: It’s not Americanized enough,” he said. He likes the name “John Wayne.”
These thoughts occurred to him as he sat in the gloom of the family den, trading stocks he knows nothing about. He poured himself a handful of Lucky Charms. “I go through a box of Lucky Charms every other day. Can’t be good for me. I was telling my friend last night: I think I’m gaining a bunch of weight, just sitting at home day trading. Until this summer I could eat a dozen doughnuts a day and never have a problem.”
He made another trade, bringing in some of the PKTR stock he’d been short, meaning he was giving up on his bet that the stock would go down. The stock started going down immediately. “Great,” he said. “Just lost a point on that. I’ve lost like $20,000 today.”
It was the middle of the day, in the middle of summer. The market was quiet. He was losing interest, losing ground.
“My little brother’s around here somewhere,” he said. “He wants me to play Stratego with him. If the market stays boring, I might just do that instead.”