"I didn't worry about the fact that nobody liked me in high school. I was aware of it, but my attitude was 'It doesn't matter if anybody likes me because I'm smarter than they are.'"
Albie Slawsky was smarter than most of us at Bethesda's Walter Johnson High School in the middle 1960s. While others struggled with algebra and chemistry, Albie yawned through trigonometry and physics. When few of us knew what a computer was, Albie used a terminal in the physics lab to handicap local horse races.
Statistically speaking, he may not have been the smartest of the almost 600 students in the Class of 1967; after all, a couple of his classmates received perfect scores of 800 on both the verbal and math portions of their Scholastic Aptitude Tests while Albie, who did receive 800 in math, only managed a 785 in verbal. But, then again, Albie was two years younger than his peers. When he left Georgetown Day School to begin 10th grade at Walter Johnson, Albie was a rolypoly 5-foot- 4-inch 13-year-old.
Academically, for Albie, the following three years were a piece of cake.
"I had, with the exception of mechanical drawing in the 10th grade which I hooked, nothing but As," he recalls. "I viewed Walter Johnson from about the second day I was there as a fantastic institution for producing mediocre individuals. Which meant that if you were exceptional, you were not really welcome."
Albie cultivated a few friends, mostly fellow straight-A students who could keep up with his seemingly unquenchable appetite for information; he could be cocky and impatient with slower-witted students. He was sarcastic in what he would later realize was a defensive way, and he looked like a bowling ball rolling down the school's wide hallways, with his round body and dark hair and big-framed black glasses. While his social life was non-existent because he was too young to date girls in his class, he was envied by other boys because his parents allowed him to subscribe to Playboy magazine.
Schoolwork required little of Albie's attention, so he had plenty of time to star on the school's championship "It's Academic" team for two years, edit the literary magazine, argue for the debate club and win trophies for the math team. And in the autumn of 1967, when he entered an honors program at the University of Michigan as the youngest student in his class, 16-year-old Albie seemed the kind of academic overachiever who grows up to win Nobel prizes in science.
It is now 15 years later, and Slawsky has not won a Nobel.
I found Albert Slawsky -- only his family and old school friends still call him "Albie" -- working the phone as a stockbroker on the 34th floor of the Wall Street headquarters of Merrill Lynch Pierce Fenner & Smith Inc. A computer terminal on his desk flashed news about the Pacific Stock Exchange, and at the front of the room he shares with a dozen other brokers, green symbols moved across an electronic stock price quotation board.
His curly hair was laced with gray, and Slawsky looked dapper in a three- piece dark suit and a dark tie decorated with a tasteful pattern of white dots. He was still round and short, but the face that in high school had been as smooth as a peach was now creased with scars from what had obviously been a brutal bout with acne. He still had a sarcastic, impish air about him, but it seemed tinged with warmth and maturity. When he began talking, I noticed the unusual cadence of his voice unchanged since his youth: sometimes Slawsky talks so fast that he runs the middle three or four words in a sentence together, an impatient kind of verbal shorthand that can make him difficult to understand.
"I have a hell of a time with him on that, too," his father said when I asked him about it. "It's partly connected to the way he thinks."
When Albie Slawsky was born in Washington in the spring of 1951, his physicist father, Zaka, headed a branch of the Naval Ordnance Laboratory that studied extreme high-speed gas dynamics, and he taught physics for the University of Maryland's off- campus graduate program. His wife, Dorothy, was a District of Columbia elementary school teacher. It was his parents' dedication to education that gave Albie, and, later, his younger brother, an academic head start.
"I didn't get married until I was 34," recalls Zaka Slawsky, "and I didn't have Albie until I was 40, because Dorothy and I didn't think we could have children. They were wanted very, very badly, and when they came along, I had great pleasure spending time with them." Young Albie and his father "played algebra" and made up number games using a deck of cards. Zaka Slawsky was startled every time his 3-year-old son corrected his mispronunciation during bedtime stories.
The Slawskys shopped carefully before deciding to send Albie to Georgetown Day School. There, where students called teachers by their first names and inquisitiveness was encouraged, Albie prospered. His father remembers Albie scoring over 185 on an IQ test, though his son only remembers that on most achievement tests, there was always a curve showing class scores. Up in the corner removed from the curve was usually a little dot; that was Albie's score.
"When I was in the sixth grade, my father gave me his high school algebra book," Albert Slawsky remembers, "and I did every problem. He believed that in order to excel in something, you have to drill. If you want to play center for the New York Knicks, you gotta be 6 feet, 7 inches, but you also have to stand there and shoot baskets all day. If you want to be real good at doing algebra, you've got to do lots of problems. He didn't pressure me. He said, 'If you want to excel, if you want to be the best, here's what you have to do.' And I always wanted to be the best. I could never be the center for the New York Knicks, so I had to be the smartest kid in the class."
And he was. Albie was so smart that Georgetown Day School, which in those days offered classes only up to the eighth grade, recommended that he skip ninth grade. One hurdle Albie had to surmount was a six-question algebra exam given by the head of Walter Johnson's math department. The teacher marked three of Albie's answers wrong. Later, at home, Albie reworked the problems and wrote a note to the teacher explaining why she was in error. Soon thereafter, 13-year-old Albie started high school.
He was accustomed to seeing only the first two letters of the alphabet atop his work, and he continued that record. But he also noticed that while everyone around him was growing taller and begining to date, he was still short and inexperienced with girls.
"Today, if I were sitting where my father was," Slawsky says, "I'd think much more seriously about the social aspects. My father was two years older than his peers when he went to high school because, though he was born in this country, he went to Russia at the age of 1 and came back at 11 speaking no English. He figured it was no good being two years behind, so being two years ahead must be better.
"I was alienated," he remembers. "Of course, everybody is alienated in high school, but I didn't turn 16 until the end of my senior year, so I never drove a car. I never dated. I was kind of a tag-along. I had a chip on my shoulder; I was intolerant of people. I remember my 16th birthday party, a surprise party. I remember being . . . deeply . .. touched."
In his second month as the youngest student at the University of Michigan, Albie Slawsky got acne. Not the usual adolescent kind, but cystic acne, a bacterial form that produced boils. It changed his life.
He became nocturnal so fewer students would see him. He didn't go to class, not even to take tests. His g himrades plummeted and a tentative relationship with one particular woman died on the vine.
"I remember talking to people who'd be in my room," Slawsky says, "and I remember hiding my face. I'd lie on my bed and have my head under the pillows so people couldn't see me."
His sophomore year was a disaster; out of a possible 4.0, he earned a .8 average. His father would later say, "I don't know how he took it." Doctors worked for two years to stop the acne, and Slawsky eventually underwent five operations to minimize the cosmetic damage.
It was as if God had decided to bring Albie Slawsky down to size. Slawsky can't say how his life might have turned out differently, but he knows his perception of the world changed.
"Academics weren't the issue anymore," he says. "My sophomore year had eliminated me in terms of being an academic star. That became no longer important to me."
He lost his cockiness, and, in his last two years at Michigan, developed close friends and did well in his major, physics. In a departure from family tradition, he did not go to graduate school.
"My father," says Slawsky with a laugh, "used to joke that I could do anything I wanted, provided I got my basic education first--basic education being a PhD."
He worked with a family friend in Manhattan, a real estate broker who converted rental buildings into condominiums. Slawsky earned $300 a week in the mid-'70s keeping his friend's paperwork in order. When the real estate market went soft, he began selling life insurance. He didn't do well selling, and his father urged him to consider law school.
"I wasn't going to admit I couldn't sell life insurance," Slawsky says, "but my father said, 'at least apply.' I procrastinated, and my father said, 'Look, send me the applications, sign them, and I'll fill them out.'"
That fall Slawsky began law school at Rutgers. Now, after two years in the "real world," Slawsky was no longer younger than his classmates. And he found law school suited him fine "because your entire grade depends on a final exam--you can be as irresponsible as you want during the semester and then get it together for finals."
As usual, school was easy. So easy that Slawsky began teaching a prep course in how to pass the law boards. (Naturally, he'd scored a perfect 800 on his.) Eventually, he took his notes from those courses and sold them as a book that was published in 1977. He graduated with his law degree in 1976 with a 3.4 average, a modest effort that kept with his new philosophy: "For me, the incremental work involved in getting a higher average was more than I was willing to invest."
Then, a floor broker at the New York Stock Exchange introduced him to Wall Street.
"I walked down to the stock exchange and realized I was in the world's greatest casino," remembers Slawsky. "And I realized that you don't have to be a player to make a lot of money in a casino -- stickmen get paid, too.
"I asked my friend how you know when a stock is selling too low or too high, and he said, 'When you've been here as long as I have, you have a feel for it.' I said, 'Feel? You give me a computer and some data and time and I'll develop a model that will do at least as good as your feel.' I then developed a simple model for the trading of stocks on a daily basis. Took me six weeks. I had 10 years of paper results. I convinced his firm to put up $50,000 in trading capital, and we traded for about 10 weeks in the summer of '74. We took 199 positions and made money on 151. We netted out before taxes about $3,000, which is about a 6 percent return in 10 weeks, which works out to about 30 percent a year, which isn't bad."
The experience fostered a fascination with the market, and today Slawsky earns about $50,000 a year in his second year as an options trader with Merrill Lynch. Because he knows selling is not his strong suit, Slawsky shares commissions with another broker; the "front man" brings the clients to Slawsky, who dazzles them with his grasp of the options market and invests their money.
He is dating a woman regularly and seems to have come to terms with his extraordinary mind.
"I used to have to prove I was younger and smarter," he says, "but now I've learned there is nothing to gain. I used to say it compensated for being short, but now I keep my cards back. I still know I look at things differently, I know it in a thousand different little ways. But I don't gain anything by showing someone else . . . If I know it, that's enough."
"I used to think I was a child prodigy in high school. Then I was a boy genius in my 20s. Now that I've turned 30, I'm a bright young man."