Mastermind room is a virtual meeting hall where strains of high-leveraged speculation are relieved.
Humor has its place in the Mastermind room, an exclusive virtual meeting hall for online traders, but the material is not exactly fodder for David
Letterman. The other day, some of the regulars were weighing a possible move on crude-oil futures. Delia Garcia-Celedon, who was at home in Bakersfield,
kept holding back, waiting for prices to hit her target zone. Marco Savdie, signed on in Miami, abruptly announced he was taking off.
"See ya!" he said.
"Huh? Where you going?" Garcia-Celedon demanded, thinking he was late for some personal appointment.
No, Savdie replied, springing the joke: He was going in, buying short in pursuit of a bold price target – $87.77. To his audience, a tight circle of traders
well familiar with the volatility of crude oil, the gambit was like a zinger from Chris Rock.
"We literally laughed for five or 10 minutes," Garcia-Celedon remembers. "It was hilarious."
The strains of day trading cry out for some type of release, whether through insider yuks or merely a chance to yak, but for many who trade from home the
financial markets are a lonely playground. Hard-core traders say they spend 10 or 12 hours a day – or more – in solitary confinement, analyzing charts and
placing and tracking orders. One form of relief is to join web-based networks where physical isolation becomes irrelevant. Within these cyber worlds, the
perils and quirks of the futures markets, the Dow Jones Industrials and the foreign currency exchange offer a foundation for strong friendships among
Forty-year-old Garcia-Celedon, who gave up a child-care business to become a full-time trader three months ago, is a part of one such network, a group known
as the Mastermind Community and established a year ago by the Irvine-based Online Trading Academy. Nearly 1,200 traders worldwide belong to the elite group,
sharing entre into daily online sessions where they can compare trading charts and tips and get special instruction not available to other students, says Steve
Albin, the academy's vice president of operations.
The Mastermind Community is like a country club, Albin says, and indeed membership is restricted to students who take a full slate of courses and pay a one-time
fee of $25,000. In return, they receive lifetime education in investing, plus unlimited access to the online meeting hall, where members communicate both by voice,
using headphones, and by instant message. On a typical trading day, 10 or 15 people sign on when the financial markets open in London – hours before dawn on the
West Coast – and the group swells to between 30 and 60 once the opening bell sounds on Wall Street, says program manager Joann Farley.
"We're in there every day, all day," says Garcia-Celedon, who sees a core group of 10 traders as an elemental part of her social life. "I don't have too many
friends outside of my house, mostly family. But these are my friends. You know how they say you're not in your true profession unless you're having fun? I never
knew what that meant before. Every day I go in there I feel like I'm playing."
Her online buddies include Savdie, the fun-loving Miami trader, as well as Paul Lacombe, a one-time computer executive who logs on from Candia, N.H.; Linda
Ballo, a former Olympic-trials swimmer living in Austin, Texas; a trader named Dave from Canada; traders in Australia and Hawaii; and a man from the San Francisco
Bay area who uses the moniker Cash McCall, after the character in the eponymous comedy film starring James Garner.
"At 10 at night, Marco (Savdie) will text me and say, 'Are you in the room? You want to do forex?'" Garcia-Celedon says, employing shorthand for the foreign
currency exchange. "And we'll go do forex."
The shared experience is a fast way to learn and a new social frontier, says Ballo, the 54-year-old former backstroke swimmer from Austin. "Fortunately, I've
locked into a group of people who are fabulous," she says.
"This is something I just love. Marco and I were in the room starting at 2 o'clock this morning – and we're still (there)," Ballo says near the end of a 15-hour
session. "We get up early, work on our charts, and try to be prepared for the London opening. It's a lot of fun."
Savdie, whose real first name is Marc, is a 43-year-old skydiver, mountain biker and ocean swimmer who started buying stocks while in college, before
launching a short career as a mechanical engineer for Boeing. He likes to trade crude-oil futures and the more predictable Australian dollar. "If the Euro and
the markets are going up, about 70 percent of the time the Australian dollar is going to follow," he says. "It doesn't have a mind of its own like crude oil."
Blunt about the risks, Savdie says, "90 percent of the people don't make money in this business," and labels himself profitable but still looking to improve.
Out of 16 friends who began trading together a dozen years ago, he is the only one left. "It's a very long learning curve," Savdie says. "Everybody has losses.
Everybody has bad days. Everybody has bad weeks."
But he perseveres, deriving more thrills from trading, it seems, than from skydiving. "For the past few months, I've been spending 12 to 15 hours a day at it,
and I'm not exaggerating," Savdie says.
His social life? "Right now, this has become my social life. A bunch of us have become really good friends. We're all hanging out in (the room) and talking
about our trades and setups – combining our strategies and approaches. Fine-tuning each other's game plans."
Savdie is helping Lacombe, the 56-year-old former tech executive from New Hampshire, build a computer from scratch, and they are teaching each other to master
the dicey realm of crude oil. Every financial market – futures, currencies, the Nasdaq, the S&P 500 – has its own characteristics, requiring sophisticated decisions
about where to buy in, Lacombe says.
Collaborating on complex issues is one thing he missed after being laid off from his tech job three years ago, when the work was transferred overseas.
"The more sets of eyes you have on anything you're working on, the better," he says. "You may see one thing; the others may see something else. You put it
all together, review it, filter it and come up with something pretty refined."
The online meeting space enables traders to watch other members or instructors trade in real time and even vote on which tactics work best. Members can create
rooms within the room, sealing off areas for private conversations. Garcia-Celedon gives demonstrations even though she is not a paid teacher, attracting followers
because of her reputation for making money.
The rush of winning, coupled with the camaraderie of a like-minded group, can pose a danger to some traders, says Christopher Sullivan, a therapist who specializes
in gambling addiction. Scoring a windfall on a trade is comparable to hitting a jackpot at the slots; many traders also gamble on the side, he says. The excitement
and challenge appeal to the same personality types.
While some traders do very well, others feel compelled to chase the high of a win no matter what, or to keep trading until they earn back money they have lost.
For the latter group, day trading "becomes a slippery slope" into possible addiction, Sullivan says.
"It's like Kenny Rogers said, "You've got to know when to hold 'em and know when to fold 'em,'" the therapist says. Exercising restraint may prove especially
difficult when peer pressures of a tightly entwined group come to bear.
The mind-set becomes, "Now I've got to keep up with old Jim over there – he picked a really good stock and made money on it," Sullivan says. "It's about
competition." People don't want to admit that they are failing and losing money. "It becomes a case of one-upsmanship. That's when it gets really dangerous."
To help protect its students and graduate members, Online Trading Academy constantly emphasizes ways of preventing big losses – chief among them the use of
stop orders to dump stocks moving in the wrong direction, says Eyal Shahar, founder and president of the school.
"The whole focus of what we do is risk management," Shahar says. "Look, not everybody is successful, but we do our darnedest to help everybody who comes into
our path. I can't allow us to stop helping the vast majority of people because of a percentage who will not be successful."
Garcia-Celedon points out that she and other students are taught to set strict limits on what they will risk. At first, her tolerance was very small: No
trade could exceed half of 1 percent of her funds. Now, with more experience, she allows herself 2 percent and generally will stop trading if she is down more
than $1,000 in any single day.
Members of the Mastermind Community who reach their risk limits can remain in the room and trade on a simulator without further endangering their capital.
"That's what (the school) teaches you – when to get in and when to get out," she says.
She and most of her trading friends know each other only in cyber-space, but that may change soon.
"Next year, we all want to meet up," Garcia-Celedon says. "We're trying to pick a place. Some people want to go to Bermuda."
Already, three members of the circle flew to New York City to hang out together. Garcia-Celedon laughs. "Now that they're making money, it's like, 'Hey, let's
meet up in New York!'"