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Tales from the pit: A woman trader's story

''Leg the Spread" is a kind book about a cruel world.

If you're a woman, Cari Lynn's salty memoir will hearten you, though it might not sway you to enter the futures trading field. If you're a man, it will embarrass you; most of the men here are pigs. If you're greedy, it might empower you regardless of your gender because the money can be unbelievable.

''Might" is the operative word, because there's an enormous emotional downside, Lynn suggests. Besides, money is joltingly easy come, easy go at the Chicago Board of Trade and the Chicago Mercantile Exchange.

Lynn's first book explores those legendary arenas where commodities, utilities, and currencies flow across the market, driving the public to distraction and traders to a perpetual feeding frenzy. Intrigued by her friend Tara Kim's ambivalent dabbling in futures trading, Chicago native Lynn decided she'd try her hand at the Board of Trade.

Making money a few hours a day, she figured, would finance her burgeoning career as a writer. This book is the result. It strongly suggests Lynn will be a writer, not a trader.

''If stock trading is table wine, Futures trading is moonshine," Lynn writes. The title refers to protecting your position, buying to acquire one ''leg" and selling for another. Advancing your position while accomplishing both is legging the spread.

Trading is not a very feminine occupation, largely because men, like the ''Pit Viper," who bit, gouged, and elbowed his way across the floor to collect customers' orders, and the older, wealthy traders who draw young women to Chicago's ''Viagra Triangle," underline the emptiness at the core of the Merc, where most of this book's action takes place.

Still, there are exceptions, like Bev Gelman, whose volume on any given day is $100 billion, and Alice Kelley, a second-generation trader who becomes one of Lynn's close friends. Where Gelman is icy, decisive, and high profile, the enigmatic and brilliant Kelley is more philosophical.

This book is long on financial detail. It will teach you the different kinds of trades and guide you through the markets. But its psychological portraits are more interesting and telling.

Although Lynn devotes most of her good will to the female traders, her sketches of their male counterparts, while more cutting, can be affectionate.

Romey, a black broker (rare at the Merc), prides himself on teaching clerks to compete. Lynn likes him. ''The bottom line on being a good clerk," Romey tells her, ''is to do volume without making mistakes. If I can do 50 orders and not make any errors, while this guy can only do 20, well then, I'm the baddest dude in town."

Sensitivity training can be challenging in an atmosphere of rampant sexism, however. The put-downs are endless, the profanity endemic, the ambience barnyard: ''Some subscribed to the mentality that the more offensive you were -- in particular reference to body odor -- the less you would be bothered in the pit, the more space you might be granted, and the more likely it might be for you to get a trade just to get you to shut your mouth or move a few inches back," Lynn writes.

Working in futures sounds like hell, Lynn suggests. Nevertheless, it won her friends and a promising literary career. Research should always be so profitable.

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