PARIS (Reuters) - Mark Karpeles, CEO of failed bitcoin exchange Mt. Gox, was a bright child, but a poor student, a lousy communicator and “too conciliatory”, allowing others to take advantage of him, his mother Anne said in a telephone interview.
Speaking from her home in Switzerland last week, Anne, 57, said Karpeles was a “terrible” student, but was admitted to Mensa, a global society of those with a high IQ, as a teenager. He loved computing from a very early age.
Mt. Gox, at one point last year the world’s biggest exchange for the bitcoin digital currency, filed for bankruptcy protection in Japan in late February, blaming hacking of its computer system for the loss of bitcoins worth more than $450 million at today’s rates.
Recalling Karpeles’ early days in Dijon in the Burgundy region of France, his mother said: “Difficult, never. Too conciliatory for a few things. Someone who is extremely nice and who has a tendency to let himself get taken for a ride by others. People who took advantage of him, who asked him to do their homework.”
“He was a terrible student. Terrible. Most subjects didn’t interest him. He took a Mensa test, passed it and was admitted into Mensa ... during his teenage years. Prodigies understand things straight away, but you don’t learn without repetition, without exercises. But that he didn’t understand,” she said.
Mensa didn’t respond to Reuters requests for confirmation of Karpeles’ membership.
Slipping between calling her son Mark, and his family name of Robert, Anne recalled his difficult childhood, saying she herself came from a family she described as “vertical”.
“My grandmother lived alone, my mother lived alone and I lived alone. My son was born into a single-parent home. My mother was someone who was pretty harsh and difficult ... for all sorts of reasons,” she said.
A young Karpeles was shuffled from school to school. At one, Anne said, “he had big problems with the teacher. Robert didn’t get along with her at all.”
“I tried to do as best I could my job as a mother. I tried to open the most doors I could for him, introducing him to drawing, music, cookery, sewing and also computing, because I love computing.”
“Computing was his thing. We began programming in BASIC on our little Sinclair (computer). This was around when he was 5 or 6. He loved it,” she said.
“He didn’t go to university. He failed badly in his second-last year of high school and decided to quit. I told him that if he was going to do that he should become a plumber, so he got an electrician’s diploma. Then one day, I saw him walking around with a huge book, called “PHP”. He told me he had become a doctor in PHP,” a computer programming language.
After a brief, unsuccessful attempt to set up a server company in Israel - “the electricity grid was bombed and the power was out for days,” she recalled - Karpeles joined a software distribution firm called Nexway, was promoted and, in 2009, was offered a post in Japan.
“For him, it was the doorway to his dream, he adored Japan. When he was young and we were living in Paris we went regularly to exhibitions at the Japanese Cultural Center. He learned business Japanese before leaving.”
As mother and son drifted apart, Karpeles married without telling her and only let her know she was a grandmother after his son was born.
“(Mark’s) communication at a personal level is catastrophic. It’s always been difficult to get him to speak. We tried to get him to be more extrovert ... Sometimes I wonder whether it’s not some kind of trauma linked to my mother. I had the same problem when I was younger.”
“There have been psychological profiles of Mark ... when he was admitted to Mensa. Prodigy, that was clear. Sometimes his problems communicating were recognized and other times not, depending on the profiler,” she recalled.
The first Anne heard of the blowout at Mt. Gox was when a local reporter telephoned her. “I didn’t even know Mark was the boss,” she recalled. “I had to look it up on Wikipedia.”
“As I understand it, he was hacked. All the accounts were emptied. He’s in a situation like a bank director who’s suffered a hold-up.”
Mt. Gox now faces liquidation after a Tokyo court last week dismissed the company’s bid to resuscitate its business, and the court-appointed administrator said Karpeles is likely to be investigated for liability in the exchange’s collapse. Bitcoin investors in the United States have launched a class action lawsuit alleging possible fraud by Mt. Gox insiders, including Karpeles.
“I don’t understand (the fraud accusations). I would never say it’s unthinkable, but Mark is my son, and my job as a mother is to do what I can for my son. That said, if genuinely there was dishonesty, I will not cover for him.”
“That would shock me though because I’ve never seen him do anything dishonest. He has sometimes trusted in people who were dishonest.”
Asked about Karpeles’ own admission in a 2006 blog post that he had two computer fraud-related convictions before he was 21, she said: “No, no, I don’t think there was ever any conviction. I don’t know. There are maybe things he hid from me.”
Anne visited Karpeles in Japan, her first trip there, for 10 days from late-November last year, meeting his Japanese wife and their 2-year-old son Pierre.
“(The wife) has gone to Canada to live ... that didn’t really help Mark, with all that’s happening,” Anne said, though she said she has more contact today with the wife than she does with her son.
As the situation at Mt. Gox unraveled in early December, she recalled how Karpeles battled to counter a hacking attack on the exchange. “He had to create a program to fight the hack, and he succeeded. He spent practically all night at work.”
“I could have fired a cannon next to him and he wouldn’t have noticed. He was so serious, concentrated - unlike when he was a boy,” she said.
Editing by Ian Geoghegan