The Ballad of a Small Player, by Lawrence Osborne

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The best game-playing scenes I’ve come across in any book are the chess matches in the fantastic The Queen’s Gambit by Walter Tevis. I just finished reading Lawrence Osborne’s The Ballad of a Small Player, and I’d have to put his baccarat scenes right up there.

Ballad of a Small Player, which came out in paperback a few weeks ago, tells the story of a dissolute gambler who has absconded from London to Macau. He is an estate lawyer, and the source of his fortune is a wealthy, doddering widow whose accounts he has cleaned out. Though he is no aristocrat, he is known in the Macau gaming houses as “Lord Doyle,” because he has told casino people that’s who he is.

If Lord Doyle has behaved dishonorably, he assures us it is all okay—the widow’s fortune comes from her husband’s mining company, and we all know what awful business that mining is. Also, Lord Doyle hates himself before anyone else has a chance to, and he attacks the tables as the embodiment of the old saw about compulsive gamblers, which is that they really want to lose.

The deepening recklessness of Lord Doyle is what makes his baccarat-playing so fascinating. The games become a vicarious ride down the tubes. He is going to press his luck until it turns against him. Baccarat is the perfect game for him—all luck, no illusion of skill, deeply passive, except for the act of placing your bet. To play is an act of surrendering.

This entertaining book has much else going for it, including a knowing tour of Macau’s tawdry side and a fine meditation on whether Lord Doyle’s fate is a matter of mathematics, or if there are more spiritual forces at work on his fate, and in the universe. There’s an incredible scene in which, nearly broke, Lord Doyle goes to a fancy hotel restaurant and turns ordering breakfast into yet another step in his self-destruction.

Lord Doyle is versatile that way. He can ruin himself at the dining room table or the baccarat table. Fun, fascinating book.

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