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The Ballad of a Small Player

by Lawrence Osborne

The Ballad of a Small Player
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  • First Published:
    Apr 2014, 272 pages
    Jan 2015, 272 pages

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Elena Spagnolie

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Bonnie Brody (04/06/14)

Osborne Knows Well the Emotional Realm of the Gambling Addict
Lord Doyle isn't really a Lord though he is called Lord Doyle in Macau. He is a crooked lawyer from England who has transplanted himself to Macau in order to gamble away the money that he has embezzled from an elderly English client. Macau is west of Hong Kong, in Mainland China, and this is where Doyle plays his game of choice, Baccarat. For most of the book, he plays in a casino called Lisboa but he travels to other casinos in Hong Kong from time to time. He is nonchalant about the game whether he wins or loses, and, as with most gambling addicts, his luck goes up and down.

Baccarat is a quick card game and a dangerous one. "It is hard for the house to cheat at baccarat, and there is a satisfying instant gratification to its simplicity and relative speed. It kills you quickly." One can see from this quote that there is an element of the masochistic to Doyle's gambling. It is usually a very high stakes game. "When you play it your heart is in your mouth." "That's what I like about it. There's no lingering illusion. Death by guillotine."

Osborne well knows the thinking and emotional realm of the gambling addict. "One is never far enough ahead to quit." There is an obsession, a compulsion to keep on with the playing until the last bit of money is lost. Sleep is foregone, as is often food and relationships. All that exists for the gambler is the bet. As a clinical social worker, I am well aware that the highest rate of suicide for all addictions is that of the gambler. Doyle, in this novel, comes close to suicide on more than one occasion.

Doyle meets a Chinese prostitute names Dao-Ming in Macau when he is down on his luck. She takes him to her home and helps him to recuperate from his losses, his poor health and his days of not sleeping. To repay her, he steals her money. To be fair, however, he is smitten with her. Gambling just does not give him time to look her up.

The book is very depressing. We see gamblers all begging each other for loans which one knows will never be repaid. "We all had a scheme and the pity of it was that none of us knew what the scheme was." Lady luck just can't be beaten no matter how much magical thinking is used. Doyle likes to pick a certain room to gamble in and wear yellow gloves when he plays baccarat. This is not uncommon with gamblers. They all have a shtick that they believe will bring them good luck.

The book is seriously depressing. Watching an addict go deeper into their addiction is a ride through hell and this book reminded me of the movie, Leaving Las Vegas. No matter how much money Doyle wins, it isn't enough. "The reality was that the more money I made, the more trapped I felt. Should I play on and on until doomsday, until I started losing again and balance was restored? This is how a hardened gambler would think. It doesn't matter to him, because what matters is the roller coaster, the wind in his hair, the thrill. He plays until he runs out of money."
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