The titular “small player” of Osborne’s (The Forgiven, 2012, etc.) new novel gambles at the casinos in and around Macau—and exclusively plays the high stakes game of baccarat.
Doyle, our narrator and frequently known as “Lord Doyle”—especially when he’s coming off a winning streak—has attained his money dubiously; he’s an English lawyer who embezzled a pile of cash from a vulnerable and trusting older woman. Doyle doesn’t dwell on this part of his past, however, instead fixating on the smoky rooms and betting parlors of Macau, where he’s surrounded by other equally obsessed gamblers. We meet an intimidating woman known as “Grandma,” who every night drops thousands of Hong Kong dollars to get revenge on her philandering husband. Doyle’s most important connection is to Dao-Ming, a call girl with a proverbial heart of gold, the only truly human relationship Doyle is able to establish. His preoccupation—and at times his obsession—is the game of baccarat. We learn that each hand is inherently short, and the drama emerges from the enormous sums won and lost on the turn of a card. We witness Doyle’s status change radically from loser to winner; since a “natural nine” is the best possible hand in baccarat, Doyle becomes something of a celebrity when he starts putting together hand after hand of these nines—and the proprietors of the casinos develop an understandable interest in this increase in his “luck.” With his fortune mounting, Doyle plays one final hand—and decides to bet everything on the outcome.
Osborne masterfully recreates the atmosphere of casinos as well as the psychology of baccarat players—and leaves readers eager to try their luck at the game.