Book: The Ballad of a Small Player by Lawrence Osborne
Macau is a different place than it was on that rainy day when Ken and I visited thirteen years ago. Then it had just been reacquisitioned by the Chinese from the Portuguese who had held it as a remnant of their once far–flung empire for many years. Thanks to the Portuguese, Macau had a colorful and charming old town and restaurants with wonderfully different food. Those feature are glimpsed in the book The Ballad of a Small Player, which is about the best literary guide you’re going to find to the sometimes seamy island as it looks today.
A ferry ride away from China, Macau always promised the thrill of something slightly illicit with its old casinos and the free-flowing Portugese attitude in contrast to the buttoned up Englishness of Hong Kong. When my brother was stationed in Vietnam during that war, servicemen were warned not to go to Macau, so of course he went. By the time we got there, the island had tamed, and drew crowds of fanny-pack wearing middle American tourists as well as Chinese gamblers.
I have mixed feelings about the new Macau. Las Vegas casino owners and other developers have moved in and crowded the island with a mass of glitzy gambling houses. The narrator of The Ballad of the Small Player, calls himself Lord Doyle, although he is merely a British lawyer on the run from his shady dealings back home. Through him, author Lawrence Osborne introduces us to casino after casino, explains the rules of the high roller games like punto blanco baccarat, and sheds light on what it is like to be a compulsive gambler–in love with losing.
Lord Doyle tells the story of how he started gambling to a prostitute with whom he has a relationship.. “It became a secret hobby, as it often does.” He goes from a French casino to gambling on line, then going to Birmingham every weekend
I became good at everything I played, though that did not mean I won consistently. What I discovered was a taste for losing. I understood in some way that playing something well and losing at it had something to do with playing it over the long haul. But I didn’t care and I dare say no player does.
The author delivers the descriptions of the casinos with a sharp eye and the disdainful humor they deserve. He visits the Grand Emperor, “with a gilded replica of the British royal state carriage outside it and Beefeaters in fur hats filling a vestibule of cretinous gilt.”
I stopped and swung myself around and through the doors that were opened for me, and into a cool imitation of some Hans Christian Andersen fairy palace imagined by a small child with a high fever who has seen many a picture of Cindrella.
With his gift for this kind of incisive establishment of place, it is not terribly surprising to learn that Osborne is also an award-winning travel writer.
Osborne takes up where Graham Greene left off (minus the Catholicism) in exploring the morals of wanderers between societies, and the disdain of one culture for another–particularly the British and the Oriental. This looks like a small book–257 pages–but it is densely packed with ideas that make you slow down and pay attention. Osborne does not just describe what you learn with your senses, but also what you learn through contemplation.
Lord Doyle spends quite a bit of time in the Wynn casino, the Venetian Macau, touted as the largest casino in the world. There he thinks about the difference between the original Chinese establishments and the American transplants.
These Vegas establishments are the very opposite of their Chinese counterparts , which at least have retained the louche tolerance of ages past. The Vegas casinos are clean and overblown, with palatial dimensions and vacuumed carpets. They are as family-clean and bright as their originals in the Nevada desert, and in them the insalubrious aspects of gambling are out to the back of one’s mind.
The novel kept me wondering, and therefore turning pages to find out–would he win or would he lose? And what did those words mean anyhow? The questions stay in the mind once you have closed the book.