The Player of Games by Iain M Banks

You are playing a game. In adjournment you are offered a cast iron safe opportunity to cheat. It won’t affect the outcome of the game, you are going to win anyway. But it may change how you win. So what do you do?

The world is divided into two. Game players. Those who are not. If you are the latter, you won’t have a clue, not the least understanding of what it is to be the former. I mean, huh? You are going to win anyway, so what the fuck? Cheat? Weird.

This book is a fabulous depiction of a player of games. We start off with the ennui of having no challenge, of being the best. See, right there, something which might surprise you is revealed. Is it good being best, something you wake up to with a buzz every day? Not in the least. You have nothing more to do, you can’t even get better. It is why so many top sportsmen have a goal which is always out of reach, just one, while all the others might have been conquered a thousand times. But the one that always eludes them, it is that which keeps their psyche intact.

It’s good to win, bad to lose, right? Well, no. that’s not necessarily so. Gurgeh finds himself in this position. A physical challenge is offered during a game, which he must accept. The sexual parts of the loser will be removed. For his opponent this will be devastating, permanent mutilation. His, on the other hand, will grow back again. It’s not necessarily good to win. How many times have I experienced this. You play a friend, a lover, a sibling. You know what it means to them. You know how losing hurts. That should make you more inclined to win and yet.

Game over, you’ve won, that’s good. The victory was easy, even better. But it is the journey. Gurgeh is gutted more than once when his opponent capitulates. The journey is everything, the arrival is neither here nor there. To have it easy is to be robbed.

And yet…losing is pain. Winning is not pain. Playing is a paradox, both winning and losing can be hard to take.

There are two types of people in the world. The game players who give all of themselves and the ones who do not. For the former the game is real life, and real life the game. Life is nothing but a facilitator of the playing of the game. It has no instrinsic separate purpose. Anything Gurgeh does or does not do is to better his playing. When it becomes necessary, it is this that permits him to win the game that means his opponent will have his sexual organs removed. Real life takes what was the angst away from his decision.

I ask you again, do you cheat? And if so when and why? I know players who would not dream of cheating in the game, but in real life? What’s real life? I’ve played often enough with thieves to understand what is the difference for them. But not for a moment would I expect to be robbed.

Gurgeh cheats. The ethic not to is strongly ingrained, but a drone offers him something even more important than winning: to win in a perfect way that has never been done before. And the ethic of the aesthetic is strong indeed. In the real world we have the story of Alekhine faking a famously beautiful game. Gurgeh is the master playing a young girl. He is going to win for sure. It is this very fact that makes it possible in the end for him to countenance the drone’s corruption of him. He accepts information and acts on it. He wins, but the perfect-never-done-before-way eludes him. And thus he experiences the sour, so very bitter taste that victory can have.

I think long and hard about cheating. How close have I come, how often? You are playing chess, as you touch a piece you are going to move, you realise it is wrong. Swiftly the words ‘j’adoube’ come out of your mouth. You are playing bridge and it is impossible not to face different sorts of cheating all the time. Do you succumb? How? In the bottom of your heart do you think that if you do moral things this neutralises the things you do that are not? Have you made this decision and then locked it away so that your psyche has no qualms? You genuinely believe that you aren’t cheating when you are?

But, then, the book is this. It is an adventure story which fails at no hurdle. It is utterly believable, wildly exciting, entertaining. I’m dying to see the movie. Honestly, you won’t even notice it’s about games unless you want to. I forced myself to read it more slowly than I wanted to. For me that’s the ultimate compliment.

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3 thoughts on “The Player of Games by Iain M Banks

    • Hello Tuck 🙂 Indeed I am here. And about to join in the great current GR controversy….just finishing my contribution!

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