I have a gambling problem.

Actually, that’s not quite true. I have a gaming problem. I used to game a lot in the 90s and early 2000s, mostly first person shooters, and I could easily spend eight or ten hours a day in front of the computer, blowing away zombies or aliens or robots or all manner of bad guys.

Part of the thrill, for me, of a game was learning the system. If you’ve ever gamed, you’ll know what I mean. Those awkward early days when you can’t remember quite where all the keyboard shortcuts are gradually give way to a kind of learned muscle-memory. You reach a state where, no matter how many perils you’re facing in the game, no matter how bad things are, you don’t have to think to select the right weapon or the right option. You gain facility.

You also learn how to deal with adversaries. You learn their behaviours, their weaknesses. Early on in the game you might get wiped out by something which, later on, you can schmeiss without even thinking too much. You learn the game, its little tweaks and angles. It’s part of the allure of the game.

There’s an element of that in Ian Little’s novel Luckbox. A big element. His protagonist, Martin, is an IT consultant. Well-off, successful, bored. One day he decides to explore the world of online poker, and his life changes completely.

I don’t know anything about online poker, but either Little is intimately familiar with it, has done an enormous amount of research, or has created, from the floor up, an incredibly detailed world of online gambling. The book introduces Martin – and us – to a huge amount of jargon, and as Martin learns and his obsession grows, so we learn too. We find our way into this world, we gain facility with it, as Martin does. And then the book pulls the rug out from under us.

Luckbox is one of Ian Little’s Dedbridge stories, set in a fictitious town somewhere in the commuter belt to the east of London. The writing is sharp and satirical; it acknowledges that, most of the time, most of us are struggling just to keep going, that the image of competence and success we present to the world is, in many cases, a fiction, something we do because without it we would just go under.

The novel builds up quite a considerable head of steam as Martin progresses through the ranks of online poker, and the final confrontation with his nemesis, the celebrity chef Gary Pansey, is a genuine cliffhanger. We find ourselves rooting for Martin even though he’s not actually a very nice man, even though he has made a number of very poor decisions already, even as we watch him doing several incredibly stupid things. We want him to succeed because we’ve learned with him. We want him to master the game on our behalf.

One aspect of gambling, and indeed gaming, is the urge not to lose. Little understands this very well, understands how ruinous it can be. He understands the need to play one last hand, one last level, to end a session on a high note. That was my problem with gaming and gambling. I hated to be beaten. I haven’t gambled in over thirty years now; I could quite happily walk through any casino in Vegas and not feel the urge to put on a bet. But if I put a single coin in a slot machine I would be there all day feeding the machine until I at least had broken even or I ran out of cash. Not so much to get my money back as to get the sense that I hadn’t lost.

This is a very good book. And I’m not just saying that because I did a bit of editing on it. It really is good. It’s funny and sad and in places it’s rather wise. It understands people, and it understands that the world is not a game and that, no matter how hard we try, we can never fully learn the System.

You ought to read it, and you can buy it here.


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