I've been rereading my Culture books since Xmas.
I reread Player of Games first. Interesting book, one of the more original of the set. Some spoilers ahead...
I love how the playing of the game itself is detailed... if Banks had gotten into the nitty gritty of "I moved this piece then he moved that piece then..." it would be absurdly over the top of course, but he avoids that. Yet he does describe the strategy of the games, the approaches the different players are using, etc, and it means that even though the book goes into detail on five or six games (I forget exactly), every one of them comes across as fresh and interesting - especially the last one, of course!
I notice the Culture itself isn't really detailed much here. We learn about it, see an orbital and a ship and a Mind is one of the characters and all, but it's all there without really being explored greatly. So while the ship's Mind is a character, and it is made out to be beyond human in intelligence, it's not really depicted as the near godlike intellect that Minds would be in other books. It makes me wonder just how clear an idea of the Culture Banks had back then.
I love the alien Empire, too. Thoroughly nasty; essentially an example of an especially bad and brutal medieval dictatorship transplanted into an interstellar setting. And I like how Banks commented about how such power structures very rarely survive that long, and uses the game itself as the reason why this one has. By making the game such an inherent part of the culture it made it seem more believable that it would be so important that Gurgeh lose, and builds a real sense of the alien's desperation when he keeps winning. By doing what he's doing he isn't just embarrassing them, he's destroying the very foundation of their entire society.
I wish we'd gotten more of a discussion of Special Circumstances' thinking at the end, though. They do bend the rules, but blackmailing a Culture citizen so comprehensively, it just seems a little beyond the pale. SC has often shown willing to do nasty things in other books, but I'm not sure I ever recall them taking such direct action against one of their own citizens before, they only seem to act against alien civilisations.
Anyway, great book and a good start to the Culture. Consider Phlebas next!
Give a man a fire, and you keep him warm for a day. SET a man on fire, and you will keep him warm for the rest of his life...