As I read the summary, I was not surprised by the reviewer's aside:
The hero is a spy (of sorts), who investigates a hostile alien culture by posing as a master gamesman. Simply by playing the local variation of chess, he explores about the alien society, mingles with its luminaries and, ultimately, learns their strengths and weaknesses. (If this is all sounding very familiar, it is because Iain M. Banks wrote essentially the same story 25 years later.)
I think I read that story. The big gaming sequence in "Consider Phlebas," a sprawling mess of a book that's one of the best pieces of Sci-fi I ever read.