The Player

John Appel

The Netherlands, 2009, 85 min.

SYNOPSIS: The film is a son’s personal quest to find his father and an in-depth investigation into the soul of a true gambler: a search for the universal tragedy inherent in chronic risk-taking and the real-life contrast between tension and ecstasy on the one hand, and pain and loneliness on the other. The director focuses on three gamblers: a bookie, a poker player and a rouletteaddicted criminal who know all about winning and losing. In this way, he delves artistically into the mysterious mind of his father, who was not just a gambler, but a player of life too.


“Upon zero, upon zero! Again upon zero! Stake as much as ever you can…We shall not miss them, so stake twenty pieces at a time… … I know perfectly well what I am doing.” 1)Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Gambler, Dover Publications, Inc, New York, p. 60.

The Player begins with a letter Appel received from his father while living in Amsterdam as a student. His father tells him he has found just the thing for winning at roulette. Non-players know fine well that such a thing does not exist; but isn’t every gambler secretly searching for the golden formula?

In The Player, Appel portrays three gamblers: the Bookmaker, the Swindler and the Poker Player, and interweaves their stories with his father’s. Initially a playful dad, always full of tricks, he becomes an incessant gambler, risking his car, his business, and eventually his fortune, and losing it all. The three interviewees are similarly fixated by their ‘jobs’.

Of course, an obvious frame of reference for this film is Dostoyevsky’s famous classic The Gambler (1866), and there are clearly parallels between the two. Both are ensemble plays in which various characters display different aspects of the player/gambler persona. In Appel Snr’s story, characteristics of all three of the interviewees are discernable. He shares the sense of humour and bravado of the Bookmaker, who always has a joke or a funny anecdote up his sleeve. We see attempted deception by the Swindler, who admits that money easily made is also money easily spent. In the Poker Player, we see the love of the casino, which finally ruined him – and a fitting description of the casino as a timeless place in a void, cut off from the rest of the world.

In addition, Appel Snr and Alexey Ivanovitch – the main character in Dostoyevsky’s The Gambler –  follow a similar course of events. It starts with gambling tricks, of the innocent ‘daredevil’ variety. Appel illustrates the playfulness of his father with brilliant anecdotes throughout the film. One such anecdote concerns a holiday in France during which Dad decides to camp out in the garden, of a family who are not home. The family return the next morning and are shocked to find strangers on their premises. Nonetheless, Appel Snr somehow manages to befriend them.

But gradually things start to get more serious. Visits to gambling venues turn into social outings. Appel Snr takes his wife and children to the races. The event becomes a Sunday outing for the family; and there is still some playfulness: the car is never parked in the car park but on the side of the road, where it may well incur a parking ticket. The player always tries to push his luck. Later, Appel Snr starts gambling at real-estate auctions. When the first casino opens in the Netherlands he loses himself completely, going there night after night. Now the family days are over and he is on his own. The same befalls Alexey when he starts playing with his own money. Gambling takes over his life and he forgets everything else, even his love.

The Player makes it clear that gambling is not just about winning. It is about taking a chance, a risk. It is about that moment before the cards are turned, the roulette ball drops into place or the finish line is passed – or the moment before the police knock on the door. As the Poker Player says: the really big gambler eventually  eventually risks his whole way of life: “I was as though in delirium and I moved the whole heap of gold to red – and suddenly thought better of it. For the only time that whole evening, all the time I was playing, I felt chilled with terror and a shudder made my arms and legs tremble, I felt with horror and instantly realised what losing would mean for me now! My whole life was at stake.” 2)Idem, p. 90

What gambling men have in common is not just their ‘love’ of the excitement and risk of playing but something else that comes with it: loneliness. Gambling often means losing, and losing is something you do on your own. So we see the Swindler in jail, alone, not mixing with the others, telling us about his deceased father, seemingly left alone in the world. We see the Poker Player alone in his room and at the casino when someone else wins, bewildered by how this could have happened. We see the Bookmaker recounting the many girlfriends he has had over the years, eating a sandwich on his own.

And we see how Appel’s father, the only family man among them, slowly alienates his family. He never dragged his family down with him. He gambled on his own, staking both real estate and cash at the casino. On returning home, a plate of food would be waiting for him: gambling as a way of life.

Appel created an intricate film about real people living very different lives from ours. He made sure to include enough humour in the film to prevent The Player from becoming just another sad film about miserable losers. The anecdotes about Appel’s father and the Bookmaker’s jokes allow us some breathing space but also leave some room for sympathy with these characters. Moreover, Appel jnr. recounts a happy childhood that was full of games. There is no anger and frustration, rather admiration and fascination for a father who lost everything and didn’t even blink. He presents the players with sympathy and understanding, diving into his father’s past and creating a monument to him.

After receiving his father’s letter, Appel Jnr tries ‘just the thing’ for roulette, which of course turns out to be a farce. There is no such thing, and gambling couldn’t exist if there were. So, better luck next time…


References   [ + ]

1. Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Gambler, Dover Publications, Inc, New York, p. 60.
2. Idem, p. 90
Modern Times Review