The Gambler
Channel Four, 2000

Jonathan Rendall was a talented, award-winning, author and broadsheet columnist up until his untimely death in January 2013 at the age of just forty eight. I missed seeing all three parts of this Channel Four documentary when it was re-screened shortly afterwards, and have finally got around to doing so - they're still available to be viewed at Channel Four's on-demand archive, and run to around fifty minutes each.

Fairly compelling viewing; keeping tabs on Mr R as he punted away twelve grand of Channel Four's money in pursuance of a profit (he was broke) and two and a half hours of telly. It offers viewers a rare insight into the mind of a lifetime degenerate gambler, and provides a glimpse of the mindset that keeps so many of a similar disposition from calling it a day even when they're on their uppers. This wasn't the first time he'd taken up this particular baton either - a publisher had made a similar offer two years before, for exactly the same amount, with the proviso that he recorded his experiences in print at the end of the exercise regardless of whether he came out of it a winner or not. I haven't read "Twelve Grand", although having watched this documentary in full now I may just go out and pick up a copy.

Over three instalments, Mr R travels widely; to Lingfield and Cheltenham races (where he's left in mild shock after dropping a grand on a single bad bet), down to London, to Alice Springs in Australia, Macau, back to the UK and then several stop-offs in the States before finally reaching Las Vegas. During these excursions he bets various proportions of his bankroll on the GGs, across the felt of a blackjack table in the Salon Privee of an up-market London casino (and quits while ahead), blows a ton on scratchcards bought from a highstreet newsagent, some on the slots in a "family entertainment" centre in Oz, some more on some Australian GGs, returns to the UK and has a little under half of it left when he leaves for America. Here, he's robbed in New York, bets more on the GGs, gets smashed with one of the local good-time girls in Las Vegas, takes on the wheel of doom, loses some in double quick time at blackjack, interviews a notorious cheat in the state pen, tries his luck counting cards ("luck" being the operative word) and is eventually left holding just $300 of his original bankroll. Ironically his last but one punt, a hefty bet on a boxing match, pays off and he finishes the experiment with a little under $5,000 in hand. A virtual fairy tale ending and a result for him, although I expect Noel, his bookie, laid claim to a hefty chunk of it.

Disappointingly, there's no real conclusion to this documentary - just a final shot of him in his hotel pool before the final credits run. I couldn't help feeling the end bit had been left off in order that filming could be wound up the same day. No final word on the whole escapade, no reflections on his wins and losses or what he'd be returning home to, no empty promises around learning from the experience nor reflections of how gambling had impacted upon his life, just Mr R getting a couple of lengths in, whilst no doubt thinking about his next bet. Perhaps he did film something and chose to edit it out in favour of letting viewers draw their own conclusions from what they'd seen? After the programme was completed, Mr R published a journal he'd rustled up for the Observer, entitled "Losing it in Public", which is still available to read and adds some additional insight into the man himself.

Although I never met him in person, Jonathan Rendall was quite clearly several marks above the wider field when it came down to the art of words. It seemed, though, that he'd simply surrendered to his gambling addiction and was content to ride the roller-coaster that resulted; with Channel Four's proposition being just an excuse for another day out at the theme park. Perhaps they might have offered to pay for a bout of rehab, assuming Mr R was up for it of course, which would have been a tad more beneficial and possibly just as interesting as a spectator sport? A great waste when someone with an Oxbridge education, and a literary prize winner, is left considering whether to get a job behind a bar (probably not a good idea in his case), or "driving a cab around Cambridge" as a means of making enough to cover the basics. Clearly something had gone wrong somewhere, and that something was no doubt largely to do with the spectre of addictive gambling - ever present and fatal when combined with an irregular income occupation and a propensity for the booze.

I've read several reflections of Jonathan Rendall's life, but the best one without doubt is the obituary written by Kevin Mitchell, a sportswriter who'd met Mr R many years before. Well worth a read if you've got this far.

Here's a couple of examples of Jonathan Rendall's work, which give an indication as to why he was rated so highly as a writer. Enjoy.

"Look who's talking" - The Guardian, 3rd October 2004

"Why me, Mum?" - The Guardian, 20th July 2006

All three episodes of The Gambler can be viewed at:

August 2015.