Trapped by Gambling Debts

"Bring us the girl, and wipe away the debt."
Robert Lutece, BioShock Infinite

You need a character to betray your hero, or kidnap someone, or be The Mole. But you don't want them to do it For the Evulz, so they need a motivation. The easiest one is that they need lots of quick money. And why would they?

This trope is the answer. They have been gambling too much and now have to pay or face serious consequences, ranging from Knee-capping to actual death. So the evil guys blackmail them into whatever they need in exchange for having the debts paid. That does it: they're not evil, just desperate.

It's an easy move, because you have a character with a dangerous flaw and a clear motivation, but who still can be good if the story needs it. Kind of a Discredited Trope maybe because of that, especially in spy stories, but still used occasionally.

Often happens to The Gambling Addict, especially after an Absurdly High-Stakes Game. May be the victim of the Professional Gambler. Compare Boxed Crook. For a similar stock motivation without the tragic flaw, see Healthcare Motivation.

Examples:

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    Anime & Manga 
  • Kaiji is constantly trying to find a way to pay off his debt. It usually ends up with him in worse debt.
  • The male protagonist of Hayate the Combat Butler is trapped by his parents' debts.
  • Subverted by Tsunade in Naruto, who uses her jutsu to change her looks from an old woman to a young girl and everything in between, and is always on the move with Shizune, to escape her creditors, with IOU note in tow. (This aspect of her character may be inspired by the Tanuki.)
  • Since the nature of Faye's debt on Cowboy Bebop is not explained for several episodes, some characters assume it is this.

    Comic Books 
  • In one of the origins of The Joker, he was a poor schlub who needed to pay off his gambling debts so he got roped into being the Red Hood (the alleged head of a gang but really just a guy the rest of the gang hires to be The Face of the Gang), then fell in a vat of chemicals and became the Joker.
  • In Tintin, this is how Colonel Boris/Jorgen trapped Frank Wolff into becoming The Mole.
  • One The Punisher story involves a cop trying to pay off his gambling debts by passing off cocaine seizures to the mobsters.

    Film 
  • The plot of Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels is driven by the main character's need to pay off a massive gambling debt owed to the gangster Hatchet Harry. Harry's hoping to use the debt to force the guy's father to hand over his pub.
  • In the movie Dirty Work, the gambling-addicted Dr. Farthing (Chevy Chase) will only raise Pops on the heart transplant list if he is paid $50,000 to save him from his bookie.
  • In Lucky Number Slevin, the Boss and The Rabbi rope Slevin into their war by mistaking him for Nick Fisher, a lowlife who owes them tens of thousands of dollars. Of course, Slevin planned for the mobsters to mistake him for Fisher.
  • In A Knight's Tale, William bails Geoffrey Chaucer out of his gambling debts, and in return, Chaucer travels as Will's herald.
  • On the second to last play of The Replacements, Nigel, the field goal kicker, confesses to Shane that he has to throw the game in order to not lose his bar as a result of gambling debts. Shane decides to improvise instead, by pulling the ball very much like Lucy would do to Charlie Brown, and running the ball instead.
  • The Flintstones in Viva Rock Vegas: Chip Rockfeller and Fred Flintstone were rivals for Wilma's affections. Rockfeller lured Fred into a casino of his, where Fred got a debt of 1.4 million clams. Rockfeller then offered to cancel the debt if Fred agreed to get out of Wilma's life forever. When Fred refused, Rockfeller stole Wilma's pearl necklace and framed Fred, claiming Fred intended to sell the necklace to pay his debt.
  • Some deleted scenes in The Punisher (2004) show how Howard Saint found Frank's hideout. He blackmailed Frank's FBI buddy into telling him, which he did because of his gambling addiction.
  • In The Cooler, the reason why Bernie Lootz works for the casino as a "Cooler" (he so unlucky that he can "cool off" other people's winning streaks) is because he owes the casino over a hundred thousand dollars in gambling debts.
  • The film Drive has an ex-convict having to pay off the mob for the protection he received in jail, at first it was $2,000 but it quickly rose to $8,000 when he got out of jail. This forces the protagonist to go on a heist in order to protect the ex-convict's wife and child, who he's madly in love with.
  • In The Drop "Glory Days", Bob and Cousin Marv's dead friend, was one. To Cousin Marv. Bob killed him because Marv was also in debt from gambling, and Glory Days having won the lottery and paid his debts presented an opportunity.
  • Invoked by the heroes in Casino Royale. MI6's entire plan was to send Bond in to bust out Le Chiffre, so that he would be forced to come to them for protection from his creditors.

    Literature 
  • 24 Hours in the Life of a Woman has a man ready to commit suicide because he lost all his money. The title woman saves him, gives him money for a fresh new start... and he wastes it gambling again.
  • Black Library novel Hammers of Ulric has Anspach the Templar and his debts to the head of the criminal organization in Middenheim.
  • In the Lord Darcy novel Too Many Magicians, uncovering one character's gambling debts and the associated blackmail forms a major subplot.
  • Early in the Garrett, P.I. series, Morley Dotes gets into trouble because of his addiction to water-spider races.
  • Ludovic Bagman in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.
  • In a surely unique inversion, Tim Powers' Last Call features a man trapped by the spiritual significance of the cards in his winning poker hand.
  • This is how Sheridan winds up kidnapping children, including one lethally bad choice in the Stephen King story Popsy.
  • This is how The Call of the Wild is set in motion: one of the servants of Buck's original owner has a lot of gambling debt to pay off, and steals Buck in order to sell him to mushers for money.
  • James Bond
    • The traitor in the Secret Service in No Deals, Mr. Bond works for the Soviets thanks to "fast women and slow horses".
    • A Naval Intelligence agent in Brokenclaw manages to get inside the eponymous villain's inner circle because her father's gambling debts. She is presented to Brokenclaw as a payment, and he takes her as his lover.

     Live-Action TV 
  • In at least one episode of the Poirot series of Agatha Christie adaptations starring David Suchet, a character was persuaded to get involved in a jewel robbery to pay off a gambling debt.
  • One of Garibaldi's men is compromised this way in an early episode of Babylon 5. Garibaldi is Genre Savvy enough to have him taken off duty to avoid the usual results of this trope. Then when he suddenly comes up with enough cash to repay his debts and be placed back on duty, Garibaldi is Genre Savvy enough to see why that should be a red flag.
  • Veronica Mars: Jacky's father is blackmailed into working security for a morally ambiguous casino owner in order to pay off his debt.
  • Miami Vice has an episode in the final season where Switek has to convince a aspiring football player to throw the Big Game to cover his massive debts.
  • Brazilian series Caša Talentos had one special episode where a Corrupt Corporate Executive controlled an unwilling minion through this trope. When said minion refused to trick a girl into signing a similar contract, she (unbeknownst to them a Magical Girl), used her powers to make his contract vanish, freeing him from his debt.
  • On Banshee a criminal owes the local Indian casino thousands of dollars so the new tribal chief offers to forgive the debt in exchange for murdering Kai Proctor.
  • On Person of Interest a PoI is forced into participating in a money laundering scheme because he owes a crooked casino owner a lot of money. However, Finch later discovers that the man accrued the debt not because he is The Gambling Addict but because he is a Card Sharp who cheated the casino out of a lot of money to pay his wife's medical bills and could not pay it back when the casino owner found out what happened..
  • On Vegas a crooked casino manager would extend credit to hopeless gamblers and when they could not pay back, he coerced them into embezzling from their employers. He would then let them gamble more so they had to embezzle more. Ironically, his mobster bosses would not have approved of this scheme because they were making way more money from legitimate gambling and this type of petty scheme risked unwanted police attention.
  • One of several problems the Castillo family has in Destinos is finding out that Carlos has been embezzling from the family business to cover wife Gloria's gambling debts.
  • In the Supernatural episode "What Is And What Should Never Be" (S02, Ep20), Dean pretends to be stealing his mother's good silver to cover a gambling debt. His brother believes him, but Dean actually needs the silver to kill a djinn.
  • Adam Adamant Lives: Happens to the Arab prince in "Allah Is Not Always With You". the entire scheme was a set-up to get him to sign an IOU that would allow the villain to blackmail him once he inherited the throne.
  • Law & Order: SVU: Detective Rollins gets in over her head at an underground casino, and is seemingly forced to do favors (sexual and otherwise) to work it off. Later, it is revealed that The Dragon is actually a Deep Cover Agent, and her career is saved by a thread.
  • The Sopranos gives us David Scatino, Tony's childhood friend and now owner of a large sporting goods store, who gets involved in some of Tony's high-stakes poker games and gets way in over his head. To "repay" the debt, Tony decides to "bust out" David's store: forcing him to buy useless crap on credit and give it to them so they can sell it (for practically all profit). Within weeks, the business is dead and David is forced into bankruptcy.

    Newspaper Comics 
  • A series of Get Fuzzy comic strips had Bucky facing the threat of getting killed by another cat, because Bucky lost a bet on a baseball game and didn't have enough money to pay the debt. The team that Bucky bet on was the Mariners, but he lost that bet because one of their players had retired before he even made the bet.
  • This happens several times, to Rudy Wong, Lily's brother, in The World Of Lily Wong.

    Radio 
  • In the first Harry Nile episode, Harry owes a gambling debt to a mob boss and is sent to kill a guy to pay it back.

    Tabletop Games 
  • Murphy's World. In the adventure "Robyn's Summer Romance in Asgard", one way given to railroad the PCs into the scenario is force them to gamble and lose big, thus requiring them to go on the adventure to pay off their gambling debt.
  • Hoyles Rules Of Dragon Poker ''helpfully'' requires players to use only Clubs when they fall into debt.
    • Zigzagged in that the guide discourages players from letting anyone lose too much in friendly games.

    Theatre 
  • In Kiss Me Kate, Bill has lost money gambling and forged Fred's signature on a $10,000 IOU. This results in two gangsters entering to make sure The Show Must Go On.

    Video Games 
  • In Knights of the Old Republic II, a Twi'lek laborer is so addicted to Pazaak that he gambled away his girlfriend. You can play the dealer to whom he owes the debt in order to bail out the girlfriend. Either she dumps her idiot boyfriend, or you order her to go with her idiot boyfriend, or you can take ownership of her yourself and keep her wages while telling the idiot boyfriend he's out of luck.
  • Roman Bellic's gambling problems are why his cousin Niko ends up getting in trouble at the start of Grand Theft Auto IV.
  • Gambling debts are what got Booker DeWitt involved in the plot of Bioshock Infinite. This article's header, "Bring us the girl and wipe away the debt," is one of the game's Arc Phrases, although it's not actually referring to what he's doing in the present day.
  • Fire Emblem Tellius: Makalov is a compulsive gambler with a tendency to wrack up large debts then skip town, leaving others, often his sister Marcia, to deal with the debtors. This leads him to the employ of various shady characters until his sister drags him away to join the Greil Mercenaries. Ike has the debts paid off to keep collectors from hounding them, so he now owns the debt, and has Makalov fight to work it off.
    Ike: You are going to be working for us for a very long time, my friend.

    Visual Novels 
  • In the Ace Attorney series, Glen Elg fits this trope. He created a powerful computer virus, MC Bomber, to repay his debt in barter (the virus would be worth millions on the black market). However, he won enough in the lottery to repay his debt - and as such, Furio Tigre, to whom he'd owed the money and who was desperate to repay a massive debt of his own (the collateral was enough to repay his debt, but the money Glen owed was not), murdered him to claim the virus and lottery ticket together.

    Western Animation 
  • In Batman: The Animated Series, though not a gambling debt, Charlie Collins ends up being indebted to the Joker after he cuts off the Joker's car while driving, and the latter decides not to kill him for doing so.
  • Chip 'n Dale Rescue Rangers: When Klordane framed a cop with theft, he forged evidence suggesting the cop had gambling debts to pay.
  • The Simpsons:
    • When Sideshow Bob framed Krusty with armed robbery, the prosecutor used Krusty's gambling debts to establish motive. Krusty asked if it was a crime to gamble and he was told it was.
    • A later episode has Krusty's gambling debts to the Mob get so bad that he's forced to open a clown college and (when he blows all the money from that betting against the Harlem Globetrotters playing the Washington Generalsnote ) fleeing to Europe. His debts turn out to amount to $50.
    • Moe's not exactly a stranger to gambling debt himself.
  • Combustion Man in Spectacular Spiderman. Its even used to pressure him into taking part in a jail riot.
  • In "Hong Kong Nights" of American Dragon Jake Long, this is how Fu Dog was before meeting Lao Shi, Jake's grandfather in the '70s- a petty thief forced into the life by his debts.
    Fu: Please don't hurt me! I've got a wife at home! And kids! Alright, so I don't have a wife, kids, or even a home! But I'm up to my neck folds in gambling debts and I don't know what else to doooo!

    Real Life  
  • Truth in Television as far as the Mafia were/are concerned. A favourite way for them to get their hooks into a business was to let a gambling-addicted owner run up impossible debts with a mob bookie.
    • Often a motive for a bad guy to become The Informant as well.
    • Note that this is averted respecting legal gambling institutions. Legitimate casinos and betting houses know that your gambling debts can and will be discharged in bankruptcy (unless you defrauded the house): they lose millions if not billions a year to gambling debtors who either have all their debts discharged or settle with the casino/betting house for a lower amount, and any gambling institution will have accounted for all this in its budget.
  • One of the reasons Marc Anthony was so loyal to Gaius Julius Caesar was that the latter covered the former's gambling and prostitute debts that in modern terms stacked up to about US$5 million.
  • The reason why background checks on law enforcement and intelligence personnel (and for that matter most mid- to high-level government employees) always include financial audits. Being in debt isn't so much of a problem per se (everybody, even the average cop or spy, runs into financial trouble from time to time) as the reason why you're in debt (are you paying off your kid's orthodontist bill, or did you place some bad bets at the track?) and where you're getting your money from