Axel Freed (Caan) is a literature professor, engaging and popular with his students. He is also an out-of-control gambling addict. At the start of the film he has a spectacularly bad night at the craps tables, enough for affable bookie Hips (Sorvino) to be concerned. He goes to his doctor mother (Brookes) for help, and she reluctantly fronts him enough money to get out of trouble. He takes his girlfriend Billie (Hutton) to Las Vegas to build on his fortune. After what initially seems to be a hot night for him, his luck goes bad again and he once more lacks the money to pay off his debt. While he hopes that his grandfather (Morris Carnovsky) will bail him out, the chief loan shark (Vic Tayback) informs him that the old man has already refused. That leaves him with basketball star Spencer (Carl W. Crudup) as his last hope.
Tobacks screenplay is officially original, but bears resemblance to a story of the same name by Fyodor Dostoevsky, and Dostoevskys work is discussed in Axels class.
Tropes present in The Gambler:
- All Girls Want Bad Boys: Billie is clearly attracted to Axels spontaneous, dangerous nature. He pushes her past the line, though.
- Born in the Wrong Century: A speech Axel gives at his grandfathers birthday party suggests that hes actually envious of the hardships the older man faced coming up in the world.
- Closet Shuffle: The guy Carmine goes to collect from hides in the closet while his wife tells Carmine that hes out of town.
- Facial Horror: Axel picks a fight with a pimp and the hooker hes with slashes his face to defend said pimp. Axel actually looks happy about this once he escapes.
- Faux Affably Evil: While Hips is as nice a guy as you can be when your job is shaking money out of gamblers, enforcer Carmine (Burt Young) acts friendly but clearly enjoys hurting people on behalf of his employer, and he drags Axel along to get a look at what he can expect.
- The Gambling Addict: Axel is a very self-aware version, even telling Hips that he knows gamblers like him actually want to lose.
- Gratuitous Italian: Hips drops Italian into his collection calls because he knows his marks dont speak it and it make him sound more intimidating.
- Hope Spot: Axel goes to bed in Vegas thinking hes won big in a Harvard-Brown basketball game. As it turns out Brown totally turned things around after halftime.
- Loan Shark: Who Axel ultimately owes money to. A lot of it.
- Throwing the Fight: Downplayed Trope. One lets Axel off the hook in exchange for bribing Spencer to shave enough points in a game so that his team doesnt beat the spread. It barely works, as the coach takes him out of the game when he starts missing.