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Trapped by Gambling Debts

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"Bring us the girl, and wipe away the debt."
Booker DeWitt's Mysterious Employers, 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, especially if they owe money to an Illegal Gambling Den. 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, as well as The Mafia. Compare Boxed Crook. For similar stock motivations without the tragic flaw, see Healthcare Motivation and The Commies Made Me Do It.



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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.
  • In Kakegurui, students who can't afford to pay their dues to the Absurdly Powerful Student Council as a result of their gambling debts can have two fates. One, if the debt is only enough to land them in the bottom 100 on the wealth roster of the school, they end up being enslaved to the last person they lost against and are called Pochi/Fido if boys and Mike/Mittens if girls (the latter having a harder time due to the situation being exploited sexually at times). Two, if the debt is really outstanding even by the standards of a school where a 10 million yen debt is not that bad, the student in question gets a "life plan" made for them by the student council detailling what and where they will study, whom they will marry, how many children they will have and when, what their work will be. And they have to follow it to the letter unless they find a way to repay the debt or at least most of it before graduating.
  • 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.

    Card Games 

    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.
  • In Chassis, Rothchild Billings is forced to call off his engagement to Chassis by gangsters who offer to pay off his debts. They hope the emotional distress will cause Chassis to lose her next race.

    Comic Strips 
  • 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.

    Fan Works 
  • In The Horsewomen Of Las Vegas, this was Nia Jax's backstory. Her mother was the one trapped by gambling debts and Nia agreed to work for the small-time criminal crew to Work Off the Debt. When crime boss Charlotte Flair sent a hit squad to take out the crew, Nia fought back so well that Charlotte offered her a job as her personal bodyguard and took care of the debt.

    Films — Animation 
  • Oliver & Company: If one notices at the end, Fagin the hobo makes a bet with Winston and after losing it, tries to walk away, implying that this was how he got involved with Loan Shark Sykes.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • 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. A debt that he has because Harry cheated in the game.
  • 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 (2000), 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. Ironic because he himself was trying to repay his debt to Loan Sharks.
  • 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 (2011) 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 (2006). 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.
  • In The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, main character Cosmo Vittelli celebrates finally paying off his strip club by getting into a poker game that ends up putting him in debt to the mob. They say he can pay off the debt by killing a rival Chinese bookie.
  • In Hussar Ballad that's the reason for Lieutenant Rzhevsky to visit the main character's house. His uncle covered his card debt but insisted that Rzhevsky finally marries.
  • Gang Related: Detective Rodriguez is hounded by an Evil Debt Collector and his huge bodyguard because of outstanding gambling debts. When the crimes he committed with his partner are about to be exposed he attacks them in a moment of rage and is shot to death.
  • In Murder at the Baskervilles, Moriarty buys up Straker's debts and uses them to extort him into complying with his scheme to nobble Silver Blaze.
  • In Enter the Dragon, Roper has built up some sizable gambling debts, which Han tries to use to persuade him to become his agent in America. Roper, however, refuses to join him. (The fact that Han had just killed Roper's friend Williams may have something to do with that.)
  • Wild Things 2: Niles Dunlap was deep in debt to various Cuban gangsters, and was misallocating funds belonging to his company to feed his addiction.
  • The Ineffectual Sympathetic Villain in Nanny McPhee and the Big Bang desperately tries to convince his sister-in-law to sell her half of the farm to him because he gambled his half away at a casino, and for incentive, the owner's two hitwomen are sent to collect either the deed, or the man's kidneys.
  • In The Slammin' Salmon, the owner of the titular restaurant is in debt to the Yakuza for about $20,000 and thus forces his staff to go all out on service to make some money quick. Near the end, it's revealed that his debt is actually 20,000 in Yen (which amounts to roughly $190) and that he simply didn't know the difference between the two currencies.
  • The Dry: Scott Whitlam is The Gambling Addict who fled Melbourne to a remote country town to escape his debtors. However, the people he owed money to pursued him and winds up committing embezzlement to pay them off, and then commits murder to hide the embezzlement.
  • In The Heist (1989), The Gambling Addict Dancer is stuck working as the racetrack paramedic because he owes the track so much money from his gambling losses.

  • 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 is suspiciously generous to Harry during the Triwizard Tournament, always offering him tips and pointers and giving him consistently high marks. In the end, it's revealed he's in massive debt to goblins and was trying to help Harry because he put a massive bet on him to win the tournament. It doesn't work because the goblins argue that Harry drew even with Cedric Diggory (never mind the latter ending up dead), so Bagman goes on the run and is never seen again.
  • 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 of her father's gambling debts. She is presented to Brokenclaw as a payment, and he takes her as his lover.
  • In Godshome by Robert Sheckley, desperation when a "sure thing" stock market gamble goes wildly bad is what leads Arthur Fenn to try invoking old, forgotten gods.
  • In The Dry by Jane Harper, this turns out to be the motive of the actual murderer, complete with toughs threatening his family with a nail gun. When a colleague finds him committing fraud to pay them, he kills her whole family and makes it look like a Pater Familicide.
  • A subplot of the Sidney Sheldon novel Nothing Lasts Forever has Dr. Kat Hunter being roped into working for the mafia (tending to their injured underlings) to to pay back her brother's gambling debts. After she saves the life of the kingpin himself, he tells her that not only does he consider the debt repaid, but that her fiancé "better take good care of you, or he'll answer to me". note 
  • This is the reason Wickham absconds in Pride and Prejudice. He's run up gambling debts with with numerous members of his regiment and the town they are currently encamped in (and it's subsequently revealed that he has considerable debt in Meryton as well). So his solution is just to run off in the middle of the night and persuades Lydia to join him to have a little fun along the way.
  • The Sign of the Four: The British guards of a small prison camp have gambling as their only pastime, one of them realizing he'll have to sell his commission. Small uses the perspective of getting back the treasure Small stole to hook one of them into freeing him and him accomplices, but the man takes the treasure and runs (out of guilt, he later sends valuable pearls to the daughter of the other guard who was an accomplice). Small escapes from the camp and pursues him, ending up killing other people he sees as having stolen the treasure from him (although said treasure wasn't his in the first place).

    Live-Action TV 
  • 30 Rock: One of Jack's love interests is a nurse named Elisa. She mentions that she takes extra shifts at her job because her mother is addicted to online gambling.
  • 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 smart enough to have him taken off duty to avoid the usual results of this. Then when he suddenly comes up with enough cash to repay his debts and be placed back on duty, Garibaldi is smart 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 an aspiring football player to throw the Big Game to cover his massive debts.
  • Brazilian series Caça 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 features various examples throughout the series, as illegal gambling is one of the prime moneymakers of The Mafia. It is even the one aspect of his illegal career that Tony Soprano admits to his daughter Meadow when she confronts him, while still denying the existence of the Mafia as a whole. (It helps here that New Jersey has long had the most permissive gambling laws of any state other than Nevada, so New Jerseyans tend to regard what gambling is illegal in NJ "not that illegal.")
    • The pilot shows Tony trying to collect a debt that a gambler simply can't afford. Hesh Rebkin, a moneylender and associate of Soprano, says that the guy really doesn't have the money so no amount of intimidation will get him to pay. Since he works for a medical insurance company, they decide to start running a scam for phony payouts through his company.
    • Towards the end of the first season, Dirty Cop Vin Makazian accuses Big Pussy of being an informant. While checking out his story, Tony learns that Vin is deeply in debt to Pussy and wonders if Vin is trying to frame Pussy to eliminate the debt. Later seasons reveal that Pussy is an informant, but whether Vin really knew that or not is never resolved as he commits suicide soon after the initial accusation.
    • David Scatino was Tony's childhood friend and is now the owner of a large sporting goods store. Despite already being in debt to Richie Aprile, he gets involved in some of Tony's high-stakes poker games and gets in way 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. This wasn't the first time David's gambling had gotten out of control, and his family actually took steps to put the business under his wife's name so he couldn't sign it away, but their efforts come to naught since the Mafia doesn't care about the store's official ownership title.
  • The Doctor Blake Mysteries: In "Against the Odds", a jockey is seriously in debt to a bookie. The bookie agrees to wipe the slate if the jockey - who is riding the favourite in the Ballarat Cup - throws the race.
  • The Victim of the Week on "The River" episode of Cold Case was so much this that he pays a friend to kill him and make it look like a random mugging so that his wife and son can get the insurance money.
  • In the Midnight Caller episode "Blood Red," an artist played by Pam Grier is forced to create counterfeit paintings to pay off her gambling debts.
  • Several episodes of Mission: Impossible have a team member deliberately end up like this as the opening move of a scheme against the person they owe money to.
  • Vera: In "Home", the brother-in-law of the Victim of the Week is deep in debt to a local gang boss who is currently in prison. His brother, the victim's husband, is a prison officer who is offered the chance to clear the debt by acting as a mule and smuggling contraband into the prison.
  • Squid Game: Gi-hun is introduced stealing money from his mom to bet on the race track, and when he finally wins a substantial amount, he's cornered by a Loan Shark and his goons. When Gi-hun tries to hand his winnings over as a down payment of what he owes, he discovers its missing, and then remembers bumping onto a girl whose coffee he spilled.


    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.

  • 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: The Sith Lords, 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, or simply buy her freedom if you have the credits for it. 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: Path of Radiance: 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.
  • In Fallout: New Vegas if you have the "Debt Collector" and "Wang Dang Atomic Tango" quests active at the same time you can force Santiago to work off his gambling debt to the Garret twins as a prostitute.
  • A variation in Hitman. The final target of Season One is a former assassin turned board director who, despite presumably having a high paying job on top of a comfortable pension, is constantly short on money thanks to his crippling gambling addiction. Because of this, when he suddenly needs a major expensive surgery using an impossible to get transplant organ to save his life, he was forced to sell out the ICA to Providence in exchange for the surgery, which results in Agent 47 sent after him to claim retribution.
  • The entire plot of Cuphead is kicked off when the titular character loses a bet at the Devil's casino. To save their souls, Cuphead and Mugman have to go out and collect the soul contracts of the Devil's other debtors who haven't paid their dues.
  • The Witches' Tea Party: This causes a noble to sell his daughter into marriage, so someone else can gain status from the title. The seller being Maribell's father.
  • In the climax of Always Sometimes Monsters, your old friend pisses away $10,000 gambling to buy an expensive honeymoon and both them and you are kidnapped by the casino's owner to settle the debt. You can either let them plagiarize your journal and kill your career to save their skin, leave them to dry (which results in them getting shot dead on the spot), or (if you're actually liquid enough) pay off the debt on the spot with cash.

    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 cusses out the Joker for cutting him off in traffic. Joker "generously" decides not to kill him, in exchange for a favour...
  • 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 $48. The mob even gives him change for a $50.
    • Moe's not exactly a stranger to gambling debt himself.
  • Mark Allan in The Spectacular Spider-Man. His gambling problem gets him in deep with the Green Goblin's middle-management guy, who coerces him into taking part in an experiment that turns him into the Molten Man.
  • 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!
  • Aqua Teen Hunger Force episode "Bookie" is all about this happening to Shake.

    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.
  • One of the reasons Marc Antony was so loyal to 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 - if nothing else, most people couldn't pay cash for a new car or a home even if they wanted to) 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?), your ability to make payments on those debts, where you're getting your money from, and your likelihood of habitually incurring large or long-term debts.
  • If you (plan on) profit(ing) from it, loaning money or other stuff (at any interest rate) for gambling purposes is a form of usury in Portugal, punishable by up to two years in prison (or five if you turn usury into a way of life, demand a bill of exchange or simulate a contract, or consciously cause, by way of usury, the patrimonial ruin of the victim).