Axel Freed is a Harvard University–educated English professor with a gambling addiction that begins to spiral out of control. In the classroom, Freed inspires his college students with his interpretations of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s work. In his personal life, Axel has the affection of the beautiful Billie and the admiration of his family, including his mother, Naomi, who is a doctor, and his grandfather, a wealthy businessman.
Axel’s gambling has left him with a huge debt. His bookie, Hips, likes the professor personally but threatens grave consequences if he does not pay it soon. When Billie, having been informed by Axel that he owes $44,000, questions the wisdom of her associating with him, Axel confidently tells her she loves his life’s dangers, including “the possibility of blood”.
After obtaining the $44,000 from his disapproving mother, Axel goes with Billie to Las Vegas and gambles it into a small fortune, only to blow it all again on basketball bets. He takes out his anger on Billie, who does not appreciate having loan sharks come to their apartment in the middle of the night. Expecting help from his grandfather, Axel gets nothing but the older man’s disappointment and disgust.
Axel’s only way to have his debt cancelled is to lure one of his students, a star on the college basketball team, to shave points in his next game. He does so by offering the student a large enough amount of cash. When the game has ended in accordance with the plan, Axel and Hips discuss what motivates gamblers. Axel surprises Hips when he says he knows gamblers like himself want to lose. He adds that he could have made lots of money by betting only on sure winners, but that doing so would not have brought him any real excitement. Ignoring the warning by Hips that it’s dangerous, Axel wanders off into a black ghetto near the gymnasium where the game was played.
Axel proceeds to lure a pimp into a life-or-death fight by refusing to pay a prostitute. As Axel repeatedly assaults the pimp, the prostitute slashes him across the face. Axel looks at himself in a mirror and smiles enigmatically at the blood pouring from his wound.