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Gambling is entertaining.
After all, it has to be entertaining and suspenseful, or else no one would want to do it. Unfortunately, as anyone who's watched Poker on television knows, the same things that are fun to play can be painfully boring to watch.
But luckily, storytellers have come up with a way of making gambling interesting. They do this by raising the stakes to incredibly high levels, thus making this Serious Business. For example, watching someone bet $20 at blackjack will probably not be very exciting. But if the main character is going to win millions of dollars if he wins and die if he loses, then the audience may be more interested.
Stories carrying this trope tend to have a few things in common:
- The player almost always stands to lose more than money. Historically, this has meant that if he loses, he will die, lose a body part, have his family members die, be forced into slavery, or suffer any number of other horrific consequences.
- The games are generally unusual or at least different from normal gambling games.
- These games are often run by an Eccentric Millionaire who enjoys watching these sorts of things.
- Players are rarely forced to play these games. They are generally given a choice of whether or not to play, even if it is a choice between playing and another bad situation.
- The games are usually based on skill, not simply luck.
Make note: This includes some versions of Russian Roulette. Deals with devils are also common. May lead to being Trapped by Gambling Debts. If the game is televised, it is probably a Deadly Game. If you actually wager ownership of a person, then you may end up Losing Him in a Card Game or gaining a Wager Slave. Related to The Bet.
Anime & Manga
- Kaiji - The entire premise of the show revolves around this. Over the course of the show the main character bets his freedom, his life, and various body parts, in order to win money. These fingers are being bet on a game of drawing lots from a tissue box!
- Akagi - In the final story arc for the anime, the hero plays an unusual version of Mahjong that uses clear tiles and where he bets his own blood instead of money.
- Spiral - There are a few Absurdly High Stakes Games throughout the series, but the most obvious example would be when the hero wagers that he can guess which card his opponent is holding. If he wins, he will receive crucial information, but if he loses, he will have a swarm of deadly bees released on him.
- Liar Game - Throughout the story, the stakes have never been more than money. However, the money involved ranges from hundreds of millions to billions of yen, and the losers are expected to pay back every yen they lose, with the Liar Game officials promising they will do "whatever is necessary" to collect on those debts.
- Yu-Gi-Oh! - In the 4Kids dub, almost every card game ends with the loser going to The Shadow Realm. Even one-time characters like Panik will give you a flamer-thrower blast to the face.
- And it's little better in the original anime and the manga, especially the Battle City arc where every duel initiated by the Big Bad was on pain of death or maiming.
- The "zero" season did this with every game, most of which were fates worse than death, ranging from losing your soul and being beaten up by toy monsters, to going blind.
- During the Duelist Kingdom tournament, Yugi made up for a deficit in Star Chips by betting his life. He did this twice. Panik even alluded to the idea that he considered Yugi's life to be worth only 1 Star Chip.
- In one episode of Samurai Champloo, Jin sees a man playing shogi against himself, and comments on the best strategy for the next move. The man then offers to play Jin- if Jin wins, he gets a large pouch of gold; if he loses, the man wins his life- the phrasing is ambiguous as to whether that means slavery or immediate death. Since he needs the money, Jin accepts.
- The Legend of Koizumi stakes natural resources, a fleet of F-15s, lives, and the fate of nations on Mahjong.
- Gamble Fish quite often, where they are usually betting large amounts of money. In one case Tomu even bet his own finger, he lost and immediately had it chopped off with a chainsaw.
- Mirai Nikki has characters betting their diaries and lives on a simple coin game with even odds. The game gets complicated because the diaries involved can tell the future—including the outcome of the coin game, and destroying a diary kills its owner. Magnificent Bastard Aru Akise manages to win even though he's the only one playing who can't predict the future.
- JoJo's Bizarre Adventure--
- The poker game Jotaro Kujo plays with Daniel J. D'arby in Part 3 ramps up the stakes to the souls of Jotaro's friends. Jotaro even puts his own on the line. Jotaro wins only through magnificent bluffing, betting every soul in play on a dud hand. This scene appeared in the OVA adaptation.
- Later he bets souls against Terrence D'arby, a video gamer. He has to cheat to win that one.
- The Yu-Gi-Oh! ("King of Games") manga. Which part? The whole thing.
- When Yuusuke's gang in Yu Yu Hakusho broke into Tarukani's mansion to save Yukina, Tarukani invited his friends from the Black Black Club to place bets on the outcome of the eventual fights. When Yuusuke and Kuwabara were about to fight the Toguro brothers, Sakyo waged so much on the heroes' victory Tarukani had to risk practically everything he owned in order to accept the bet. Too bad for him the Toguro brothers were actually working for Sakyo. When Toguro Team and Urameshi Team later became the finalists of a tournament, Sakyo and Koenma waged their lives in the fight that decided the tournament. It was not the first time Sakyo bets his life but became the first time he lost. Also, during other stages of the tournament, some other people waged their wealth and lost.
- In the exhibition match in Eyeshield 21 between the Deimon Devilbats and the NASA Aliens, Aliens' coach Apollo in response to an embarassing viral video sent by Devilbats captain Hiruma, furiously announced that if the Aliens doesn't win more than 10 points, they will never return to America. Hiruma in turn responded that if the Devilbats doesn't win more than 10 points, they will leave Japan. Of course, Loophole Abuse was in play when the NASA Aliens won but not by a 10 point difference. Apollo changed the name of the team to NASA Shuttles so the NASA Aliens won't be returning to America. And the Devilbats do leave Japan but Hiruma never specified that they wouldn't be returning.
- Ranma Half - The Tendos and Ranma vs the Gambling King, wagering parts of their house in order to win back their dojo.
- The game in One Outs is technically just baseball. However, the main character is a pitcher with a bizarre contract that grants him money for every strike, and penalized him hugely for every run he lets through. This leads to some intricate and convoluted ways of 'winning'.
- Kenshiro enters into an arm-wrestling contest in Fist of the North Star that cuts the loser's arm off with a table saw. Though Kenshiro wins, he takes a third option by not cutting off the Mook's arm... just snapping it in half.
- The Marvel Contest of Champions must apply.
- An issue of Spider-Man had a somewhat lighter hearted version of this. The New York super heroes have a yearly poker game with twenty dollar stakes whith the winner sending their winnings to charity. Then along comes Kingpin with a rediculous amount of money. There's nothing really at stake more than pride and a good cause, but that doesn't mean it's any less entertaining to watch Spider-Man and Kingpin play out the final round with ludicris piles of chips each. (Spidy won.)
- Batman in the Silver age once played Russian Roulette to catch a criminal. The criminal had been playing with millionaires in the area, and the two participants each had to write out a will that left everything to the winner of the game. The gun had an extra safety catch so the criminal never lost. Batman discovered this with the aid of a mirror and won.
- The government in Decks Fall Everyone Dies is based around dice games. The characters plan a coup d'état to bring back the old card-based government.
- Thirteen Tzameti - A group of men play a modified version of Russian Roulette while gamblers bet huge stakes on the outcome. The film received an American remake called 13.
- Three... Extremes - In the segment "Cut," a man is forced to follow a madman's directions or else one of his wife's fingers will be cut off every five minutes.
- The James Bond movie Casino Royale features an extremely high stakes poker game, both in dollar figures and global security.
- Averting the "skill-based game" bit of the trope, this was originally Baccarat in the novel. Since then, however, poker has become ridiculously popular and Baccarat has fallen into obscurity. So they changed it.
- In Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest, the crew of the Flying Dutchman play liar's dice with the only thing they have left to wager - the years of service they owe to the ship. Will wagers his soul, meaning an eternity of service, against Jones to goad him into wagering the key to the chest containing his Soul Jar. Will's father takes the hit for him, only for Will to reveal he just wanted to see where Jones kept the key.
- The entire premise of Diggstown revolves around a high stakes boxing bet. In the long run one side of the bet is a man's life (because if he loses, the guy he borrowed the money from will kill him) and the other side is basically an entire town.
- In Intacto, the characters play strange gambling games, with the winner's taking the losers' luck, which is a tangible resource.
- Tarantino's short in Four Rooms involves his character betting he can light his Zippo 10 times in a row. The stakes? His thumb for a car.
- The Saw series of films is based entirely around extremely dangerous, torturous games.
- Titanic: Jack wins his ticket on board in a poker game. The gamblers know it's a valuable thing to be betting, but only the audience knows how high the stakes really are.
- Clerks: The film itself. Kevin Smith financed the movie by hocking valuable comic books and buying supplies on his credit card. Had the movie flopped or not been picked up by a major studio, he'd have been left with tens of thousands in high-interest debt with no real job prospects.
- Oh, God!, You Devil!. God and the Devil play a poker hand over Bobby's soul. God raises the stakes, by allowing the Devil to consider any soul available for stealing (the Devil can only offer a contract if the person offers his soul first); the Devil folds. God bluffed him out of his full house with a busted flush, and won.
- Leading to God's awesome explanation of why the Devil folded: "I put the fear of Me in you."
- Space Jam involves familiar Looney Tunes characters playing a basketball game against their would-be alien abductors. If the aliens win, the Looney Tunes characters will become slaves on the aliens' homeworld. If the Looney Tunes win, the aliens will leave them in peace.
- Of course, the whole reason they chose basketball was because said aliens were so short, there was no way they could win. Then they show up as towering monstrosities...
- When Michael Jordan learned the aliens became monstrosities (or Monstars, as they were called) by stealing the talent of other professional basketball players, he talked the Big Bad into raising the stakes. If the Looney Tunes win, the aliens will not only leave them in peace as originally agreed but also give the talent back to their rightful owners. If the aliens win, Jordan, like the Looney Tunes, will also become a slave.
- In In Time, people can literally gamble away portions of their lifespan. Also, people who lose arm wrestling matches will automatically drop dead.
- In the 2008 movie The Controller, a businessman's wife is kidnapped, and her captors order him to play and win at a video game with her life forfeit if he loses. The problem is that he's never played a video game in his life.
- The Bet - An early example of this trope where a man makes a bet that he can remain in solitary confinement for 15 years. If he wins, he gets 2 million rubles, but if he loses, he has wasted years of his life.
- The Lady or the Tiger? - In this story, a man is forced to play a game where he must choose between two doors. One has a beautiful woman behind it who he will be forced to marry, and the other has a man-eating tiger. Possibly the Ur Example of this trope.
- There's also the twist that his real Love Interest knows which door is which and can tell him which door to take, so either she indicates the door leading to her romantic rival, or sends him to his death in the tiger's jaws. Also consider that our protagonist knows that his beloved faces this choice and has to decide whether to trust her or not.
- The Ledge - A man is forced to walk around the ledge of a skyscraper. If he succeeds, he will get large amounts of money and the wife of his tormentor. This was later adapted into a segment in the movie Cat's Eye
- The Man from the South - This story by Roald Dahl has the protagonist make a wager that he can light his Zippo ten times in a row without failing. If he wins, he gets a Cadillac, but if he loses, his pinky finger will be cut off. This was later twice adapted into episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents (one during the original series, one during the revival), and a segment in the film Four Rooms
- Taste - This one revolves around a man who accepts a bet that he can identify which wine is being served, right down to its vineyard of origin. If he wins, he gets his opponent's daughter's hand in marriage, but if he loses, he must give up both of his houses.
- In The Culture the Azad empire is named after their favorite game. Briefly, whoever wins the quadriennial tournament becomes emperor. Uncommonly people even bet limbs or lives on the outcome. The game is meant as a metaphor for life and the psychology of the player, so when a culture citizen defeats the ministers of state, and then the emperor, using the ideas of the Culture the culture shock is immense.
- And in Consider Phlebas we're introduced to Damage. Each player brings a team of Lives (mostly depressives, members of suicide cults, and other volunteers) and when the player loses a hand, one of the Lives is killed. When the player runs out of Lives, it's their own life on the line. Oh, and it's played in the most dangerous places in the galaxy - the game we see on-page takes place on a world in the process of being demolished.
- In Sommerset Maugham's story A Friend in Need, a businessman tells the narrator/ Author Avatar of his meeting with a Remittance Man type guy who wanted a job in his firm. The businessman says that he will extend a position if the guy can swim a stretch of water which he himself did in his youth, but which will be difficult for the Remittance Man on account of his wild lifestyle. the guy drowned and the businessman casually remarks that he didn't actually have a position open- he basically caused someone's death For the Lulz.
- Grand Central Arena by Ryk E. Spoor features an artificial construct where competitions are indeed serious business: a contest between individual contestants can result in entire worlds changing hands.
- William Sleator's Interstellar Pig revolves around the titular board game that is eventually revealed to be more than it seems with stakes that involve more or less the complete destruction of every planet in the universe except one, or, it would seem, just one.
- The actual stakes are ambiguous, because every player wants something different and thinks the "Piggy" does something different. It's implied that there is no real stake, and the Piggy started the whole thing itself because it wanted to travel the universe.
- The Game-Players of Titan is concerned with the fictional game "Bluff" where players wager spouses and entire cities among other things.
- Colin Kapp's The Survival Game describes how a pair of Star Kings wager on the capabilities of two individuals, who are sent to a Death World. One of the individuals is a volunteer (he used to live there and is confident he can survive) and the other is a human who is kidnapped along with some other people. This is an Absurdly High Stakes Game not only for the individuals, who face death as failure, but also for the Star Kings who are wagering 10-50 worlds for the winner.
- In Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, a dice game is used to decide whether Anakin Skywalker or his mother will go free. Qui-Gon Jinn cheats and uses the Force to flip the dice such that Anakin gets to go free.
- Star Wars characters, particularly space pirates, traders and bounty hunters, are especially fond of betting. Han Solo won the Millennium Falcon from Lando after winning a bit, and in turn Lando won the appropriately named "Lady Luck" from an opponent he was betting against.
- Ships, nothing. Han once won a planet in a hand of Sabacc against an alien warlord. (Her math, incidentally, puts the stakes at 1.6 billion credits on either side.)
- Star Wars characters, particularly space pirates, traders and bounty hunters, are especially fond of betting. Han Solo won the Millennium Falcon from Lando after winning a bit, and in turn Lando won the appropriately named "Lady Luck" from an opponent he was betting against.
- Richard Connell's short story, The Most Dangerous Game, features a big-game hunter who must consent to be hunted by a Cossack aristocrat on a deserted island, or be whipped to death.
- The pivotal element of the Indian epic, the Mahabharata, is a high-stakes game of dice between the Pandavas and the Kauravas, which ends up with Pandavas forfeiting their kingdom and spending 13 years in the jungles because they lost.
- In "The Cambist and Lord Iron", Lord Iron entangles Olaf in one of these.
- In a Doctor Who Expanded Universe short story, Bernice Summerfield accidentally acquires a ticket to "the big game", and happily plays until she notices the look of horror on the face of the guy who lost all his chips. It's at that point that it occurs to her to ask what the stakes are, and is told "Exactly what you think they are."
- In the Discworld novels, people often challenge Death to various games of skill to wager for their lives. The only one to ever win was Granny Weatherwax because Death let the person win.
Live Action TV
- In season 5 of Supernatural, the boys come across a traveling gambler that plays for years of peoples lives instead of money.
- It should be noted that the witch doesn't cheat. He has simply gotten that good over the centuries. In fact, he will sometimes feel pity for his opponent and intentionally fold a good hand, as was in the case of an old man just wanting a few more years to see his grandkids grow up.
- Angel season 4, early on, featured a casino that would scan customers for destinies, and (in a bit of a subversion) direct those with important ones into a no-win game to have their destiny auctioned off to the highest bidder.
- Henry Coleman From As the World Turns tends to get himself in these sorts of situations.
- In episode 1.06 of White Collar, "All In," Neal bets hundreds of thousands of dollars in a high-stakes Pai Gow game against a Chinese money-launderer.
- Especially considering he barely knows how to play, with Mozzie teaching him by watching Chinese movies centered on the game but with few artistic additions, such as the dreaded "Death Tile".
- An episode of Tales from the Crypt featured two feuding gamblers, whose attempts to beat each other escalate into a series of these, starting with Russian Roulette and going downhill from there...
- The Middleman - Shabumi. This one is based on skill, run by an eccentric millionaire, and highly unusual.
- "Each player is dealt a full deck of cards. Every card has its own name. There are 589 unique physical and verbal challenges to every hand. And if anyone shows the slightest ignorance of the game's byzantine rules, they are decapitated by [...] the thoughtless, speechless brute, Govindar."
- The game might also be based on cheating and not getting caught... despite a table of five players, each dealt a normal 52-card deck, at one point our hero plays a winning hand of 52-of-a-kind; every one a Deuce of Spades. His prize is the official schematics for the Lunar Landing Sound Stage (he entered the game with a buy-in of The Missing 18-and-a-half Minutes).
- When our heroine joins the game, she is dealt a deck of cards... and a white rabbit.
- The game ends when a player builds a five-foot-tall house of cards with his hand, but is caught with a glue stick.
- "The Devil Went Down to Georgia" - This well-known song tells the story of a boy named Johnny who competes against the devil in a fiddle contest. If he wins, he gets a golden fiddle, but if he loses, the devil gets Johnny's soul.
- A planet of The Empire in the Phase World setting is run by a dictator with an obsession with games of chance. Every few years, he holds a big gambling festival, culminating with a challenge to one of the best players. If the guest wins the game, they get control of the planet. If they lose, they are summarily executed.
- In Deadlands, the character type called the Huckster plays hands of poker to cast their spells, where they need to get a good enough hand..or else a demon might fry a chunk of their brain, drive them insane, or just tear their body asunder. The interesting part here being that the PLAYER is the one who plays this Absurdly High Stakes Game with his character's life.
- A similar situation exists in Dungeons and Dragons and several of its descendants; with the Deck of Many Things, you declare how many cards you are going to draw from it first, and then your character has to draw the cards. If he doesn't draw his next card, it flips out of the deck on its own an hour after the last draw. Each card has some very permanent effect on the character, world, and sometimes even setting, so allowing a Deck of Many Things into your campaign is one of the easiest ways to break the story, if you have one.
- The first set in the Star Trek CCG had a card called Raise the Stakes. The opponent of the player either had to forfeit or agree that the eventual winner would permanently get a card from the loser's deck. It was the first card banned from tournament play.
- Magic: The Gathering had an Ante rule, whereby after shuffling but before drawing hands, the first card in each player's deck would become an Ante card. The winner of the game gets both cards. Adding to this, a few cards manipulated the ante. This was eventually dropped, since 1) nobody wanted to risk losing their cards and 2) Wizards didn't want Magic to be classified as a form of gambling in markets where such things would be frowned upon.
- Guys and Dolls's Sky Masterson got his name from his love for this trope. He's infamous for his "crazy" bets, and in the climax of the show ("Luck Be A Lady"), bets every man at the craps game $1,000 against their souls - if he wins, they have to show up at the Save-a-Soul Mission.
- Lord Alden, undefeated Chessmaster of the continent in Vanguard Bandits, is more than willing to wager his powerful Altagrave ATAC against a completely new chess player.
- In Arcanum, at one point, you need a ship. One of the options is to win one in a game of dice.
- In Killer 7, there is a climactic game of Russian Roulette between Garcian Smith and Benjamin Keane. If Garcian wins, Keane will tell him the secret to hitting on any woman with 100% success. If Keane wins, Garcian must kill the President. The stakes end up being pretty meaningless anyway.
- The slots-o-death machine in Space Quest. You can win a relatively paltry sum, but roll three skulls and you are toast. The only way for Roger to earn enough cash for a ticket out of Ulence Flats is by Save Scumming or (in the remake) a magnet on the bottom of the machine.
- Return to Zork has a board game called "Survivor" with really simple rules: One player controls the Wizard and the other a common peasant. The peasant can move wherever he wants, the Wizard can only move in L-formations and leaves pits when he vacates a space. The goal of the game is for the other player to be forced to move into a pit (and thus lose). You play this game twice, and the second time is the final boss of the game, with the fate of all Zork riding on the outcome.
- Last Res0rt pits several contestants against each other, and heavily encouraged to kill each other off in other to ensure their own survival until the end... most of the players are hardened criminals eager to use the show as a way to get out, but not all.
- Word of God has stated that the contestants are NOT required to kill anyone during the show. But, the stakes up for grabs are either death, going back to jail or freedom with a full pardon. The producers are waiting for the contestants to take advantage of the payoff of a full pardon of all their crimes.
- Collar 6- Sixx makes a bet to become a slave if she doesn't win a spanking contest.
- In Homestuck, whenever you play Sburb, your planet and entire species are the initial wage, the quarter in the arcade cabinet, to be lost forever whether you win or lose. The prize is creating a whole new universe.
- Futurama parodied the song "The Devil Went Down to Georgia". In the episode, Leela and Fry have to get Bender out of Robot Hell. The Robot Devil, after failing to get them to sign a "fiddle contest waiver", explains that they can have Bender if they can outplay him on a golden fiddle (when Fry points out the poor construction of such an instrument, he admits it's mostly for show). If they lose, they would only receive a silver fiddle as a consolation prize. He then offhanded added that he'd kill Fry, as if it were expected of him instead of something he actually wanted to do.
- One episode of The Simpsons made an allusion to The Lady or the Tiger?. In that episode, Mr. Burns had transferred his plant's operations to India. Because he was required by federal law to keep at least one union worker in his payroll, Homer got sent there to oversee the plant. When Lenny and Carl went there to visit him, they met a man who showed them two doors, telling them that Homer Simpson was behind one of the doors and that there was a tiger behind the other door. The found a tiger behind the first door they opened and quickly closed it. As they opened the other door, they found... another tiger. Lenny and Carl were then told that one of the tigers was named "Homer Simpson".
- In Regular Show the episode "Skips Strikes" has Rigby making a bet with Death: If Death's Team wins he'll get the team's(which is everyone working at the park except Muscle Man and High-Five Ghost) souls and if Rigby's Team wins he gets a bowling ball filled with souls. Mordecai and Benson aren't happy about this.
- "Over the Top" has Skips arm wrestling Death for Rigby's soul.
- In "Slam Dunk", Mordecai eventually bets his computer privileges for life on a basketball game just so he can help Margaret make a website in hopes of impressing her.
- In the ThunderCats (2011) episode "The Duelist and the Drifter," Professional Gambler and Master Swordsman the Duelist makes a habit of betting swordsmen they can't defeat him and offering up his own best blade as incentive, taking theirs as trophies when they inevitably lose. When young hero Lion-O challenges him and tries to raise the stakes so he can win the Duelist's entire sword collection, the Duelist insists that since Lion-O has only one to offer in return, the boy should agree to give up his life if he loses. Lion-O agrees to the terms.
- Famous Jewish-Roman historian Josephus once survived a systematic mass suicide among his fellow soldiers. Rather than surrender to the Romans, the Jewish rebels arranged themselves in a circle and killed every seventh man until only Josephus remained. Although not technically a "game", the situation and his ingenious solution has been studied by mathematical game theorists for centuries.
- H.L. Hunt bet nearly his entire net wealth on a hand of poker and won his first oil well. He then used that to build a financial empire making him one of the 10 richest Americans in the 1950's.
- Ashley Revell briefly gained notoriety for cashing out his savings and selling all his possessions (including his clothes... he started wearing rented tuxedos), then placing the total (a good $135,000) on a "double-or-nothing" roulette wheel bet filmed for Sky One. He won, gave a $600 tip to the spinner, then immediately left to form an online poker company.
- which would probably kill you anyway via blood loss