Jim Bennett is a Los Angeles literature professor with a severe gambling addiction caused by an extreme world-view and a pathological obsession with gambling. This view goes unchanged even after the death of his grandfather, Ed, who names Jim his heir just before dying. Jim ends up owing $240,000 to Lee, the proprietor of an exclusive, high-stakes underground gambling ring, and another $50,000 to Neville Baraka, a loan shark. Lee gives Jim seven days to pay off his debts or be murdered.
During one of his classes, Jim begins an awkward discussion of literary excellence based on Shakespeare as an example, discussing how almost all aspiring writers fail to accomplish literary excellence. Jim singles out some exemplary athletes in his class for discussion. First he picks Dexter, an emerging tennis star; he later confronts a basketball student star, Lamar Allen, who does not pay attention in class but intends to become an NBA basketball player. Jim expresses his extremist view on achieving excellence in one’s field or vocation of choice. If you can’t be exemplary, Jim reasons, then you might as well resign yourself to mediocrity. Making a general comment to the class, he tells them that no one but Amy Phillips, a quiet student, is capable of a career in literature. Jim identifies Amy as a potential writing prodigy based on her previous writings in his class, as well as having previously encountered her working surreptitiously as a waitress at the underground gambling house. Amy develops a personal interest in Jim, which he reciprocates.