Entertainment

How the Absurd, Risky Gambling in 'Uncut Gems' Actually Works

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This story contains major spoilers for Uncut Gems.

Uncut Gems, the frenetic Safdie brothers thriller, has generated near-universal praise thanks to Adam Sandler's Oscar-worthy performance, the teethgrinding tension packed into virtually every second of the movie's runtime, Kevin Garnett's acting chops, and the bedazzled Furby. Among other things! But if you happen to be a moviegoer with no connection to compulsive sports betting -- wow, no need to go all holier-than-thou -- you may have missed some of the nuances of Howard Ratner's (Sandler) risky gambles, because "he has to win" is all the comprehension required to follow along with the basics. 

Since every review describes Sandler's Howard Ratner as a "gambling addict" -- even though he just needs ONE BET to come through and everything will be FINE -- it's important to understand how the details of the bets he makes relate to the film's themes, which are all about the exploitation and insatiable, constant expansion required in a capitalist nation hurtling toward its own destruction without any ability to stop itself. It's certainly not about gems! 

But let's start with the fun stuff: How does sports betting work, and what exactly were Howard's bets? 

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How sports betting works in Uncut Gems

Like points along a line, problematic tweets, and goodwill for Tom Hanks, sports betting is, for all practical purposes, infinite. If an act can happen in a competitive environment, you can wager -- and therefore win/lose (but probably win, you've got a good feeling about this one, right???) -- money on it. Sure, if you think LeBron James is going to kiss NBA Commissioner Adam Silver on the lips before the fourth quarter of a game against the Detroit Pistons, you might have to travel far and wide to find someone who will take that bet. But you could do it. You'd probably get great odds. I'm offering 1,000,000:1.

This is why the most common bets are on the most basic outcomes: who will win, how many points will be scored, by whom, etc. and so on. It works for pretty much any sport and can be pared down incrementally as much as you like: by quarter, half, inning, time on the clock, frames, or number of stones remaining.    

The key, though, is the aforementioned odds. A sportsbook, which is anyone or any place that takes wagers, makes an effort to ensure every proposition has an equal amount of money coming in on each side of it, and that's what makes gambling truly fun/traumatic/agonizing/joyful/destructive for the whole family. Some teams are clearly better than others. The vast majority of people will bet against the Knicks, a notoriously Bad Team, pretty much every single game, so to even out the amount of money wagered on the Knicks and whoever they're playing, the sportsbooks invented point spreads. If the Los Angeles Lakers played the New York Knicks, the Lakers might be favored by 15 points, for example; that means if you're betting the point spread, the Lakers need to outscore the Knicks by more than 15 points for you to win.

In games where the teams are more closely matched, one might be favored by only 2 or 3 points, which is where the end of games -- basketball in particular -- can turn a dispassionate observer into a rabid fan willing to destroy expensive electronics if the ref doesn't call a foul. If you happen to know a ref who owes a lot of people money, you might even be able to blackmail him into swinging gambling outcomes for you, and you'll make a ton of cash! But that's illegal. And wrong. And the FBI usually gets involved.

If you just thought the Knicks would beat the Lakers outright, you'd get better odds; a better return on your investment in an unlikely outcome. In other words, a $100 bet on the Knicks to win might earn you $500, while a bet on the Lakers to win would only get you, say, $10. All of these concepts more or less apply to individual performances and over-unders; do you think LeBron James will score more or less than 25 points in that Pistons game you bet on? Which brings us to Howard Ratner's first bet.

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The first bet: 

Ratner's first bet comes about when he spots an opportunity to exploit Kevin Garnett's love for a recently arrived black opal from Ethiopa. Howard loans him the rock in exchange for Garnett's 2008 championship ring, which Ratner immediately pawns for cash to stake him for a big bet on the Celtics. Not just the Celtics, in fact, but KG's personal performance, too. And not just any bet, but a six-way parlay, which Mike Francesa (playing Howard's bookie) rightly describes as the dumbest bet he's ever heard.

A parlay is sort of like poppers mixed with molly mixed with cocaine mixed with a heart condition. Very dangerous! Don't do it! It's also illegal! For a parlay to work -- and they rarely work, someone or something always screws you -- every single part of the wager has to go in your favor. So when Howard says he wants a six-way parlay involving the Boston Celtics-Philadelphia 76ers playoff game, he needs all of these to be true: 

  • Celtics win by at least one point (they're one-point favorites)
  • Celtics are winning at halftime
  • Garnett has more points than his projected total
  • Garnett has more rebounds than his projected total
  • Garnett has more blocked shots than his projected total
  • Celtics win the opening tip (this is the most absurd component of each bet, but we'll return to it later)

Additionally, Ratner places a $1,000 "lightning bet" on the Celtics: For every point they cover above the spread, he wins $1,000. The flip side is that he'll owe the same amount for however many points they fail to cover the spread by. The Celtics won by 16 points, so as one-point favorites, Boston earns Howard $15,000. If they'd lost by 16, he would've owed $17,000. These bets are an excellent way to make or lose your entire life savings at the very end of a game.
 
So with $1,000 on the lightning bet, Howard has $39,000 to place on his parlay, which is netting him 15:1 odds. That's why he screams at Arno (Eric Bogosian) that he just won $600,000 -- $39,000 x 15 = $585,000, plus $15,000 from the lightning bet -- right before Arno tells Howard he stopped the bet and he's taking his underwear.

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The second bet: 

Every single one of Howard's problems could've been solved if his idiot brother-in-law didn't stop the bet of the century from paying off, which is why he has to make this second bet. With the proceeds of the opal's sale to KG, Howard decides to test his luck on a more conservative, though still risky, three-way parlay for Game 7 of the Celtics-Sixers series. For him to win, the following have to be true:

  • Kevin Garnett's combined points and rebounds are higher than projected (the projection is set at 18 points and 8 rebounds, so as long as KG scores and rebounds in a number that gets above 26, this component is successful)
  • The Celtics win the game
  • The Celtics win the opening tip

Including the opening tip in any parlay signifies gambling addiction in the same way that having a baby signifies you were pregnant. If you're looking for random risk, you might as well bet on whether the person next to you has a $10 bill in their wallet. It's the very first thing that happens in a game, lots of variables can screw with the result, and if it doesn't go in your favor, you lose the entire wager. In fact, you've lost before the first second ticks off the clock. Howard Ratner essentially puts his entire future in a duffel bag, entrusts it to his mistress Julia (Julia Fox), and sends it on a Blade helicopter to the Mohegan Sun, all for the equivalent of a coin flip. That's some extreme gambling. 

Of course, he's getting close to 8:1 odds to win $1,229,000 on a $155,000 bet, and the allure of gambling is imagining what it will feel like when the wager wins. It's the same as the allure of the stock market, and while sports gambling and the stock market don't exist on the same plane of respectability in America, there's little practical difference between what happens in Uncut Gems' Diamond District and what occurs every day on Wall Street. Finding the largest margin of profitability at all costs, as Howard explains to KG, is how he "wins." He chases a black opal because there's a huge potential for profit thanks to the multiple layers of exploitation required to obtain the object in the first place -- it's why the Safdies include the gruesome injury at the mine as the opening scene. Like any stock market bet or sports wager, the gambler relies on the hard work of others to return the best margin for him, and how he chooses his bets comes down, in the end, to personal preference. For all the algorithms, statistics, expert analysis, entire segments of the economy, and media devoted to it, gambling -- on sports or companies or commodities -- is mostly a game of irrational parasitism that sucks value from wealth-generating work. There's no way to guarantee a big win, and there's always the risk of an irredeemable loss. 

The Safdies and Sandler capture the unfettered joy of clinching a long-shot bet, but the masterstroke of the winning scene in Howard's diamond shop is that they simultaneously manage to convey the feeling of a horrible gambling loss. It feels like (SPOILER) getting shot in the face. As KG makes clear in his postgame interview, you can't purchase victory, no matter what Howard says about how he wins; you can only purchase the shadow version of it, a facsimile that stands in for the hard work and dedication and pain the real winners experience.

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Anthony Schneck is an entertainment editor at Thrillist. Follow him on Twitter @AnthonySchneck.