The Hustler is back, or is he?
Setting his eyes on Vincent (Tom Cruise), a young and talented, but quirky and obnoxious, pool player, rekindles Fast Eddie Felson's (Paul Newman) passion for pool. Vincent has a valuable attribute in Eddie's eyes - anonymity. Eddie is well-known and, consequently, incapable of success as a road warrior in the seedy world of action pool, but in Vincent, he sees a meal ticket, and takes him under his wing. Unfortunately, Vincent needs some schooling, not in playing pool, but in the art of baiting, taunting, and deceiving potential opponents and side bettors to trap them. Vincent has a hard time adapting to Eddie's methods, clearly troubled by the inherent immorality, and it doesn't appear that Eddie's lessons will ever sink in. At his weakest, Vincent is incapable of holding back in a gambling session with America's best big action player, Grady Seasons (Keith McCready). Eddie's lessons will surely sink in at some point. Or will they?
Eddie gives Vincent some money to go on the road, and Vincent, at long last transforming himself into the hustler Eddie had always wanted him to be, makes a lot of money. Shortly after, Vincent and Eddie enter the same pool tournament in Atlantic City, but the action is hottest in the practice room. It is at this tournament where Eddie does some soul searching, and when he, surprisingly, turns down a shot at having a piece of Vincent's practice room gambling action, it is the onset of his rejection of pool's seedier side. In Vincent, Eddie sees some of himself, and what he sees repulses him. Eddie now wants to win on merit, rather than through a hustle, and his passion for winning fair and square shows in his exuberance in his tournament matches.
All of a sudden, he is the Eddie that beat Minnesota Fats through excellence, rather than the Eddie who had successfully hustled many, and his self-esteem seems to be peaking just when he learns that Vincent dumped their tournament match to turn a large profit in side betting, a clear blow to Eddie's pride. From Eddie's vantage point, dumping has gone from being an undeniable aspect of betting on pool to an objectionable practice. The Vincent he knew had refused to dump or deceive, but now, dumping and deception are art forms that Vincent and his girlfriend and new manager (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) have mastered. Suddenly, the tournament no longer represents Eddie's best chance to regain his self-esteem. Why, one must wonder, is Eddie practicing immeidately after he forfeits his very next match in the tournament?
Because he is preparing for the only match out there that matters to him......the one against Vincent.....and his resolve to play and win that match is his new raison d'etre.