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Newly arrived in New York from California is "Fast" Eddie Felson, a brash pool shark who makes his living hustling in billiard parlors around the country. Taking on unwary opponents, he allows them to win until the stakes are high enough; then he makes his killing and leaves town. Eddie has come to New York with his longtime crony and manager, Charlie Burns, to challenge Minnesota Fats, the undisputed champion pool player in the country. For 36 hours the two men battle, and, at first, game after game goes to Eddie. Then, filled with too much liquor and conceit, he eventually falls apart and ends up beaten and broke. Following the bout, he wanders into an all-night coffeeshop and picks up an alcoholic, disillusioned cripple named Sarah Packard. For want of anything better to do, he moves in with her and lives a day-to-day existence by hustling in third-rate pool halls throughout the city. One night he challenges the wrong sucker, another young hustler he meets in a waterfront dive. Although Eddie wins, four hoodlums grab Eddie, throw him into the men's room, and break both his thumbs. Once recovered, Eddie aligns himself with a coldblooded gambler, Bert Gordon, who agrees to arrange bigtime matches in return for 70 percent of the winnings. Accompanied by Sarah, Eddie and Bert travel to Louisville, Kentucky, where Eddie takes on Findlay, a millionaire playboy addicted to billiards. Though the trip ends in victory for Eddie, it ends in tragedy for Sarah. Badgered by the ruthless Bert, who demands complete dominion over his client, Sarah admits defeat and slashes her wrists with a razor. Shattered by the realization that his egotism has destroyed his one chance for happiness, Eddie returns to New York and again challenges Fats. Eddie outshoots, outmaneuvers, and outthinks his opponent until Fats finally concedes defeat. Victorious, Eddie denounces Bert, refuses to give him a cut of the winnings, and walks out of the pool room.