In the opening scene of Topdog/Underdog, Booth sits in a squalid apartment and practices playing Three-Card Monte atop a cardboard box propped up by milk crates. He rehearses his banter, imitating phrases he’s heard hustlers use on the street. Interrupting him, his brother Lincoln enters. Lincoln is a former hustler and Three-Card Monte dealer who’s staying with Booth because his wife, Cookie, has left him. He’s wearing a long coat, a fake beard, and a top hat. He has just come from his new job at the arcade, where he sits dressed up as Abraham Lincoln while customers shoot him with cap guns, a job he recently took so that he could leave behind his dangerous life as a Three-Card Monte conman. Startled by his brother’s costume, Booth whirls around and points a pistol at Lincoln, threatening to shoot him next time he scares him like that. Lincoln explains that he didn’t have time to take his costume off at work because had to catch the bus, but this does nothing to calm down Booth, who announces that Lincoln can’t dress like that in this apartment because, he claims, it will scare away women.
Booth explains that he has a date with his girlfriend Grace. “Shes in love with me again but she dont know it yet,” he says, showing Lincoln a ring he stole for the purpose of proposing to Grace, calling it “diamond-esque” and claiming that as long as it looks authentic, it’s “just as good as the real thing.” Lincoln admits he thought the ring was authentic at first glance—he even thought Booth bought it with his “inheritance,” the $500 their mother left him before leaving when they were still children (Lincoln also received an inheritance of the same amount, but has already spent it). As Lincoln takes off his costume, Booth announces he has decided to change his name to 3-Card because he’s going to be a prolific Three-Card Monte dealer.
The second scene takes place the following evening, when Booth enters the apartment wearing multiple suits, which he has stolen. When Lincoln comes home with a paycheck, the two brothers rejoice over their new suits and the money, divvying up the earnings and calculating how much they have left over after paying rent and utilities and buying alcohol. Lincoln confides in Booth, saying he’s worried he’s going to get fired from the arcade because rumors are circulating about cutbacks. Upon hearing this, Booth insists that Lincoln should exaggerate his performance as Abraham Lincoln to prove he’s indispensable. Lincoln agrees and asks Booth to practice, but Booth is on his way out to meet Grace for their date. When he leaves, Lincoln dresses up as Lincoln and practices dying, then sits in his armchair drinking whiskey.
The third scene begins later that night, when Booth comes home and brags to Lincoln, saying that Grace wants him back. “She wants me back so bad she wiped her hand over the past where we wasnt together just so she could say we aint never been apart. She wiped her hand over our breakup.” Lincoln congratulates his brother, and Booth goes on to brag about having sex with Grace. When Lincoln asks him to help him practice the Abraham Lincoln routine, Booth declines, saying he’s too tired. At this point, Lincoln accuses Booth of lying, suggesting that his brother didn’t actually have sex with Grace. He pokes fun at him for owning pornographic magazines, the pages of which stick together because Booth “spunked in the pages and didnt wipe them off.” Defending himself, Booth says he needs “constant sexual release,” and that if he wasn’t “taking care” of himself he would just be out spending money that he doesn’t have “out of a need for unresolved sexual release.” Then he feebly adds, “I gave it to Grace good tonight.” The brothers speak again about Three-Card Monte, and Booth finally decides to help Lincoln practice his act, pretending to shoot him and then watching him writhe and scream on the floor. Unnerved, he tells his brother that now the death looks “too real or something.” Lincoln agrees this is a bad thing, and remarks that people are funny about “historical shit,” and “they like it to unfold the way they folded it up. Neatly like a book. Not raggedy and bloody and screaming.”
In scene four, Lincoln wakes up on Saturday morning and, to prove to himself that he still has talent, practices dealing Three-Card Monte while Booth is asleep. His moves are much more fluid and practiced than Booth’s, and his banter is well-rehearsed. As he goes through the motions, Booth wakes up and secretly listens to his routine.
After intermission, the apartment has been transformed. Several days have passed, and in place of the makeshift Three-Card Monte setup there now stands a table beautifully set for a romantic dinner. Booth is alone, and he skitters about the room tidying up and trying to hide his pornographic magazines. He assures himself that Grace will come, even though she’s late. Just then, Lincoln tries to come in, but Booth blocks the door, saying he isn’t welcome in the apartment tonight. Lincoln understands, but still tries to get in, eventually convincing Booth to open the door. “I lost my job,” he says. Apparently, he was replaced by a wax dummy. Booth allows him to stay until Grace arrives, and to pass the time they reminisce about their childhood, talking about their parents, both of whom left them in order to elope with different lovers. According to Lincoln, each parent was running from various hardships in their pasts—hardships they hoped would simply disappear if they changed their lifestyles.
Lincoln and Booth drink whiskey while waiting for Grace. Booth tells Lincoln that he wants to work as brothers hustling unsuspecting people on the street. Hearing this, Lincoln decides to impart some wisdom about Three-Card Monte. The dealer, he explains, never reveals that he actually wants to play. This way, the crowd grows even more desperate to gamble. Lincoln finally plays with Booth, moving around the cards. The objective is for Booth to choose the correct card out of the three on the tabletop. After Lincoln finishes his routine, Booth chooses the right card. “Make room for 3-Card!” he shouts. “Here comes thuh champ!” This happens several times, and Booth grows more and more animated and confident. Then Lincoln tells Booth to show him his skills as a dealer, and they switch roles. When Booth displays his clumsy talents, Lincoln laughs hard, telling him he’s “a little wild with it.” As he laughs, Booth puts his coat on and puts his gun in his pocket. Remembering how late Grace is, Booth grows angry. Link offers to go to the corner to call Grace, but Booth ignores this, saying, “Thuh world puts its foot in yr face and you dont move. You tell thuh world tuh keep on stepping. But Im my own man, Link. I aint you.” With this, he leaves the apartment, slamming the door on his way out.
In the final scene, which takes place the following evening, Lincoln bursts into the apartment yelling, “Taaadaaaa!” Alone, he pulls from his pocket $500 and recounts the triumphs of the day, which he spent hustling people on the streets in Three-Card Monte. As he rejoices, Booth appears in the doorway and listens. Upon noticing him, Lincoln asks his brother how his night has been. Booth tells him that Grace has actually proposed to him, which means Lincoln’s going to have to pack his bags and leave, since Grace will want to live in the apartment. Unfazed, Lincoln agrees to be gone the next day. He also advises his brother to get a job, suggesting that Grace won’t like him anymore if he isn’t bringing money into the house. Offended, Booth steers the conversation toward confrontation, revealing that he slept with Cookie right before she left Lincoln. “All she knew was you couldnt get it up,” he says. “I had her. Yr damn wife. Right in that bed.”
Lincoln is rather unperturbed by Booth’s outright hostility, saying that he doesn’t think about Cookie anymore anyway. However, the brothers continue to argue, and Link mocks Booth for believing he’s going to survive as a card dealer. They start playing Three-Card Monte, and Booth picks the right card, besting Lincoln, who congratulates his little brother on getting “pretty good.” But Booth feels his victory is empty because there isn’t any money on the line. To remedy this, Lincoln puts down the $500 he made that day, but Booth points out that it’s not real if he doesn’t put some of his own money down, too. Booth fetches his inheritance, which is still tied up tight in the nylon stocking in which his mother gave it to him. “Dont put that down,” Lincoln says, but Booth urges him to deal the cards. After a moment, Lincoln does, on the condition that Booth can only win the money if he wins two rounds. Sure enough, his little brother chooses the right card on the first round. Right before picking for the second time, Booth reiterates the terms of the bet, saying that if he picks right again he wins, and Lincoln agrees. “Plus I beat you for real,” Booth adds, to which Lincoln asks, “You think we’re really brothers?” Lincoln then deals the cards, duping Booth and winning his inheritance.
“Aint yr fault if yr eyes aint fast,” Link says to Booth. “Throwing cards aint thuh whole world.” Gloating, he starts untying the nylon stocking, marveling at the fact that Booth never even opened it to count the money. Lincoln then reveals that he has conned Booth, saying, “Cause its thuh first move that separates thuh Player from thuh Played. And thuh first move is to know that there aint no winning.” Furious, Booth suddenly confesses that he shot and killed Grace, and Lincoln decides to give his brother back the inheritance, but Booth’s anger can’t be calmed. “Go on,” Booth shouts. “You won it you open it.” As Link reluctantly cuts open the stocking with a knife, Booth seizes him from behind and shoves the barrel of his gun into his neck. “Dont,” Lincoln pleads, but Booth pulls the trigger, killing him. In the aftermath of the gunshot, Booth paces back and forth, yelling at his brother’s dead body before suddenly falling to the ground, holding Lincoln’s body, and screaming in agony.