In nineteenth-century Russia, gambling at cards was a favorite leisure activity of military officers, and casinos in Germany and France became magnetic destinations for the landed gentry. Gambling was a way to test one’s nerve and courage, to risk honor, property, and status. Fueled by alcohol, the pleasurable distraction and means to stave off boredom often turned into an uncontrollable addiction. Obsessive gambling became reckless self-destruction, a form of suicide, which often followed total ruin. Like warfare and dueling, gambling was a high-risk and sometimes deadly activity, where greed and crime could flourish. When connected to love, it made a perfect literary subject.

Dostoyevsky believed that Russians, torn between extremes of behavior, were fatally attracted to risk. Chekhov’s biographer writes that “Pushkin gambled away his poetry, Tolstoy gambled away his house, and Dostoyevsky gambled away everything he had.” Dostoyevsky quarreled bitterly with Turgenev after the former had borrowed money for gambling debts and failed to repay it. Even the cautious Chekhov tried his luck in Monte Carlo and placed a few modest bets on le rouge et le noir. Pushkin and Lermontov took the ultimate risks and were killed in duels.

These writers portrayed their experiences in fiction, and the psychological motivation of gamblers became the central subject of five representative works published within three decades: Pushkin’s story “The Queen of Spades” (1834), Gogol’s play The Gamblers (1836), Lermontov’s story “The Fatalist” in A Hero of Our Time (1840), Tolstoy’s story “Two Hussars” (1856), and Dostoyevsky’s novella The Gambler (1867). Pushkin’s characters and scenes inspired all his followers, and his narrative elements persisted: the arrival of officers in a provincial town, handsome uniforms, hopeless servants, male comradeship, flowing champagne, rampant drunkenness, reckless gambling, sly cardsharps, disastrous losses, fatal encounters, savage fistfights, grand balls, skillful dancing, bold seductions, dark-eyed gypsies, sudden departures, brief returns, sad farewells, threats of suicide, romantic rendezvous, pure maidens, and fatal duels. All were fascinated by the idea of attempting to conquer one’s fate.

In “The Queen of Spades,” the cautious German Hermann is fascinated by the officers’ card games but unwilling “to risk the necessary in the hope of acquiring the superfluous.” The story begins with a tall tale. One of the officers describes a countess who’s found a secret, infallible method to win back her disastrous gambling losses. Her orphaned companion Lizaveta Ivanovna (whose name Thomas Mann gave to the sympathetic Russian confidante in Tonio Kröger) is oppressed by the selfish old countess. Pushkin’s plot combines gambling with romance. Hermann sets out to discover the countess’s precious secret and, he claims, win enough money to marry Lizaveta. He arranges to come secretly to her room at night and to confront the countess in her adjoining suite.

Pushkin depicts gambling as the literal work of the devil. To extract the countess’s secret, which she has learned (Hermann thinks) through some satanic pact, he threatens her with an unloaded pistol. Terrified, she suddenly expires without revealing it, and he feels guilty about causing her death. In the first of three supernatural events, the countess winks at Hermann from her open coffin and he crashes headlong onto the floor. Later, her ghost appears to him, reveals the secret he has desperately sought, and forgives him for his role in her death. Following her system, he wins spectacularly at cards by betting on a three and on a seven, then mistakenly bets on a queen instead of an ace and loses everything. The card in his hand, the queen of spades, mockingly winks at him again, taking revenge for the countess’s death and his own insatiable greed. Pushkin twice compares Hermann to Napoleon, but the effect is satiric. Hermann is a notable failure who falls down, breaks down, and is finally confined to an insane asylum.

In a letter of 1880, Dostoyevsky, puzzled, exclaimed, “At the end of the tale . . . one does not know what to think: did this vision [of the countess] emanate from Hermann’s nature, or was he really one of those who have contact with another world, a world of evil spirits hostile to man?” But these alternatives—the first more convincing—are both supernatural. The story is also stuffed with Gothic and melodramatic clichés, which made it an excellent subject for Tchaikovsky’s opera in 1890. There is an obsessive quest, mysterious secret, devil’s pact, sudden death, fainting fit, lost love, irrational mistake, and mental breakdown. In this moral tale, Hermann’s obsession with gambling, which runs counter to his naturally cautious character, compels him to lose his entire patrimony, the woman he plans to marry, and, finally, his sanity. Despite its lack of subtlety, the story’s magical quality and black humor exerted a profound influence on later writers and became part of the canonical Russian portrayal of gambling.

Gogol’s one-act play The Gamblers, propelled by snappy dialogue and a fast-moving plot, uses the destructive power of gambling in a satiric comedy and moral fable about the deceiver deceived. The play makes three references to “The Queen of Spades.” This card is considered unlucky, a weak character is compared to Napoleon, and the victim believes that the scam he’s caught in is the devil’s work. Gogol’s main characters, unlike Pushkin’s gambling addicts, are professional cardsharps who prey on guests at a provincial inn: first Ikharev, then Glov and his son Glov, Jr. All the gamblers bribe the servants to provide inside information and use their own marked decks. There is no Liza Ivanovna in the play, but Ikharev attributes female qualities to his favorite deck of cards. He names it Adelaide Ivanovna; praises it as a beauty, treasure, and pearl; and throws it across the room when it fails to bring him riches.

Ikharev and the three cardsharps agree to join forces to swindle the older Glov. Gambling, Ikharev insists, takes “experience, keen insight, careful study of markings,” elevating the con to an art. What honest men and victims call stealing, he calls “the product of subtle intelligence and maturity.” As the gamblers try to persuade the reluctant Glov to play cards, he devises his own counterplot. He tells them that he’s impatiently waiting for two hundred thousand rubles from the state bank and has to leave town immediately, but authorizes his innocent son to receive the money on his behalf. The gamblers treat the son as if he were already a cavalry officer and get him drunk. He keeps doubling his bets, recklessly stakes and loses the two hundred thousand rubles, and signs an iou for that amount. Then—following the romantic cliché—he waves around a pistol and threatens to shoot himself. The bank manager, also part of the cunning swindle, confirms that he’s waiting for the money to arrive.

The three gamblers then extract eighty thousand rubles from Ikharev in return for the two-hundred-thousand-ruble iou. He fantasizes about how he’ll spend his vast wealth by dressing in the latest fashion and visiting the theaters and restaurants of Petersburg and Moscow. He boasts of his immoral ethos, “to live subtly, artfully, to deceive everybody and not be deceived yourself.” Glov, Jr. then reveals the plot of the three gamblers, who’ve suddenly disappeared, and thus exposes Ikharev’s stupidity. Glov, Jr. has pretended to be the son of a rich landowner for a fee of three thousand rubles (which he won’t get) and to help the three gamblers give Ikharev a worthless iou in exchange for his fortune. Finally, the disillusioned and embittered Ikharev, the trickster tricked, states the theme of the play: “You spend your life scheming, using your wits, refining all the tricks of the trade! Forget it! It’s not worth the effort. Some crook will turn up who’s twice the crook you are. At one stroke the bastard will bring down what you’ve spent years building.” Gogol offers acute insights into the motivation and psychology of gambling. He shows how men gamble to kill time and relieve the boredom of provincial life. They take risks to defeat their opponent and to maintain the illusion that it’s possible to get somewhere in the world, even if gambling gets them nowhere.

In “The Fatalist,” Lermontov, more philosophical than Pushkin and Gogol, uses gambling to dramatize the conflict between fate and free will. The story seems to confirm the Muslim belief that “one can’t avoid one’s fate.” Tired for the moment of cards, a group of Russian officers seconded to the Caucasus begins an intellectual discussion. But the Serbian Vulich, a foreigner like Pushkin’s Hermann, believes in free will rather than in predestination and is willing to risk suicide to settle this dangerous argument. His adversary, the fatalist Pechorin, opposes Vulich’s belief that “a man may dispose of his life at will” and predicts that the Serbian will die that very night. Taking his life into his own hands, Vulich lifts a pistol from the wall, puts it against his forehead, and pulls the trigger. It misfires, though a second shot aimed at the wall is successful. Free will prevails, and he wins the bet of twenty pieces of gold.

On the way home, Pechorin sees a pig that’s been cut in two by a drunken Cossack. That night he’s told that Vulich—the victim of Pechorin’s prophecy and his own strange fate—has been killed by the sword of the same drunken Cossack who’d killed the pig. Vulich had survived his battle against the Chechens and his suicide attempt. But fate, in the form of the Cossack, decided that Vulich would die and Pechorin would live. The story confirms Pechorin’s belief that the time has not yet come for him to die and that no one can “escape becoming a fatalist.”

Tolstoy’s “Two Hussars” has all the familiar elements of a Pushkin tale. The characters of the two Turbins, father and son, are quite similar. Both are handsome, swaggering, domineering, wild, and violent officers. The father had abducted a woman, killed a man, and dropped another victim out of a window: “He was a regular dare-devil . . . a gambler, a duellist, a seducer, but a jewel of an hussar.” In an operatic gesture, he offers, if a woman commands him, to risk his life by jumping out of a window or plunging through the ice. The name of the father’s dog, Blücher (after the field-marshal who defeated Napoleon at Leipzig and Waterloo), points to the greatest gambler in French history, who had won and lost a whole empire.

As in Pushkin, Tolstoy connects the passions for gambling and romance. At the beginning of the story a cardsharp swindles Ilyin, a young officer who loses his all his own money as well as the government funds he’s been entrusted with. Terrified and disgusted with himself, he feels “his youth, rich with hope, his honour, the respect of society, his dreams of love and friendship—all were utterly lost.” He plans to kill himself as the only escape from disgrace, but Turbin comes to his rescue and recovers the money the cardsharp has stolen from him.

At the same time, Turbin plans to seduce the attractive widow Anna Fedorovna, whom he meets at a ball. In a bold military stratagem, he secretly enters her carriage and waits for her to arrive while “his face was aflame and his heart beat fast.” When she bursts into tears and rests her head on his chest, he has his way with her. After a mad interlude with the gypsies, he suddenly thinks of Anna. In a tender epilogue that completes his seduction, he “found the widow still asleep, took her in his arms, lifted her out of bed, kissed her sleepy eyes, and ran quickly back. Anna, only half awake, licked her lips and asked, ‘What has happened?’ ”

Twenty years later, Turbin’s son, rather improbably, arrives in the same town and is given a room in the house of his father’s old lover. To compensate for the loss of the older Turbin and recreate that magical liaison, Anna “longed to relive in the soul of her daughter what she had experienced with him who was dead.” Anna’s innocent young daughter is attracted to Turbin’s son. She fantasizes about him while “a sweet, languid sensation of sadness oppressed her heart, and tears of pure wide-spreading love, thirsting to be satisfied—good comforting tears—filled her eyes.” As the son plans his wicked seduction, he receives a delightful letter from his witty and emotionally responsive mistress, who’s “much better than our young ladies”—as well as a nasty letter demanding payment of gambling debts, which he ignores.

The romantic Lisa tells young Turbin that she will be sitting that night at her garden window, and he thinks she’s inviting him to a rendezvous. But he misjudges her feelings, and when he touches her hand, she screams and runs away. Tolstoy distinguishes between the father’s spontaneous and impetuous seduction of the sexually experienced widow and the son’s calculating and cynical attempt to ruin the life of her innocent daughter. Their attitude to gambling is another touchstone of character. The older man took pity on a comrade who’d been caught in trap; the younger swindles the widow in a game she doesn’t understand. The father has a violent and vicious character. But Tolstoy, the lapsed moralist, is willing to exonerate the dashing fellow who upholds military values and suggests that the older Turbin is morally superior to his son.

Dostoyevsky preferred roulette to cards. Xan Fielding’s The Money Spinner: Monte Carlo and Its Fabled Casino (1977) describes gambling from the casino’s point of view. He explains how the lavish gambling den was developed in the nineteenth century by French millionaires who lured the aristocratic and fashionable world to the tables, and was later controlled by the German arms dealer Basil Zaharoff and by the Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis. At the height of the season in the early 1900s, twenty-three gaming tables were manned by five hundred employees. Fielding discusses Dostoyevsky’s disastrous gambling at Wiesbaden on the Rhine, which the Russian novelist described in The Gambler, and provides a number of intriguing facts about the ambience: to prevent swindles, croupiers wore suits without pockets; one famous gambler always carried a million francs in cash; no one ever broke the bank; and there were many suicides after gamblers had lost everything. Fielding also explains how roulette, trente-et-quarante, and baccarat actually work, and how the casino maintains absolute control of its astronomical profits.

In a letter of May 1867, Dostoyevsky, who thought he could win but knew he would lose, confessed that he lacked self-restraint and was always ruined in roulette: “My efforts are successful every time, so long as I retain my sangfroid and calculatingly follow my system. But the moment I start winning, I immediately begin to take chances. I can’t control myself.” In The Gambler he condemns the Poles, French, Germans, and English. By contrast, he exalts the bold Russian passion for risk-taking and calls roulette a Russian game. At one turn of the wheel, when everything can suddenly change, he could quickly gain a great fortune and earn the praise and admiration of the crowd. But Russians, who squander rather than retain their wealth, often destroy themselves. As Joseph Frank observes, Dostoyevsky “may well have rationalized his gambling addiction. . . . [The Gambler] may be considered a self-condemnation and an apologia.”

Written carelessly in only four weeks, The Gambler is long-winded and repetitive. The narrator-gambler Alexis—a twenty-two-year-old nobleman and university graduate—tutors the General’s children and is in love with his stepdaughter, Polina. She’s been the mistress of the wicked Frenchman de Grieux (named after the lover of the ill-fated Manon Lescaut), to whom the General is disastrously in debt. The General is the heir of the wealthy Grandmamma. She is supposed to be dying in Moscow, and he believes that her death will solve all his problems. Alexis, a typically Dostoyevskian insulted-and-injured character, is mentally disturbed, often irrational, out of control, frequently humiliated, and filled with self-hatred.

The best and most comic scene in the novella takes place when Grandmamma unexpectedly turns up in Roulettenberg (Wiesbaden) and shocks the General. Despite her exhausting journey from Russia, she ignores the beneficial effects of the thermal springs and, though she’s never played roulette before, heads straight for the casino. Everyone is desperate for money, and gambling makes their dreams seem possible. They want to clear debts, pay current expenses, form wealthy alliances, rise in social status, or maintain their parasitic position.

Alexis’s passion for Polina runs parallel to his even stronger passion for gambling. He first gambles on behalf of Polina while using her money, then on behalf of Grandmamma while using her money, and later bonds with both women by participating in their losses. Like Hermann in “The Queen of Spades,” the hero gambles so he can win enough money to marry. Like the older Turbin in “Two Hussars” with his reckless vows, Alexis is ready to gnaw his hands off at the merest rustle of Polina’s dress or (if she commands him) to throw himself off the peak of the nearest mountain.

But he’s drawn to “the extraordinary magnificence and luxury of the gaming rooms in the casinos of the towns on the Rhine, and the heaps of gold that are supposed to lie on the tables.” He believes that “some radical and decisive change in my destiny will inevitably take place,” and claims that gambling is no worse—and may even be nobler—than other ways of acquiring money. Though many players rely on a secret mathematical system, he does not think calculation is important. He admits that there’s a lot of greed and trickery involved in the casino, and that thieves often reach across the table to steal another’s winnings. But he insists that a real gentleman must never show emotion, even when he is unable to keep his winnings and continues to play until he loses everything.

Dostoyevsky’s account of the pathology of gambling emphasizes the effect on the gambler, not on the mechanics of roulette itself. He believes that gamblers, like duellists and debtors, can be admirable or unworthy, and that there’s an important difference between aristocratic gamblers who don’t care about losing money and the greedy plebeians who desperately need the cash. Alexis knows that he’ll never escape from the chains of roulette and hates to stop betting when the casino closes at midnight. Like the earlier fictional heroes, he lives in a fantasy world and dreams of fabulous wealth, challenges fate, and believes that his destiny is written in the stars.

Alexis wants to astonish the spectators at the casino by his theatrical Russian craving for risk and eagerness to take senseless chances. He compares his feelings to sliding down a precipitous mountain on a toboggan and to the fate of Marie Blanchard, who accidentally ignited the gas in her balloon and thus became the first woman to be killed in an aviation crash. Dismissed by the General for his offensive behavior, Alexis is reduced to poverty and even imprisoned. He laments, “I was far from home, in a foreign country, without work or any means of livelihood, without hope, without plans.” But he’s not worried about these problems and plans to restore his fortune by gambling.

Late in the novella, Alexis explains how to play roulette. You can bet on red or black, on odd or even numbers, on manque (numbers one to eighteen) or passe (numbers nineteen to thirty-six). If the spinning ball lands on zero, the bet on that number gets thirty-five times its stake and the bank takes all the other bets on the table. Fascinated by zero, Grandmamma—in a grotesque parody of Alexis’s obsession—defies all the odds by repeatedly betting on that number. On her first encounter and with amazing beginner’s luck, she wins twelve thousand florins. She remains cool while Alexis, her nervous guide, suffers trembling legs and a throbbing head. The next day, when Alexis is unable to restrain her, she loses everything she’s just won as well as the rest of her money. The General wants to have her forcibly confined before he forfeits his entire inheritance, but she escapes back to Russia. In a final irony, Alexis, persisting in self-destruction and comparing himself to a triumphant Christ, claims “I shall rise from the dead!” and be restored to a meaningful life. He expresses the sensation of freedom that can come from utter abasement, a certainty in degradation and an animal level beneath which he could not fall.

Despite his satiric portrait of Alexis and his illusions, Dostoyevsky knew that he was himself in thrall to gambling. In this context, roulette was an escape from artistic creation, an addiction that prevented the artist from working, but would also, if he won, give him a new freedom to write.

All these five works by Russia’s greatest writers owe a profound debt to Pushkin’s original story. Despite the dash of bravado and twirling mustachios, they contain a moral message. They portray desperate characters and reveal that the irresistible risks of gambling—and the struggle between free will and fate—inevitably cause a series of disasters: swindles, bankruptcy, ruined lives, insanity, and death.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 37 Number 5, on page 76
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