Dostoevsky’s novella had several themes I thought worthy of a blog post: degenerate gambling, national identity, class and love. He is a lyrical writer, the prose sinuous and elegant.
The Dickensian name of the town where the casino is based is pure genius: Roulletenburg! This is where fortunes are won and lost. He observes the irrationality of gambling aptly: “They sit with papers before them scrawled over in pencil, note the strokes, reckon, deduce the chances, calculate, finally stake and -lose exactly as we simple mortals who play without calculations”. The casino does not rely on luck, only the players.
Of course, a lot of players know the house always wins but still get involved. Polina, for example, has the “strange and mad idea” that she will win at the gambling table. Based on nothing more than a “belief” that it will get her out of her debt. This belief that they “must” win is what brings everyone to the table. The reality, as it plays out in the book, is that everyone loses in the long term.
Alexei twice works his money from nothing to a huge stake and, both times, loses it all. The real tragedy is the granny’s story. The house of cards in the “The Gambler” is primarily constructed through her: she is expected to bail out the other characters – the General, the Frenchman etc. who are in debt due to betting. Inevitably, she loses the biggest of them all, after getting a taste for it and is the moral lesson in the story. She gets sucked into the vortex of the addictive world of continuous gambling after one big win hooks her. Dostoevsky poetically describes the descent: “When once anyone is started upon that road, it is like a man in a sledge flying down a snow mountain more and more swiftly”. He is brilliant at chronicling the fits of madness, the rushes of blood that overcomes the gambler, enabling them to override the logical decision to stop, whether winning or losing: “gamblers know how a man can sit for almost twenty four hours at cards, without looking to right or to left”. It is an insider’s insight.
Daniel Kahneman, author of the hugely influential “Thinking Fast and Slow” comes to mind when analysing the mental state that the gambler undergoes. He says that our brains operate in two distinct ways: system one is for instant decisions – what we have for breakfast etc. and system two is for more complex tasks like reading. It is more deliberate and considered. Clearly, if a gambler were being logical about every bet they placed, they would not take the reckless decisions they do. System one takes over in a form of temporary insanity. Alexei says he is “afraid of nothing” as he works his stake from virtually nothing to a sizeable amount. He says that he can scarcely “remember” anything from the whole night when he wins big. System one has taken over. He is in a form of temporary insanity. The casino’s know they win when their customers enter this trance like state. They lose control of their senses and cannot walk away. Visit any casino or bookmakers and you will see system one in action.
At least Granny gets out. She has her fit of insanity, but she does manage to leave Roulletenburg. In a sense, Alexei never does. The next bet is always on his mind. He becomes completely destitute by the end of the story and admits he is “worse than a beggar”.
There is a fascinating undercurrent of nationalism in the story. As a Russian national, his thoughts on his own race are especially interesting:
“Though a great many Russians go in for the gambling, they are no good at the game”. I am intrigued to know why he thought Russians were bigger losers than other races. I would have assumed it the percentage of winners and losers would be rather steady globally. But, no, Dostoevsky says: “I think that roulette was specifically designed for the Russians”. Is this some sort of fatalistic interpretation of the Russian psyche? When pressed on it, he talks about the “Virtues and merits of the civilised westerner”. Odd. He pushes it to say that the Russian is “incapable of acquiring capital”.
He views the Germans as diametrically opposed to the Russians. Think of the strange esteem that the elderly Germanic couple that Alexi insults is held in by everyone. He details the “German method of heaping up riches” and how the predictability that they live by “makes my tartar blood boil”. He writes that the Germans have “patience, intellect, rectitude, character, perseverance” in their quest to better themselves and amass some wealth. He contrasts that with his own outlook as the gambler, “I would rather grow fat after the Russian manner or squander my whole substance at roulette”. Maybe Dostoevsky is using the stereotypical caricature of the gloomy, pessimistic Russian’s national identity to justify his own gambling habbits. The Germans always win, the Russian always lose. Therefore, he rationalises his own losing because, fundamentally, they are just not as capable as the Germans.
On the French: “De Grieux was like all Frenchmen; that is, gay and polite when necessary and profitable to be so, and insufferably tedious when the necessity to be gay and polite was over”. There is plenty of humours insights in his prose. De Grieux lives up to the stereotype of the arrogant Frenchman when he says it is “true…with a self-satisfied air” that Westerners are in some way “superior”.
The gambler as a love story:
When Alexei goes on a betting rampage and loses his mind, he forgets about Polina. This is the second egregious tragedy of the book. His brain becomes so addled with thoughts of winning and losing money that he neglects the personal side of his life. He finds out that Polina has loved him throughout their time together but that she thought he was an “ungrateful, unworthy, shallow and unhappy man”. Here we see the double negative effect that Alexie’s time at the roulette table has had. He says that his love life and his financial life have both been “destroyed”. He is so emaciated by his constant thoughts of visiting the Casino that “As soon as I hear the clink of scattered money I almost go into convulsions”.
Also, think how the Generals debauched loss of money coincides with nearly destroying his relationship with Mlle Blanche. She goes to Paris with Alexie after she learns that the young man has money. The General could not provide for her.
The Gambler is a superbly written tale of sailing too close to the edge of madness. It is a short but vital read. It may not be Dostoevsky’s best work, but it is a revealing story about gambling. A topic not too much literature has been written.