Dostoevsky, Fyodor: “The Gambler”

Dostoevsky’s novella has several themes worthy of thinking about. Namely gambling, national identity, class and love. Dostoevsky is worth reading for his style alone as it is lyrical, sinuous and elegant.

The Dickensian name of the town where the casino was based, Roulletenberg, typified his lyrical wit. Fortunes were won and lost here. Dostoevsky observed the irrationality of gambling perfectly, “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 like the players must. Sure, plenty of players know that the house always wins but get involved nonetheless. Polina, for example, had the “strange and mad idea” that she would come out on top despite possessing nothing more than a “belief” about how would actually do it. The fallacy of betting is that players like Polina hold the absurd belief that they “must” win. The reality, as we learn in “The Gambler”, is that everyone loses in the long term.

Alexei twice made considerable amounts of money from minuscule initial stakes by betting at the casino but, both times, he lost everything. The real tragedy in “The Gambler” is the granny. She represents the danger of gambling. The worst thing that can happen to any gambler is to win. That is the hook that keeps everyone returning. In the beginning, the granny bails out everyone from the General to the Frenchman, acting as a de facto bank. Inevitably, she becomes the biggest loser of them all after getting a sweet taste of winning. Dostoevsky articulated beautifully her 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 was brilliant at chronicling the fits of madness and the rushes of blood to the head that enable bettors to overcome the rational parts of their mind, “gamblers know how a man can sit for almost twenty four hours at cards, without looking to right or to left”.

Daniel Kahneman, author of the excellent “Thinking Fast and Slow” comes to mind when analysing the mental state that the gambler undergoes. He described how our brains operate in two distinct ways. We use System One to make instant decisions –  what we have for breakfast etc. and we use System Two for more complex tasks. Or at least we are supposed to but many of us do not utilise our brains in the right way. Clearly, if a gambler were being logical about every bet that they placed, they would not take the reckless decisions that they frequently do. System One takes over in a form of temporary insanity. Think of Alexei as he was “afraid of nothing” as he set out betting in the casino. He says that he can scarcely “remember” anything from the whole night after he cleans up at the tables. The layers know that they will always win when their customers enter this trance like state. Once their customers lose control of their senses, they 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 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, Dostoevsky’s 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 nationalities. I would have assumed that the percentage of winners and losers would be rather steady. But, no, Dostoevsky wrote, “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 comparative “virtues and merits of the civilised Westerner”. Odd. Moreover, he thought that the Russian was “incapable of acquiring capital”. He viewed the Germans as diametrically opposed to the Russians in this regard. Contemplate the strange esteem that the elderly Germanic couple, that insulted Alexi, are held in. He also detailed the “German method of heaping up riches” and how the predictability that they live by “makes my Tartar blood boil”. He believed that the Germans showed “patience, intellect, rectitude, character, perseverance” in their quest to better themselves and amass wealth. He contrasted this with his own outlook as a gambler, “I would rather grow fat after the Russian manner or squander my whole substance at roulette”. Perhaps Dostoevsky used the stereotypical caricature of the gloomy, pessimistic Russian’s national identity to justify his own gambling habits. The Germans always win, the Russian always lose.

Writing about 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 humorous insights in Dostoevsky’s 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”.

When Alexei went on a betting rampage and lost his mind, he forgot entirely about Polina. This is the second tragedy of the book. His brain became so addled with thoughts of winning and losing money that he neglected the personal side of his life. He found out that Polina had loved him throughout their time together but that she thought he was an “ungrateful, unworthy, shallow and unhappy man”. Here we see the doubly negative effect that Alexei’s time at the roulette table had. He said that his love life and his financial life have both been “destroyed”. So addled was his mind with constant thoughts of visiting the casino that, “as soon as I hear the clink of scattered money I almost go into convulsions”.

It is worth noting the General destroyed his relationship with Mlle Blanche through betting. She went to Paris with Alexie after she learnt that the young man had acquired money, the General being unable to provide for her.

The Gambler is a superbly written tale of sailing too close to the edge of madness. It is a short and enlightening read. It is not Dostoevsky’s best work but it is a revealing story about gambling. A topic about which not that much fine literature has been produced.



About Mick Gilbride

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