Dostoevsky’s novella had several themes I thought worthy of thinking about. Namely: gambling, national identity, class and love. He is a lyrical writer, the prose at all times 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 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, only the players.
Of course, plenty 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 despite possessing nothing more than a “belief” that it will get her out of her debt. This assumption that they “must” win is what brings each gambler to the table. 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 stakes by betting at the casino and, both times, lost it all. The real tragedy in “The Gambler” is the granny. She represents the true fallacy of gambling. The most dangerous 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 poetically described 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 is 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”. It is an insider’s insight.
Daniel Kahneman, author of the excellent “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. 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 they placed, they would not take the reckless decisions that they frequently do. System one takes over in a form of temporary insanity. Alexei is “afraid of nothing” as he sets 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 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, 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 globally. But, no, Dostoevsky writes that, “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 thinks that the Russian is “incapable of acquiring capital”.
He viewed 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 also details the “German method of heaping up riches” and how the predictability that they live by “makes my tartar blood boil”. He believes that the Germans show “patience, intellect, rectitude, character, perseverance” in their quest to better themselves and amass wealth. He contrasts that with his own outlook as a 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.
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 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”.
The gambler as a love story:
When Alexei goes on a betting rampage and loses his mind, he forgets entirely 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 doubly 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”. So addled is 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 destroys his relationship with Mlle Blanche through betting. She goes to Paris with Alexie after she learns that the young man has acquired money, the General beung 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 may not be Dostoevsky’s best work, but it is a revealing story about gambling. A topic about which not that much fine literature has been produced.