Dostoevsky, Fyodor: “The Gambler”

Dostoevsky’s novella has several worthy themes – gambling, identity, class and love. Of course, Dostoevsky is worth reading solely for his lyrical, sinuous and elegant prose.

The Dickensian name of the town where the casino was based, Roulletenberg, typifies his wit. Fortunes are won and lost here as Dostoevsky observes the irrationality of gambling: “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 in order to win. Plenty of players know that the house always wins but still choose to get involved. Polina, for example, has the “strange and mad idea” that she would come out on top despite possessing nothing more than a “belief” about how  actually to 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.

Alexei twice makes considerable sums from minuscule stakes but on both occasions he loses everything. The real tragedy in “The Gambler” is the granny. The worst thing that can happen to any gambler is to win. That is the hook that keeps everyone returning. In the beginning, 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 artfully charts 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 chronicles the mad party’s of our brains which enable bettors to overcome the rational parts of their minds: “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 describes 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 that is how it should work 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 is “afraid of nothing” at 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 manages to leave Roulletenburg. 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 national identity. 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 thinks Russians are bigger losers than other nationalities. I would have assumed that the percentage of winners and losers would be rather steady. But, no, Dostoevsky writes: “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 believes that Russians are “incapable of acquiring capital” and views the Germans as diametrically opposed in this regard. Contemplate the strange esteem that the elderly Germanic couple, that insulted Alexi, are held in. He 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 and contrasts 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 uses 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. Of the French, he writes that “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 goes on a betting rampage and loses his mind, he forgets entirely about Polina. This is the second 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 discovers that Polina has loved him throughout their time together but that she thinks him an “ungrateful, unworthy, shallow and unhappy man”. Here we see the doubly negative effect that Alexei’s time at the roulette table has. He admits 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 also worth noting the General destroys his relationship with Mlle Blanche by betting. She visits Paris with Alexie after she learns that the young man acquires 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. Not Dostoevsky’s best work but a revealing story about gambling nonetheless. A topic about which not that much fine literature has been produced.


About Mick Gilbride

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