In 1833, during the famous ‘Boldino Autumn’, Alexandr Pushkin wrote The Queen of Spades, a wonderfully ingenious and mysterious story.
Pushkin’s famous quote that “two fixed ideas can no more exist in one mind than, in the physical sense, two bodies can occupy one and the same place” pertains to the protagonist of The Queen of Spades, Germann, who is obsessed with a secret that an old countess has been keeping for sixty years: three cards that will guarantee you to win. He is prepared to do anything to find out this secret, he even considers becoming her lover.
Germann’s father was a Russified German who left him a small fortune. Enough to live moderately. Germann is frugal and lives only of his officer’s income. When asked why he never joins the others when they play cards, but watches them play instead, he always answers that he is ‘not in the position to sacrifice the essentials of life in the hope of acquiring the luxuries’. Although his initial reaction to the anecdote was that it’s only a fairytale, he quickly becomes obsessed with it and starts to see the three cards as a key to a successful life and the acceptance of his fellow officers.
The card game that is played here is called Faro. In the most simple form there are two players, a banker and a punter. The punter chooses a specific card from his own deck of cards, puts it on the table and places a bet on it. The banker has a separate deck from which he takes two cards in each turn. He places one card on the left and one on the right side of the punter’s card, until the card that was betted on turns up. If this card falls on the left, the punter wins and if it falls on the right, the banker wins.
Germann has inherited 47000 rubles and expects to increase that amount to 376000 rubles with the three winning cards. With the help of the countess’s ward Liza, whom he misleads, he gains access to the bedroom of the old woman. But she refuses to tell him the secret and desperately Germann threatens her with a pistol. The 87 year-old woman is literally scared to death. Germann manages to get away unseen and it is assumed that the countess died of old age. Three nights later she appears in his bedroom as a ghost and tells him the three winning cards: three, seven and ace. He can bet on only one card per 24 hours. As soon as a suitable opportunity arises, Germann tries his ‘luck’. He puts all 47000 rubles on a three and wins. The second night he wins on the seven. The third night, however, a queen falls on the right and an ace on the left. Excitedly Germann cries “the ace wins”, but when he turns over his card he discovers that instead of an ace, the queen of spades lies in front of him and he has lost everything. The other players are satisfied, “famously punted!” they exclaim. But Germann does not hear it. He loses his mind and spends the rest of his life mumbling “Three, seven, ace. Three, seven, queen.”
The irony of Pushkin’s story is that Germann finally gains the respect he wants so much the moment he loses all his money, but he doesn’t realise this and goes crazy. Unlike Nikolay in War and Peace* he cannot deal with his stupidity and move on.
Pushkin leaves room for several interpretations. The most likely scenario is that Germann already lost his mind and merely dreamt that the dead countess came to visit him. There are several clues that Germann started to go crazy before he lost. He is described as someone who never plays himself but watches others play with ‘feverish anxiety’. He also already appears to ‘know’ the three cards already before the ghostly apparition: “no! Economy, moderation and industry: these are my three winning cards, these will treble my capital, increase it sevenfold, and earn for my ease and independence!” And the ace? Well, they didn’t call Pushkin a genius for nothing; it is hidden in the Russian original: “Нет! Расчёт, умеренность и трудолюбие: вот мои три верные карты, вот что утроит, усемерит мой капитал и доставит мне покой и независимость.” The Russian word for triples end with a ’T’ and the next word, to increase sevenfold, starts with ‘US’, together forming the word ‘tus’, meaning ‘ace’. Besides, this statement is not even logical; when betting on cards Germann will double and hopefully ‘octuple’ his money, and if something doesn’t make sense at first sight, you can trust Pushkin to make it make sense in another way. Also in Faro the player basically bets that a certain card will fall on the left instead of on the right; there is no logic or strategy in such a bet, something which a normal thinking person would have realised. The source of the anecdote, Tomsky, the grandson of the countess and Germann’s fellow officer, is also not very reliable. He repeatedly teases his grandmother and Liza, and it is not unimaginable that he fabricated the whole anecdote.
Other remarkable facts
The old woman’s secret pertains not only to the three cards, but also to three essental items in her toilet: rouge, hairpins and a bonnet; in her bedroom Germann witnesses the loathsome secrets of her toilet. Tomsky’s first name is ‘Pavel’ (Paul) and he marries a girl called ‘Polina’. Germann has caused the death of the countess and when he loses the game the banker tells him “your queen has lost’; in Russian the word ‘ubita’ (убита) is used, which does not only mean ‘was beaten’ but also ‘was murdered’. And before you know it you’ll see numbers everywhere, like Germann: the countess is an 87 year-old lady; in the number 8 you can see the number 3, making it three, seven, queen…
*in Tolstoy’s War and Peace Nikolay loses 43000 rubles playing Faro against Dolokhov, who cheats.
The Queen of Spades by Alexandr Pushkin in a translation by Gillon Aitken
Rereading “The Queen of Spades” by Andrew Wachtel
The Ace in “The Queen of Spades” by Sergei Davydov
Text and photos © Elisabeth van der Meer 2020 (playing cards from Wikipedia)