In nineteenth-century Russia, gambling at cards was a favorite leisure activity of military officers, and casinos in Germany and France became magnetic destinations for the landed gentry. Gambling was a way to test one’s nerve and courage, to risk honor, property, and status. Fueled by alcohol, the pleasurable distraction and means to stave off boredom often turned into an uncontrollable addiction. Obsessive gambling became reckless self-destruction, a form of suicide, which often followed total ruin. Like warfare and dueling, gambling was a high-risk and sometimes deadly activity, where greed and crime could flourish. When connected to love, it made a perfect literary subject.

Dostoyevsky believed that Russians, torn between extremes of behavior, were fatally attracted to risk. Chekhov’s biographer writes that “Pushkin gambled away his poetry, Tolstoy gambled away his...


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