Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Unlucky at Cards

   Every year countless people from around the US and around the world travel to Atlantic City, New Jersey, Las Vegas, Nevada, and various other locations in order to have a relaxing vacation and hopefully win a large amount of money at one of the many casinos.  No matter how much money a person wins at the casino, the “house” (casino) always has the advantage. 

   However, many people try to overcome the casino’s advantage by using some strategy which they believe will help them to “beat the odds”.  One of these strategies is known as card counting. This involves counting the various cards which are used in games such as blackjack. Knowing which cards have already been used and which ones are left would certainly give the player an advantage. This technique is not illegal, but if the casino believes that you are counting cards they will more than likely ask you to leave. 

    Some people use various other techniques, either legal or illegal to gain an advantage.  Since the casino can potentially lose a large amount of money they are always looking for those people who attempting to manipulate the odds in favor of the player.  If illegal methods are used, that person will be arrested and will likely be sent to jail. 

    The idea of gaining an advantage while gambling is certainly nothing new.  In the play The Queen of Spades 1 by Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin (1799-1837) this issue is dealt with.  The main character is Hermann, an ethnic German, who is an officer in the Imperial Russian Army.  Like many soldiers, his friends often play cards, but Hermann never plays cards with them.  One evening another officer, Tomsky, tells Hermann a story about his grandmother who is now an 87 year old countess.

     Many years earlier, the countess had been playing cards in France and initially had lost quite a bit of money.  However, she then learned a secret regarding three cards and apparently had won back all the money she had lost.  There is no indication that Tomsky had actually ever learned this secret nor is there any indication that he had used the secret if he had learned it. 

     Even though Hermann is not a gambler, he becomes obsessed with the idea of finding out what this secret is. In order to do this he must meet the countess, but instead of approaching her directly he finds out that she has a young ward named Lizavyeta Ivanovna.  Hermann begins sending love letters to Lizavyeta asking her to let him into the house. 

      Not surprisingly, Lizavyeta is taken by the attention she has received from a Russian Army officer and invites him to the house.  Hermann aggressively confronts the countess and demands that she tell him the secret of the three winning cards.  Initially, she tells him that the secret is not real, but only a joke, but he does not believe her.  He asks her a second time, but she remains silent. At this point he decides to try again; however, this time he confronts her with a pistol.  At this point the elderly countess dies of fright. 

   Hermann, who is now completely scared, Lizavyeta confesses to her that he killed the countess.  His only defense is that the pistol was not loaded. Lizavyeta helps him to escape from the house even though she is annoyed by the fact that his love letters were simply a rouse to allow him to meet the countess. 

    He attends the countess’ funeral and is terrified when the countess opens her eyes and looks at him as she is lying in her coffin.  Later that evening, her ghost appears to him. The ghost tells him the secret of the three cards (three, seven, and ace) and that he must play once each night and marry Lizavyeta.  On the first night, he bets it all on the three and wins. On the second night, he wins on the seven. On the third night, he bets on the ace - but when cards are shown, he finds he has bet on the Queen of Spades, rather than the ace, and loses everything. When the Queen appears to wink at him, he flees in terror.

 Hermann goes mad and is committed to an asylum.

He is installed in Room 17 at the Obukhov hospital; he answers no questions, but merely mutters with unusual rapidity: 'Three, seven, ace! Three, seven, queen!' 2

   There is a tradition in Russian literature that negative actions on the part of a particular character are ultimately connected with them going insane.  This can be seen in Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821-1881) and several other novels. Hermann’s actions were not only immoral, but illegal and instead of benefitting from the information he received, he ends up going insane and losing everything.  This would definitely qualify him as being unlucky at cards.

                                                                End Notes

1)     “The Queen of Spades” http://www.classicreader.com/book/2154/1/ (English translation) [accessed 4/30/12]

2)     “The Queen of Spades” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Queen_of_Spades_(story) (accessed 4/30/12)

No comments: