The banker and the lawyer made a bet that the lawyer could not remain in solitary confinement from twelve o'clock noon on November 14, 1870 until twelve o'clock noon on November 14, 1885. As the story opens "it was a dark autumn night" and the banker is remembering how the bet was made fifteen years before. This is a marvelous opening for the story because it begins close to the ending. The intervening fifteen years are covered in flashbacks occurring in the banker's memory. Chekhov manages to create the illusion of the passage of fifteen years in just a few pages. The banker is asking himself:
"What was the object of that bet? What is the good of that man's losing fifteen years of his life and my throwing away two million? Can it prove that the death penalty is better or worse than imprisonment for life? No, no. It was all nonsensical and meaningless. On my part it was the caprice of a pampered man, and on his part simple greed for money ..."
So the banker believes that the lawyer was only motivated by greed for money. It would seem to the reader that the young man was also motivated by a desire to prove that life imprisonment is preferable to the death penalty. However, he probably would not have considered making such a bet if there had not been a great sum of money involved. It is hard to say how much two million rubles would represent in present-day American dollars, but it seems likely that the two million rubles would have been equivalent to something like two million dollars.
Nowhere in the story does Chekhov say that the men had been drinking on the night the bet was made, but considering that it was an all-male party, there must have been a lot of vodka consumed. The heated argument and the preposterous bet which are dramatized with dialogue suggest that both the banker and the lawyer were drunk. But Chekhov wanted to avoid suggesting that this was just drunken bravado, because they could have mutually agreed to call off the bet the next morning when they were sober and realized how frivolous it was. So instead of saying that the bet was the caprice of a drunken man, Checkhov says it was the caprice of a pampered man.
Initially, the banker says:
"I'll bet you two million you wouldn't stay in solitary confinement for five years."
And the lawyer replies:
"If you mean that in earnest, I'll take the bet, but I would stay not five but fifteen years."
Why does he add ten years to his term of confinement? This is not greed but bravado. It suggests that the banker mistakenly considers him a foolish youngster who is only thinking about money and all the things that money can buy. But the young man has more strength of character than the banker realizes. It is the banker who only thinks about money, but the lawyer is concerned about principles. That is why he supports the abolition of the death penalty and why he is able to tolerate fifteen years of solitary confinement when the banker has told him:
"Think better of it, young man, while there is still time. To me two million is a trifle, but you are losing three or four of the best years of your life. I say three or four, because you won't stay longer."
The banker thought the lawyer was motivated by "a simple greed for money," but he found out he was wrong.