Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1053
As the story opens, a group of young military officers are playing cards into the early morning. One officer remarks that Hermann, an officer in the Engineer Corps, likes to watch the others play, but he himself does not play. The prudent and industrious Hermann replies that he is attempting to build a fortune and does not want to risk the essential in order to gain the superfluous. Prince Pavel Tomsky changes the conversation by telling the story of his grandmother, a strong-willed socialite when she was younger. While on a trip to France, the young beauty lost a large sum at cards, a sum that her long-suffering husband refused to give her in order to honor her debt. The countess ran to a friend, the count St. Germain, who gave her the secret of victory at cards. The countess returned to the tables the next evening, regained the money that she had lost, and settled her debts.
The officers who have listened to the story react to it in different ways. One believes that the story is fantasy, another that the cards were marked, and a third that the victory was a result of pure chance. Although Tomsky cannot explain what happened, he believes that a secret exists and that his grandmother has been derelict in not passing it on to her family. On this note, the officers break up their card game as the sun begins to rise.
The narrative changes to the countess, who is now an elderly lady unable to do much but terrorize her domestic staff. Elizaveta Ivanovna is a ward of the countess and completely dependent on the old lady for her sustenance. Elizaveta’s life is difficult, as she endures the conflicting orders and irrational opinions of the countess and can find no way out of her predicament.
One afternoon, Elizaveta looks out the window as she is sewing and spies a young officer standing on the corner and staring at her window. It is Hermann, who was strongly impressed by Tomsky’s story about his grandmother and wishes to learn the secret of the cards before the countess dies. He stands on the corner and dreams of ways to enter the house and confront the countess. When he notices Elizaveta Ivanovna at the window, an idea comes to him. He sends letters to her, some taken word-for-word from German novels, in which he professes his love and importunes her for a meeting. After an initial reluctance, Elizaveta Ivanovna, viewing the young officer as a potential deliverer from her dreary existence with the countess, concocts an elaborate plan to let the young officer into the house and into her room for a private meeting.
All goes according to plan; Hermann sneaks into the house while the countess and Elizaveta are at a ball. Instead of going to Elizaveta’s room, however, he enters the room of the countess, hiding until her return. Hermann surprises the old lady and pleads for the secret. The countess refuses to divulge the secret, and Hermann, losing patience, threatens her with a pistol. Seeing the gun, the countess gives a start and dies, presumably of fright. Hermann sneaks off to Elizaveta’s room, informing her of events and explaining why he had gone to the countess’s room. Elizaveta is brokenhearted, as she realizes that Hermann was cultivating her friendship in order to gain money, not because of love.
Although Hermann’s conscience is dulled by his obsession and his main regret is the loss of the secret, he still feels obligated to attend the old lady’s funeral. As Hermann looks into the casket to pay his last respects, the countess seems to open her eyes and wink at him. Taken by surprise, he falls backward to the floor and has to be helped up. Unnerved by this experience, he decides to eat a good meal and drive away his fright with wine.
After coming home and falling into a deep sleep induced by the wine, Hermann awakens at three in the morning. He looks at the window and sees a face looking at him. The face disappears; then Hermann hears the door to his anteroom being opened. A ghostly apparition slides into his room, and Hermann realizes that the countess is paying him a visit. The old lady tells a frightened Hermann that she has been commanded to reveal to him the secret that he desired: He is to play a three, seven, and ace three nights in a row, and then never play again. The apparition disappears; Hermann, now fully awake, finds his valet asleep and the outer door locked. Was it a vision or a dream?
Hermann’s life now takes a new turn. Thoughts of the countess are displaced by an obsession with three, seven, ace; even women and inanimate objects begin to look like one of the three numbers. Hermann debates whether to resign from the army and go to the great gambling halls of Paris; meanwhile, a renowned Moscow gambler, Chekalinsky, opens a gambling parlor in St. Petersburg. His decision thus made for him, Hermann is introduced to Chekalinsky by a friend and is allowed to play. He bets his patrimony, forty-seven thousand rubles, and plays a three. Hermann wins, and Chekalinsky, ever affable, pays the young officer. The large bet of the first evening attracts a small crowd when Hermann returns on the second evening, places ninety-four thousand rubles on the table, and wins with a seven. A bit distressed, Chekalinsky pays Hermann.
On the third evening, Hermann returns to the gambling hall. He places all of his winnings on the table and prepares to play. The other gamblers cease their play and surround the table of Hermann and Chekalinsky, who is visibly nervous. The suspense builds as the play commences. Hermann, desiring to play the ace, inadvertently and possibly through excitement pulls out the queen of spades by mistake and loses everything. As he stares at the queen, it seems to wink at Hermann, who remembers the wink of the countess in the casket. He leaves the hall as play resumes, and Chekalinsky begins smiling again. In an afterword, Alexander Pushkin informs the reader that Hermann is now insane, confined to a hospital. Elizaveta has married and is supporting a poor ward.