Hermann, a Russian officer of German descent. A prudent, cautious man, Hermann lives frugally and modestly on his salary as an engineer. Although passionate by nature and a gambler at heart, Hermann controls his emotions. He never plays cards himself for fear of risking the essentials in life, yet he follows the card games of his friends with feverish excitement. When he learns that the Countess, Anna Fedotovna, possesses the secret of playing three winning cards in succession, his imagination is inflamed, and he coldly calculates a plan to obtain the secret by courting the Countess’ ward, Elizaveta Ivanovna, thereby gaining access into the Countess’ house. Exasperated when the Countess fails to reveal the secret, he threatens her, and she dies of fright. Superstitious and fearful that the Countess may take revenge on him, he attends her funeral to ask her pardon and imagines that she winks at him when he bends over her coffin. Stunned and frightened, he leaves and drinks heavily. Later that night, the ghost of the Countess appears and reveals to him the card secret. Obsessed with the thought of using the secret to win a fortune, he is taken by Narumov to Chekalinsky’s gambling parlor, bets his entire patrimonial inheritance, and loses. Shocked, he imagines that the losing queen of spades playing card winks at him; he goes insane and is committed to an asylum.
The Countess, Anna Fedotovna (feh-DOH-tov-nah), a capricious, moody dowager, eighty-seven years old, who tyrannizes her domestic servants. A renowned beauty and vivacious socialite in her youth, she had lost a considerable sum of money while gambling at the age of seventeen. Unable to coerce her husband into paying her debt, she learned from Count St. Germain a card-playing secret that enabled her to win back her losses. She tenaciously guards the secret during her lifetime. Her ghost reveals the secret to Hermann after her death, which results from being terrorized by Hermann.
Elizaveta Ivanovna (yeh-lih-ZAH-veh-tah ee-VAH-nohv-nah), the poor ward of the Countess. Young, attractive, shy, and modest, Elizaveta is employed by the Countess as a companion and is completely dependent on her tyrannical benefactress. A respectable young lady with a sense of propriety, she initially rejects Hermann’s advances but gradually succumbs to his love letters, hoping Hermann will deliver her from her unhappy dependency. She is disheartened and disillusioned when she learns that Hermann has pursued her not out of love but only as a means to secure access to the Countess and her card secret. Although horrified by Hermann’s conduct, she helps him escape from the Countess’ house by means of a secret staircase. Later, she marries the wealthy son of the Countess’ former steward and undertakes to rear a poor relative.
Pavel Tomsky (PAH-vehl TOM-skee), the grandson of the Countess, an amiable, gregarious young army officer who leads the typical lifestyle of an aristocrat of his times, playing cards and attending fashionable balls. It is Tomsky who relates the story of the Countess’ card secret, which fires Hermann’s imagination, and who intrigues Elizaveta with fabricated tales about Hermann, comparing him to Napoleon and Mephistopheles.
Chekalinsky (cheh-kah-LIHN-skee), a renowned Moscow gambler, a charming, affable, and courteous sixty-year-old wealthy aristocrat. Chekalinsky plays cards with Hermann and wins the game in which Hermann unsuccessfully attempts to use the Countess’ secret.
Chaplitsky (cha-PLIHT-skee), a gambler, an extravagant man who, in his youth, had appealed in desperation to the Countess when he lost money gambling. The Countess took pity on him, revealing the card secret to him, enabling him to regain his losses. Later, he died in poverty after squandering millions.
Narumov (nah-REW-mov), a cavalry officer and friend of Tomsky. He is a pleasant, friendly young man who hosts the card-playing party where Hermann hears the story of the Countess’ card secret. He later takes Hermann to Chekalinsky’s gambling parlor, where Hermann loses his inheritance.
Count St. Germain
Count St. Germain (sahn zhayr-MAHN), a mysterious adventurer, the French aristocrat in Paris who first revealed to the Countess the secret of the winning cards. He thus enabled her to recoup her gambling losses.