January 2022

Dostoevsky: The Gambler

8 mins to read

2,000 words

Having lost everything at roulette , Dostoevsky made one final wager: he bet a predatory publisher that he could deliver a novel within a strict deadline or he would forfeit the publishing rights and income to all past and future works. This is the story of how Dostoevsky wrote The Gambler in just 26 days.


  1. Introduction
  2. Games of chance
  3. Highs and lows
  4. The wager
  5. The Gambler
  6. The aftermath

“No reader of The Gambler will doubt its autobiographical character,” writes E. H. Carr in Dostoevsky 1821-1881.

In 1863, Fyodor Dostoevsky made a fateful trip to Germany. This was only his second time outside Russia - and at the famous spa casinos located along the Rhine, the very first time he would play roulette.

The 42-year old had led a hard life thus far. As a young writer, he found mixed critical reception and little commercial success. The liberal company he kept drew the ire of the Russian Empire and Dostoevsky was sentenced to death.

As he stood in front of the firing squad, there was a last minute reprieve; the Tsar had commuted his sentence. After this mock execution, Dostoevsky was exiled for four years to a Siberian labor camp. Now a free man on holiday in Europe, he decided to try his luck at the casino.

Games of chance

Dostoevsky had gambled in his youth. In fact, his first novel Poor Folks was produced to cover his gambling losses betting on billards, with Dostoevsky writing:

It's simply a case of my novel covering all. If I fail in this, I'll hang myself.

But in Germany, he was introduced to something completely new. To play roulette, the croupier spins a wheel which is divided into numbered and alternatively red-and-black segments. A ball is thrown onto the wheel and gamblers wager on the color and the number the ball will land on.

Roulette is certainly a game of luck but its players will swear by their own systems of probability, numerology, and instinct. As he learned the rules of roulette and watched the game, Dostoevsky too, believed he had developed a technique:

Please do not think that, in my joy over not having lost, I am showing off by saying that I possess the secret of how to win instead of losing. I really do know the secret — it is terribly silly and simple, merely a matter of keeping oneself under constant control and never getting excited, no matter how the game shifts. That's all there is to it — you just can't lose that way and are sure to win.

Yet he also acknowledged its dangerous strength and allure:

But the difficulty is not in finding this out, but in being able to put it into practice once you do. You may be as wise as a serpent and have a will of iron, but you will still succumb. And so, blessed are those who do not gamble and look upon roulette with disgust, as the most idiotic thing there is.

Highs and lows

Dostoevsky would immediately fall in love with roulette, gambling more and more money:

In the evening I went back to my system, stuck strictly to it, and quickly and effortlessly won 3,000 francs again. Now, tell me yourself, after this happened how could I help getting carried away, how could I fail to believe that as long as I held hard and fast to my system, happiness was in my grasp?

And I need money — for myself, for you, for my wife, to enable me to write my novel. Here people win tens of thousands just like that. Yes, I came here hoping to save you all and to stave off misfortune. And then, too, I had faith in my system.

With a bet, Dostoevsky won 12,000 frances (approx. $50,000) and with another, he lost it again. And then the inevitable happened.

Suddenly I started to lose, couldn't control myself and lost everything. I had six napoleons d'or left to pay the landlady and for the journey. In Geneva I pawned my watch.

It had taken just a few weeks for Dostoesvky to lose all the money he had or could get credit for. (Six napoleons is approximately $500.) Things would continue to get worse.

The next year, Dostoevsky's wife died. Then his brother. His literary magazine was going bankrupt. His debt continued to mount - yet he could not stop gambling. In 1865, Dostoevsky would write to novelist Ivan Turgenev in despair:

I feel horrible inside (I thought it would be worse) and, above all, I'm ashamed to bother you, but what can you do when you are drowning?

Some small income came from a publication deal for Crime and Punishment, which was to be written and published in twelve monthly installments in 1866.

But it was not enough.

The wager

Desperate for more money to avoid debtors' prison and to support his brother's family, Dostoevsky gambled one more time: this time with a predatory publisher named Fyodor Stellovsky.

In return for Stellovsky settling his debts of 3,000 rubles (approx. $80,000), Dostoevsky would produce a new novel within the year. If he did not meet the deadline of November 1, 1866, Dostoyevsky would lose all publishing rights to his past and future works for nine years.

(Later, Dostoevsky would discover that Stellovsky had purchased the promissory notes of his brother's debt for a pittance and had hired debt-collectors to threaten Dostoevsky into paying the full amount. But the publishing contract was already signed.)

Dostoevesky's plan was to write Crime and Punishment in the mornings and his novel for Stellovsky in the evenings - but he made virtually no progress on the latter. In June, with half the time up, he wrote:

The novel for Stellovsky I haven't yet begun, but certainly shall begin. I have a plan for a most decent little novel; there will even be shadows of actual characters in it. The thought of Stellovsky torments and disturbs me; it pursues me even in dreams.

The Gambler

It was only in the last month that Dostoevsky started writing. The idea had come to him the previous year, when he started playing roulette: the story of

a man of most simple nature, a man who, while developed in many respects, is yet in every way incomplete, who has lost all faith, yet at the same time does not dare to be a sceptic, who revolts against all authority and yet at the same time fears it . . . The whole story is concerned with his playing roulette for a full three years.

As a friend suggested, Dostoevsky hired a stenographer named Anna Grigoryevna Snitkina, and dictated the book for her to type. Anna, despite her great admiration for his writing, had mixed feelings about him personally: “I didn't like him; he made me feel depressed.” He would often tell her that he should simply abscond to Constantinople or Jerusalem, or go all-in on roulette instead of writing.

But they made it.The Gambler was completed in just 26 days and ready for submission - but the unscrupulous Stellovsky had since closed his offices and fled to the provinces.

At Anna's suggestion, Dostoevsky ran to a local notary to submit his manuscript - just two hours before the deadline. The courts would later find in Dostoevsky's favor - and also win him the wager.

The aftermath

Dostoevsky married Anna a few weeks later at Trinity Cathedral in Saint Petersburg. During their honeymoon, they spent five weeks at Baden-Baden, where Dostoevsky lost all his money once again at the roulette tables. The 21 year old and newly pregnant bride would write:

I could no longer control myself and began to cry bitterly. It was no ordinary weeping, but a dreadful convulsive sort of sobbing, that brought on a terrible pain in my breast, and relieved me not in the slightest. . . . I began to envy all the other people in the world, who all seemed to me to be happy, and only ourselves-or so it seemed to me-completely miserable.

They were forced to pawn Anna's wedding ring, earrings, brooch and then finally, Dostoevsky's overcoat and Anna's lace shawl and spare frock. Not for the last time, Dostoevsky swore to Anna that he would never gamble again.

They could not return to Russia for fear that Dostoevsky would be arrested at the border and sent to debtors' prison. So the two continued their tour across Europe, with almost daily trips to pawnbrokers to fund Dostoevsky's gambling. Anna would later write poetry mocking their misfortune:

For two years we've been living in poverty.
The only clean thing we have is our conscience.
Your last money
you blew at roulette,
and now you don't have
a three-kopeck piece, you numbskull.

It would be four years until Dostoevsky finally stopped gambling. In a 1871 letter to Anna, Dostoevsky explains his epiphany:

By half past nine I had lost everything and I fled like a madman. I felt so miserable that I rushed to see the priest (don’t get upset, I did not see him, no, I did not, nor do I intend to!). As I was running toward his house in the darkness through unfamiliar streets, I was thinking: “Why, he is the Lord’s shepherd and I will speak to him not as to a private person but as one does at a confession.” But I lost my way in this town and when I reached a church, which I took for a Russian church, they told me in a store that it was not Russian but sheeny. It was as if someone had poured cold water over me. I ran back home. And now it is midnight and I am sitting and writing to you.

A great thing has happened to me: I have rid myself of the abominable delusion that has tormented me for almost 10 years. For ten years (or, to be more precise, ever since my brother's death, when I suddenly found myself weighted down by debts) I dreamed about winning money. I dreamt of it seriously, passionately. But now it is all over! This was the very last time. Do you believe now, Anya, that my hands are untied?—I was tied up by gambling but now I will put my mind to worthwhile things instead of spending whole nights dreaming about gambling, as I used to do.

By then, Anna had come to take over all of the financial and business matters in the Dostoevsky household (becoming Russia's first solo female publisher in the process) and finally freeing her husband from debt.

They would remain married until Dostoevsky's death in 1881.

Further Readings

  • Dostoevsky Reminiscences by Anna Grigoryevna Dostoyevskaya (née Snitkina)
  • Dostoevsky 1821-1881 by E. H. Carr
  • Dostoevsky in Love by Alex Christofi
  • The Gambler Wife by Andrew D. Kaufman
  • To be the Wife of Fyodor Dostoevsky by Valeriya Mikhailova

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