Narrated from a third-person omniscient perspective, Pushkin’s short story “The Queen of Spades” begins with a winter card game at the home of Narumov, a Horse Guardsman. The gambling goes until four in the morning, at which point the winners enjoy dinner and the losers sit distracted. Champagne is served, and people start talking about the game. Surin says he lost, despite the fact that he never puts anything at risk. The host commends him for resisting the urge to raise the stakes. One of the guests suggests that Hermann, a young Engineers officer, has even more willpower: he has not played, just sitting and watching the whole night.
Hermann says he is very interested in gambling, but he “won’t sacrifice something essential in order to win something superfluous.” Tomsky comments that Hermann, being from Germany, is more prone to calculating the odds. Tomsky comments that he can’t understand why his grandmother has never bet. Having garnered curiosity, he tells the story of how, fifty years earlier, his grandmother would go to Paris, where she was known as the Venus from Moscow and was sought after for her beauty. She liked to play faro, a card game. Tomsky’s grandmother lost a large sum to the Duke of Orléans on credit. She ordered Tomsky’s grandfather to pay off the debt. Though he was like a butler to her, Tomsky’s grandfather pointed out that in Paris they’d spent half a million in half a year, and refused to pay. She slapped him and went to bed alone as punishment, but in the morning he still refused. For the first time she lowered her dignity by arguing and trying to persuade him that she would lose face by not repaying the debt to someone of the Duke’s position, but he was obstinate.
Without knowing what to do, Tomsky’s grandmother went to an acquaintance named the Count Saint-Germain. There were many stories about him: he claimed to have discovered the elixir of life, a potion granting eternal youth. Though people ridiculed him as a fraud, the Italian explorer Giacomo Gasanova referred to the Count as a spy in his memoirs. Regardless of the mystery that surrounded the man, he was handsome and charismatic, and Tomsky’s grandmother held him in respect. She knew he had access to lots of money, so she wrote him a note asking if he would come see her. When he arrived she was overcome by grief and complained about her husband’s barbarity.
Rather than lend her the money, the Count told her a secret to winning back the money—a secret which Tomsky does not say. He lights his pipe and continues speaking, saying that later the same evening his grandmother went to a faro game the Duke of Orléans was dealing and began to bet against him. She chose three cards, played them one after the other, and each card won the first turn; doubling up her winnings with each card, she made back the amount of her debt.
The gamblers say it must have been a fluke, or a fairy tale, or a cheat. Tomsky says he thinks not, and explains that his grandmother has kept her magic formula a secret because her four sons were all desperate gamblers. However, Tomsky’s uncle, Count Ivan Ilyich, claims that she once took pity on Chaplitsky, a man deeply in debt. She told him the three cards and sequence on the condition that he never gamble again. By doubling and redoubling he recouped his losses. Tomsky ends the story at that point, noting that it is quarter to six and getting light. The men finish their drinks and leave.
Tomsky’s grandmother, the old Countess, is sitting in her dressing room surrounded by maids dressing her elaborately; her beauty has faded but she retains habits from her youth. Tomsky enters and she gives him permission to bring a friend to the Friday evening ball to introduce him to her. They gossip, and the Countess goes behind a screen to change. Lizaveta Ivanovna asks discreetly who the friend is. It is Narumov, who she mistakenly thinks is an engineer, not in the Horse Guard. She laughs when Tomsky asks why she thought he was an engineer.
The Countess gives Liza conflicting orders, asking her to order a carriage, read a novel aloud to her, and get dressed simultaneously. While quickly getting ready, the Countess loudly scolds Liza for making her wait. But when she comes down, the Countess says it’s too cold and windy, so they’re not going out after all. The narrator comments on Liza’s miserable life of obeying another person’s every command. The Countess is not evil, but simply cheap and egotistic. She has, in old age, found herself alienated from the present day and so takes her disappointment out on the people who serve her. Liza takes the brunt of the Countess’s unpleasant attitude. Out in society, Liza longs for a man to rescue her, but the young men ignore her, despite Liza being more attractive than the higher-status women they pursue.
But a week earlier, which was two days after the card game from the beginning of the story, Liza was working on embroidery at the window when she saw a young Engineers officer looking up at her. Unaccustomed to flirtation, she ignored him for two hours, but he was still there. After dinner, she looked out with trepidation, but by then he was gone. Two days later she saw him watching her as she got into a carriage. He was on the street looking up at her window that evening, and for every day from then on. Gradually a relationship built up through glances, and in time she smiled. When Tomsky had asked permission to introduce a new friend, she nearly gave away her secret about her flirtation with the man from the Engineers Corps in the street.
The narrator comments that Hermann is the son of a Russified German who left him a little invested money, which Hermann never touches. He lives a non-luxurious life on his salary alone. Though he is a gambler at heart, Hermann never picks up a card, having calculated that the risks are too high. Yet he watches games with feverish excitement. After Tomsky’s story, Hermann became obsessed with learning the 87-year-old Countess’s secret before she died. While arguing with himself that he must continue to work hard, he found himself in front of the Countess’s ancient house. He returned to his modest room and dreamt of winning heaps of gold at card games. While roaming the city, he found himself drawn back by an unknown power to the old woman’s house. There he met the eyes of Liza, a fresh-looking face with black eyes, and his fate was sealed.
The first section of the story introduces the theme of obsession and motifs of calculation and gambling by discussing Hermann’s obsessive, calculating nature: though gambling fascinates him enough to watch games go long into the night, he has never played. He is too cautious to “sacrifice something essential in order to win something superfluous,” an ambiguous statement whose full meaning won’t become apparent until later in the story.
The theme of storytelling arises as Tomsky keeps his listeners’ rapt attention for the length of his digression. The motif of status is constant throughout Tomsky’s story, particularly when the Countess declares that to be in debt to a prince is different than being in debt to a coach-builder. By this, the Countess is speaking to how her issue is not so much repaying the debt but saving face, knowing her reputation would take a hit if she couldn’t pay the duke.
Tomsky ends his story on a cliffhanger, commenting on the time before he has a chance to divulge Chaplitsky’s fate. This piece of information would likely have turned out to be key to Hermann, but Hermann’s obsession causes him not to consider how the story ended—not to consider how knowledge of such a secret could be easily exploited by greed.
The point of view switches to Liza, who lives a miserable life in which she longs for rescue, thus making her particularly susceptible to Hermann’s calculating plot to gain her trust so that he may gain access to the Countess and her secret. Storytelling again arises as a theme: informed by novels, Liza believes she is the character in a love story. And for good reason: from Liza’s perspective, she is participating in a romantic plot. It is only because the reader knows of Hermann’s ulterior motive to win heaps of gold that she comes off as naive. Using this dramatic irony, Puskin creates a sense of tension that propels the story forward.
The first section also subtly introduces the theme of the supernatural: once Hermann learns of the Countess’s secret knowledge, he is drawn to an unknown power to her house. It is left ambiguous whether the unknown power is greed or a paranormal influence.