What might Dostoevsky's life have been like without gambling? An imaginative alternative, offered in a New York Times Book Review cartoon strip shows Dostoevsky quitting the casino after his first big win, buying an estate, and living a quiet life (Fig. 2). No more gambling, no debts, but no literature either; a successful but conventional life, until the day he commits suicide. The cartoonist, R.O. Blechman, thus suggests that without gambling, Dostoevsky would never have become Dostoevsky.
It is reasonable to wonder about the impact gambling had upon the author. During the eight years when he was addicted to roulette, Dostoevsky wrote Notes from Underground (1864), Crime and Punishment (1866), The Gambler (1866), The Idiot (1868), and Demons (1871–2). He thus appears to have been simultaneously at his most creative and self-destructive. In order to examine the relationship between Dostoevsky's gambling and his writing, I will first describe the kind of gambling in which he engaged, then how it may have influenced and contributed to his creativity.
Dostoevsky was fascinated by roulette, which he played in the German spa casinos located along the Rhine. The casinos offered just two games: trente-et-quarante (rouge et noir) and roulette. Both were strictly luck-based. The former is a simple game with only four possible bets. Roulette has always been the more popular, probably because it offers more possibilities for different kinds of bets than any other game. One can bet individual numbers (1 through 36, plus zero and, when present, double zero), make even money bets (red-black, odd-even, and upper-lower 18), bet thirds (low-middle-high, and left-middle-right), bet rows, straddle two numbers or corner four.
Because today's bettors have their own easily identifiable chips, they may cover the board with many different wagers and/or commingle their chips with those of other players. This is the biggest difference between Dostoevsky's day and now. In the 1860s, bets were made with actual coins (florins, napoleons). Since players had to identify which coins were theirs to claim their winnings, they were more likely to stick to single bets, usually individual numbers or even money wagers.
Most habitual players are systems players, and, remarkably, the two types of systems favored in Dostoevsky's day have not changed. The first, called the Martingale system, consists of progression wagering in which one increases or doubles one's bet until one wins.