Known in the West simply as “Dostoyevsky,” the Russian novelist Fyodor Mikhaylovich Dostoyevsky (1821~1881) was an avid gambler. During the 19th century, he lost large sums of money and was in debt most of his life as a result. By one account, some of his writing was hastened by the need to secure advances from his publisher to settle gambling loans, but no doubt the world of literature is better off for his addiction.
Gambling and Greatness
Fyodor Dostoevsky was the second of seven children born to Mikhail Dostoyevsky and Maria Nechayeva. The family lived in a home on the grounds of the Mariinsky Hospital in Moscow, where the father was a staff doctor. Dostoevsky’s mother died of tuberculosis in 1937 and his father passed away two years later, most likely from an apoplectic stroke, although the family’s serfs were accused of murdering the doctor and later acquitted.
The writer-to-be was introduced to literature at the age of three or four, including readings from the Bible as well as fairy tales, legends and books by English, French, German and Russian authors. Although Dostoevsky trained to be a military engineer, his dislike of school and love of literature led him begin translating books to earn money. By the mid-1840s, he completed his first novel, “Poor Folk,” and joined the literary circles of St. Petersburg.
It was while visiting his older brother, Mikhail, in Reval around that time that Dostoyevsky began taking an interest in the arts—opera, ballet, plays and concerts. It was also when two of his brother’s friends introduced Dostoyevsky to gambling—an activity that would quickly become a self-destructive passion.
In the 1850s, Dostoyevsky’s political views and writings earned him four years of imprisonment and four years of forced service in the Siberian army. While in Siberia, he married a sickly widow, Maria Dmitrievna Konstant Issaeva. By the time his literary genius became apparent in 1864 with the publication of “Notes from Underground,” the writer’s life was in shambles, creditors pursuing him and his wife dying, while he became enmeshed in a love affair with a young student, Polina Suslova.
By 1865, Dostoyevsky was a widower and his gambling had caused his mistress to leave him. Although the publication of “Crime and Punishment” in early 1866 established Dostoyevsky as a luminary among Russian authors, the rewards for his work did not last long—by September he had gambled all his money away.
Addiction as Inspiration
Desperation led Dostoyevsky to promise his publisher a new book by October. In just 26 days, with the aid of a stenographer, Anna Grigorievna Snitkina, he wrote “The Gambler”—a novella that reflects the author’s addiction to roulette—under a strict deadline to pay off his gambling debts.
The author married his stenographer in February 1867. Anna’s influence seemed to stabilize Dostoyevsky’s life briefly. But soon he was in debt again and the couple had to flee from Russia, first to Germany and later Switzerland, to hide from his creditors. So overwhelming was his gambling addiction that Anna was forced to pawn her wedding presents, earrings, clothes and even their wedding rings to pay for their mounting expenses. American author Ernest Hemingway would later write that he learned from Dostoyevsky “the insanity of gambling.”
The birth of two children to the Dostoyevskys while in exile had a pronounced effect on the writer-gambler. According to Anna, becoming a father cured Dostoyevsky of his addiction. In April 1871, he made one final visit to a gambling hall in Wiesbaden and never played again. But many have speculated that the real reason the author stopped going to casinos was their closure in Germany in 1872~1873, under a ban that remained intact until Adolph Hitler came to power.
Before Dostoyevsky’s death, he would have two more children with Anna and compose some of the most important works of his career: “The Idiot” (1869), “The Possessed” (1872) and “The Brothers Karamazov” (1880). From his writing, it is clear that he knew how helplessly out of control gambling made him—an excellent cautionary tale for anyone who thinks they may have a gambling problem.