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Portrait of the Writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky, by Vasily Perov, 1872
Portrait of the Writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky, by Vasily Perov, 1872

John Sainsbury

What if Dostoyevsky had been an online gambler? Add to ...

Feodor Dostoyevsky, the great 19th-century Russian novelist, was a gambler who squandered vast sums at the roulette tables of Paris and Baden-Baden. Like all compulsive gamblers, he was captive to his addiction, with nearly devastating consequences. It came close to ruining his marriage to the long-suffering Anna, whose jewellery he once sold to pay his gambling debts, and it kept him a virtual exile for many years in the decadent fleshpots of Western Europe, all the while pining for Mother Russia.

Yet, Dostoyevsky had a quality of genius that distinguished him from the run-of-the-mill gambling addict. Even as he was psychologically chained to the gaming tables, his imagination roamed free in a way that enabled him to hover above himself and dissect his own condition. In his novella The Gambler, Dostoyevsky lays bare his own gambling compulsion (embodied in the fictional Alexei Ivanovich) so convincingly that even prosaic behavioural psychologists remain in awe. While Dostoyevsky's greatest novels don't have casino gambling as a significant theme, their antiheroes (Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment, for example) are gambling addicts in the larger sense of being souls trapped by irrational cravings, while in a desperate quest for redemption.

Would Dostoyevsky's novels have been so compelling (and timeless) had he not been a casino gambler? The answer is probably no. Does this in itself make casinos a good thing? Definitely no. After all, the most evil institutions can inspire great literature. To take an extreme case, no one in their right mind would argue that Auschwitz was a good thing because it meant that Elie Wiesel wrote Night.

Yet, casinos, for all the misery they cause, are at least human institutions in the sense that they provide space for the all-too-human rituals of greed, shame, degradation and (occasionally) triumph. They can facilitate what anthropologists, with things such as Balinese cockfighting in mind, call deep play, activity that enacts communally humanity's most profound conflicts and concerns. I concede this is more evident in literature (to come back to Dostoyevsky) and movies (think of Stanley Kubrick's Barry Lyndon, where, in candlelit casinos, European aristocrats seek to preserve their sang-froid after losing the family estate on the turn of a card) than in your average Canadian casino. There, a typical scene would be a busload of people from a seniors' home, some with oxygen tanks in tow, being deposited in front of slot machines until they're driven back to their residence (where they're doubtless told by their caregivers that they all had a very nice time).

So, if there's a case for bricks-and-mortar casinos, it's a weak one, in which theory is confounded by practice. But at least casinos inspired Dostoyevsky's great literature. But what if Dostoyevsky had been chained to a computer screen in his basement? What if he'd been addicted to online gambling?

The questions are prompted by Ontario's decision to follow British Columbia's lead and launch a provincial online "gaming" site, projected to begin operations in 2012. (Notice a subtle linguistic amendment: The "bling" has been taken out of "gambling," so it becomes merely "gaming," a much more innocent-sounding activity.) The curious rationale for the venture is that it will redirect to government coffers the $400-million that Ontarians currently spend on out-of-province gambling sites.

Ontario Lottery and Gaming chair Paul Godfrey offers this reassuring message: "OLG's Internet gaming program will stress responsible gaming while providing an enjoyable experience for Ontario players." He makes it sound like a moral crusade, as if having the province take over a questionable racket somehow makes everything all right. Yet, as with any gambling operation, it will be the irresponsible gambler (the heirs of Dostoyevsky) who will drive the revenues. It's bad enough living in a nanny state, but it verges on the intolerable when nanny herself slips a narcotic into the baby formula for her own money-grubbing purposes.

All the evidence suggests that online gaming will prove an irresistible temptation to those who already have the gambling bug (while probably making some new recruits.) Put a time-travelling Dostoyevsky in front of a computer screen and chances are he'll soon be maxing out his credit card on a cyberspace roulette wheel, rather than completing the rewrite of The Brothers Karamazov.

And at what a dreadful cost. The most terrifying outcome of Internet gambling is isolation, estrangement from friends and family, estrangement even from the company of strangers in traditional casinos. Dostoyevsky would be bereft of the rich cast of characters who populate the pages of The Gambler. And his evocation of gambling as a metaphor for the human condition would fade to nothing in the face of the bland tyranny of the computer screen. Perhaps Anna, confused by her husband's odd behaviour, would finally leave, driving Feodor to find solace in Internet pornography, online gambling's evil twin.

Is this the way the world will end, to the whimpering sound of Internet gamblers and pornography addicts? Feodor, you've got to switch off the computer and come out of the basement. Right now.

John Sainsbury is a professor of history at Brock University.

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