Herman is in love, but he doesn’t know her name. When he meets her again, it turns out she is betrothed to the officer and prince Yeletsky. Her grandmother is the Queen of Spades (Pique dame) from the name of the story. She knows the secret that allows anyone to win at cards. The gambling Herman decides he wants that secret, no matter the cost.
He gets the secret, but frightens the grandmother to reveal it. She dies of fear. Hers will be the first in a row of deaths. In an apparition the grandmother tells Herman her secret, the order of the cards he needs to bet. When he meets her later, Herman becomes a stranger to Liza, the object of his love. He is blinded by his greed and addiction to the game. She commits suicide in desperation.
Herman turns to the game, claiming that he might be “unlucky in love, lucky at cards“. He follows the grandmothers instructions, and is betrayed by her. On the last card he bets all and loses: it is not the expected Ace, but the Queen of Spades. He has lost everything and takes his own life.
Tchaikovsky’s opera from 1890, adopted from the short story by Alexander Pushkin. It was written while he was in Florence. The premiere in St. Petersburg was an enormous success. The phrase about being unlucky in love and lucky at cards is older.
Well, Miss, you’ll have a sad Husband, you have such good Luck at CardsJonathan Swift, Polite Conversation, 1738.