Prokofiev was not a gambler in the sense in which the word is usually employed in connection with cards. Cards interested him as a game, a form of mental gymnastics which helped him develop his capacity to think, organise and analyse. As a child he had played chemin de fer, whist, a card game called 66 and chess; in 1911 he learned bridge and generally enjoyed complicated types of patience.
For some reason Prokofiev still has the reputation of having been a passionate gambler – it is said that when he played cards (especially bridge), it was only for money and that he incurred huge losses. Naturally he and his friends didn’t play for matchsticks and money was involved, but money was never the stimulus for Prokofiev. Being of a balanced and sober disposition, he would never have allowed himself to behave so foolishly. In 1913 when he and his mother were in France, he paid a visit to the casino at Royat and wrote:
“In the Casino I came across a sort of roulette (petits chevaux). It’s much worse than roulette as the odds are totally unfair. I sat down at the table, won a lot of money, then lost even more - a hundred and twenty francs in the first evening. It didn’t bother me but I simply decided not to lose more than twenty francs a time in future. I won fifty francs, lost them over the next two days and ceased to go to this unprofitable establishment”, (Diaries: June 1913).
In April 1921, invited by Diaghilev for the rehearsals of Chout in Monte-Carlo, out of curiosity Prokofiev visited one of the casinos of the “gambling capital of the world”.
“Monte-Carlo on its little hill is rather boring and at first glance is merely a collection of hotels clustered around the casino and the theatre. The sea is of a dark blue, like nowhere else, the mountains enchanting, the climate a delight, but nobody’s interested in any of that. We, i.e. the company, are up to our necks in the ballet and the habituťs never leave the tables. Larionov managed to get me a ticket of admission to the gambling rooms, which consist of a fairly large and wide suite of rooms with tables set at a fair distance from each other, and people swarming around. The gambling proceeds at a much slower pace than I had expected: a lot of time is spent on placing and counting the stakes. In my Gambler everything is more lively but that was necessary for the stage: people obsessed with gambling lose all sense of time and in order to create a feverish atmosphere, things had to be “condensed” for the operatic stage.
I decided not to gamble, I begrudged the money and had the feeling that I wasn’t going to win at roulette. I was too wrapped up in the ballet and in everything to do with my trip abroad. But it was interesting watching the gambling”.
Although Prokofiev did not play bridge regularly, he would never miss an opportunity to play with friends or acquaintances. One should not forget that bridge is of a similar degree of complexity as chess but is not suited for “making” money when played by a circle of friends of limited means, as were those of Prokofiev himself.
But chess was the game for which he had the greatest respect and Prokofiev remained a life-long devotee. Having played it from childhood, he was always pleased to compete with a good opponent and took pride in winning. He was enthusiastic in arranging competitions at his home on the First Rota in St Petersburg, with prizes for the numerous entrants.
In 1914 he was thrilled to be at the World Chess Tournament which took place in St Petersburg. From childhood he had followed the victories and defeats of chess-players who were his idols, and would draw up tables and follow their progress. He came to know some of them, notably Josť Capablanca who took part in the 1914 tournament. They became close friends, especially during Prokofiev’s years in America. In the family archive is a book with a personal dedication from Capablanca.
The 1914 Tournament was a wonderful occasion for Prokofiev as his idols had come from all over the world to St Petersburg! In addition, he successfully defeated Capablanca himself during a simultaneous game. This was better than any win at bridge. In his notebooks Prokofiev left a detailed and extremely interesting description of the Petersburg championship, which he attended as a spectator, following every match of note. Here is an extract concerning the matches he played against Capablanca. Next