Petersburg. Strolling in the Summer Garden, Surin tells Chekalinsky about the previous night’s gambling: as usual, Нerman had spent the whole night by the gaming table, gloomily following the game, but not taking part in it.
Нerman and Count Tomsky come into the garden. Нerman admits he is in love with a girl whose name he does not know even. He is afraid she is above him in station and therefore will prove beyond his reach.
Prince Yeletsky informs his friends that he is to get married. Нerman asks him about his betrothed. „There she is”, Yeletsky replies, pointing to Liza who is in the company of the old Countess, known as The Queen of Spades. Gherman is in despair: for Liza is the very girl with whom he is in love.
„Happy day, I bless you!” Yeletsky says. „Unhappy day, I curse you!” Нerman exclaims.
Tomsky tells his friends that in her youth the Countess was a great beauty. A passionate gamblег, in Paris she had once lost everything at the gaming table. Count Saint-German had told the ’Moscow Venus’ the secret of three cards which had helped her win her fortune back. The Countess had been warned she would die at the hands of a man who, „impelled by despair”, would come to her to demand the secret of the three cards.
Tomsky’s story made a great impression on Нerman. The Summer Garden empties, a storm is about to break. All take shelter except Нerman who stands as if in a trance. He swears that if Liza does not become his, he will take his life.
Liza’s room at the Countess’ house. Some girls of her own age have come to see Liza. Their merrymaking is interrupted by a stern housekeeper: the Countess is annoyed — it is already late and she cannot sleep because of the noise the girls are making. Left alone, Liza confides her secret to the night: she is in love with Herman.
Herman appears at the balcony doors. He declares his love to Liza. There is a loud knocking at the door. The old Countess has come to Liza’s room herself to find out what the noise is about. Hiding, Herman remembers the legend of the three cards. Overcome by a burning desire to find out the secret of the winning cards, he immediately forgets his love for Liza. The Countess leaves the room and Gherman comes to his senses. He again tells Liza he loves her. She begs him to leave but, won over by the strength of his passion, she admits to reciprocating his feelings.
A ball given by a rich dignitary. Yeletsky notices that Liza is out of spirits and keeps questioning her as to the cause of her malaise. Liza avoids giving an explanation. The entreaties of her fiance to whom she is indifferent, leave her cold.
Liza gives Herman the key to a secret door into the Countess’ house: they must see each other. The way to Liza’s room lies through the old woman’s bedroom. It seems to Gherman that fate itself is helping him discover the secret of the three winning cards.
The Countess’ bedroom. Here everything is reminiscent of the distant youth of the ’Moscow Venus’ and Herman forgets why he has come. Possessed by the wish to find out the secret of the three cards, he decides to remain in the bedroom and make the Countess reveal it to him.
On her return from the ball, the Countess, having dismissed her maids and hangers on, remembers her youth and the marvelous balls in Paris. Herman suddenly appears and asks the Countess to reveal her secret to him. The old woman remains silent. Herman, threatening her with a pistol, repeats his request. The Countess dies....
Hearing the noise, Liza runs into the bedroom. Catching sight of the dead Countess, she exclaims in despair: „So it was the cards, not me you were after!”
Herman’s quarters in the barracks. Herman is reading a letter from Liza in which she asks him to meet her on the embankment and give an explanation of his conduct. Herman is tormented by thoughts of the dead Countess. Against a background of the wailing wind and raging snowstorm outside, the old woman’s ghost appears to Herman, who has gone out of his mind. She tells Herman he must marry Liza and that the secret of the three cards — Three, Seven and Ace — will be his.
The embankment of the Winter Canal. Dusk is falling fast. Liza is waiting for Herman hoping that he will dispel her suspicions that his murder of the Countess was premeditated. She waits a long time. Liza begins to lose hope and is ready to believe in Herman’s villainy. But then Herman appears and for a brief moment it seems to them both that happiness may be possible, that all their sufferings are over. But, possessed by the thought of the three cards, Herman, half out of his mind, pushes Liza aside and runs off. Liza throws herself in the canal.
At the gambling house, the game is in full swing. Herman puts all his money on the three, the card named to him by the ghost, and wins. He doubles his stake. The second card, the seven, also brings him luck.
Herman, in very overwrought state, challenges anyone to stake once more. Yeletsky offers to play with him. But Gherman’s third card turns out to be the Queen of Spades, not the ace. His card is trumped. Herman sees the ghost of the Countess. Gibbering with fear and rage he shoots himself.