Scene 1: The Summer Garden in St Petersburg in the time of Catherine II (late 18th century)
It is a fine spring day and everyone is promenading in the park: nannies, governesses, children, soldiers. Among these are Surin and Chekalinsky, who discuss the strange behavior of their colleague Hermann, who spent the previous night watching the play at the gaming tables without joining in.
Hermann himself and his friend Count Tomsky appear and Hermann reveals the reason for his recent strange gloomy mood: he is in love - passionately and hopelessly since he is poor and the object of his love is noble and consequently out of his reach. He rejects Tomsky's cheerful suggestion that another will do just as well. They are interrupted by a group of promenaders - the young rejoicing in the spring weather, the old lamenting the passing of the good old days. Hermann reveals that he has some hope that his love is returned, but if he is wrong his only refuge is death.
Prince Yeletsky appears. He has just become engaged and is congratulated by the others, except for Hermann, who is sunk in gloom. The Countess and her granddaughter Lisa appear and Yeletsky reveals that Lisa is his betrothed. Both Lisa and the Countess are disturbed by the intensity of Hermann's eyes and he, in turn, is disturbed by the sight of the Countess.
Yeletsky, who has noticed Lisa's agitation, joins her and the Countess. They stroll away while Yeletsky tells his friends the story of the Countess, who had gained the nickname of the Queen of Spades in her youth because of her passion for gambling. Once, when she was desperate and had lost all her money, an admirer gave her a secret by which she was able to recoup all her losses - by playing three special cards. She later told her secret to her husband and a handsome young man, but then received a warning from an apparition that she would receive her death-blow from the third man who "impelled by a burning passion," tried to wrench the secret from her.
Surin and Chekalinsky tease Hermann, suggesting that this might be the way for him to win without risking any money. A storm has blown up and the promenaders disperse, except for Hermann who broods over Tomsky's story and the sinister figure of the old woman, though he is still more preoccupied with his passion for Lisa. He swears that she will be his, despite the prince.
Scene 2: Lisa's room
Lisa and her friends are playing the harpsichord and singing. Her best friend Pauline sings a melancholy song; then, reproaching herself for being so inappropriate on a happy day, leads the others in jolly Russian country dance and song, to the disapproval of the governess - such behavior is not suitable for well-brought-up young ladies.
The girls go, leaving Lisa to brood over the fact the although Yeletsky has all the qualities desirable in a husband, she is not happy. She cannot forget Hermann's fiery gaze, "like a fallen angel."
He suddenly appears at the door to her balcony and declares his passion, asking only to gaze at her for the last time before leaving forever. She is moved but begs him to go. He has to hide when the Countess, disturbed by the noise, comes up to see what is happening. Lisa tells her she is restless and unable to sleep. The Countess leaves and Lisa admits to Hermann that she loves him.
Scene 1: A fancy-dress ball
Hermann's friends suspect that he is obsessed with the story of the three cards and resolve to tease him. They do this throughout the scene by appearing behind him and whispering, so that he is not sure whether he is awake or dreaming.
Lisa tries to avoid Yeletsky, but he assures her of his unselfish devotion. She has written a note to Hermann, promising to meet him at the ball. A pastoral masque takes place to entertain the guests. Lisa gives Hermann an assignation for the next night, explaining how he can reach the room by going through that of the Countess. He says it must be tonight and she agrees. The empress arrives at the ball.
Scene 2: The Countess' bedroom, later that night
Hermann feels that fate has intervened by allowing him into the old woman's bedroom. He feels that a strange destiny links his life with hers and determines to try and get the secret from her. His obsession with the three cards is beginning to overpower his love for Lisa and he gazes at the portrait of the once-famous beauty with passionate intensity.
He hides as the Countess and Lisa come in. Lisa goes to her room while the Countess prepares for bed. She reclines on a couch, remembering her youth. She dozes and wakes to find Hermann standing beside her. He begins by asking her calmly for the secret, trying not to frighten her, but as she gazes at him in terrified silence he becomes violent, and finally threatens her with a revolver.
She dies of fright and Lisa, hearing the noise, comes in to find Hermann lamenting that the old lady had died without revealing her secret. Accusing him of having come for this reason and not for love of her she sends him away.
Scene 1: Hermann's room in the barracks
Hermann reads a letter from Lisa in which she absolves him for the death of the Countess and begs him to meet her on the embankment of the river.
He broods over the old woman's funeral and his illusion that the body had winked at him. The ghost of the Countess appears, against her will, and tells him the three cards: three, seven and ace.
Scene 2: The embankment at midnight
Lisa waits, full of anguish. Although she tries to believe Herman innocent, she fears the worst and feels that she too is marked by the curse on a murderer. If he does not come by midnight, she will know that all is over.
He appears on the last stroke of the bell and she greets him joyfully. He responds in the same vein. She promises to follow him to the ends of the earth, but he insists on going to the gaming tables to win a fortune. She is horrified and as his obsession with gambling takes over he reveals callously that he had been responsible for the old woman's death while trying to get her secret from her and that he now knows the secret. He spurns Lisa and she throws herself into the river.
Scene 3: The gambling rooms
The officers are gambling and making merry. Yeletsky joins them, hoping to find Hermann and be revenged for his broken engagement. Hermann appears and begins to play, waging large sums on the turn of one card. He wins with the promised three and seven, but when Yeletsky takes the last hand against him, instead of the expected ace he turns up the Queen of Spades, the ghost of the Countess.
Driven to madness, he stabs himself. He lives just long enough to regain some sanity and beg Yeletsky's pardon - and to remember his love for Lisa, hoping that she too will forgive him.