Herman, a young officer, is madly in love with the rich and highborn Liza, granddaughter to the old Countess. One of his friends, Tomsky, tells him that the Countess has a secret she knows a sequence of three cards that always win. Herman swears he'll find out about the three cards from the Countess.
Liza has only seen Herman from afar, but his passionate look has stirred her heart, and she feels unhappy with her fiancé Prince Yeletsky. When Herman sneaks into Liza's room, it's not long before the two confess their love. Later, during a masquerade ball, they arrange their next meeting in the Countess's room when the lady herself will be absent. Herman comes there early and startles the Countess. He first begs and then threatens her, trying to make her tell him the three cards, until she dies of fright. When Liza finds out her lover was more interested in the cards and caused her grandmother's death, disconsolate, she orders Herman to leave.
In the night, Herman is visited by the Countess's ghost, who tells him the cards after all three, seven and ace. Liza, still clinging to the hope of finding love with Herman, sends him a letter to meet her by the river. He does come to her, but can speak of nothing but the cards, eventually pushing Liza away and hurrying to the gambling house. Her life in shatters, Liza drowns herself.
At the gambling house, Herman bets on three and wins everything, then he bets on seven and wins everything, until nobody wants to play against him anymore except the heartbroken Prince Yeletsky. But instead of the expected ace, Herman realizes he is holding the queen of spades. He breaks down, losing the last shreds of his sanity, and stabs himself, begging the Prince and Liza's forgiveness.
The opera contains examples of:
- Adaptational Heroism: Unlike in the original where he is a blatant Gold Digger who merely exploits Liza's feelings to get to the Countess, here Herman genuinely loves Liza, and the three cards start as merely a key for him to rise to her level, until his obsession with gambling takes over him.
- Adaptational Wealth: In the short story, Liza is the Countess's penniless and insignificant distant relation who doesn't even get anything like pocket money. In the opera, she is the Countess's granddaughter and heiress, engaged to marry a prince. It is extremely plot-relevant, since in the opera, Herman really does fall in love with her, and hadn't she been beyond his reach, there would have been no barrier to their relationship.
- Arc Words: "Three cards!"
- Betty and Veronica: Liza isn't satisfied with the conventionally romantic and eligible Yeletsky and prefers the passionate and unstable Herman. Unfortunately, he really is unstable, and his passion for gambling destroys both of their lives.
- Color-Coded for Your Convenience: The "risky option" Herman is nearly always dressed in black and the "safe option" Yeletsky is usually in white (most of the times) or red.
- Darker and Edgier: In contrast to the original's Black Comedy, the opera is clearly tragic, with greed, gambling and passions ruining the lives of practically everyone involved.
- Death by Adaptation: Both Herman and Liza. Especially sad with the latter, who, in Pushkin's story, got over Herman and got married, more or less happily.
- Driven to Suicide: Liza, when she realizes she has given up everything for a doomed man. Then Herman, after he loses his mind.
- Exact Words: After revealing the cards' secret to two people (her husband and her lover), the Countess was told by a spirit to beware of the third man who, being passionately in love, would demand the secret from her. The officers joke that now there is no danger of that, because the Countess in her current state won't appeal to anyone. But it wasn't said that the man would be in love with her specifically.
- Gratuitous French: Done a couple of times by Tomsky when he sings about the Countess's exploits in Paris, and the Countess herself lapses into an entire aria in French as she longingly remembers her youth.
- I Was Quite a Looker: The Countess was so gorgeous in her youth she was called "The Moscow Venus". The characters find it really, really hard to believe.
- Ignored Epiphany: In the beginning of the third act, Herman is deeply remorseful for ruining Liza's life along with his own. Then the ghost appears, and the remorse is forgotten.
- Love at First Sight: Herman and Liza for each other, before they even learn each other's names.
- Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: Did the three cards' winning formula ever exist? Is Herman really visited by all the ghosts he sees?
- Romantic Runner-Up: Unlike many baritone characters in opera, Yeletsky is a wonderful man (the worst he does is bet against Herman in the final scene), and Liza initially accepts his proposal.
- Setting Update: The plot of the short story is moved several decades behind to the times of Catherine the Great. In particular, while in Pushkin's original the Countess meets Count St. Germain when the latter is already getting along in years, in the opera they meet when he is young.
- Some productions move the setting back to the 1830s or set the plot in modern times.
- Show Within a Show: The pastoral tableau at the ball about a shepherdess choosing the young shepherd she loves over a rich old man.
- Yandere: Herman, big time, who is already crazy about Liza when he doesn't know her name yet, and then becomes terribly jealous as he learns of her engagement while he still doesn't know whether she loves him back.