A group of officers is discussing the events of the previous night. One of them, Surin, lost his money in the gaming house where Herman stood as usual observing the game, but making no bets. Herman becomes the object of his fellow officers’ ridicule. He is tortured by an uncontrollable, unknown passion, not a romantic feeling, but a fever that is consuming and burning him. Demons that have been sleeping till now, have awakened inside him. He doesn’t know the name of his beloved, and he doesn’t want to know it. Meanwhile, Prince Yeletsky arrives, a happy man because of his approaching wedding. Yeletsky’s fiancée is Lisa, who is approaching with her guardian, the legendary Countess. As she arrives Herman realizes that she is his nameless beloved, whom the Countess has promised to the Prince. The meeting is full with vague, terrible premonitions. Lisa knows Herman but is afraid of his dark passion. The Countess is afraid of the ominous signs. Prince Yeletsky is afraid for Lisa. He loves her and promises her his tender devotion. Herman succumbs to the Countess’s strange power, he believes in the doom of this meeting. One of the officers, Tomsky, recounts the gossip about the Countess’s past. They used to call her The Queen of Spades and her beauty and charm were adored by all of Paris, yet the Countess preferred cards. One day in Versailles, she gambled away her entire fortune, however soon afterwards, she mysteriously managed to win it all back. It was said that it was the Count Saint-Germain who promised to divulge the secret of the three cards to her in return for a rendezvous. Subsequently the Countess revealed the secret twice: to her husband, and then to a certain young man. Rumor had it that she received a mysterious spiritual warning against a third man who would try to win the secret from her in a frenzy of passion. Perhaps, then, Herman will become her lover and thus jibe his fellow officers. But Herman is profoundly affected by the Countess’s secret and as a storm breaks out and Herman vows he will snatch the secret from the Countess or die.
The Countess’s home.
Despite her friends’ light-hearted mood, Lisa is filled with anxiety. The fortune-telling on the eve of her betrothal is ominous. An aura of death hangs over Lisa and once she is alone, she cries, letting out the pain and commits the darkness of her spirit to the blackness of the night. She doesn’t love the fair prince, her heart belongs to Herman, somber as a fallen angel. And then, Herman appears. He has crept into the Countess’s house and demands love and devotion from Lisa. He blackmails her with his determination and their meeting is interrupted by the Countess’s return. With her appearance, Herman’s terrible desire floods back. The Countess, failing to notice Herman, leads Lisa out. But the girl will return in a moment, succumbing to Herman's hypnotic power.
A great masked ball.
The Countess, Prince Yeletsky with Lisa, the officers and Herman, the object of their constant ridicule attend the ball. Yeletsky assures Lisa of his love for her even though he knows he is not loved back in return. Lisa remains distant and aloof. Herman receives a letter from her in which she requests to see him after the performance that has just started - a show put on especially for her betrothal to the Prince. After the performance, Lisa gives Herman the key to her room. She is utterly devoted to him, though her love no longer means anything to Herman. The ball continues and the arrival of the Empress adds luster to the event.
The Countess’s empty bedroom.
Herman tensely awaits the Countess' return from the ball. His obsessive passion fills his mind completely and he wants to learn the secret - if there is one. From his hiding place he can see the intoxicated Countess, witnessing her outburst of bitterness, watching as half-asleep, she sinks into her long-gone delightful past. The Countess is falling asleep, plunged in her dreams, but Herman rouses her. First he begs then demands that she reveal her secret to him. Terrified by the intrusion, the woman dies. Lisa arrives. Realizing that Herman wants to learn the secret of the cards more than he wants her love, she is torn between conflicting emotions and eventually rejects Herman.
Herman is reading a letter from Lisa who is unable to throw him out of her heart. She wants to believe that the Countess’ death was an accident and requests a rendezvous to give him another chance to prove his innocence. But Herman knows the darkness of his soul. As the chorus sings a propitiatory psalm, the image of the dead Countess appears, mocking him and revealing the secret sequence of cards. It’s the three, seven and ace.
Lisa awaits Herman in vain on the bridge. She knows she is damned as she has linked her fate to a murderer. But, when Herman finally arrives, she is prepared to forgive this man for everything, loving him with a mystical devotion. Herman however, rejects Lisa and runs to the gaming-house in order to gamble using the secret he has revealed. Distraught, Lisa throws herself into the river.
There is excitement in the gaming-house. Herman’s arrival surprises and disturbs those present as for the first time Herman wants to participate in the game. Tense, he bets his whole fortune on the cards indicated by the Countess. He bets on the three and wins. He then bets on the seven and wins again. He is master of the world and master of his fate and so he bets everything on one card and nobody but Yeletsky dares to meet his challenge. They play and Herman loses. Instead of the ace, the card in his hand is the queen of spades. He curses the Countess and takes his own life, dying with Lisa’s name on his lips, with her image before the eyes of his soul - with her waiting for him on the other side. The chorus’s prayer rises above his tortured soul.