Since ancient Roman times, the thermal springs of Wiesbaden have attracted people interested in the purported healing qualities of a hot mineral bath. As the town grew into a major spa destination in the 1700s, its wealthy visitors sought other forms of entertainment, and facilities appeared nearby for theater, music, and, above all, gambling.
The first regulated card games were licensed in 1771. By 1810, Wiesbaden boasted a monumental spa-house to accommodate its bathers and gamblers. A stream of aristocrats and celebrities passed through its grand hall. Napoleon is rumored to have been an early client, and Dostoevsky was a prominent visitor in the 1860s.
In fact, the roulette-crazed Russian author hurriedly wrote his novel The Gambler to regain financial stability after his casino habits drove him into debt. In one version of the tale, Dostoevsky wagered and lost his life savings on a single spin of a Wiesbaden roulette wheel, which was then retired from the casino floor and preserved as a memento of his recklessness.
The casino’s popularity was such that it outgrew the original 1810 spa-house, and a larger building was constructed from 1905 to 1907. Kaiser Wilhelm II attended the grand opening of the new structure, which included space for concerts, balls, and banquets, in addition to a lavish gambling hall. In a nod to its origins, the building is called the Kurhaus (referring to the thermal “cure”) and its grand entrance portico is inscribed “Aquis Mattiacis,” meaning the waters of the Mattiaci tribe who inhabited the area in antiquity.
The Kurhaus complex has had various uses during its life and was damaged in World War II, but has been restored and once again welcomes gamblers. A secondary building contains a modern casino with electronic slot machines, while the grand Kurhaus has event space and an upscale traditional gambling hall, where polished wooden roulette wheels spin just as they did in Dostoevsky’s day.
As for the fateful roulette wheel that bankrupted Dostoevsky, some say that it has been lost, but others claim that it is in safekeeping at the casino, a historic token of reckless frenzy and outrageous misfortune.