A Brief Meditation on Solitaire

A Brief Meditation on Solitaire

By Gene Wilburn

“Patience’s [Solitaire’s] design flaw became obvious for the first time in my life: the outcome is decided not during the course of play but when the cards are shuffled, before the game even begins. How pointless is that?” ~ David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas

Napoleon Bonaparte and I have very few things in common. He was short, I am tall. He was an extrovert, I’m an introvert. He was a brilliant military strategist, commanding great armies. I’m a quiet essayist with, maybe, six regular readers. He, evidently, ate arsenic. As far as I know I’m arsenic free, but we do have one shared passion: we both love to play Solitaire, or as he called it Patience, with a French accent.

Where the game originated is in question, but it seems to have emerged either in France, or in the Balkans, some time in the 18th Century. Called Patience, with an English accent, in England, it spread to Canada and the United States and became famous during the Klondike Gold Rush in the Canadian Yukon Territory as a game called, unsurprisingly, Klondike. One imagines lone miners stuck in their huts, whiling away the hours with the cards, or maybe two miners betting on the games, listening to the gales of the Arctic winds dampen their enthusiasm for finding riches. The rules of Klondike proved popular and are the basic rules of the game most of us now know as Solitaire.

Solitaire enjoyed its biggest boost ever by being included as a free computer game in early Microsoft Windows. As a consequence it is now played world wide by millions of devotees, not to mention bored office workers, but nowhere is it as enjoyable as on an iPad or other tablet where it has the feel of real cards without all the bother of shuffling, moving around, and occasionally dropping, small pieces of laminated cardboard.

For me, Solitaire is not so much a game as a centring process. When the world is too much with me, late and soon, as Wordsworth said, I turn to Solitaire for a time out and an active mindful meditation. I don’t so much play to win as to observe what different patterns of randomness can do. In order to make this more interesting I tweaked the rules of the game: I redefined what a Solitaire “win” means. Getting all the cards up to the top is the standard definition of “win” but if you play Solitaire by the three-card-up option, as I do, you very seldom win, or even come close to winning by these rules.

The Solitaire game I play on my iPad is called Real Solitaire HD, by EdgeRift. It keeps a running numeric score of the game as you play it and through playing hundreds of games I finalized on a score of 150 as “beating the odds.” Under my rules, if you beat the odds, you’ve “won.” Of course you may do much better than that and any game in which you score 200 points or more is a very decisive victory. (Your game of Solitaire may score points differently, so you may have to do your own calibration to determine a reasonable score for winning.)

David Mitchell’s complaint in the opening quote about Solitaire being decided at the moment of the shuffle is mainly true, but there are nuances. Part of the fun, for me, is looking at the initial deal and, based on lots of play experience, gauging the odds of beating the odds. If you’re dealt a set of cards that are all red or all black, you can just about kiss your chances of winning goodbye. I play the game anyway because there can be surprises lurking hidden in the deck. It doesn’t happen often, but once in awhile an unexpected chain of sequences occur that changes the odds during play. It’s like watching an unseeded underdog win a tournament. Exciting. I should probably note that I’m easily amused.

There are various patterns of Solitaire games that I’ve noted. The ones that are totally doomed from the beginning with no useful cards turning up are almost as interesting as wins, in terms of the odds. Then there are those that start well but die before reaching the magic 150-point mark. And the exciting ones that look doomed, but come through with a burst at the last minute that carries it to victory. Or the agony of games that end up at 145, just 5 points shy from winning.

In a way, it’s like the odds in life. People may start well, emerging from a good family and educational background, yet fail to achieve their full potential. Others may have a hard start, but through perseverance pull through, beating the odds. Some are golden — only good things seem to happen and they reach a “perfect” game. And then there are those who never had a good start and never achieved a second chance.

Like life, Solitaire is all about randomness. And randomness can be streaky, with long runs of good games and bad games. Just like life. You play the cards you’ve been dealt. The odds are difficult to predict, or as Winston Churchill said, “It is always wise to look ahead, but difficult to look further than you can see.” Yes, life is very much like the odds of Solitaire: unknown, but hopeful.