Games

By Jan-Erik Asplund '14 

Since there's no more food to eat in Bennington I've decided that now I will review other things, like games. Games that you can play either by yourself or with your friends. Today I review the game of "solitaire" -- jan 

Somewhere around 82% to 91% of games of Klondike solitaire are potentially winnable. On average, though, people only win around 20%, because human players make early mistakes with regard to card placement, mistakes that could be avoided only with perfect knowledge of the cards on the table. Which of course, no one is omniscient. But that doesn’t really make it any less frustrating to realize that we so regularly undershoot our potential by so much.

 “…A wrong move cannot be known in advance whenever more than one move is possible that uncovers a previously hidden card.” -- Wikipedia

Flipping through the waste pile for cards to play – you see a move, you play it – it’s tempting to keep going. Keep moving. But whatever it is, dopamine receptors, etc. that makes it satisfying to play this way, by the seat of your pants, also makes it a bad way to live up to your (realistic) potential of 20% of games won. Each successive move you make alters the deck you’re holding, even just a little bit, and depending on the variety of solitaire you’re playing. The most common way I’ve seen to play is by flipping three cards from the waste pile, moving through them in sequence and removing them to the bottom of the deck when you’re finished. Here, if you use just one of the cards you draw, you’ll see a completely new set of cards when you go through the waste pile a second time. Draw three, and you leave the deck basically the way it was before, which can be a good move if you’re trying to leave the other cards undisturbed. But usually you want to see new cards the next time you flip through the deck. One play, singular, ensures a maximally fresh waste pile. But limiting yourself this way creates a new dilemma, that is, which opportunity to take, which move to make.

In .25% of hands dealt, no cards can be moved even at the very beginning of the game. These games are completely unwinnable.

It’s not clear to me why games like Klondike solitaire are grouped under the category of “patience games”. In my experience patience is important in solitaire in two respects: 1) flipping through the waste methodically to make the best possible move at any time, avoiding moves that are made simply for the sake of having made a move, and in 2) losing.

It’s often said that Napoleon played a lot of solitaire while in exile.

Winning at solitaire is funny. Usually it comes in the form of a dull realization, a recognition that there is no longer any way for you to lose, when you have a couple of nice tableaux columns and the only work that’s left is moving all of them, in sequence, to the foundations. Playing on a computer, you get to (or at least used to) get that nice animation of the cards all epileptically bouncing around the screen. 

Your luck changes occasionally, but briefly, and for no apparent reason, at least with regard to your actual performance.

But of course nothing like that happens when you win at solitaire in real life. In reality's cold expanse, victory means monotonously assembling the foundations – and for what? – to prove to yourself that you did win, maybe to just see it for real. And then you have to shuffle four complete successive groups of suits together, which realistically is just going to make it take longer to get a random deck afterwards. Better to just shuffle as soon as you realize you’ve won, shuffle and move on quickly.

A woman playing solitaire.

A woman playing solitaire.

We operate on guesswork alone, most of the time, which accounts for the disparity between the games we are capable of winning and those we realistically might win.

At a website called winnablesolitaire.com, “the reason computers were invented”, you can play a version of solitaire that a coder has created where “all the games are winnable!”

“Solitaire is fun… but don’t you ever get tired of losing? Join the legions of self-actualizing folks who are living their dreams and winning solitaire everyday!”

Sometimes you start a game and it’s just doomed from the start. None of the cards in your tableaux can go anywhere, and you’re scraping the bottom of the waste pile. Other times, that’s what you think you’ve got, and then suddenly you break through. But eventually you’re blocked, and what might look to be a pretty versatile set of columns is defeated by nothing more than a sparse waste pile, some essential cards hidden underneath a five of hearts.

You were right. 

It takes a little bit to recognize a game that you will not win regardless of how many cards you pull. But you do recognize it eventually – your brain is up there, drawing its conclusions, but my hands, at least, never seem to want to give up trying. Because there are moves to make, of course, piddling little things, but nothing that will actually turn it all around, just little distractions to prolong the inevitable conclusion. It’s up to the player how long they want to play this lame-duck game.

Winning is dull because it is more a recognition of the fact that this time, you have been luckier than other times, than a realization of any underlying skill or efficiency.

Sometimes games start off so well you just assume you must have messed up while shuffling the deck. Which is actually one of the more fun parts of this game. Make sure you cascade after you riffle, because it’s not just for show: it re-bends the cards, in the opposite direction, to straighten them back out.

“Perhaps if the future existed, concretely and individually, as something that could be discerned by a better brain, the past would not be so seductive: its demands would be balanced by those of the future. Persons might then straddle the middle stretch of the seesaw when considering this or that object. It might be fun.” – Vladimir Nabokov

You shouldn’t move the last card in a tableau column unless you have something to replace it with. Empty spaces aren’t useful, whereas even a four or five can be useful if you can move a three or four there and change up your waste pile.

show one's hand (Fig.) to reveal one's intentions to someone. (From card games.) "I don't know whether Jim is intending to marry Jane or not. He's not one to show his hand... If you want to get a raise, don't show the boss your hand too soon." See also: hand, show.

Later in Transparent Things: "Easy, you know, does it, son." -- Vladimir Nabokov