Playing solitaire till dawn with a deck of fifty-one

by Marie Marshall


I used to play patience (solitaire) a lot, with real cards, back in the day when it wasn’t a standard feature of Windows. Back in the day when there were no PCs, for heaven’s sake – aye, when a jug of ale cost a ha’penny, and they used to hang you for stealing a loaf of bread, and the wheel was thought to be a thing of magic!

I used to notice that people had slightly different “rules” for how the game was played. When a stack became empty, I would wait for a king to come up and place that in the empty space. A friend of mine would fill the empty space with the exposed cards of the nearest stack. Either way had its advantages and disadvantages; one might wait a longer time to turn up a king, but a lower card had less scope for adding cards below it. Another friend of mine would deal cards hand-to-hand, so that the order of the three selected cards was reversed, I would just take three of the top of the deck so that the order stayed the same; yet another friend would take the last cards at the bottom of the deck, whether they were three, two, or one, whereas if I had two or one left I would place them at the top of the deck, so that the cards would rotate by threes. Again, each of these differences had its disadvantage and its advantage, by swings and roundabouts.

I was playing one day (in the common room at school), using my spare-cards-to-the-top-of-the-deck method, and a friend was watching me idly. Suddenly she said –

“You can’t do that. That’s cheating!”

I pointed out that it was one of the many variants of the game. She said –

“Yeah… but… well… you can’t do that. That’s cheating!”

Funny thing, people’s perceptions. I found this “You-can’t-do-that-that’s-cheating” attitude turned up time and time again. I’ll give you another example. I once had a red queen at the top of an exposed stack, there were no hidden cards underneath her, so if she moved there would have been an empty space left. On another stack there was a black king. To save time I picked up the black king and simply slipped him underneath the queen, so he was now at the top of the stack where the queen was. I lifted my hand to make the next move, when…

“You can’t do that. That’s cheating!”

“I beg your pardon?”

“What you just did. You can’t do that. That’s cheating!”

I explained to the observer that I had seen that the queen would have gone on the king, and that the king would then have gone into the empty space, so I had simply saved time by slipping the king where he was going to go anyway.

“Yeah… but… well… you can’t do that. That’s cheating!”

So I said. “Tell you what – how about I put the cards back as they were? Now I put the red queen onto the black king, like this, Okay? Now I put the black king in this space here. How about that?”

“Yeah, that’s okay. You can do that. But that other way that you did it – you can’t do that. That’s cheating!”

I am sure she is now a mother, or a high-ranking executive in a company.

All I know is that my current games are governed not by a friend looking over my shoulder, telling me what I can and can’t put where, but by an algorithm. I can still choose whether to move a card, or to wait for a more favourable one to turn up, so I still have some choice in the matter. And the algorithm will allow me to undo a move. I am still waiting for someone to look over my shoulder and say, “You can’t do that. That’s cheating!” – I’ll tell them to address their remarks to Microsoft.