The Pandemic Joy of Spider Solitaire

If there’s a single activity that’s promoted and preserved my sanity during the pandemic year—a big if in a year of rocky sanity—that activity is spider solitaire. I kicked off empty pandemic hours with jigsaw puzzles, shifted to Sudoku, even tried crossword puzzles. But once I discovered spider solitaire, it instantly became my default form of soothing mental manipulation.

Conventional, seven-column solitaire dates from the eighteenth century, but the earliest record of spider solitaire isn’t until 1917. Even then, spider was a rare form of solo-card-play until computers arrived because, unlike solitaires that use a single deck of cards, spider solitaire requires two. 104 total cards. A huge wad to shuffle, deal, and collect by hand. Trivial for a computer to sort.

The Internet offers many spider solitaire programs. I use solitir.com, which has a clean interface. Open the program and this is what you’ll get: ten columns of cards, forty-four face-down, ten face-up. The remaining fifty cards sit in an upper-left, face-down pile.

The objective of spider solitaire is to reveal all 104 cards and stack them in sequential piles, same suit, ace-low to king-high. You accomplish this by moving cards onto each other, a lesser value stacked on a higher value. When you create a full sequence, it zaps away from the ten-columns in play, to the upper right. If you compile eight full sequences, you use up all the cards and win the game. Congratulations!

How to do this? Begin by placing any exposed card of a given suit on another exposed card with same suit with the next-higher value. For example, seven of diamonds on eight of diamonds. These form the beginning of a same-suit sequence. Whenever you move the top face-up card in a column, the concealed card beneath turns over. Thus there are always ten columns of cards in play, and you can shift one or more cards from any same-suit sequence to another column.

Once you’ve exhausted the same-suit opportunities, the strategy begins. Spider solitaire allows you to move a card of any value onto a card of one-value higher, regardless of suit. In my demonstration hand above, I decided to put the six-seven-eight of clubs sequence on the nine of diamonds. Note: that does not build toward a sequence. My nine of clubs is unavailable for play until I move the six-seven-eight of diamonds to another column.

How do I decide whether to make that move? In general, an exposed card is preferred to a concealed card. Therefore, I move the six-seven-eight of clubs onto the nine of diamonds because it allows another card to be exposed.

When you’ve exhausted all the same-sit moves you can, and all the alt-suit moves you choose, click on the concealed pile on the upper left. Ten new cards appear, one at the bottom of each column. This provides new cards to play, but also changes access to the same-suit sequences you’ve been creating. In the example above, the ten of clubs landing on the jack of diamonds shuts off that queen-jack sequence. Unfortunately, I cannot place the nine of clubs on that ten, because I moved the eight of diamonds onto the nine in a previous round.

I’ve never won a round of spider solitaire without creating open one or more columns. When you’ve moved every card from a column—the original face-up card and all concealed cards beneath—you can then move any other card or sequence available for play into that space. This is the only way to move a king, which is the highest card in any sequence. Although sometimes it’s more strategic to move another card.

In the case of my example, I move the seven-eight of diamonds from column one to the open column. Why? So I can then move ace-through-eight of clubs from column seven onto column one and create—hooray!—a complete sequence of ace through king of clubs.

Once you have the opportunity to place a sequence in an open column, the opportunities to envision subsequent moves blossom.

My string of ace-through-king of clubs zips to the upper right of my screen. In this case, subsequent moves enable me to create a full sequence of diamonds as well.

At this point you may wonder, where are the hearts and spades? Spider solitaire can be played at three levels: easy (all cards are clubs); moderate (four sequences each of clubs and diamonds); difficult (two sequences each of clubs, diamonds, hearts, and spades). Once you’re familiar with the game, you’ll almost always win a round of all clubs, it’s that easy. On the other hand, playing all four suits is ridiculously hard. I play the moderate level, and, with improved strategy, win about 25% of the time. Often enough to find it challenging without being discouraging.

In my example, by the time I have played the entire concealed pile, I’ve created four full sequences (see upper right). Yet I still have eight concealed cards among my ten piles. So, I carefully shift playable cards onto one another with an eye towards revealing those concealed cards, and eventually creating more full sequences.

There comes a point when you realize, “I got this,” as more columns open up and you create more full sequences. The rest is just moving stacks.

Until You WIN!

Spider Solitaire is easy to play, yet its strategy becomes more challenging as you learn to ‘read’ the ripple moves that come from deciding what to play. My rules of thumb are as follows:

1. Make all possible same-suit moves during initial and first two rounds of play

2. Make moves between different-suit cards if they will expose concealed cards

3. Make moves of different-suit cards if they enable subsequent same-suit moves

4. If there are multiple options of same move, always move the card on the smallest column, to encourage creating an open column.

5. Always fill an open column with cards that will create a full sequence or expose more concealed cards

6. In later rounds, it sometimes pays to make a different-suit play even when a same-suit play exists, if the subsequent plays are worthwhile.

That’s the limit of my strategy now; I will probably develop more as I continue to improve. Although, as the pandemic ends, will I feel the need to fill an hour or more each day with a game whose primary focus is to pass time and soothe my mind? Hopefully, not.

About paulefallon

Greetings reader. I am a writer, architect, cyclist and father from Cambridge, MA. My primary blog, theawkwardpose.com is an archive of all my published writing. The title refers to a sequence of three yoga positions that increase focus and build strength by shifting the body’s center of gravity. The objective is balance without stability. My writing addresses opposing tension in our world, and my attempt to find balance through understanding that opposition. During 2015-2106 I am cycling through all 48 mainland United States and asking the question "How will we live tomorrow?" That journey is chronicled in a dedicated blog, www.howwillwelivetomorrw.com, that includes personal writing related to my adventure as well as others' responses to my question. Thank you for visiting.
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