It’s been quite a journey. First from China, then to Western Asia, Europe and beyond: playing cards are now ubiquitous in households across the world.
What were once the ornately painted playthings of kings have become familiar, plastic backed, disposable decks churned out in their thousands. But throughout their long history, card games have almost always been competitive.
That’s why solitaire stands out. Its defining characteristic is that it’s rarely enjoyed by more than one person, and it’s almost never staked. All there is to be won is the simple pleasure of completing a game, or perhaps besting your previous score.
Yet still, it remains an immensely satisfying and surprisingly involved way to pass the time. All those combinations of cards, all those variations of play. Each game is – statistically – unique. In fact, it’s unlikely that a single deck of cards has ever been shuffled, or will ever be shuffled, in the same exact way.
So how did solitaire a term that comes from the French word for solitary – become a game enjoyed by multiple people at once? And how can it possibly be adapted for more than one player? Why do we even love competitive games in the first place? Well, have patience. We’ll shortly arrive at the answers.
To understand this, we should avoid looking at terms like ‘solitaire’ as definitive categories. As a whole, our shared playing card cannon is a miscellany of different (and perhaps half remembered) rule-sets only codified once playing cards became cheap enough for ordinary people to enjoy.
These original manuals are now centuries old, and there remains plenty of variation in the names and rules of different card games between communities, even individual families. In fact, not even the suits are the same. We might be familiar with the spades, clubs, diamonds and hearts of the Anglo-French variety (now somewhat broadly called the international variation), but such suits may be foreign to, for instance, an Italian player.
‘Solitaire’ is no different in its diverse origins. In fact, in the British Isles, the term didn’t originally refer to a card game at all, but a board game played with marbles. Across the pond, the name patience is more often used for the game that we call solitaire.
Patienceis also a general term used throughout the world to categorize any card game in which a shuffled deck is returned to order by the player. Based on a strict definition, Solitaire is any patience game which is enjoyed exclusively by a single player.
But as the term ‘solitaire’ became more established than ‘patience’ in the United States, people began to use it more broadly. Even, perhaps, as a term to describe card games which are similar in their style of play to solitaire, yet participated in by more than one individual. This is how, paradoxically, a term that originally meant ‘solitary’ is now used to describe competitive games.
Patience is a family of card games with countless variety, and plenty are already adapted for play with multiple people. The specifics of how this is done varies on a game-by-game basis. Some are strategically turn based, others a frenzied free for all. Some are better suited to only two players, others enjoyed by any number of people – within the bounds of reason. Let’s examine three successful competitive variants, looking at how and why they’re played in the way that they are.
Klondike is probably the most widely known solitaire layout. We’re not quite sure why that is – we know that its name is in reference to the Klondike Gold Rush – but whether or not that 19th century catastrophe was what helped bring this particular variety up to classic status is uncertain.
Microsoft probably has a lot more to do with it, their digital version of solitaire that came pre-installed on all Windows machines followed the Klondike layout, making the game (and later its cousin Spider) accessible to millions. A previous effort that appears on Apple machines predates this version by a year, and though not quite as renowned, probably influenced its development.
With its continuing popularity, the game’s competitive adaptation, Double Klondike, is one of the more popular multiplayer solitaire games. When enjoyed by two players, it’s essentially a head to head: two decks become two tableaus facing one another with eight foundations in the middle.
From then on, the game follows a turn-based format. One player makes as many moves as possible (as they would in a traditional game of solitaire), up until the point in which they have to draw from their stock. While the foundations are shared, each tableau belongs solely to the individual player, and you can’t play cards onto your opponent’s layout.
From this simple setup, any number of players can hypothetically be added to the game, simply increasing the number of foundations and tableaus with each additional person. We say hypothetically, because a large amount of space must be allotted to fit each player’s layout, not to mention a steady surface on which they can all sit. Turn-taking also has its limits, with each additional player prolonging the game.
Regardless, it’s an effective, strategic way to adapt solitaire for more than one person, and by using the familiar Klondike layout, it’s a simple enough game to set up.
For a truly social experience that can accommodate multiple players, some adjustments to the format of Double Klondike have to be made. Firstly, by reducing the number of columns in the tableau we can limit the amount of space taken up by each player. Secondly, by eliminating the procedure of taking turns, we can speed up the game and add a level of frantic excitement as each player rushes to make successful moves as fast as possible. Thirdly, instead of creating a regimented playing area for the foundations to sit, we simply use a communal space like the floor, and place our aces wherever they will fit in the middle.
These are three of the foundational concepts to Nerts, which is also known as Racing Demon in England, the country from which the game originates. Like Double Klondike, each player plays with their own deck. It’s particularly important for each pack to have a design distinct from the others as this will help in retrieving cards from the middle after each hand.
Each player has a personal tableau consisting of four columns, called the river. The river is built up in a similar way to Klondike solitaire, by arranging cards in descending cascades that alternate between red and black.
Adjacent to these, is the Nerts pile, consisting of thirteen cards that must be eliminated by playing them onto either the river or a communal area of foundations called the lake. Players can also draw more cards from a stockpile called the stream, consisting of the remainder of their deck. Once a player has removed all the cards from their Nerts pile, the hand is won. The players then pick up their deck’s cards from the lake, shuffle them and draw out four new cards to form their river.
Because the game occurs at breakneck speed, many hands are often played to make for a more complete competitive experience. Players will usually tally a score, calculated for each person by taking the tally of cards in the lake and subtracting double what’s left in their Nerts pile. Once a person’s score has reached, say, 100 points, the game is won.
A game of Nerts promises frantic fun which will test the reaction time of its players. This makes it an excellent party game, so long as each player is willing (and sober enough) to learn the rules.
As anyone who has suffered through a session of monopoly can attest to, even the most unassuming of competitive games can raise heart-rates and stir emotions, pitting friends and family against one another. The inventors of Spite and Malice no doubt knew this when they coined the title of their game. Evidently, there’s very little room for light-hearted whimsy here.
It’s not that card games aren’t ever taken seriously. They are – absolutely. And especially when money is on the line. Think also of the endless number of stony expressions that draw from playing card terminology. Plenty of solitaire games are guilty of evoking danger through their established monikers, the ever popular ‘Spider’ and its cousin ‘Scorpion’ both warning of a game ending bite (or sting) if the player’s strategic mind-set lapses for a second. Spite and Malice is even more upfront about what it offers: humiliation by the other player in a fiery crucible of plastic-backed competition.
It’s a two-player game with a lot of moving parts; setup is complicated but rewarding. First, the dealer takes two decks and shuffles them together, playing five cards into each player’s hand and then another twenty into an adjacent pile called the ‘pay off’ pile (like Nerts, eliminating this pile is central to winning the game). The remainder of the deck sits in the middle of the playing area as a stock. Where is the tableau in all this? Well, that gets generated during the game; which begins by flipping the first card from the top of each table-facing pay off pile. Whoever’s card has the highest rank goes first.
The ultimate goal is to build foundations from ace to queen within the area between the two players. Crucially, these can be made up of any suit, so long as they are in ascending order. The king, instead of crowning the pile as is often the case in solitaire games, serves as a wild card (the traditional role of the joker in card games). Once a player has moved all the cards from their ‘pay off’ pile and onto these central foundations, or ‘center stacks’, the game is won.
In order to make the game more than just random chance, players can play cards from their individual hands, and also generate a ‘side stack’ – a four-columned tableau where cards can be kept to one side before they are played into the middle. Unlike conventional solitaire, this tableau isn’t bound by any particular order, though only the top card on each of the columns can be played, the others, trapped underneath and unavailable. You can build this tableau using cards from your pay-off pile or hand, but once a card joins one of your side stacks, your turn is over.
The hand is another interesting addition to this solitaire variant. A central tenet of many card games is the inability to see what’s available to your competitors, and having to operate around that. Subsequently, a mastery of strategy, of statistics, and not to mention a steely eyed expression are key virtues to the best competitive card players (which is why I have never won a hand of poker). As the saying goes, you aren’t just playing your hand, you’re playing the person across from you.
In Spite and Malice, you’re expected to level your hand back up to five cards at the end of each turn. If you end up using all of the cards in your hand, you’re allowed to draw five more from the stock and resume play as usual. If the stock becomes depleted, the game is considered a draw. The layout is collected, the decks reshuffled, and play begins again.
Spite and Malice plays loose with the conventions of solitaire, but can ultimately be categorized as a patience game as the end goal is to return the shuffled deck (or two decks) into a particular order. The use of the king as a wild card, the element of a concealed hand, and the strategic addition of side stacks make this game a unique, multi-faceted experience. Though perhaps not one worth losing friends over.
It’s often touted that humans have a naturally competitive nature. This being a result of some 3.7 billion years of evolution on planet earth, throughout which different creatures have been constantly battling the elements and one another – only the strongest coming out on top.
But this view obscures the complexity of life on this planet, no lifeform being more complex than us humans. Empathy and compassion are written just as much into our evolutionary code as our competitive spirit. Scientific studies have shown that many individuals don’t appear to be motivated by competition at all, not to mention the fact that there’s also a great deal of cooperation between different strains of life.
Moving away from such lofty concepts, we can’t deny the fact that it feels good to win a hand of cards. Just ‘winning’ in general releases our brain’s ‘happy chemicals’. This can even happen vicariously, as some studies show, watching competitive games can also stimulate dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin.
Psychologically, gratification might also come from the feeling of your own success rather than the fact that you have bested someone else. The ability to improve on your own performance is one of the key drives for competition, and explains why even a solo game like solitaire is so satisfying.
Then there’s also the social aspect. The fact you are participating in a task with another person or group of people. Games, even competitive ones, bring us together. They can help alleviate the initial anxiety which may come with meeting new people. They can provide a jumping off point for conversations, and help us find others with whom we share common interests.
There’s also a lot to be said for the fact that the stakes are often very low. Despite our references to ‘spite and malice’, and the interwoven relationship between card games and gambling, with competitive solitaire, very little is on the line. Most of these games present simple, clean, and often fast fun. Any spent friendships are outliers at best.
We thought of no better way to close out this article than with a reminder of why we love card games in the first place. They’re low stakes, inexpensive bonding activities, and the ubiquity of playing cards means that we can turn to them for some kind of satisfying entertainment in a pinch.
We’ve briefly touched on the history of playing cards in this article, and you might be left with the impression that it’s an arbitrary and confusing one. But that points to another thing that’s great about playing cards, they’re endlessly versatile. Rule-sets will shift and change and even sprout new games as they make their way through different traditions. Even their names can double back and gain new meanings. The history of card games is complicated because humans are complicated.
What’s great about this is the amount of choice offered to the player. Whether with one deck or two, competitive or solo, it’s entirely in your hands.
In closing, just as the history of card games weaves a complex tapestry, the world of solitaire shines with a myriad of choices that cater to different preferences and moods. Whether you’re seeking a competitive thrill, a solitary mental exercise, or a way to connect with others, solitaire’s versatile nature ensures that there’s a perfect game for every player, inviting you to explore, engage, and find delight in the world of cards.