Spider Solitaire Notation

When discussing a sequence of one or more moves it is clearly more convenient to say something like “<ac>” rather than “move the Jack of Hearts from column 1 onto the Queen of Diamonds on column 3.” This is especially true when we talk about long series of moves to achieve a desired goal such as an empty column or increasing the number of in-suit builds.

Steve Brown has developed his own notation for moves in Spider Solitaire in his excellent book Winning Spider Solitaire Strategies. The notation is theoretically sound, but I think it is rather technical and counter-intuitive for most players so I decided to make some slight variation of it. I prefer to illustrate important strategy concepts through the use of silly stories 😉

Most of the time, specifying a source and destination column is enough to uniquely identify a legal move. For instance if the top cards of columns 1 and 3 are a Seven and Jack respectively, then we know that exactly four cards are being moved from column 1 to column 3 (unless the move is illegal). But there are one-and-a-half exceptions.

The one exception occurs when the destination column is empty, in which case the number of cards being moved may be ambiguous (of course most of the time you wanna move the maximum number of cards to avoid losing an in-suit build). The half-exception concerns the use of supermoves. Many players will be familiar with the concept of supermoves from Freecell and they turn out to be very convenient for dealing with longer move sequences.

I will use the letters abcdefghij to denote the ten columns from left to right. Therefore the simplest example of a supermove could be <ab2,ac5,bc3> to shift five cards from column 1 to column 3, assuming 2,5,3 represent the number of cards being shifted for each individual move. Of course most of the time the numbers are unnecessary so it is simpler to write <ab,ac,bc>. The supermove notation is <ac> in lieu of <ab,ac,bc>. Going back to an earlier example, if the top cards of column 1 and 3 are a Seven and Jack respectively then <ac> means we are shifting exactly four cards. If they are not suited then we check if the conditions for a supermove exist (for instance we might have an empty column and a spare Nine).

A related concept is superswap where we want to swap the partial contents of two columns. For instance if we have 8C-7D in column 1 and 8D-7S-6S-5S in column 7 then it might be desired to swap the 7D with 7S-6S-5S to build in-suit with 8D-7D. This can be notated as <a1=g3>. Obviously, this can only be achieved with a spare Eight of any suit or an empty column.

With more empty columns and cards in play deeper superswaps are possible. It is not hard to imagine a move like <c6=g8> to tidy up suits, which might take over 30 individual moves to achieve. Note that without the numbers 6,8 there may be ambiguity with e.g. <c5=g7> or <c4=g6> etc.

In the example below we might start the game with <eh>,<ji> for two in-suit builds. Assuming the exposed cards are 4D and 3D respectively the third move could be <ie>, which is also in-suit.


You may have noticed the use of angle brackets – these correspond to single actions, i.e. move sequences that expose at least one new card. For example <eh>,<ji> means we shift the Seven of Spades, examine the card underneath and then decide the best move is to shift the Four of Clubs. If we ignored the face-up card underneath the Seven of Spades, then the notation would be <eh,ji> which is technically not an action (although the loss in “equity” is very small).

Until next time, happy Spider Solitaire playing 😊

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