Game On/Short Story (7 Feb 2021)

“Oh I love trash!”, sings Oscar The Grouch. He is especially proud of the ever-growing stacks of cards in columns 1, 5, 9 and 10.

“But what is so good about the ever-growing stacks of cards in columns one, five, nine and ten?” asks Grover.

“Well,” replies Big Bird. “The more cards you have in those columns, the less you have in others. So it is easier to get spaces in columns 2,3,4 or 8. “This is why Oscar likes his trash piles”.

“That is true,” replies Grover. “But we did not get a good deal. We can not get more than one empty column.”

“But I want to know what’s the best move!” cries Elmo, who is clearly impatient with the discussion about how best to proceed.

Count Von Count walks in, together with a couple of human guest stars – today they happen to be Bart and George.

“Before we can work out the best move,” begins Count von Count, “we need to count the cards!”

Count von Count gets all the children to name the cards, starting from the left-most column and working towards the right. As the kids eagerly announce the rank of each card, Bart draws a tally mark next to the corresponding symbol.

“King! … Queen! … Jack! … Six! … Five! … Four! … King! … Queen! … Jack! … Ten! … Nine! …”

It takes a while, but Bart eventually ends up with the image below. Meanwhile, the others are busy contemplating whether it’s possible to remove a complete set of Clubs.

“We can do it!” shout the Bad Idea Bears. “We can remove a complete set of clubs!”

“Not so fast,” says George. “That would cost us our only empty column.”

“Besides,” adds Bart, “You ain’t welcome here, you’re from the wrong crowd.”

“Awwww” groan the Bad Idea Bears. They reluctantly leave the playing hall.

 It seems a better plan is to partially complete the Club suit and wait for better opportunities. If for instance we find the other Ace of Clubs, then we need not shift the Three in column 1. Or if we expose the second Club King then we could look forward to a new card more useful than the Eight of Spades.

“We should turn over a card in column 7,” says Big Bird.

“I agree,” says Count von Count. “There are four Tens unseen and that would give us two empty columns.

“Yes,” says Spider GM. “It is more important to take the card in column 7 than to remove the Club suit. Now it’s just a matter of working out the detailed sequence of moves.”

Spider GM is pleased that all his students are contributing to the discussion.

“Don’t forget,” says Count von Count, “that we are aiming to win this game with a score of 1000 or better. I believe we have played 143 moves so far.”

“Finally!” cries Elmo, as we start to move some cards around.

We reach the following position and are about to reveal what will probably be the most important card in the history of Four-Suit Spider Solitaire. If it’s a Ten then we’re in business.

And the final card in column 7 is … the Two of Hearts. It’s not the best card – then again it certainly isn’t the worst.

We now reach an all-too-familiar endgame scenario. We can easily get back a space in column 7, but we can’t turn over a new card. Fortunately there are still 10 cards in the stock, else it would be game over. How would you continue?

The Watering Hole

“Thank you for leading me to the Watering Hole,” says the Horse. “Unfortunately I rot13(fhpx) at Spider Solitaire.”

Despite my best efforts, I can’t make my newest student to think more than two moves ahead. Through my peripheral vision I notice a demotivational poster saying “Training is Not the Cure for Stupidity”. The horse looks dejectedly at the cards on the table. He has just been forced to deal a new row of cards and has no idea what to do. He takes another swig from his glass. It seems drinking is not the cure for stupidity either.

“I was the local champion at Klondike,” continues the Horse. “Got the hang of it pretty quick …”

“Local champion,” sneers the rot13(Fzneg Nff). “Only because you were up against the likes of the rot13(Qhzo Ohaal), Bad Idea Bears and Ninja M-”


I angrily swipe the cards off the table and glare at the rot13(Fzneq Nff). Fortunately Ninja Monkey is able to restore the correct position in less than three nano-seconds thanks to his photographic memory and extremely fast metabolism.

First of all, let me begin with the response from Bart Wright:

I’m finding this really fun — applying all those competing considerations that only arise in a real game.

This is where the game often starts getting tricky… sometimes the moves before the first “deal” feel like following a chess opening, and here I go off the opening and have to think harder. I know sometimes I get to a position where I say, “Darn, if I could think far enough ahead I bet I could do better, but I can’t pull off the mental effort required”. But I don’t think this is one of them.

Bart says the moves before dealing a row of 10 cards feel like following a chess opening and in some sense, he is right. Before the first deal, all face-up cards are always in descending sequence (a knowledge bomb from Edifying Thoughts of a Spider Solitaire Addict) so analysing a particular position is not so difficult. But after dealing a row of cards, the descending sequence property is lost, and it takes much more effort to determine minimum guaranteed turnovers, let alone the best move.

In this case, we have only two guaranteed turnovers – that’s the bad news. The “good” news is we probably don’t have to think too far ahead to determine the best play.

Bart also mentioned that in the last post, I shifted the Q-J of Diamonds from the King of Diamonds in column 5 to the other King of Diamonds from column 1. He thinks it’s better to leave it in column 5 because of the consideration that we get an empty column if we remove a full set of diamonds. The reason I moved it to column 1 is to avoid a possible long-term problem with “One-Hole-No-Card,” a situation where you can’t reveal a new card despite having one or more empty columns. I’m still not sure about my decision – but what I do know is that anyone who plays long enough will eventually encounter the situation of One-Hole-No-Card.

To determine the best move, we need to visualise several moves ahead and also calculate (or at least estimate) various probabilities, such as chances of drawing a good card.

Meanwhile the Horse unsuccessfully tries to stifle a yawn as Bart and I study the cards in front of us. We all know yawning is contagious, especially when it’s the Bad Idea Bears setting a bad example.

Here are a few options to consider:

  • Five of Spades onto the Six of Diamonds, the easiest turnover.
  • We can shift both Threes in column 3 to expose a second card.
  • Jack of Hearts onto the Queen, Four of Hearts onto the Five of Hearts, Five of Diamonds onto the Six in column 1. Seems very attractive with three more in-suit builds.

But there’s a catch: we also wanna “insert” the Queen of Hearts in column 2 between the K-J in column 7. If we choose the last option, we will end up with Ks-Qh-Jh in column 7 and 9s-Qh-Jd in column 8 (unless we reveal some good cards). It is clearly more desirable to have Ks-Qh-Jd and 9s-Qh-Jh, so column 8 is easier to shift later on. Therefore we have to sort out the K-Q-J mess first.

In other words, we have to sacrifice many moves before turning over a single card in column 6, and this not only hurts our goal of 1000+ but also may affect our chances of winning the game since we commit ourselves to several irreversible moves before gaining information from the new card.

For this reason, Bart suggests we turnover column 3. Note that “killing” the Five of Spades in column 10 isn’t a big deal because we already have a Five in column 9. We would only regret it if we turned over two Sixes – that is heavy odds-against with only two guaranteed turnovers.

Unless anybody other than Bart can come up with a different suggestion within the next few days, I’m turning over a card in column 3. Any takers?

“Hi,” says the rot13(Fzneq Nff). “I’m rot13(Fzneq Nff)”

I’m Bart,” replies Bart. “Rot13(Rng zl fubegf!)”

Uh oh, I think we’ve all had a bit too much to drink, including myself. Then again, we could all use a bit of laughter after what’s been a rotten year.


Winning with score of 1000+ (short story)

Oh goodie! I have three more students signing up to my Spider Solitaire classes. This time they are humans.

“Hi, I’m Simon”

“Spider GM,” I reply. “Nice to meet you”

“I like to see the game as a logical puzzle,” says Simon. “With sufficient thought we can deduce the proper play in any given position – or at least something reasonably close to optimal. I call this logical deduction”

Simon is a down-to-earth bloke who clearly knows the game. He plays guitar way better than I do. And he can play a mean game of Starcraft. A teacher’s pet if you pardon the terrible cliché.

“I’m Mark,” says Mark.

“I’m Spider GM, nice to meet you”

“I like the use of rot13(haqb) …”

Uh oh, Mark is probably not one of my better students. But he is an approachable dude with a wry sense of humour. He definitely knows his Cryptic Crosswords. I once gave him “At first condemn our very feeble excuse for everything that follows constant negative press (7)” and he got the answer in, like, less than three nano-seconds.

“especially with a variant that requires the player to complete all eight suits with a score of 1000 or better,” continues Mark. “So if I make a bad move, I can still rot13(haqb) but lower my score since each move or rot13(haqb) costs 1 point. Rot13(haqb) also makes sense in a Spider Solitaire Speed-solving championship. I call this rot13(ovshepngvba).”

“I call it blooper-reeling,” I reply. Mark and Simon are known for their witty banter and occasional pranks – and unlike Starcraft I can mix it with the best of ‘em.

I have never been a fan of rot13(haqb) and I have certainly never heard anyone use the term of rot13(ovshepngvba) to describe the cardinal sin of Spider Solitaire. Still, I will concede Mark has a point. With a target score of 1000+ or better, rot13(haqb) can only be used sparingly so we could still have some interesting scenarios with non-trivial decisions. But I have already started this game, so no rot13(ovshepngvba) for now. Maybe in a later game …

“I’m Eugene,” says a third person.

“I’m Spider GM … hang on, you’ve brought a chess set with you. Another one of my hobbies!”

It doesn’t take long for us to set up the pieces. My other students watch with great interest. Despite having an International Master title, Eugene somehow rot13(jubbcf zl nff) ten times in a row. This guy is something special.

I take my king in my right hand and offer it to Eugene, as though it were a Christmas gift.”

“It’s your game,” I say. “Take it.”

Eugene is puzzled. “I thought the pieces were supposed to go back in the box.”

“You never watched the Queen’s Gambit?”

“Never heard of it.”

“Name of a movie, or more precisely, a mini-series. Named after the opening of course – White plays d4, Black d5, White c4.”

Eugene struggles to locate the squares d4,d5,c4 on the chessboard.

“But – but there’s nothing defending the pawn on c4,” says Eugene.

I suddenly realise Eugene was wearing a “magic hat” during our 10-game series. If my intuition is correct, he will probably call it rot13(purngvat). Eugene can play a mean game of chess (or several), but doesn’t understand basic social principles such as Maintaining Eye Contact 101.

“Wait a minute,” I say. “You’re the guy who also plays Sudoku?”

“Yes,” replies Eugene. “Been a while.”

I quickly scribble a Sudoku grid with only the digit in row 5 column 5 missing. There are no quirky rules like thermometers, arrows, disjoint sets, killer clues or sandwiches. It takes him a good minute or two to deduce the missing digit is a Six.

In the distance I notice the Bad Idea Bears giggling to themselves. They hold a strange device that was clearly meant to communicate with Eugene during our chess games. I later find out the BIB thought it would be hilarious to troll Eugene by deliberately giving him the wrong digit in the easiest ever Sudoku puzzle in history. Normally I don’t condone this sort of behaviour but given that they exposed yet another cheat in this sorry state of the world I can forgive them today. However, if this trend continues …

The End