The Final Problem (short story)

SH and JW were at Holmes’ Baker Street diggings, reviewing the proceedings of today’s losing session with Moriarty. Heads-up Spider Solitaire had become the hottest game in town ever since the success of The Office, starring Creed Bratton. Yes, Bridge also had its fair share of followers in the good ol’ U. S. of A. but nothing could beat the strategic complexity of Spider Solitaire, which had twice as many cards.

In heads-up Spider Solitaire, two players alternate playing 10 hands and each hand is worth a certain stake agreed beforehand by the players. Whoever won more hands would win the stake multiplied by the difference in games won. For instance, if the stake was $300 per game, the maximum possible winnings for one player is $3000.

JW arranged two decks of cards in the critical position below, with the help of his photographic memory.

“This was the final hand of the night,” mused JW. “I had a difficult choice. I could turn over a card in column f or j. I chose column j, thinking to procrastinate the option of moving the 3-2 of Clubs onto one of the Fours. Of course I revealed the dreaded King of Spades, and never recovered. Do you think it was better to try my luck in column f?”

“Neither play was correct” replied SH. “Your plan did not meet the requirements of the position.”

“But it was one column or the other,” said JW. “Might as well have flipped a coin. At least Moriarty allowed me to boop after conceding. We found that column 6 would have revealed a Nine of Hearts, also a bad card.”

SH put down his pipe and narrowed his eyes, as though about to admonish a poor student for repeated failures.

“How many times do I have to tell you – when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever re- ”

“How many times do I have say that smoking is bad for you!” retorted JW.

“I can’t help it!” snapped SH.

After some robust discussion they eventually reached a bargain: the great detective would give up smoking and his protégé would pay more attention to his teachings.

“The laws of Spider Solitaire do not compel you to reveal a card whenever you have an empty column,” said Holmes. “Consider the play of <hb,eh,ce>.  It is much easier to win back an empty column when you have 7-6 in-suit rather than offsuit in column e. With six Queens unseen, we can also reasonably hope to clear column b. Moreover if we can reach the Jack of Spades in column h then we might get four turnovers. There is also the potential for developing a suit of Hearts. It would be nice if we can obtain a run of Hearts from Jack to Ace, but the rules unfortunately don’t allow that – so this is the best we can do. We only need to win back one empty column and find at least one missing Queen of Hearts on the next row of 10 cards to put ourselves in fine shape.”

“Amazing, Holmes. I would never have considered that play.”


Another short story (yay!!!!!)

Hooray! I have finally quit my day job and found something I really enjoy: teaching students how to play 4-suit Spider Solitaire well. According to legend, nobody in the Animal Kingdom has managed to beat the game at the highest difficulty level. Even the Ninja Monkey with an amazingly fast metabolism couldn’t achieve it despite 50 quintillion tries (and counting).

In my first class I have 6 students: a mouse, lion, Jackal, Elephant, Eagle, and last but not least, the monkey.

I have already gone over the basics: empty columns are good, suited connectors are good, but aces and kings are usually not your friends. I notice the monkey is taking copious notes. He is an ideal teacher’s pet, if you excuse the lousy pun.

“Take a look at this position,” I say. “Do you think we should win with correct play?”


“I think so,” replies the mouse. “I would bet 3 dollars.”

“That means you think it’s not possible,” quips the lion.

“What do you mean?”

“Your bet is too small,” replies the lion. “If you thought this is a win, you would be betting $30, not $3.”

“I would raise it to $60 at least,” offers the Jackal.

“Yeah sure,” says the elephant.

“We do have 4 suits removed and two empty columns. Sixty dollars says we win this.”

“I wouldn’t bluff if I were you,” replies the Elephant. “Look at that pile of 83,72,73,84 on Column 4.”

“Come on guys,” says the eagle. “I think we need to analyse this seriously. This game is about math, not people or animals.

I turn my attention to the monkey, who as so far been silent.

“What’s your opinion?” I say, putting him on the spot.

The monkey looks embarrassed.

“This would be easier if it were one-suit.”

Everyone laughs. The monkey looks like he wants to kill himself.

“But that’s way too easy!” exclaims the mouse. “Even I would go all-in.”

“The monkey raises a good point,” I say.

Stunned silence. All the other animals look at each other, unable to believe what they heard.

“Okay,” I continue. “Let’s change the rules: the game is one-suit but we cannot remove suits to the foundations until all cards are exposed.”

“But that’s cheating!” shout all the animals in unison (except the monkey). “You’ve already moved four suits to the foundations”.

Don’t ask me how the animals manage to speak in perfect unison without proper rehearsal. I guess everyone has their own unique talents.

“For purposes of this exercise, let’s assume I changed the rules mid-game and you have to Deal With It.

The animals discuss this for a few minutes.

“K to 3 in column Five,” says the mouse. “9 into column Seven. 10 to A onto the Jack in -”

“Not-so-fast,” replies the eagle-eyed eagle. “There are two aces in column 4.”

“But we can create another empty column,” says the Jackal. “4-3 in column Eight onto 8-7-6-5 in column Nine.”

“Once we reach the 4 of Clubs the rest should be easy. Column 2 becomes empty and 4 of Clubs into Column 2 etc.”

“And it doesn’t matter what order the hidden cards are in.”

I am pleased that all my students are participating in the discussion.

“So we can win at 1-suit,” I say. “Note that if we couldn’t win with 1-suit we can deduce it probably won’t be possible at 4-suits (unless we can quickly complete a suit).”

All the animals nod in agreement.

“Now back to the original problem,” I say. “How to continue at the Four-Suit level?”

The animals quickly discover the right plan. Once the King of spades lands in an empty column we can recover an empty column by moving the 8-7-6-5 onto the Nine of spades. We then have to shift the Nine of spades and Ace of clubs into two empty columns. Then we have to hope we have enough empty columns to finally shift the 10 of Hearts and reach the Four of clubs. Of course, all this is easier said than done, if you excuse the terrible cliché.

The monkey brings out a set of cards and arranges them into the diagram position. He tries and tries but to no avail. Despite his repeated failures the other animals are amazed at the monkey’s dexterity and eidetic memory as he quickly reorders the cards into the starting position without error.

“Let me have a try,” says the eagle.

The eagle quickly discovers a truly remarkable solution to this problem, which this blog is unfortunately too small to contain. All the animals applaud loudly as he smacks the last suit onto the foundations with a satisfying thud.

“How the 70,85,67,75 did you do that?” asks the Monkey.

Uh oh. I’m beginning to have doubts about the quality of the monkey’s copious notes. His strategy is still as lousy as before. He is not really a model student after all.

“Let me have a look at your notes,” I say.

I confiscate the monkey’s book and riffle through his “oodles of doodles”, none of which have any artistic merit. I am about to 83,80,65,78,75 the monkey in front of everybody and rip his doodles to shreds. But at the last minute I suddenly remember that I owe the monkey a tremendous debt. Without him I wouldn’t have been able to publish a paper in the International Journal of Arachnids, Primates and Other Predatory Species. Then I stumble upon a very strange picture:


So the monkey does have occasional flashes of brilliance when doodling after all. Okay, the happy star isn’t exactly centred properly, but it’s not a bad job for someone with only pencil and paper. I doubt that any human could produce art like that. I return the book to the monkey and bow before him.

Seeing that the monkey got off without even a warning, I guess it’s only fair that the last word belongs to Shakespeare: All’s Well That Ends Well.

Class dismissed.

I like my new job. Okay, the pay isn’t great and the diet leave much to be desired, but at least I’m my own boss and I get to set my own hours. All the animals are easy going and real friendly, and we can cuss and swear with impunity. And best of all, nobody smokes around here (because smoking is bad for you). 70,85,67,75 89,69,65,72!