Playing Patience: The Curiously Fascinating History Of Solitaire

There aren’t any good statistics concerning the percentage of the world’s computing power devoted to games of Solitaire (as it is called in American English) or Patience (British English), but computer science professor Luis von Ahn estimated that people spent a collective 9 billion hours on the game in 2003. To put this in perspective, it is over a thousand times the number of person-hours needed for the construction of Stonehenge, the Great Pyramid, or the Empire State Building. Unlike many popular video games, Solitaire isn’t just a short-lived fad. The game has been popular for over two centuries.

Early History of Solitaire

Modern playing cards with four suits each consisting of ten numeric cards and three court cards were adapted by Europeans from Moorish or Islamic models, such as the fifteenth-century deck on display at Istanbul’s Topkapı Palace Museum. The game of Solitaire or Patience developed in Europe in the eighteenth century, with many variations and names, including the French réussite, Italian solitario, Nordic kabal or kabale, and Polish pasjans. Solitaire was more than just a game; spreading cards on a table was used for fortune telling, and the card patterns used in Patience were related to ones used for insight into the future with a tarot deck. As a game, Solitaire in something similar to its modern form became popular in the eighteenth century. Napoleon was rumored to have played it during his exile on Elba.

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Why People Played Solitaire

The British term “Patience” seems a misnomer. We usually indulge in the game precisely when we are impatient, waiting for web pages to load or boring meetings to end. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the game was seen as developing the patience, concentration, and card-counting skills necessary for competitive card games. Although computer versions of Solitaire were first developed in the 1960s, the most popular ones were created specifically as a training tool for Windows 3.0, the first Microsoft operating system to use a mouse. The free game package, which included three versions of Solitaire and Minesweeper, was designed to make people comfortable using the mouse, which was, in 1990, a radically new and innovative input device.

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Social Solitaire

Patience in the twenty-first century has returned to its social and competitive roots, with growing numbers of online tournaments and competitions such as Solitaire Arena allowing you to pit your skills against those of opponents around the world. Many free Solitaire sites offer leader boards and other ways to rank your playing skills.

Not Just a Game

People play Solitaire on computers, but scientists also train computers to play Solitaire. One of the major steps in teaching computers to be useful in everyday tasks is programming them to figure out how to break a goal into small, meaningful steps. The Solitaire programs in which computers have the goal of winning and must work out a series of moves necessary to get from the starting card positions to clearing the board contain many of the algorithms that may eventually allow computers or robots to work more productively in industry or the home.

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Charles Becker teaches and plays the game of Solitaire as a senior center volunteer each week. He has also taught his children the game, and he hopes to inspire more people to enjoy it. You can find his articles on a number of top websites and blogs.


David Parlett Games: Patience and playing-card solitaires

Encyclopaedia Britannica: Solitaire

Stanford University Computer Science Department: Solitaire

Ronald Bjarnason, et al.: Searching Solitaire in Real Time

Solitaire Central: Klondike Solitaire Rules

Stefanie Olsen:ReCaptcha: Reusing your ‘wasted’ time online

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