Friday, February 18, 2011

Playing Solitaire

When I was little, I developed an obsession with playing cards that has never quite gone away. From the time I was six or seven, I would hoard away any decks of playing cards I could get my hands on, and I was always trying to get people to play cards with me. Most of the time, of course, the only people around were my mother and my younger brother -- neither of whom was as interested in playing Knock Rummy or Black Jack as I was. Eventually, in order to give me something to do with my cards, my mother taught me how to play solitaire.

According to the books, the version of solitaire we played is called "Klondike," and it's similar to the version you see on every computer: seven rows of cards, red nine on black ten, trying to build on aces, etc. But in understanding how I learned solitaire, there are two important things to remember. First, we didn't call it "Klondike" -- we simply knew it as solitaire. In fact, for much of my childhood, I thought it was the only version of solitaire. Second, we played so that you could only go through the deck one time: no re-deals.

Of course, playing solitaire in this way makes it extremely difficult to win. You have to be incredibly lucky for the cards to break in such a way that you can win in only one deal. But luck isn't enough; you can't afford to make any mistakes. If you miss your chance to put the black five on the red six early in the game, you will probably lose even if the cards are otherwise in your favor.

As a result of these conditions, I came to think of winning a game of solitaire as some type of miracle. I must have played hundreds of solitaire games as a kid -- sometimes I would play for hours and hours -- and I don't remember ever winning more than two or three times. My mother would sometimes play as well, and of course she would usually lose, too. But sometimes, the cards would actually break in your favor, and you could tell you were going to win. This was a big deal. My mother would call me over, and I would watch her play out the last few cards. And then she would let me put all the cards on top of the aces, one by one, so that each suit was in perfect order. It was a tremendous thrill.

As I grew older, of course, I learned that there were lots of versions of solitaire -- and that virtually all of them gave you a better chance of winning than the one we played. But I never could see the point of playing easy versions of solitaire. Our version of solitaire made sense to me because I grew up in a culture that was, in many ways, organized around the notion that you could have great, great rewards -- if you could do something that was almost impossible. In theory, Murray State could win the NCAA tournament. In theory, Heath High School could win the state basketball title. In theory, anyone in Paducah could grow up to become President -- or a millionaire. Now, of course, none of these events was likely -- but they were all possible. And that possibility gave enormous flavor and excitement to our lives.

I think this is important in understanding the relationship between libertarians and small town voters in places like Paducah. On many issues -- abortion, gay rights, drug legalization -- libertarians and small-town types are determined foes. But at the same time, Paducah ends up supporting a lot of libertarian economic ideas because the people who live there want to keep open the possibility that your son or your daughter could grow up to do great things.

Of course, while the libertarians get to their position through their own notions of human rights (notions that have never been popular in small-town America), rural Southerners get there because they were brought up on the notion of how anyone -- anyone -- can go to Heaven (even though most of us won't make it). In a sense, all of our other quests -- from Heath's efforts to win the state basketball title to my efforts to win at solitaire -- are earthly versions of that Great Quest.

I still believe in the Great Quest. I still hope that someday Murray State will make the Final Four, and I would rather see schools like Heath play for a real state championship than win little titles against little schools. And I'm still playing solitaire. These days, I play on the iPad. We found a great app with hundreds of solitaire variations. Mrs. GoHeath and the kids prefer versions that are easier or allow for more strategy. But I continue to play as I was taught -- suffering loss after loss in hopes that the grace of the cards -- combined with my own care not to miss any plays -- will result in an occasional miracle.

So far I've played 210 games of solitaire on my iPad -- and I've won only 3. But each of those three was wonderful.


  1. I've been playing cribbage on my Pre lately, love cribbage.

    I remember the first time I saw someone playing the method where you do three cards at a time and keep revolving through the deck. I simply thought they were cheating.