Saturday, May 10, 2008

Solitaire, Anyone?

There’s a scene at the end of the classic Emma Peel episode “The Joker” where Steed is playing Solitaire, and Mrs. Peel starts “helping.”

Mrs. Peel: “Red eight on black nine”
Steed: “I’ve seen it”
“Then why didn’t you do it”
“I was saving it for later, I was savoring it. Solitaire, as the game implies, is a game for one person”
“I know, highly antisocial”

It’s odd that Steed doesn’t call it Patience, which was the more-common British term for the game, or it was before Solitaire got bundled into Windows.

No matter. It’s all a nice pun since the episode is Mrs. Peel-centric; she goes off alone to play bridge with Sir Cavalier Rusicana, which is a ruse devised by an old German agent who wants to kill her. Highly antisocial on both counts.

I didn’t come from a card-playing family. My mother played a mean Canasta before she got married, and my grandmother liked to play Gin Rummy, and Mille Bornes with me, but that was about it. (Speaking of Gin Rummy, it’s on the cover of the New Yorker this week, with the guy creating a card-playing robot. Hmm. Card-playing must be in the air.)

I guess all kids pick up how to play Solitaire somewhere along the line. What we call Solitaire is actually a specific Solitaire game called Klondike. There are an astonishing 300 types of Solitaire listed on Wikipedia, Klondike and Spider being the most popular.

I had completely forgotten about this solo pasttime until, ironically, a New Year’s party a few years ago, in a crowded vacation house in Palm Springs. Everyone was playing Hearts, decks of cards were everywhere as were parallel games of Solitaire. And it was there that I entered the hypnotic place that is the Solitaire universe.

Playing Solitaire is a truly unique combination of the relaxing and compelling. For me the cheap thrill is at the very start—what are those 7 random face-up cards going to be? The number of random patterns is fascinating. How can 4 aces turn up out of 7? But they do. Sometimes it’s all red cards, sometimes all face cards. And from there—LIKE IN LIFE—you do what you can with the hand you’re dealt. There’s not a lot of strategy to Solitaire—I try to move the cards on the deeper piles first. I build up the suits whenever I can.

There is a satisfaction to winning, to seeing everything come out all right. There is also a crystallization when you see it just “isn’t in the cards”—what you want to do is blocked by the implacability of the binary red and black. Maybe that’s what helps at the end of a long day—it helps you let go of countless pieces of everyday life that don’t always fall into place. Move on, shuffle again, get a new set of 7 cards to work with. And seven, such a mystically, spiritually charged number itself. Some say it reveals the mind of God.

I only recently found a great website to play. It offers different backgrounds and various designs of cards. It also offers 13 different varieties to choose from, including a double decked Klondike. I highly recommend it.

No look at Solitaire would be complete without a glance at the Neil Sedaka song “Solitaire.” It’s a depressing song that has become a beautiful standard. Youtube has quite a collection of renditions, including Shirley Bassey, Clay Aiken, Norway’s own Sissel, and Neil Sedaka, But for me the definitives are from Karen Carpenter, with those lush, lush low notes, and Elvis, where the words resonate with painful layers of meaning to his own oddly solitary life.

There was a man, a lonely man
Who lost his love, thru his indifference
A heart that cared, that went unshared
Until it died within his silence

And solitaire's the only game in town
And every road that takes him, takes him down
While life goes on around him everywhere
He's playing solitare

And keeping to himself begins to deal
And still the king of hearts is well concealed
Another losing game comes to an end
And he deals them out again

The Carpenters



Claire said...

My cousin and I used to spend our summer vacations playing a variation of double solitaire called Spite and Malice, which we renamed with our little sisters' names. It was fairly antisocial, since the whole point was to be spiteful and malicious and block your opponent's play. Our stalemates would sometimes last for hours.

Tim Footman said...

I presume the 'solitaire' reference was because by that stage the show was doing very well in the States; Brits would understand the reference to solitaire (although, as you say, they prefer 'patience' - solitaire is a different game, with marbles on a cross-shaped board) but Americans might not understand the Anglicism.

While we're at it, there's an episode of The Prisoner where he's served what we'd call pancakes for breakfast (flatter than American pancakes, closer to French crepes) but he calls them flapjacks. Now, I've always thought of flapjacks as an oat-based cake-bar sort of concoction. Is this an Americanism I'm not aware of?

M.A.Peel said...

Claire, vindictive solitaire--very funny.

Tim, in the Northeast, flapjacks are the heartier end of the pancake spectrum, and generally larger in diameter. But definitely not the cake-bar UK thing.

Jeremy said...

I like to play physical patience from time to time, although I cannot stand it on a computer. Just as I can't play bridge on a computer either. But patience is slightly tainted for me because my father was obsessive about, playing game after game after game of a quite difficult version, and then structuring his entire day around how it went. If the game came out, which it didn't often, the day would be a good one.

Disheartening, really.

M.A.Peel said...

Jeremy, it seems your father really fell under that hypnotic power of the solitaire cards. I'm sorry to hear it got so under his skin so as to influence his days.

Anita said...

wow ... karen carpenter. and elvis.

glad i stopped by.

M.A.Peel said...

Anita, it's always nice when someone outside the usual blog circle stops by.