The game is Spider Solitaire (advanced 4-suit version) and if you don’t know it, don’t worry; I won’t bore you with the details. But here’s the gist of it:
Two decks of cards are dealt in a certain pattern of 10 columns. The player then rearranges the cards as per a few rules, in hopes of aligning them from King to Ace in each suit. Once aligned in this fashion, that particular set of 13 cards is removed from the board, allowing the player more space to work the remaining cards. When all the cards have been so removed, the game is won.
You should know that the advanced version of this game is considered very difficult, though it is said somewhere that every game is winnable—theoretically.
Some years ago, I chanced upon the game and quickly mastered the Beginner and Intermediate levels. The Advanced level, however, was a different story. I tried and tried, but lost again and again. Then one day, I won a game.
That proved it was possible after all. Yes, I had been told that every game was winnable, but I had begun to doubt whether even one could be won. Having now proven it could be done, I had a renewed energy for the game. I won a few and lost a great many, playing as a means of mental decompression one snowy winter.
Then came the impossible game. I had already learned that to win Advanced Spider, it was practically impossible to do so without trying several of the obvious possibilities for any given play. For example, suppose there were two Tens available for play, and one Jack. (Any Ten can be laid on any Jack as per the rules.) I might play one Ten on the Jack and not find a usable card beneath it, where had I played the other available Ten, the cards under it would have played elsewhere, clearing the entire column. This was Lesson #1.
Lesson #1. Just because a move is available does not mean it is the best move or that it will ultimately help win the game.
Indeed, I saw that after trying the known possibilities for any given hand, I often had to use the “undo” option to reverse moves that proved to be unproductive or strategically undesirable.
Lesson #2. It is generally impossible to win if you don’t correct your known errors.
And this is no casual point! The use of the “undo” option is necessary quite often. I had gone so far as reaching the end of a game, being informed that I had lost, and then undoing my moves all the way back to the beginning in order to start over.
Lesson #3. Starting over is not a bad thing. In fact, it may well be necessary if you want to succeed.
I couldn’t have learned Lesson #3, by the way, had I not first mastered Lessons #1 and #2. But I digress.
The impossible game went on for days as my spare time allowed. I tried and retried to the point where I decided to see what would happen if I did not give up.
Lesson #4. It is impossible to determine what might be possible if you give up first.
Having dispensed with the option of giving up on this game, I then decided I had better develop some systematic way of keeping track of what I had tried. Since the cards are dealt in ten rows, I decided simply to play as many times as it took to clear each column of cards in hopes of discovering just which columns were hiding the missing cards that kept me from clearing the other columns. I even got out a piece of paper to record which rows had been cleared and which had not.
Suddenly, this was no longer the casual experience to which I was accustomed for computer games. This was becoming too much like actual cognitive work to continue thinking of it as “just a game”.
Lesson #5. Barring the luck of the draw, actual work is required when giving up is not an option.
So I played the impossible game over and over, eventually managing to clear each of the 10 rows at one time or another, but never clearing all of them at once.
Had I proven an instance of an impossible hand of Advanced Spider Solitaire? I wondered, but honesty compelled me to admit that there was yet more work to be done before I was in a position to declare this game unwinnable.
When the game is dealt by the computer, about a third of the cards are laid out face up in ten rows. Another third are laid face down at the very top of each row, and can only be revealed as face-up cards on top of them are removed. Then the final third are reserved in a face-down stack to be dealt out in hands as the player decides that he has done all he can or should do without dealing another hand.
It became apparent that it was not enough to know only that which was obvious; I needed to know the order in which all the cards would be dealt out in each successive hand. So I backed up to the beginning and built myself a chart notating which cards had been dealt face-up, and in what order. Then, without making any plays, I dealt out each of the successive hands so as to record which cards would be revealed in each round.
Now I had a spreadsheet. This was definitely not the normal computer game experience anymore! In doing this, however, it allowed me the option of preparing the table (as much as possible) for the next hand to be dealt. For example, if I knew that the third column was about to be dealt an Ace of Diamonds, perhaps I could see to it that the only cards in that column before the deal would be the King through Two of Diamonds. Then when the Ace was dealt, the entire row would be cleared as the suit was completed.
Lesson #6. It’s worth it to find out what comes next.
Lesson #7. Sometimes, inconvenient amounts of data are required in order to make a winning decision.
Although these lessons were obviously fruitful, I was still losing. I was encouraged, however, as I did much better knowing what was yet to come. So what was the next step? Well, that one was much uglier, for it meant that I had to record which cards were buried face down beneath each column of dealt cards.
This would be much more difficult to do, as clearing each column is not necessarily an easy task. Interestingly, I noted that it would mean repeating a strategy I had tried much earlier: clearing each of the ten columns completely, no matter how many times I had to start over to accomplish it.
Lesson #8. Perhaps some events are worth recording the first time around after all.
This took much more work to document the data from the underling face-down stacks of cards in each column, but hey, I was committed to success. And I actually found it to be fun!
Lesson #9. Perhaps fun and deliberate cognitive work are not mutually exclusive notions.
At this point, I had recorded the position and order of every card in the deck as the computer would deal it. (104 cards in this game.) I had all the data, and now I had to use it. When the first hand was dealt, I would play as far as I thought was productive, and then I would look ahead to see what was coming in the next hand to be dealt. I would back up as needed to arrange the board in the optimal order for what was to come, with the particular goal of clearing as many columns as possible so as to have the extra work space for shifting cards around.
I did a similar thing with the data on the face-down cards underneath each of the ten columns of cards. If I got stuck for lack of a 7 of Clubs, for example, I knew where to find one buried beneath a column. So I would rearrange the game, backing up as necessary to expose the 7 of Clubs, making it available for my use.
I won the “impossible” game!
By incorporating the methods described above, I won my “impossible” game! It took me over three weeks, as I recall, playing as time was available. But I won!
That was in January of 2007—over six years ago. Then, in late 2010, I decided I had not yet learned everything I wanted to know about Spider. I wanted to find out whether 100% of the games are winnable or not. So I decided to use Spider as my primary means of blowing off cognitive steam from day to day as time was available. By the middle of 2011, I had won 100 games in a row, with one technical exception. (My computer had shut down automatically for a software update in the middle of a Spider game. The game was not automatically saved, so I could not continue it. Thus, it counted as a loss.)
Now I win every time I play!
While there may be a small trick here or there, I haven’t learned any new major strategies since; I just continue to employ the ones listed above. And I win every time. I decided not to obsess over the fact that my computer might shut down during a game (which has happened twice now). At present, I have won 145 games with no losses (other than the shutdown losses already described).
There’s no genius involved here. Indeed, you can observe for yourself that the lessons above are not difficult to grasp. What happened in this story—-the key to it all—-was merely determination.
And that reminds me of what my Mom said when I described to her how I play Spider. “You must really want to win!”
Well, yes, I suppose I do. And it’s like that with more than just Spider.
It’s not just about Spider
As time goes by, I realize that these lessons from Spider have great significance in life. What if puzzles generally believed by many to be unsolvable were solvable after all? What if mysteries considered too deep to be figured out were actually possible to solve? What if societal problems that nobody expects to see fixed were fixable after all?
The applicability of these lessons has grown increasingly obvious over the years, and that got a huge boost when I started reading cognitive science. The themes of dysrationalia, cognitive miserliness, attribute substitution and bias keep coming up over and over in my reading about what plagues our society—about what tends to plague each and every one of us.
Indeed, a great many of the problems to which we have surrendered ourselves are quite solvable, even though we do not care to invest enough cognitive effort in them to discover whether they can be solved or not. But what if we did?
What if? What if we could be inspired simply to pick just one problem and not to give up until we had exhausted enough possibilities to find, implement, and complete a winning solution?
What if the main underlying problem with our society is simply that somebody talked us into giving up too soon? And what if strenuous cognitive work is simply part of the nature of things? What if it’s part of how the human race is built?
By all appearances, both our bodies and our minds are built to do work. Now, don’t get me wrong; I’m all for efficiency and conservation of effort where it is truly feasible, but I think we settle for a far duller existence on the Earth than what we could have with a regular schedule of cognitive heavy lifting. And I think that my life is now much better for the cognitive work I’ve done.
I am happier. I am more self aware. I panic much less easily. I’m not taken in by con men nearly as easily. I see a clear difference between thought and emotion, and allow each to operate healthily. And I’m not afraid of learning anything.
Some topics are far more expansive than others. Thus, they take lots more work. Even with Spider, I could win some games in a few hundred moves, where the most difficult games can take over 3,800! Similarly, analyzing the Bible is much more demanding than analyzing the US Constitution. And solving my laundry problem is much easier than solving corruption in the Government. But it’s the same process that is required for success with all of the above.
And now it remains…
And now it remains to be seen whether any significant number of other people can be influenced to the same level of enthusiasm about the efficacy of cognitive diligence. It is obvious that one or two people would be insufficient to solve some of the world’s greater problems. But what about one or two million?
If I can learn cognitive diligence, others can, too. And perhaps it could go quicker if people didn’t have to put the lesson together for themselves from a computer game!
So, while this article isn’t really about Spider at all, but about life, I’d still like to challenge you to a very practical lesson in cognitive diligence. If you have a Windows computer, find the game “Spider” and learn to win it every time at the advanced level. And if you find it too tedious to follow these steps to victory, please know that you are valuing cognitive ease over success in Spider.
Perhaps computer games do not interest you. And that’s OK, because that’s not the point of all this. The point is that there are many things we could win if we thought they were worth the effort.
And so it goes with the society in which we live.
Life is short. Why not do something extraordinary while we are here?