Solitaire is the overarching term for games requiring only one player; Patience for games involving playing cards. The latter is a family with many cousins, including Pairs, Fourteens, Caesar and Napoleon’s Favourite – the exiled Emperor clearly had a lot of time on his hands during his enforced stay at Helena.
In Patience, one plays not just with a pack of cards, but against a pack of cards. In this sense, the player is embarking on a battle of wits against an abstract, unknown adversary. Unlike a game of poker in which the player can scrutinise her opponents’ behaviour for clues as to the most beneficial strategy, in Solitaire it is just her and the cards – and the cards stare blankly back.
Dealing with fate
Solitaire is essentially a tussle with fate, and as in all games where fate plays a role, it is tempting to read significance into the outcome. A player in a prison cell is more than just whiling away the monotony of the hours.
The game becomes a distillation of current circumstances, a summation of the struggle against the world at large – the outcome of which is inextricably linked, at least in the player’s mind, to the circumstances of her incarceration.
There is in fact some evidence for Solitaire having its roots in the occult. In Scandinavian countries, where it is thought to have its origins, it is known as kabale or cabale (‘secret knowledge’), and the earliest recorded mention of the game occurs a few years after the first descriptions of cartomancy – cards being used in fortune telling – appeared in 1765.
A game of self-reliance
Beyond all this, Solitaire is about time, and most importantly, time spent by oneself. The process of setting up a card layout can be just as intricate and time-consuming as playing the game itself, and there is something inherently self-indulgent about conducting a task properly and ingeniously for nobody’s benefit and admiration but one’s own. It is also a game about self-reliance; the Solitaire player is, even if just for a few minutes, in a world of her own construction, with nobody else to judge her skill, technique, or even adherence to the rules. And when victory or defeat comes, there is nobody else there to congratulate or commiserate.
Aside from its essential solipsism, there is also something unavoidably melancholic about Solitaire. It is a game to be played when everything has failed, everyone else has left, or one finds oneself stranded at Leicester Bus Station for a few hours when John Lewis is closed. In such circumstances the only sensible thing to do is to shuffle a pack of cards, put in some earphones and listen to Karen Carpenter singing about “the only game in town… it always ends the same”.
Gallery captions, L-R: The Brussels Euro Joker Club limited edition deck, drawn by Yvette Cleuter / Taro Okamoto (1977) / Saks & Co New York, Saks-Werbespiel (c.1930) / Salvador Dali (1967) / Cassandre for Hermes Paris (1948) / Genevieve Lirola (1973). Images courtesy of Barney Townshend, English Playing Card Society