Solitaire - Ten Life Lessons in the Cards

When I was in the Army, I spent a lot of long, boring stretches with nothing to do but stare at my sector of fire, or mess about on a computer. And that’s why, like a lot of other people, my Soldier and I figured out how to reinstall solitaire on our work computer. See, the Army higher ups, in their infinite wisdom, figured no one ought to be playing games on the government’s dime, or on an Army computer. This completely ignores the vast numbers of bored clerks who are really present in their offices only because someone has to man that phone, twenty-four hours a day, seven days per week. There’s only so many times you can sweep the floor, empty the shred box, or check the flight schedule. After that, boredom sets in. Now I don’t know if you’ve ever had a young Soldier reporting to you. I don’t know if you’ve ever been stuck on a twenty-four-hour duty so boring you bet on which ant would get the crumb first. I don’t know if you know much about human behavior. If you do, I suspect that, like me, the last thing you want is a bored Soldier sitting all alone in a government office in a combat zone with nothing to do. This is how that incident that shall not be mentioned ends up on YouTube. It’s bad, bad, bad. It’s also just annoying and teeth grindingly dull for us older noncoms.

When my boss came for a visit, it didn’t take him long to discover the bootleg game on our computer… and to play a game. Yeah, senior NCOs get bored too. And here’s the thing, an occasional game of solitaire not only isn’t harmful in the least, well, it can teach you some valuable life lessons.

Ok, this may not convince your boss that you ought to be allowed to play card games on the company’s computer during slow times at the office, but it ought to at least make her think about the wisdom of ordering it removed from all your units. Print off a copy of this article, and try it on her.

1.       Think three plays ahead, at least.

If you play an ace, you’ll never go wrong. Every other card is a gamble. If you play that queen to the king, how do you know there will be another king, and you won’t be stuck with a whole stack of cards under your remaining Queen of Diamonds? So you project out when playing the four, so you can play the ten, so you can turn the king, so you’ll get the ace at last.

In life, if you’re only thinking through the current crisis, you’re going to make short term decisions and jump from crisis to crisis. Thinking only one move at a time is ok when things are coming fast and furious, or when you are charting new ground. But if you’re planning for a company’s future, or your own, sooner or later you need to start thinking ahead to the next month, next quarter, next sale, next innovation, next election, whatever. Most business advisers will tell you to think three steps ahead. If you release that new video game this month, you might miss the Christmas season, that could cause your sales going into the new year to be low compared to your competition. That could lead to your stocks falling. And that could result in nervous investors not being willing to back your game’s future development. Waiting just a couple months for release could allow you to hit that all important gift buying media frenzy.  If you are writing your next book while on a trip to research the one after that, you’re two steps ahead. If you are passing out free chapters and bookmarks advertising the one already in print at every stop, you are at three steps ahead. You can push it to four, or even five. Don’t wait to get step one completed. Work on steps two through four whenever you can.

2.       Sometimes the obvious play isn’t the best one.

Unless the play is the Ace to the top stack, you never have a guaranteed best move. Sometimes, that king is laying there invitingly, and you have a queen. But two cards below the top of the last stack is another queen, and the complementary king is under her. Whoops. Never assume the obvious play is your best option. Instead, examine options that aren’t as obvious, even go looking for them.

The pizza place across the street has a new sale on, two for the price of one. You could beat them at their own game, and offer two for one plus a drink and wings! And you could go bankrupt trying to lower your prices below a major chain with deep pockets. So what about trying something totally different, go a different way? You could advertise with a really funny commercial pointing out that you generally get what you paid for. Or you could offer some wacky new combinations of toppings. You could expand your menu, offer coupons, develop a loyalty program, go online, or hand out free pizzas at a local charity event. But to really come up with great ideas, why not tap your employees and customers? They know what they really want, and what really seems to sell. Turns out your prices are fine, but people want more convenience, or better quality. Instead of wasting money on advertising, you rearrange your serving area so customers can get them “hot and ready” during the lunch rush, start serving slices instead of whole pies at the walk up window, and change your sauce recipe to one that’s fresher and tastier. You didn’t go obvious, you went best play.

3.       Sometimes, no matter how careful you are, you cannot win.

You played it through. Then you hit replay. Then you tried different combinations. No matter how many times you try, no matter what order you play the cards, you lose. There’s always that dang ace under the seven that you just can’t play. You did good, but not good enough. Intelligence, careful planning, even cheating didn’t work. Sure, you could use one of those versions of the game that only give you hands that can be won, but that’s not the point.

Remember that friend you had from high school, the one that seemed to have it all together? Well, he’s on disability these days, barely getting by. What happened? He played by the rules, made good choices, better even than you, maybe. He stayed away from the drugs and alcohol, studied hard, played sports but not to the exclusion of his studies, and got a little part time job to save for college. Then one day he got hit by a truck, his wife left him and left him with the kids and the credit card bills, his job downsized-- and at the age of thirty, not many companies want to take a chance on programmer with outdated skills and medical disability. His kid developed a club foot and needed surgery, and that drained what little was left in his bank account. He had credit once, but the divorce ruined that, and his recent difficulties have buried him in debt. He didn’t make bad decisions. He isn’t a criminal or a drug addict. He’s a person who just couldn’t win. If he’s lucky, someday he will again find himself on top of his game. Unfortunately, that's not guaranteed and not everyone is so lucky. At least your friend is poor in a country that has a working government with a social safety net, so there’s that. If solitaire teaches us anything, it’s that we aren’t immune to plain bad luck. It behooves us to keep that in mind when dealing with the coworker who’s always out sick, or the employee that can’t seem to get to work on time, or the bum asking for change. It also behooves us to keep in mind that don’t have it as bad as we might, and that bad luck can always strike. Double up on the insurance, save a bit more, and be nice to people on the way up. As they say, you might meet them again on the way down.

4.       Cheating works sometimes.

Wait, what? That’s right, you played that queen, didn’t you? You knew you should wait, but you thought you had the game figured. So what do you do? You hit that back button as many times as necessary and, BAM! There’s the queen you should have played, and just under her, the other king. Hey, it’s great that with modern technology we can try out so many moves to figure out which one will let us win the game. Even if you play on the version that only has winning deals, you might not always win without that magic back button.

Ok, in real life, there’s no back button. When you make a bad call, it stands. If you have a child before you finish school, or gamble your rent money away, or get hooked on your substance of choice, you can’t hit “redo” and start over, no matter what the feel good comedy of the year claims. But you can cheat. There are a million ways to cheat in life. You don’t know whether you should invest or save? Split the difference and do both. You don’t have that game ready to release yet, and the competition is stealing your buzz? Lie. Tell them you have it and are releasing in limited markets for Christmas but are taking pre-orders. Is that dishonest? I don’t know, but that’s how most of the games today are sold. Have you ever pre-ordered a book, movie, song, or video game? Odds are, that product wasn’t even done yet. Cheating works. Sometimes it works too well for dishonest people. Yeah, the rich guy with the casinos and the wife draped in diamonds might really have gotten there by lying, cooking the books, cheating his investors, fraud, and even outright stealing. So you have to decide just how far you are willing to go with this. Choose the hard right, or the easy wrong? Not being deceived into believing that honesty is always what works, means you’re just a little less likely to be the sucker in his next con. And you may be able to steer your company a bit better with your eyes wide open. While you’re at it, maybe judge the failures less harshly. Maybe they just had higher ethical standards than their more successful peers.

5.       It’s even harder if you’re stupid.

If you’re like me, you play solitaire because it’s simple. You can think about other things while you play. It’s relaxing and repetitive and you don’t have to invest too much of yourself in it. It’s downright easy—until it isn’t and you lose again because you just can’t see where you are making the mistake. Argh! Ok, solitaire is easy, but it can be hard, and it’s a lot harder if you aren’t smart. If you play as if you just learned the rules, you’ll make dumb mistakes like playing the two on the three without making sure you’ll have access to the ace when you need it.

Life can be easy if you’re born with a silver spoon in your mouth, nice parents, and good health. And a smart person can usually get by even if they get every stumbling block imaginable thrown in their way. For most of us, life is hard. It’s harder if you’re born poor, or ugly, or disabled, or in a poor neighborhood, or to abusive parents. And it can be nearly impossible to overcome those disabilities if you are also stupid. I don’t mean necessarily congenitally stupid. I mean, if you do stupid things, make stupid decisions. While it’s true you can fail no matter how hard you try when the universe is aligned against you, you can fail even when the stars shine on you if you insist on doing stupid things. If you take that first hit of cocaine, you are doing something stupid. Second use is even dumber. No matter if you’re a genius, if you lie to yourself, you’re going to do stupid things. Drinking and driving is incredibly stupid. One dumb decision can land you in jail, or the morgue. It can cost you a fortune in increased risk insurance. It can lead to having your car towed, having to appear in court, losing your job, being injured, injuring someone else, losing your home… all for a single stupid decision. Should you buy stocks now? Should you run away from home? Should you marry this guy or gal? Should you get pregnant? What should you do if you’re asked to join a gang? Smart people find navigating life easier.

6.       No matter how many times you win, you can still do better.

I played fourteen straight winning games. They all were terrible. I wanted to beat that “best score” displayed right next to “your score”, and no matter how many times I replayed that game, I couldn’t. It took fifteen hands to finally get best score.

Sometimes people feel they’ve done it all. There’s no reason to keep trying, right? So you made it to the best seller list finally last year. Congratulations. The New York Times bestseller list, or Amazon bestseller list, or Bowker’s? Wait, it was only for your narrow category of cat romance novels? Well now, you can do better than that. This year, you will make the Amazon bestseller list of all romance novels. After that, maybe you’ll make the New York Times list of best-selling novels. J.K. Rowling got her first three books on every list of best sellers. Yet she’s still writing and producing new books. Why? Maybe because you can always do a little better.

7.       Winning makes you want to win again.

After that fifteen game winning streak, I had every intention of never playing again. I switched to minesweeper and completely ignored solitaire for a month. It was boring, anyway. But, you don’t actually win the version of minesweeper I was playing. I wanted that taste of winning again. I don’t know why it’s so satisfying, watching the cards bounce around in the closing animation…. No wait, I do. Winning feels good. Winning once makes you want to do it again. It’s an addiction cycle, I guess, but it feels good.

So after the Yankees won the pennant, none of them felt the urge to hand in their uniforms. Michael Jordan didn’t hand in his jersey after his first big win, or his second, or his third. Winning just feels so good. I sold something on ebay once. The next day I immediately listed another, and another. Having succeeded at selling one item made me want to sell another. The first time someone wrote a nice review of one of my books, I spent the whole next day hammering out another story. If you want a motivator, nothing beats winning. So, if you’re looking to motivate your sales team, give them a goal they can achieve, congratulate them when they win, and give them another goal immediately. When I was in the military, goals were clear and achievable, if damned hard. A perfect 300 on your PT test was a thing to celebrate. Getting recommended by the promotion board meant a brighter future. The Army did this well when I was a young Soldier. We got away from it in later years. There’s an “extended scale” to the PT test, so Soldiers are often left feeling they can never really “win”. You have to give them a point to celebrate at. Even if next year you’ll increase the demand, this year, they get to win. Winning will make you drag your tired butt that last mile of the thirteen-mile ruck march or ring the bell at the top of that rope. Make sure your people have a chance to win. And don’t forget to celebrate your own victories.

8.       Losing just means you have to re-deal.

Winning feels great. But losing isn’t the end of the world. It’ll effect your stats, if you keep track of that sort of thing. But with solitaire, the next win is a mouse click away. Just hit re-deal.

No one will post your picture in the all-time loserest losers hall of fame. Losing sucks. It’s easy to quit after losing, walk away and say to heck with it. You might be tempted to run away with your tail tucked. But you can come back from anything. You can’t get a whole life re-do. You can’ make your losses go away. But you can start another game. If your military career ends because of any injury, you can go back to school and start over as a drug and alcohol counselor, or start a candy selling business, or write a few books. If you don’t make it in football, you might have a career in broadcasting. If you just got out of jail, you can still sell crap on ebay or Amazon. If you ran your old Dodge into an embankment, you won’t have a truck anymore, but you can eventually buy another. The key is to not quit the game. Just hit re-deal. No matter how many books I write that don’t hit the bestseller lists, I can still write another, and another. No matter how many times the judges give you four Xs, you can try out for the next talent show.

9.       No matter how many times you win, you can still lose. And no matter how many times you lose, that next one might be a winner.

After that fifteen game winning streak I went on a losing streak that lasted hours. Realizing I was spending too much time trying to win losing hands, I closed the program and went back to writing. Yeah, right. I kept trying to win. And of course I eventually did.

Folks that quit when defeated by their driver’s licensing exam or basic training rifle marksmanship turn into Rambo when it comes to solitaire. They know, for a fact, that eventually they will win. They keep trying, and they do win, sooner or later. That’s a pretty good lesson to keep in mind the next time you bolo on the qualification range, or the driving instructor exits your vehicle by way of the skylight. You failed, big deal. You failed twenty-seven times. Ok, but you haven’t failed twenty-eight. Keep trying. Yes, there’s a reasonable time to quit, but it’s after you’ve truly been beaten by the unbeatable. Weapons qualification is a matter of training, patience, control, and upper body strength. You can build these things. Driving requires calm, attention to the road, learning the rules, and practice. These are things you can do. Oh, and you might need new glasses, for either goal. Once you’ve come to learn that the number of times you’ve failed has nothing to do with your ultimate success, you can let that go, stop letting your past failures hold you back, and concentrate on winning this hand, or hitting the target center mass, or not running over the traffic cone or small child.

10.   Royal cards aren’t worth any more points than twos. In fact, next to aces, twos are the best.

It may feel good to place that queen on the king, but let’s be honest, aces are the only cards that are guaranteed winners. And you gotta play the two to the ace, then the three, the four, and all the way through to the king. Getting the King of Spades at your first turn of the cards may be nice, but it doesn’t help if there’s nowhere to play him. Those twos are danged important.

Donald Trump and Jackie O. are royal cards, born with a guarantee of success in life just due to who their parents were. If you’re feeling more like a two than a queen, just remember that queen is worthless without all those other cards. If you’re supervising a lot of sixes and sevens, remember they make it possible for the jacks to make their play. They provide a base for all the twos and threes and fours. Those sixes and sevens are darned important, aren’t they? So treat them like the important cards they are, not like jokers. Jokers are for poker. We don’t play poker. Poker is a gamble. Solitaire is a lesson in life. Why? Because ultimately, the only one you really have to do better than, is yourself.


Hope you enjoyed my procrastination rumination. I promise to get my next blog article done on time, by next Saturday. Unless I get on another run. You can’t quit while you’re hot.