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An ode to solitaire: the old game has found modern meaning

All you need is a deck of cards.
All you need is a deck of cards. - 123RF Stock Photo

A financial analyst even played it on jury duty. 'There was no WiFi. I had to manage my data use, so I needed an offline game to keep me entertained during downtime'

Last October, Yang-Yi Goh, a 29-year-old style writer from Toronto, was involved in a car accident that left him recovering at home for over two months with a concussion. The doctor’s instructions were clear: No music, limited social interactions and, the most crushing rule of all, no computer screens of any kind.

Without access to his laptop and trapped in his own home, boredom set in. After what felt like weeks of just sitting in bed, staring at the ceiling, Goh finally figured out a way to tackle all of the extra time he suddenly had on his hands.

He found a deck of cards and started playing solitaire — or “patience” as it’s called throughout the U.K. The classic single-player card game became a part of his daily routine. He played hundreds of rounds every day, mostly in silence, sometimes with an audiobook playing softly in the background. As he recovered at home for two months, solitaire became the one constant that helped Goh throughout the healing process. “It was repetitive and meditative and held my attention,” Goh says. “It made the whole experience a little easier to stomach.”

While for many of us, when we think of solitaire, we imagine a deck of 52 playing cards, for Goh and younger generations, it is remembered as a popular free game which came with the early versions of Microsoft’s Windows operating system. Obviously, the game’s origins can be traced back further into history than the birth of Bill Gates. In fact, the game that most of us know as solitaire is believed to have been created at the end of the 18th century in the Baltic region of Europe.

Regardless of its origins or many variations ⁠— including Klondike, Spider, Yukon, Pyramid, Scorpion and many others — the objective of solitaire is more or less the same: Set up a series of playing cards face down and flip them in order to complete the sequential order of the four suits.

Today, we have endless gaming options at our disposal. The app store on our smartphones presents more choices than we could possibly hope to use in our entire lifetime. Each of them offers exciting graphics, in-game purchases and even friendly competition with others around the world. And yet, this plain old card game persists. It’s hard to take a subway ride or board a flight without noticing someone playing solitaire.

So, why has a game that feels so outdated continued to thrive? Instead of being kicked to the curb by newfangled games on personal devices, it seems to have found a new life on phone screens.

Stefanie Jesney, 30, is a social media strategist in Toronto who learned how to play Solitaire from her mother when she was eight. She admits to going through a compulsive phase of playing the game on her laptop in her 20s. “I like it because it’s simple,” Jesney says. “I find I can never remember rules of other games but solitaire is always familiar.”

Jesney isn’t as obsessed with the game these days, but will still play it a handful of times per week as she commutes to work. It is also her go-to game anytime she has to fly. “I don’t really like other phone games because the speed and reflex elements stress me out,” Jesney says. “Solitaire is soothing.”

The simplicity of solitaire and its ability to pass the time without pressing the player into action works to its advantage. This is also the case for Sean Go, a 32-year-old senior financial analyst who played solitaire throughout his childhood and rediscovered the game last month after he was summoned for jury duty.

He ended up playing Solitaire every day in the courthouse. “There was no WiFi,” Go says. “I had to manage my data use, so I needed an offline game to keep me entertained during downtime of the trial process.”

Solitaire is also soothing in that the only competition is against oneself. “It’s a passive game that’s easy,” explains Albert Lau, a 33-year-old Private Equity VP, who grew up playing solitaire thanks to his grandfather. “My mind can go on autopilot playing solitaire. I can play alone or with someone, but I’m never in competition with that other person.”

Dick McIvor, 72, has been playing Solitaire for decades. The hobby started in high school, and has continued since. “It’s a time killer,” McIvor says. “All you need is a deck of cards and nothing else to do.” But McIvor is quick to point something else out: “I get no satisfaction out of it,” he says.

It seems everyone I spoke to articulated something to this effect. It’s not that solitaire brings anyone a great sense of joy. Instead, players are resigned to the fact that it is simply the easiest game to play when you are the most bored. Low expectations create a mostly fulfilling experience. It’s like healthy food that merely doesn’t taste bad.

Last December, after two months stuck at home, Goh finally returned to work. He doesn’t play Solitaire every day now. But occasionally, he’ll still pull out a deck of cards and play at home. He also downloaded a version of the game for his work commutes.

“When I need something mindless to pass the time,” Goh says, “I still bring it up on my phone once in awhile for old time’s sake.”

Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019

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