The Worst Solitaire Mistake?

I consider solitaires to be games of strategy, and I expect them to have at least a reasonable win rate.   For anyone who just plays to pass the time (and there are many such players), you may disregard the rest of this article. 

If there were an award for the worst solitaire ever devised, I consider that Auld Lang Syne would be a worthy nominee.  In case you're lucky enough never to have played it, the four aces from a single deck are placed out as foundations.  The rest of the deck is then dealt, four cards at a time into four columns, Spider-style.  After each four cards are dealt, any exposed cards can be played to the foundations, building upwards in rank and disregarding suit.  The game ends when the stock runs out; there is no redeal.  Although it is not literally self-working, any strategy is minimal (the choice of which of equal ranks to play is usually either obvious or irrelevant), and the win rate is virtually nonexistent (even the version of Accordion where you deal one card at a time, and have to make a play whenever possible, has a much better win rate). 
Its variant Tam O'Shanter, where the aces aren't even prefounded, is even worse (Moyse begins his description: "For hardy souls who don't care if they ever win.")

In one of the few mistakes in his books, David Parlett describes Auld Lang Syne as building the foundations in suit, which makes a nearly hopeless game utterly hopeless, even if you deal six columns (instead of four) as he suggests.  Increasing the number of columns in a game that is very difficult to win (Baroness or Demon, for example) is a sound idea, but doesn't help here.  Michael Johnstone's 1989 Card Games For One seems to have confused it with Klondike or some other game, building the foundations in suit, but allowing cards to be packed on the four columns downward in alternate colors.  That will not help much either, since he allows spaces to be filled only by the next deal.

Perhaps the worst aspect of Auld Lang Syne is that the version found in modern books is a mistake!  Auld Lang Syne is the first game listed in William B. Dick's 1884 book Games of Patience or Solitaire with Cards.   Part of his description: "Deal out the remainder of the pack one by one, and as suitable cards appear, play them on the foundations.  Cards that are not suitable are placed in packets in a horizontal line below the foundations, four packets being permitted to be thus formed."   The game he is describing is not the present-day Auld Lang Syne; it is a solitaire some authors think to be the original form of solitaire, referred to by various names, including Sir Tommy.  Dick also mentions Tam O' Shanter, and an unnamed variant where foundations are built in suit, with two redeals allowed (whether the unplayed cards are shuffled, or in what order they are picked up, he does not specify). 

The only way to obtain a reasonable win rate, incidentally, seems to be to allow multiple deals of the stock.  In his 1965 Key To Solitaire, Douglas Brown describes Tam O'Shanter (aces not prefounded, build up regardless of suit) with two redeals allowed: after playing through the stock, the unplayed columns are squared up, the third pile is placed face up on the fourth, and the second and first are placed in turn on top of them.   The deck is then turned over and redealt in the same order (that is, the cards of the original first column will all be dealt first, etc.). 
Two redeals actually give the game a reasonable win rate: Pretty Good Solitaire calls it Acquaintance, and puts the win rate at 50%.  PGS also has a two-deck version with four aces built upwards and four kings built downwards, with one redeal, called Mutual Acquantaince.  Some sources (Leeming's Games and Fun With Playing Cards) allow two redeals, but build in suit, which is still hopeless.  Brown also mentions a variant building in suit, and generously allows a third redeal.

The oldest source I have found so far which gives the modern rules (dealing the stock four at a time into four columns) is Pope's 1928 book 30 Games of Patience, where it is the first game listed.  He claims to have won once in twenty-five trials, which is spectacular luck.   He also mentions as harder variants (one wonders why) playing without prefounding the aces, or building the foundations in suit or in alternate colors.  Bonaventure's 1931 Games of Solitaire gets it wrong too: "Deal from the pack one by one, forming four talons, in rotation." (also using talon incorrectly).

If you're writing a comprehensive guide to solitaire, or an omnibus computer program with hundreds of variants, I can't criticize you for including Auld Lang Syne for historical purposes.  But it turns up again and again in books which claim to be collections of the best solitaires (this is partly due to the habit of inexpert authors compiling a book by copying games from older books: what David Parlett calls "repetitive hack-work").   Many years ago, I started compling a frequency count of how many times various games appeared in about 50 book and computer sources available to me at the time.   Auld Lang Syne finished in the top twenty.   If any solitaire deserves to have faded into history, it would be Auld Lang Syne/Tam O'Shanter.

This page was revised on March 17, 2021.   All contents copyright 2021 by Michael Keller.  All rights reserved.