The Spider and the Fly

The Initiation

Of the free games included with Windows, none is more treacherous than Spider Solitaire. In the latest installment, the master assesses the first hand.

Dear “The Pigeon,”

I must first apologize for not having written for such a very long time. I have been going through a difficult period. I don’t feel I know you quite well enough right now to share with you the exact nature of my difficulties. I hope you’re not offended. I’m actually not sure whether you’ll be offended by my reticence to share with you (how I love that word, “share”—I’m glad we use it so often now, as compared to its relatively sparse usage during my youth) or pleased by my honesty. I fear you’re more likely to be offended, since you seem to be rather high-strung. Please don’t be offended by my calling you high-strung; I hear that the world’s best athletes, both human and equine, are similarly strung.

Anyway, I was apologizing for not having gotten back to you sooner. It’s just that my life has become more exciting lately, since a piece of furniture that was central to my life has failed me in a catastrophic way (snap!) and required repair or replacement. The former proved to be impossible and the latter proved to be emotionally trying. I was both distressed and confused and I have therefore neglected SpiSo a little. And my wife left me.

I bet that sounds awful to you. I bet you’ll tell me that it’s during times like these that one should play SpiSo the most, since it can help you to clear your head and forget your difficulties. I also bet you’re right, because now that I’ve got my head together (that too is a phrase whose relatively recent inclusion in my day-to-day pleases me) and have been playing SpiSo, I realize what a fool I had been not to have done so all throughout this difficult time. SpiSo has helped me enormously these last days as I’ve rediscovered its little joys, its little defeats, and those wonderful little bursting fireworks.

Yes, I have from time to time stooped to playing with two or even one suit, but I was so in need of tiny fireworks, if only to forget the smell that’s been building up around here now that I’m on my own. And, you know, I’m just not there yet. You warned me not to try four suits on my own, so I’ve just been hitting F2 again and again and again, waiting for those famous two-clean/one-dirty moves and on those rare occasions when the SpiSo gods were kind enough to grant me the right hand, I just couldn’t find the wherewithal to stop and contact you.

Incidentally, are there SpiSo gods? I don’t really expect an answer from you, and besides, I don’t believe in gods anymore, but I thought it was a relevant question. What would they look like, do you think?

Anyway, now I have a hand. I was sorely tempted to play it, let me tell you, but then I thought about my head exploding and all, and about floating in space in swimming trunks and a snorkel (I actually had a bad dream about that; my flippered feet flapping around in desperate slow-motion out in the void), so I didn’t, despite the numb sensation in my thumb and the tingling in my feet as my very body trembled with excitement.

Here is my hand. (I realize that I am breaking your rule of two clean, one dirty, but I’ve got a good feeling about these particular cards, and I have learned through various experiences to listen to and trust my instincts):

The first hand

I anxiously await your advice, Pigeon.



Hyperion, you rogue!

In times of struggle, it is imperative to always remember that we have Spider Solitaire. And you, Hyperion, have quite a hand on your, er, hands!

The basics of game-play are not something I should have to teach you at this stage. From your work at even the lowest levels, you will be familiar with the fundamentals of card movement. But PRUNES, Hyperion—PRUNES is where triumph begins.

You have practiced Patience and Recognition—and how well you’ve done at the latter, Hyperion, now with such a glorious “lay” before you! Your instincts may well prove correct, as this lay does offer myriad possibilities. Tantalizing! You must be thrilled. But now, as we begin to “play the lay,” we must turn to the next pillar of PRUNES: Undo.

At this stage, many amateur players commence play with the highest clean move showing. Admittedly, a clean set is always preferable to a dirty set, as it can then be moved collectively about the board, freely as a European through a unified Europe (excepting Romania—I have heard things).

From your layout, the highest clean move would be the three of spades onto the four of the same suit. Depending what is revealed beneath (say, another clean move, which might seem preferable to one of the dirty moves showing), your next move will be to continue in this fashion until you have a very nice pretty clean board, la-di-da, and aren’t you a pretty pony?

No, you’re a bloody fool! (Not you, silly Hyperion—I use the second person here to address all SpiSo players who operate without any discernible system, who would not recognize PRUNES if they were lashed to their desk and beaten about the face and neck with a bag of dried prunes, metonymically, and whose Statistics are a fucking joke).

Instead of guts and instinct and stupidity, think of the disciplined tactics of PRUNES. Think, specifically, Hyperion, of the liberating powers of Undo.

Always start with a dirty move, preferably the dirtiest move on the board. Oh, Hyperion! Take that nine of diamonds and put it on the 10 of clubs—lay them lasciviously together like the cheeky brothel-keeping madam that you are! Let us not fear the intermingling of species. For without it, how would we have such noble beasts as the labradoodle?

What’s under the nine of diamonds? Perhaps it’s a 10 of the same suit, allowing us to slide the nine right back on top! Would this have been revealed to us had we ascribed to a “clean is best” methodology? No, Hyperion. And say, conversely, that what is revealed is useless—a four of clubs, perhaps. No matter: simply Undo and we’re right back where we started.

Hyperion, I can not stress enough the importance of this technique. Always sample and undo, sample and undo in every combination possible until you have exhausted as many potential moves before the next deal. Explore what lies beneath the cards. Think of yourself as an archaeologist or a private investigator, unraveling a series of clues—the swarthy yet articulate lovechild of Indiana Jones and Angela Lansbury’s character in Murder She Wrote, armed with a laptop and a throbbing glory hard-on!

A quick run down of our goals for our first lay:

  1. Reveal as many cards as possible.
  2. Free up cells.
  3. Finish cleanly.

Amid all this dirty play, the eventual goal before progressing to the next deal is to complete this round with as clean a board as possible. You will always be uncovering new cards, but as much as you can shuffle them around into a clean layout before moving onto the next deal, the better. This will facilitate future play and also looks a lot more attractive.

Please let me know how you are doing.

—The Pigeon

P.S. Sorry about your wife.


Dear Pigeon,

My head spins. I have read and reread your communication in order to better to understand it. I have printed it out twice, one copy to be kept ever next to my computer (and I should point out here that I do not have a laptop, but a desktop. I find the idea of a warm computer on my actual lap to be somewhat unseemly. I reserve my actual lap for my hands. Folded, of course. Or a napkin, when I’m eating) and the other copy to carry with me for reference as I review our lessons while traveling on, for instance, public transportation. Despite this dedication to the subject I fear that I do not entirely understand yet, but I’m working on it.

What perplexes me the most is the idea of beginning dirty so as to end up clean. There is of course the example of Saint Augustine, but you see he didn’t start out dirty with the intention of becoming clean, he was rather “surprised by grace,” as C.S. Lewis would have put it. I’m sure you’ll rightly point out that we’re not talking about redemption but about SpiSo, which is a very different thing, but the general concept of moving in one direction so as to finish in quite the opposite is not something that is immediately apparent.

Why, for instance, should I seek out the dirty move first? Say a roguish jack of hearts goes flying into the bosom of that promiscuous harlot, the queen of spades—why is that better than first allowing him the company of his little friend—say, ten—to chaperone her, as it were? Must I ignore the virtue of the clean move in deference to the racial and aesthetic mish-mash that you propose? Please don’t mistake my dismay for disapproval. The question is far from rhetorical: It is quite real. I ask only for your wisdom so as to smooth my soul.

And then there’s the question of Undo. Oh, if life we so simple! Wouldn’t it be grand to try and undo, try and undo until everything came out right? Nothing seems to come out right for me and I’m quite convinced that if I were only to have that little control-Z function available in my workaday world (not to mention my social life) then I would be much happier. For instance, my wife would once again be sharing my cot. I have been practicing Undo since printing out your last correspondence. Sometimes I just do the same move over and over, undoing every time so as to get used to the novelty of it all. You see, before hearing from you I had never taken advantage of Undo, finding it somehow distasteful and unacceptable—but if you, the mighty Pigeon, not only approve of this wondrous functionality but even encourage its use, then all is right with the world.

I eagerly await your response. In the meantime, I shall do and undo, do and undo, always with the hope of the cleanest lay (correct?) before continuing on to the next deal.


Kevin Dolgin is originally from New York and has lived in Paris for more than 20 years. He has published numerous works of short fiction and writes a regular travel feature for McSweeney’s Internet Tendency. A book of his travel writing, The Third Tower Up From the Road, was released in June 2009 by Santa Monica Press.TMN Contributing Writer Pasha Malla is the author of two books: The Withdrawal Method (stories) and All Our Grandfathers Are Ghosts (poems). More by Kevin Dolgin & Pasha Malla