The Spider and the Fly

The Opening Gambit

In the pantheon of free computer games included with Windows, one strikes fear into the hearts of competitors: Spider Solitaire. In the first installment of a new series, the student addresses the master.

Dear Mr. Pasha,

A friend of a friend told me that you can successfully complete Spider Solitaire even on the most difficult level (four suits). I have difficulty successfully completing Spider Solitaire with even two suits and cannot imagine how it can be done with four unless you are very, very lucky. I always assumed it’s possible, because otherwise why would they include the four suits? Just to frustrate me? The existence of this four-suit level of difficulty therefore mocks me every time I open the game, which is relatively often because I lead a boring life and my mind wanders a lot.

I should add that I don’t think I have any significant underlying deficit of intelligence, although it is of course difficult to remain objective about this kind of thing. For instance, I can complete the most difficult level of the Mine game in under 200 seconds and I can usually complete FreeCell successfully. I also play a mean game of checkers and the violin.

If you could help me then I would be eternally grateful.

Yours truly,
Kevin Dolgin


* * *

Hi, Kevin,

It’s Mr. Malla. Pasha is my first name. Don’t worry; I don’t think you’re racist.

Yes, it’s true I can beat the four-suit level of Spider Solitaire (SpiSo to the initiated—which now, on some level, includes you!) with some regularity. Right now, according to the statistics tally, I am winning 52 percent of my games. If you think of that number in terms of baseball batting averages (0.520), I’m the greatest athlete in the history of the sport.

But, Kevin, we have to keep in mind that SpiSo is incomparable to ball sports of any kind, isn’t it? Yes. No. It is its own entity entirely, like the Hungarian language or the weird singer Björk.

But Minesweeper and FreeCell: Well done! Those are good fun, for sure. I bet you have a nice time playing them, too, don’t you? Find them challenging, even. I think that’s great. Really. You should be proud.

Don’t get too hung up on SpiSo, Kevin. It’s a very difficult game to win even once, let alone 52 percent of the time. If you’ve already had success in other Windows-based games, then why fret about something that might only prove frustrating?

Good luck with everything!

—Pasha (Malla)


* * *

Dear Mr. Pasha (Malla),

I appreciate your rapid response to my request for aid but can’t help but be somewhat disappointed at the paucity of actual advice in your reply.

Do you mean to imply that I should not persist in my endeavor to become more proficient at Spider Solitaire (heretofore “SpiSo”)? It is true that the other Windows-based games are indeed “good fun,” as you put it, and I do confess to a certain pride in my proficiency (particularly at the Mine game) but who was it who said that if we stop growing we start dying? Life is made of challenges, Mr. Pasha (Malla).

I would therefore like to ask if you could give me any actual advice about SpiSo. For instance, what methods/techniques/frames of reference could I employ to achieve something along the lines of 52-percent success myself? (Or even a single win). Is this reasonable, or is it something to do with you, reliant perhaps on some inbred or acquired property I do not share?

Respectfully yours,
Kevin Dolgin


* * *


So. You are serious about improving your skills at SpiSo. And I definitely owe you compensation for my previous impertinence. But, I have to know, Kevin: What does this really mean to you?

Once you are caught up in it, you will eat, sleep, and dream SpiSo. Your wife will start to look like a nine of diamonds that needs freeing from a pile of ordered clubs; when you rip off her clothes and begin making love to her on the kitchen floor, your mind will be already thinking how you might be able to slide her over to the queen-jack-10 series on the far side of the screen (i.e., the bedroom).

Passing along my modest knowledge of the game would be simple, Kevin. Give a man a fish, as they say, etc. But do you want to merely snack on carp, or gorge yourself on the infinite buffet of succulent, pan-seared endangered sea bass that is SpiSo, perhaps for the rest of your days (or at least until the Microsoft company comes out with a more challenging game)? Your training will be difficult, but the rewards will be divine.

All I need from you is a promise of commitment. Do you have a job? Because your work will suffer. Children? They will think you have ceased to love them. And as for personal hygiene, forget it. These are the sacrifices you have to be willing to make. Prepare yourself for frustration, estrangement, desperation, and deep, heart-shattering sorrow. But also, Kevin, prepare yourself for glory.

I leave it to you.

In SpiSolidarity,
Pasha Malla


* * *

Dear Pasha (Malla),

Apparently, mastery of SpiSo requires a commitment that is nearly epic in scope. Before taking such a dramatic plunge, I will require a certain period of reflection. In the past, such periods of reflection have taken anywhere from three days to six-and-a-half weeks; I cannot tell beforehand exactly how long this one will last. Before I undertake it, however, I must ask you to provide me with one crucial piece of information.

What, exactly, are these tantalizing rewards of which you hint? So far, you have provided only vague allegories involving fish. I don’t really like fish. You may have noted that I am not a particularly imaginative individual and I therefore need facts—cold, hard facts, Mr. Pasha (Malla)—before I embark on an endeavor that may leave me unemployed and distracted while making love to my wife on the kitchen floor.

I eagerly await your response.

With kind attention,
Kevin Dolgin


* * *

Dear Kevin,

Why does a man climb mountains? Or a woman, for that matter? Or a goat? Well, I guess for a goat it’s a question of delicious alpine shrubbery. For us humans, however, it is for those ephemeral feelings of conquest and triumph. Animals have no souls, Kevin, and the soulless are impervious to these sorts of things. Also they are idiots. But this, Kevin, this ability to feel glorious, is what separates us—men and women—from the beasts (e.g., the goat, the lynx, the otter, the fox, etc.).

When you win a game of SpiSo, Kevin, there are fireworks. “You win!” the computer admits, and then passive-aggressively attempts to engage you in another match. Remember Deep Blue? Like Kasparov, you seek an essential victory of man over machine. Do you want robots to take over the world? No. No one does, Kevin, because it would be totally fucked up and impossible to get a decent cup of coffee.

I won’t say it is our duty to the human race to engage these computer simulations of card games… Oh, all right, I will. Goddammit, Kevin! If we don’t take these things on, and thrash them at least 52 percent of the time, who will? When a robot is making sweet love to your wife on the kitchen floor, and you are made to watch from a cage made of lasers with only Sanka to drink, what then? Nothing then, Kevin. For those will be the last, dark days of humankind as we know it.

Are you with me? Are you ready? Ah, but I say it as though you have a choice! One does not choose to become a SpiSo champion. The game chooses you. And chosen you, it has.

Your mentorship, Kevin, has already begun.



* * *

Yes! Oh yes, Pasha Malla, I am with you! You are so right, and I hate Sanka, and I don’t want to be in a laser cage, and I do so want to be separated from the goats, the lynxes, the otters, the foxes of this world (especially the goats), and I do see that a minimum of 50-percent victory over the machines of our ingenuity (note that I remain modest) is the least one can expect in order to maintain one’s pride, and I await your wisdom like an open flower awaits the wise, pollinating bee or hummingbird.

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