While people have been playing solitary games with cards, dice, stones and pegs since the dawn of recorded history, solitaire, used to describe games for which the goal is to arrange a deck of cards from a chaotic pattern to an ordered pattern, only saw description in card gaming literature beginning about 1765. This element of creating order from chaos likely stems from a combination of cartomancy forms like Tarot and Germanic culture, as the mid 18th century was when many of the modern cartomantic layouts were established. The first definitive recording of a game of Solitaire comes from a German gaming book from 1783.
Solitaire was originally known as Patience, and was a competitive game between two players. The goal was to complete the game before the other player. However, it soon took hold as a solitary pursuit, probably due to the fact that practicing it alone offered the same gaming experience as competing with another. The solitary nature of Patience also likely stemmed from its similarities with another solitary card pursuit, Tarot.
Similarities and Differences between Solitaire and Tarot
Indeed, there are many similarities between Tarot and Solitaire, known as Patience back when it was first created. Both are solitary pursuits, often done to engage the mind with a system of rules rather than with another person. Both can use the same set of cards, with both fifty-two and seventy-eight card Solitaire games recorded in its infancy. Both make use of pre-ordained arrangements. There is even a tradition, still alive in Germany and Scandinavia today, of using Solitaire as a means for divination. If one “wins” within the first few games, times will be good and luck will smile on you, whereas if one loses a string of games, the cards are saying to be cautious.
Yet they differ also, and this is where the German cultural values come in as opposed to the Roma or even Egyptian elements that found Tarot. Namely, Solitaire is concerned with building an ordered card structure at the end, rather than an ordered mental or “spiritual” structure in the way that Tarot is designed to do.
Historical Stories about Solitaire
Napoleon was said to be a card gaming fanatic, and everywhere he went, he learned the local forms of playing cards. The strategic mind that won him so many battles across Europe was well-suited for cards, and Solitaire was no exception. While the conqueror was generally surrounded by enough people that he didn’t play Patience or other forms of Solitaire while he was rampaging through Europe, upon his exile the stories went that all he did was play Patience endlessly. A brilliant strategist’s mind never sleeps, so the story went.
Around that time in the 19th century, different forms of Solitaire were gaining traction throughout France, but historical evidence shows that while Napoleon played cards in exile, he never played Patience. Regardless, so popular did Solitaire become in France, in part due to the stories told about their greatest general, that many of the terminology used in Solitaire today derives from French.
Solitaire caught on among English speakers beginning in the mid 19th century, when Prince Albert, husband of Queen Victoria and passionate social reformer, was said to play Solitaire often in his spare time. It is fascinating to trace the rise and fall of Solitaire’s popularity in terms of changes, orderings, and restructurings of a society at any given time. It took about half a century for Solitaire to make its way across the pond to the United States, where it caught on like wildfire during the gold rush of the early 20th century, and again during the Great Depression of the 1930s.
One final story about Solitaire is tragic. During the fall of the Nazi Regime, Adolf Hitler was said to have taken his most trusted lieutenants and staff, among them Joseph Goebbles and his wife and children, to a bunker to avoid being raped and defiled by the advancing Soviets. Magda Goebbles was said to be a solitaire enthusiast, and the story goes that after she fed cyanide to her children, she played Patience, a sort of sad tribute to the Nazi attempts to create a “perfectly ordered society.”
Common Solitaire Synonyms
Patience – Used throughout the UK today, Patience was the original name for solitary card games. The sense was that rather than using bluffs, personality traits, or luck to win the game, the primary quality exercised was that of patience.
Klondike – Solitaire is often a synecdoche for Klondike, meaning that it is so well-known that people use the term “Solitaire” to refer to Klondike exclusively. Klondike is a form of solitaire that involves alternating suits, cascades of cards, a four-suit set of foundations, and a deck. It is the simplest form of solitaire that still contains every element solitaire is best known for. The name “Klondike” comes from the fact that it was made popular during the Gold Rush of the early 1900s which took place in the Alaskan Klondike region.