One week of addiction to solitaire

I’ve used a solitaire (Klondike) app called Solitaire: Super Challenges for probably a year or so. Firstly, I must say it’s an excellent app. It has the cleanest interface I’ve ever seen in terms of game playability, far better than any desktop or browser-based implementation I’ve come across. There’s a daily challenge thing which feels quite satisfying to keep up. You can choose to be dealt a game that’s guaranteed to be winnable. The main downside to this app is the presence of ads, which seem to be getting more and more intrusive. My favorite feature of this app is how tapping on a card automatically generates a legal move of that card (if possible), with moving to foundation being the top priority. I have no idea why popular PC-based solitaire games don’t offer this, since it means you don’t have to waste time dragging your mouse, and since auto-move makes the correct choice for what you’d want at least 80% of the time. You can also see the three top cards in the waste, even if you can only play one. This is very helpful for running through the stock very quickly and undoing if you need something.

To put things into perspective, the smoothness of the game interface means that I can often win games in 80 seconds, with really fast games ending in 60 seconds. In comparison, with a popular site like World of Solitaire, my mean, mode, and shortest win times probably take more than twice as long.

I only recently discovered that the app also has player vs player tournaments with a weekly leaderboard. I was instantly addicted after trying it out, and after a bit of practice I set out to reach the top 100 for the new week. I ended at 37th place (out of over 10,000 players) with a score of 7000. Some random comments about it:

  • There are four tournament modes. The game variants are turn one and turn three. For each of these, there’s a 1vs1 mode or a four player tournament with the lowest scoring player being knocked out each round. Winning 1vs1 scores 10 points for the leaderboard, winning the four player mode (which requires not losing two round then winning the last round) scores 30 points.
  • Within each game, you score 1 point for each foundation card, or 2 if you’re the first player to clear that specific card. (All players are dealt the same cards, of course.) You get 50 points for being the first player to finish. (Note: it’s virtually impossible to be the first to win the game and not be the overall winner.) Since not all games are winnable, this means that speed is a very important factor, especially with turn three solitaire, where sometimes only a couple of cards are playable. You can undo moves, but you can’t undo a move that scored points. This means that for turn three, there’s a definite trade-off between winning fast points through speed (in case the game isn’t realistically winnable) and accurate play. In my opinion, it’s best to go for the speed approach, since in many games evenly matched players will reach the same dead end state and the player who reached it faster wins. Psychology is definitely a part of tournament games. In a heads-up match you can see your opponent’s foundation cards, so if you’re ahead you can see whether your opponent plays a greedy strategy in terms of making all possible legal moves (before actually verifying if they’re safe to make), in which case you should also do the same. Or if you’re behind and you’re bound to lose if you both reach a dead end state, then you can chose to go for a different game tree where you hope they get stuck and you can outscore them even without the bonus points.
  • If you lose a mode, you get locked out of that mode for 30 minutes. You can watch an ad (typically up to 30 seconds long) to bypass the cooldown, and you can do this up to three times per day for each mode.
  • After playing over 700 rounds (in over 400 tournaments), I feel like I’ve noticeably improved my overall skill, though it’s hard to know for sure since playing on any other platform would make a big difference in terms of performance. For example, I’ve honed my instincts for this specific app, often making multiple correct moves within a second without actually processing it through conscious thought first. There are also many skills specific to how you score points in the player vs player mode. In terms of more general skills, my memory-based card tracking has probably improved too.
  • I must have played over 20 hours throughout the week, since it would be hard to win faster than one round every two minutes.
  • Ads occur frequently but they’re kind of bearable. Also, you can watch ads to gain magic wands (or whatever they are) that moves a random card from tableau to foundation. This can allow you to move a game from an unwinnable state to a winnable state, which is a huge advantage.
  • Tapping speed is definitely an important factor. I’ve won numerous games where my opponent was ahead of me but I surpassed them purely due to tapping speed. For example, tournament games don’t support the auto-collect since all cards are worth points, and I can usually manually finish the game within seven seconds with over four moves per second, whereas the majority of players (even players who are clearly better than me) are more than two times slower than me. Running through the stock really quickly (using undo where necessary) is also a key strategy in unwinnable games.
  • Unfortunately, the game isn’t very balanced in the sense that few games are close (especially for turn one). For example, you’re implicitly shown the relative ranks of your opponents at the start of a four person tournament, and in most cases that exactly predicts the order in which people get knocked out.
  • I definitely have room for improvement, but I’ve also won a fair share of games against players ranked higher than me, including players tentatively in the top 10 with twice as many points as me. I think I can safely say that at a certain skill level, how much you play matters more than your in-game performance. As a skilled player, in most cases you’re not at risk of losing anyway so it’s more of a grind.
  • The longest win streak I bothered to count was 19 games.
  • There is some suspicious behavior in the top 5, with a few people becoming leaders without having actually climbed the leaderboard. Later their names disappear from the scoreboard, often with new unfamiliar names replacing them. It would seem either they have some way of changing names that I don’t know about, or they cheat and later get kicked off the leaderboard entirely.
  • For some reason, I rarely see/notice other people using magic wands. In my 700+ rounds I’ve used dozens of magic wands so it seems strange that I’ve only detected other people using it twice. It’s hard to tell though since there’s no obvious indicator when others use it. Maybe people are less tolerant of ads than me.

I’ve definitely wondered what it is that compelled me to reach the top 100 leaderboard. It’s not like I really needed to prove anything or that achieving or not achieving my goal implied anything meaningful about my skill level. (For example, I can guarantee that any human player in the top 100 must have spent at least 10 hours playing.) To state the obvious, I enjoy solitaire and it was a good distraction for me during a week full of physical chores. But I could have played non-competitively. I didn’t have to have a goal. I didn’t have to put in so many hours just to make my arbitrary goal happen. As I hinted at, the competitive element within each tournament is not really that challenging. You’re facing an opponent(s) in a round, but regardless of whether you win or lose, the real race is in the leaderboard.

It has to be stated: I enjoy the fact that I can win easily most of the time. But I also enjoy playing against more skilled players. There’s a sense of haste and purpose, regardless of the real difficulty of winning. The competitive element has made me a better player, since I never had such specific incentives to optimize my play when it was just daily challenges. I enjoy the psychological battle, the breaking of natural rules and fate using magic at opportune moments, the thrill of luck as a factor, and the idea that skill can usually beat luck.

I guess I liked that I could achieve my goal if I wanted to, that by and large I controlled and determined my own success. That’s a feeling that’s been very much absent from my everyday life in many ways. Perhaps I enjoy the affirmation of my skill, yet this does not exactly justify solitaire tournaments over other games, where I often do not enjoy playing much less skilled players. I guess the macro goal of winning as fast as possible changes my preference for playing challenging matches since there is a sense of higher purpose and context that can’t be spoiled as easily, and this idea does transfer to other games.

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Congratulate me on accepting my new job?

I won’t mince my words: my brain is messed up, from the higher levels of abstraction down to the chemical level. Coming from a background of lifelong emotional suppression and addiction, I have long suspected it and yet I’m still surprised by the details of this conclusion. There’s an adage that we have to be particularly mindful about what new vice replaces the old one we’re trying to overcome. After reading about how to process emotions, I’ve confirmed one of my least favorite hypotheses about my life:

It’s not enough for me to make smart decisions; I must work hard to embody the things I believe in.

When I was introduced to the world of emotions three years ago, I learned to find out what makes me feel good. But my sources didn’t really discuss balance and the bigger picture, so I’ve now realized that I’ve been unknowingly regulating my emotions in an unhealthy manner on a daily basis for years. It seems I typically either over-regulate my negative emotions or try to manipulate myself into feeling positive emotions and then under-regulate those positive emotions. This is my addiction, and it’s very very bad for discipline, willpower, motivation, or any of the things that drive us to work towards our goals.

In light of this information, I must accept my new full-time role as supervisor of my mind and body. There is no other way. I must find out what makes me feel uncomfortable. I must learn to accept that discomfort and operate towards my goals regardless of it. I must switch off the music to my ears. I must be willing to abandon everything I think I know, once again, and purge aspects of my behavior that I may have mistaken for my personality. I’m scared. I’m terrified. But I must be brave. I know this is what needs to be done.

If this is what I am right now, it’s not like I have anything worth losing in the first place; there is no tragedy in this.