solitaire's the only game in town

Everywhere I turn I see people playing Candy Crush Saga on their phones.  My wife did for a while (she's gotten tired of it, I think); my in-laws play a lot.  I've never once tried it.  I like video games as much as anyone, and indeed I spent my early teens shoving quarters into the Galaga machine at the convenience store (high score over 2,000,000--now you think I'm cool).  These days I'm methodically working my way through Super Mario 3D World on the Wii U.  But games on the phone?  Not so much.

A quick inventory reveals the following games on my iPhone (still a 3GS--I know, how do I survive?):

  1. Set
  2. BClassicLite
  3. Eliss
  4. Doodle Fit
  5. Jelly Car
  6. Paper Toss
  7. Mr. AahH!!
  8. BiiPlane
  9. Paper Glider
  10. Galaga Remix
  11. Flight Control
  12. Sol Free Solitaire

Most of these were installed as restaurant distractions for my son when he was younger.  I've never played BClassicLite, Eliss, Paper Toss, Mr. AahH!!, BiiPlane, Paper Glider, or even Galaga Remix (screen is too small).  The others I've played only a few times.

Except for Sol Free Solitaire.

I'm about to reveal an embarrassing screenshot--the stats the game keeps:

I'll gloss over the fact that this is the second iPhone I've had...

The only really embarrassing thing here is the Total Time Played field.  I realize that 55 hours seems like a lot, but I don't really sit around playing this game all the time. I mostly play when I'm waiting for something--marching band practice to end (lots of time there), doctor's office waiting room--so this could be viewed as a commentary on the drudgery of everyday life.  And I've had this phone for nearly two years, so that works out to only about 5 or 6 minutes a day on average.

I think I'm a pretty good solitaire player.  I play quickly, so it's possible I could improve my win percentage if I were a bit more careful.  I doubt it could be much better though.  I win roughly 1 game in 6 on average, and if you've ever played much yourself you know that's not bad.  But I did get to thinking--what kind of win percentage would a really good solitaire player have? 

To answer that, it would be helpful to know the probability of winning any particular game.  Some games are unwinnable from the start--you can't move any of the initial up cards and passing through the waste (as the pile remaining after the deal is called) yields no moves.  Supposedly these are rare, but they seem to happen with an alarming frequency to me.  The number of possible hands is over 7,000 trillion.  That's way too many to analyze all the possibilities, so we can only estimate the probability of winning.

So I looked around the interwebz a bit and found some interesting stuff.  Using Monte Carlo methods, some have estimated the following probabilities:

  • fraction of winnable games: 82%
  • probability of winning with "good" play: 43%

So, it seems that I'm not a very "good" player, even though I think I am.  More discouraging, however, is that in theory I should be able to win about 8 times in 10.  So, why the discrepancy?  The problem is that knowing that a game is theoretically winnable requires complete knowledge of all the positions of the 52 cards.  So, when I lose a game of solitaire, the chances are good that I could have won had I not made a particular move.  The problem, of course, is that I don't which move was wrong.  Alas.

On the plus side, though, the app on my phone makes this all a much more efficient waste of time than it was when I was a kid and had to physically deal an entire deck of cards.  Losing in that scenario was a real drag because it meant gathering, shuffling, and redealing the deck.  I kind of miss that, though.

(N.B. if you don't get the reference in the title, listen to this.)