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Origins and history of

  © 2005-2012 by David Parlett  
Games for one player are childish and simple, and not worth learning. When a man is reduced to such a pass as playing cards by himself, he had better give up    ("Captain Crawley", The Card Players Manual, 1876)
Patience is the mental equivalent of jogging : its purpose is to tone the brain up and get rid of unsociable mental flabbiness.    (David Parlett, The Penguin Book of Patience, 1979)

But is it a game?

Is Patience really a game or merely a glorified puzzle? "Game" normally implies some form of competition between players, which of course is absent from a solitary pursuit. Yet Patience involves more physical activity than is normally associated with "puzzle", and actually feels more like a game than the so-called game of Solitaire in which you gradually eliminate thirty-six marbles from a pattern of holes by jump and capture. Like other one-player games, this type of Solitaire is better counted as a puzzle, since it has just one solution (or set of solutions), which only has to be memorized or written down to render future playings pointless - except perhaps as a form of therapy, or as a true test of "patience" in the virtuous sense of the word. Like other puzzles, it ceases to be a puzzle once solved.

Card Solitaire, on the other hand, is open-ended. It has no general solution, for the fact that cards are shuffled before play makes each new deal a different puzzle from what it was before. Solving or not solving it feels just like winning or losing a game. Moreover, there are nearly as many different Patiences as there are competitive card games, the best of which can be won by strategic skill. Where there is strategy, there is a game by definition. Finally, there exist competitive varieties of Patience for two or more players, and these unquestionably count as games. We must, therefore, surely have to admit Patience as a category of game, and accordingly revise our understanding of "competition". Perhaps we may expand it to include a contest between, on one hand, the lone player, and, on the other, the shuffled pack, or the same player on different occasions, or Fate, according to taste.

The nature of the beast

In a typical Patience game the player starts by shuffling the pack very thoroughly and then aims to get the cards back in order by following certain rules of play. The successful end-product will normally be four piles of thirteen cards (or eight piles in a double-pack game), each pile consisting of all the cards of a suit in numerical order from Ace low to King high. There are obvious variations, of course - the piles may or may not have to follow suit within themselves, or sequences may be built in reverse numerical order, and so on; but the principle is generally the same. What gives many Patience games their individual flavour and delight is the imaginative layouts or tableaux which act as a workspace for partial arrangements of cards before they can be correctly shifted on to their final sequences.

There are other sorts of Patience, but fewer of them. In "elimination" games, such as Pairs, Fourteens, Accordion, etc., the aim is not to arrange cards in order but merely to eliminate them from the intermediate layout in matching pairs or similar patterns. In Poker Patience, points are scored for arranging cards into Poker combinations as they are turned from the pack, a "win" being defined as reaching a particular target score (Note 1). Older Patience books often include exercises that hardly count as games. "Caesar", for example, merely requires you to arrange the numerals Ace to Nine in a "magic square" so that all rows and columns total fifteen. This is not a game but a puzzle. Once you have done it, you can do it.

The excitement of a given Patience lies in whether or not it will "come out": it would be dull and boring if you knew you could always reach the required finishing position regardless of the lie of cards or of how well or badly you play. Whether or not it is likely to come out depends on the degree of choice and information it displays.

Choice. Patiences vary in the degree of choice they offer as to the placing or movement of cards within the workspace. Many older specimens give no choice whatsoever. Whether or not they come out at all depends on the order in which cards happen to emerge from the shuffled pack, and whether they do so more or less often depends on the particular mechanism of play. They are therefore games of chance and thus true tests of patience. Modern games usually offer a fair degree of choice, and are therefore games of strategy. It is important to get the balance right. A game affording too much choice will always come out and so remain unsatisfying. Ideally, there should be just enough choice to ensure that making too many wrong decisions will result in failure.

Information. Games also vary in the extent to which the positions occupied by cards are open to view. Information is irrelevant in games denying any choice of play. In strategic games of imperfect information the player typically draws cards one by one from the shuffled pack and must base decisions on the likelihood of certain other cards turning up sooner or later in the deal. As Cavendish puts it (Note 2), they present "indefinite problems for solution", and call upon one's powers of judgment and intuition. In those of perfect information all cards are dealt face up before the opening move is made: they present "definite problems for solution", and are solved (if the lie of cards allows) by analysis and calculation.

Names and origins

"Patience" is only one of several words used to denote one-player card games: it is the earliest recorded of them, is evidently French, and also denotes one-player games in general (Note 3). In modern French the card game is more often referred to as réussite, meaning "success", or "favourable outcome", to distinguish it from patience, now meaning "jigsaw puzzle". The practice of any form of solitaire was once regarded as an exercise of "patience" in its literal sense as a virtue. Thus in modern Italian pazienzia applies to such activities as building card houses, while card solitaire is usually known as solitario. The French use of réussite is explained in Littré as "a combination of cards [by] which superstitious persons try... to divine the success of an undertaking, a vow, etc." If this suggests an origin in fortune-telling, the theory is reinforced by the name of the game in Danish, Norwegian, and Icelandic, namely kabal(e), or "secret knowledge". In Poland, where Patience is called pasjans, the word kabala also occurs with the specific meaning of "fortune-telling with cards" (cartomancy). Perhaps, then, the original purpose of a Patience game was light-heartedly to "divine the success of an undertaking, a vow, etc.", as Littré suggests. If the game "succeeds" (réussit), the answer is favourable, otherwise not.

The same idea emerges from the Fortune-Telling Patience described as follows by Mary Whitmore-Jones in about 1895 (Note 4):

This is a game for three or more players, and is a favourite with young ladies, as being supposed to afford them a glimpse of their future destiny. The four aces are laid in the middle of the board, their significations being: hearts, loved; diamonds, courted; clubs, married; and spades, single blessedness... If you finish off all your cards on one of the ace packets, it shows what your fate will be; but if your cards work off on your neighbours' packets, the oracle is veiled, and your fortune remains untold.

The theory is further supported by the fact that the earliest description of Patience occurs within a few years of the invention of card layouts for cartomancy (fortune-telling), which, contrary to popular belief, is not reliably reported before about 1765 (Note 5).

Baltic background

As so often in the history of card games, the fact that "patience" is a French word does not necessarily make France its place of origin. As Ross and Healey show (Note 6), it is more probably of German or Scandinavian provenance. The earliest reference I know of occurs the 1783 edition of the German game anthology Das neue Königliche L'Hombre-Spiel as both "Patience" and "Cabale". In Das neue Spielalmanach für 1798 "Patiencespiel" is represented as a contest between two players, each of whom in turn plays a game of Patience while bystanders, and presumably the players themselves, lay bets on the outcome. Single and double-pack versions of the game are given, their description being consistent with that later recorded in English books under the title "Grandfather's Patience". There follow two references in the Journal of a Swedish Girl during Captivity in Russia 1808-9, by Adelaide von Hauswolff, who kept company with her father during his apparently not very onerous internment as a prisoner of war in St Petersburg and elsewhere. One quotation reads (in Swedish) "Major Hjärne played patience with my father", the other "In the afternoon... the Major practised patience". A third reference occurs in a Swedish poem by J. D. Valerius published in 1809, entitled Mitt spel, "My game" and ending: "I play Tok against girls and, in sorrows and distress, Patience against my Fate." (Tok is a card game whose title means "fool", perhaps equivalent to the Russian game of Durak.)

I quote these references in detail because, as Ross and Healey point out, it is unclear whether Patience was primarily regarded as a solitaire or a two-hander. A solitaire is suggested by "The Major practised Patience" and by an implicit contrast between Tok and Patience in Valerius; but when the Major is described as playing Patience "with" Adelaide's father, it is uncertain whether they are playing against each other alternately or with each other cooperatively towards the solution of a single game - or, indeed, are playing a two-hand competitive Patience. It may well be that Patience was originally devised as a two-handed contest with separate packs of cards, and that players first played it solitaire by way of practice for the real thing, only later discovering that it offered rewards of its own to those of a solitary disposition.

Not tonight, Josephine

Whether that disposition was shared by Napoleon Bonaparte is extremely unlikely, even though such titles as Emperor, Napoleon at St Helena, Napoleon's Favourite, Napoleon's Flank, Napoleon's Heart, Napoleon's Square, Napoleon's Tomb, St Helena, seem to assert that the retired emperor whiled his exiled hours away by means of Patience cards. Unfortunately for the story-books, those days on St Helena are well enough documented to negate the assertion. Napoleon is known to have played Vingt-Un, Piquet, and Whist; but Ross and Healey have closely examined the Patience story and shown it to be based on the misinterpretation of an incident that took place at the Whist table. In fact, the person reported have been seen "playing this solitary game of patience" was Las Cases, who had been sent to a corner of the room and instructed to keep shuffling a sticky pack of cards until they ran more easily. The patience in question here was thus not so much a game as a virtue.


The oldest known book of Patience games was published in Moscow, 1826, as Sobranie kartochnykh raskludok, izvestnykh pod nazvaniemn Grand-pasiansov - "A collection of the card layouts usually known as Grand-patiences". At least six more collections were published in Sweden before 1850, three of them before 1840. Scandinavian and Polish references from the 1830s add weight to the apparent Baltic origin of Patience games, and Ross-Healey argue for Sweden as the likeliest ultimate source. They also quote a nice additional back-reference from the 1889 Notes and Reminiscences of H. G. Trolle-Wachtmeister, in the form of an anecdote about Charles XIII of Sweden which concludes "Old Charles listened carefully to this, then put aside his Patience-cards...". "This" refers to the pilgrimage of Gustav Adolf to Jerusalem, which took place in June 1815.

The first French collection appeared in 1842, entitled Le Livre des patiences, par Mme de F***, whom Ross-Healey identify as the Marquise de Fortia. That Patience was now current in upper French society is indicated by a letter from the Danish dramatist Oehlenschlager, who visited Louis-Philippe at Paris in 1845 and reports: "Here there was sitting the noble old queen, with white hair, at a big table; she was playing Patience with two packs of cards. The King's sister, Mine Adelaide, was also playing Patience, with smaller cards." Another nineteenth-century French collection was published in Brussels as Le Livre illustré des patiences and credited to the Comtesse de Blanccoeur, who claims to have based it on her own researches. The same text later appears in English, however, as The Illustrated Book of Patience (1920), translated by "Professor Hoffmann" (Angelo Lewis) - though not from Blanccoeur, of whom he appears unaware, but from a German-language edition, leaving unclear whether the French or the German edition came first.

Patience did not penetrate English society much before the second half of the nineteenth century, if the date of the first English-language collection is anything to go by - and since all its contents have French titles, even that may have been a translation. This was Illustrated Games of Patience, written by yet a third Adelaide in the Patience saga, namely Lady Adelaide Cadogan, daughter of the 1st Marquess of Anglesey. Copies of the second edition of 1874 still find their way into specialist bookshops, but the date of the first remains unknown, thanks to a wartime incendiary at the British Museum library. The only previous reference to the game recorded by the Oxford English Dictionary occurs in Great Expectations, in which Dickens represents Magwitch as playing "a complicated kind of Patience with a ragged pack of cards". Coincidentally, the novel first appeared in 1861, the year of the death of an illustrious player in the form of Albert, Prince Consort. Biographical reminiscences published a few years later by Queen Victoria reveal Albert to have been a devotee of the patient pursuit, presumably from his youth in Saxe-Coburg. Whether this actually enhanced the popularity of the game, as has been claimed (Note 7), is doubtful, in view of the Queen's relative unpopularity in early widowhood.

Lady Cadogan published a second collection in 1883, this time cribbing from an unspecified German anthology, and in 1890 the ubiquitous "Cavendish" (Henry Jones) applied his usual intellectual rigour to the exercise in a perceptive but boring volume simply entitled Patience. He it was who first drew a clear distinction between games presenting "definite" and those presenting "indefinite" problems - in other words, between games of calculation (as in Black Hole) and games of judgement (as in Strategy), to the exclusion of games of pure chance (as in Quadrille), which played no part in Jones's ordered world. Shortly afterwards appeared the first of seven volumes of Patience games compiled by, and, I suspect, largely invented by, the indefatigable Mary Whitmore-Jones - inventor of the "Chastleton" portable Patience-board for long-distance travellers - whose comprehensiveness and genial description counterbalance Cavendish's somewhat Spartan approach. Few twentieth-century Patience collections are worthy of note, most being repetitive hack-work. Not until the late 1940s was a thorough reappraisal of the subject made, when Albert Morehead and Geoffrey Mott-Smith published their rather generously titled The Complete Book of Patience. My contribution, The Penguin Book of Patience (1979) follows similar principles but in greater depth.

Competitive Patience

A notable twentieth-century development of Patience has been the continuing evolution of a two-player folk game which crops up in books in a variety of guises. Any form of Patience can, of course, be played competitively by two or more players (which is a good reason for preferring the word "Patience" to "Solitaire"): we have already seen that the earliest recorded Patience was played by two. The oldest method is for players to play the same game separately with their own individual packs and treat it as a race, the winner being the first to succeed. There are also two-handed co-operative games in which each plays alternately towards a solution of the same game: examples include Sympathie in Blancccoeur's book and Mary Whitmore-Jones's "Conjugal" Patience. The method employed in Racing Demon, which may be applied to any other games is for each to play individually in race fashion, but with an element of interaction, in that players may off-load cards from their own layouts to those of others in order to hold them up. There are two versions of this approach: the hilarious racing version, in which all play simultaneously as fast as possible (Grabbage, Racing Demon, Spit), and the comparatively intellectual version in which two players play alternately, progressing the game as far as they can before getting blocked and so having to cede the turn to play. A particular game of the latter type has been widespread since at least the mid-nineteenth century in a variety of incarnations. It first appears as Rabouge or Robuse; by the end of the nineteenth century it was also known as Crapette or Crippette (Note 8). Just after the First World War it became something of a fad in the United States, encouraging R. F. Foster to publish a mini-treatise on Foster's Russian Bank. It later resurfaced as Spite & Malice in a book by Easley Blackwood (1970).

(Article extracted from Parlett: The Oxford Guide to Card Games, 1990)

Notes and references

1. For Cribbage and Pontoon Patiences, see Parlett, Teach Yourself Card Games for One (Sevenoaks, 1986). (Return)
2. "Cavendish", Patience (London, 1890). (Return)
3. See Ross, A. S. C., and Healey, F. G., "Patience Napoleon", in Proceedings of the Leeds Philosophical and Literary Society, vol. X, pp. 137-90. A summary entitled "The Origins of Patience" appeared in Games & Puzzles magazine (first series), No 40 (Sept. 1975), pp. 10-13. (Return)
4. Whitmore-Jones, M., Games of Patience, Series 2 (London, undated, c. 1890-1900), p. 12. (Return)
5. Referred to and dated in Casanova's Histoire de ma vie. Dummett, p. 106, from Hoffmann, D., and Kroppenstedt, E., Wahrsagekarten (Bielefeld, 1972). (Return)
6. Ross and Healey op cit. (Return)
7. "J-R-W", Besique (London, 1863). (Return)
8. Rabouge in Anton, F., Encyclopädie der Spiele (Leipzig, 1889); Crapette or Cripette, in Mary Whitmore-Jones (between 1890 and 1910). As "Robuse", it forms a topic in The Master Book of Mathematical Recreations (New York, 1968), from a 1943 Dutch original by F. Schuh. Schuh draws a careful distinction between "puzzles" and "problems", but then, curiously, treats "games" and "puzzles" as interchangeable. (Return)
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