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Spider Solitaire - Changing Strategy


Different individuals play Spider Solitaire for different reasons: to wile away the hours, to relieve boredom, to be entertained, to keep their mind active, or whatever. Although all players attempt to win, as it's the goal of the game, a high percentage of them aren't really much concerned with whether they win or lose. They merely want to have some fun.

Probably all beginning players aren't concerned with victories. They're too busy learning the game, what works and what doesn't. In time though, a significant percentage of players start to take the game more seriously - some very seriously - and want more than a simple diversion.
They want to become experts at the game. For them, it's all about strategy. They put in a lot of time observing, experimenting and studying the intricacies of the game. Of course, the game is still fun for them, but in a much broader way.

The game of Spider consists of six rounds of play, one at the very start and one following each of the five 10-card deals. For serious players, if they want to be successful at their endeavor, they should alter their game strategy as the game progresses.
Basically, the different strategies can be broken down into sections:

  • The beginning rounds
  • The middle rounds
  • The final round.

The Beginning Rounds

The beginning-round strategy usually holds for about two or three rounds of play, but it can take longer.
The focus at the start of a Spider game should be to turn as many hidden cards as is possible and acquire a vacant column. Then, the empty column should be utilized to make game improvements. If accomplished early, an empty column might not be of much use besides placing a suited run into it. In any event, the player should try to get as much use as they can from an open column before closing it.

Vacating a single column, by itself, is not enough to alter the game strategy. The real goal of the early rounds is turn most of the hidden cards and order the piles to a point where play is not subdued. It's up to the player. At some point, they should get a feeling that the current state of the game is ordered enough to switch strategies. So, when to move on is both subtle and subjective.

Beginning Rounds Strategy

At the very start of the game, the player should take a bit of time to study the layout. Performing a move simply because it exists often won't be the most productive. The first move (if there is one) is guaranteed to turn a hidden card. Normally, the player will want to move a card onto the same suit, if possible. At some point, though, they'll have no choice but to break suit.
Along with preferring a move onto the same suit is preferring a move that does not lock. A locking move is one that restricts the ability of the lowest card (or run) in the moved-to pile from being readily moved should a receiving card be or become available (baring the use of the undo option).

For example, if it's advantageous to move a three and there is only one open four of a different suit on the tableau, the four would become locked as it could not then readily be moved. However, if there were two open fours, both of a different suit than the three, it's usually safe to move the three onto either of the fours. The move would not lock the four it was moved onto since until the remaining open four was covered, the three could be moved onto it, which would permit access to the four underneath. The moved-onto four would remain unlocked until either another move or a deal changed its status; ergo, the covering of the remaining four.
Next, it's usually better to move a higher ranked card. This is because, in Spider, runs are extended downward in rank. It's no good to move, say, a six onto a seven of a different suit and later not be able to move the six-seven run onto an available eight.

Moving onto the same suit, preferring to move higher ranks, and paying attention to whether a move locks or not are good general strategies in all rounds of the game. But bear in mind that there are exceptions. Every game state is different, and there are many things to consider before making the final move choice.

The next strategy to be to given should not be followed in all rounds of the game. But be wary, most advice given online implies that it holds for the entire game. For the serious player who wishes to win more games, and especially for the pure player, it should not hold.
In the early opening rounds of play, when presented with a choice between different piles to turn a hidden card in, normally, it's best to choose the pile with the fewest hidden cards in it. This is because, at this point in the game, the primary goal is to gain a vacant column, or space. Even so, there can be exceptions, depending on the layout. Many things need to be considered.

The Middle Rounds

The middle rounds generally begin after the second or third 10-card deal and end following the final 10-card deal. Often the state of the game won't be sufficiently organized after the second deal to shift to middle-round strategy. If things go very badly, the player might even wait for another round. But, if the shift is not made, winning is going to be very difficult.
Ideally, at this point, to have a good shot at winning, the player should have at least half of the hidden cards turned, and the piles should at least not be in disarray. In practice, however, these ideals are very often not met. The gist of it is that the game state should be such that enough cards have been put into play and the piles are not so full of breaks - in suit or in rank - that it's really difficult to move runs about.

The major goal of this section is twofold: to turn all of the remaining hidden cards and to remove all of the breaks in rank and in suit from all of the piles. It's rather rare (at least without liberal use of the undo option) for both of these goals to be completely accomplished by the final deal. In any event, due to the effects of the last deal, the final round strategy should begin no later than immediately following the final 10-card deal.

Middle Rounds Strategy

In the opening rounds, with so many hidden cards and fewer cards in play, there is usually not a lot of opportunities to accomplish a lot of ordering. But now, hopefully, that's not the case.
As is a good strategy throughout the game, at key moments, especially following each 10-card deal, the player should study the layout looking for opportunities. A serious player might even come up with a plan before enacting another move.

As in the opening rounds, usually, not a lot can be done unless there is at least one open column. However, surprisingly often, with a good plan, great things can start even without an empty column. And, if the empty column is taken advantage of to its fullest, one empty column can sometimes become two, and then even more improvements may be possible.
In the first rounds, when presented with a choice between different piles to turn a hidden card in, normally, but not always, it should be the column that contains the most hidden cards. Now that the strategy has shifted somewhat, this is not so much the case. The decision of which pile to turn the next hidden card in should not be automatic, it's the current state of the game that should make the decision. If there still are many hidden cards, then that too should be factored into the choice.

Here too, the choice between ordering and turning cards should differ. In the opening rounds, because getting cards into play is so vital to winning, usually the choice should be turning hidden cards. But now, it's not so cut and dry. It's often more productive to utilize a vacant column for ordering purposes and forgo turning a hidden card. But like everything else in the game, it's a judgment call. It depends a lot on how many hidden cards remain, where they are, and how bad the cards are out of order (by suit or rank).
For some reason, this concept seems to be foreign to most players. Nevertheless, for the serious player, and especially for the pure player, it can make a huge difference in their win-ratio.

Another very bad mistake many players habitually commit during these middle rounds is turning the final hidden card (or two) in a pile. Of course, they anticipate that the freed card will immediately be placed, leaving a vacant column. But often, it cannot be placed and it causes problems. It there's only one or two hidden cards in a pile and most of the other hidden cards have been turned, often, the best strategy is to leave the few hidden cards until all, or at least most, of the piles are well ordered.

Final Round Strategy

By this stage of the game, ideally, all of the hidden cards will be turned and the piles will at least be somewhat ordered - meaning that there will be few breaks in suit or rank. Now it's time to win the game. Yeah, easier said than done.
The strategy presented below is not meant for the novice player who only plays for fun. It's more for the serious player who truly wants to win, although it should also be of use to the intermediate player who wants to improve their game. But then again, the curious non-serious player might even get something out of it.
Here, more than at any other stage during the game is the time to formulate a solid plan. If the game state is in good order, which it rarely is, it can be easy. For the serious player who really wants to wins, coming up with a good plan is very important, and for the pure player, it's imperative. The plan should be formed before another move is made. This includes an obvious move because, especially at this stage, even the most obvious move could be the wrong choice.

For the first time in the game, all of the cards are now on the tableau, minus those that might have been sent to the foundations. For this reason alone, the strategy should now change.
Finally, the player has the opportunity to take stock of which cards remain hidden (out of play), which is not usually of much use if many hidden cards remain. Unless there is only one hidden card, the player won't know the value of any particular hidden card; but still, knowing what's left can be an advantage. For one, if the player is able to turn a hidden card and has calculated that whatever turns can be placed, things are apt to go well.

In the first round, it was advantageous - usually - to turn a hidden card in a column with the least number of hidden cards. In the middle rounds, with more cards in play, it was often more advantageous to pick the column not with the most hidden cards. At this point, it's generally even more advantaged to turn in a column with several hidden cards in it, for the simple reason that a turned card is more likely to be placed. It also brings more cards into play that can help to open up the game more.

In the middle rounds, it was often good to choose ordering the piles over turning a hidden card. Now, it's different. With no more being saved by the deal, the player must take care. It would be foolish to fill the only remaining vacant column to remove any number of suit and rank breaks if that's all that happened, as the game would immediately be lost (assuming that the undo option was not being utilized).

What should be done, if at all possible, is to compose a plan to simultaneously do both ordering and bringing hidden cards into play. While this holds for the entire game, it's now more important. The idea is to enact moves in a particular sequence that improves the order of the piles and still turns a hidden card. This way, whatever card turns, it's more likely to be placed. More times than one might think, it's possible to devise a play that is guaranteed to improve order and yet turn a hidden card in more than one column.

It goes without saying that now really is the time to attempt to complete full-suited runs. After all, that's the only way to win the game. Among other things, completing runs should be considered when there is an opportunity to turn a hidden card and there is sufficient maneuverability for cards to be moved between the piles beforehand. It's usually advantageous to collect as long of suited runs as possible. But beware, sometimes it's not. It all depends on the current state of the game.
Of course, this all takes a lot of practice and work and is not for the faint of heart.

Steve N. Brown
I hold a master's degree in mathematics. As well as solving difficult math problems, I've always enjoyed playing games of strategy because they challenge me to think. So, when Spider Solitaire became popular around the turn of the century, it was very easy for me to get hooked on the game. At that time, there were no good books on how to play the game and the online advice was also very poor. So, I learned how to play the game on my own through experimentation, careful observation, and an awful lot of practice. One thing led to another and, eventually, I wrote a book on the topic: 'Spider Solitaire Winning Strategies'.

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