Column - Solitaire: Time-waster or healthy break?

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Roger VanHaren

When I was a kid growing up on the VanHaren homestead on Konitzer Road, south of Oconto Falls, my Grandpa VanHaren lived with us. My dad had bought the farm from Grandpa with the provision that Grandpa could live there as long as he wished. So, Grandpa was a daily part of my life until I went away to college at age 18.

I have lots of memories of Grandpa, but one of the most enduring one is of Grandpa sitting at the kitchen table, smoking his corncob pipe and playing endless games of solitaire. He played only one form of solitaire. He didn’t know what it was called, but I have since learned that it is called “Klondike.”

I often wondered, as I sat and watched him play, why he played it over and over because he seldom “won” the game. I think I would have become frustrated with the game if I lost as often as he did, but not Grandpa; he just kept playing – over and over.

Versions of this game are very popular time-wasters today for people with smartphones or computers. In 2015, Microsoft kicked off a worldwide solitaire competition in celebration of the 25th anniversary of solitaire’s introduction as a computer game.

Of course, solitaire was around long before it ever became a computer game. If you do a little research, you’ll find out that the exact origin of solitaire isn’t all that clear.

The earliest printed reference of the word “solitaire” in reference to a game appeared in 1746, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. Some historians think the game probably started toward the end of the 18th century, perhaps “in the Baltic region of Europe and possibly as a form of fortune-telling.”

The game of Patience, as solitaire is called in England, originated in the U.K. around the same time as solitaire, or slightly afterward. The dictionary has the earliest mention in 1801. After the Industrial Revolution, people — especially the wealthy — had more time on their hands, and many variations on the game became popular. The more people played the game, the more quickly they became bored and needed variety.

Some of the variations on the game are said to have been created by Napoleon, who was rumored to have had a weakness for Patience and whiled away many hours when he was exiled to St. Helena playing card games in solitary confinement. A few solitaire games were named after him, like “Napoleon at St. Helena” and “Napoleon’s Square.” However, whether he actually played those games or in fact invented them is not provable.

For over 25 years, the video game “Windows Solitaire” has been included free with every copy of Microsoft’s operating system, from Windows 3.0 through to the latest versions of Windows.

There have been many other popular and important games included with operating systems over the years; “Tetris,” “Minesweeper” and some pinball games come to mind, but only solitaire can lay claim to having once been the the most-used Microsoft application in the world.

Solitaire has often been called the biggest time-waster in offices across the globe, but I ran across an article which seemed to say that things aren’t all bad for the humble little card game when it comes to the workplace. A Netherlands’ university study from 2003 found that people allowed to play solitaire while at work “both improved their productivity and felt better about their jobs compared to those who were barred from playing.”

The study asserted that this was because if “rationed” correctly, a game of solitaire functions much like a cigarette or toilet break, helping the employee take a short refrain from work, which is refreshing.

I confess I play five or six games of solitaire a day on my phone. How about you?

Contact Roger VanHaren at