Cheating at Solitaire

Yesterday’s post discussed why backgammon bots are widely suspected of cheating. It assumed that we know what cheating is. In that context, perhaps we do. But the concept of cheating can be a difficult one, not least because there no issue in the world of games and tournaments that’s so emotionally charged as cheating.

The word “cheating” has a special valence for games players. It is so strongly negative that most people avoid using it, at least until it’s clear that there will be no more games to play that day. People bend over backwards to find some other way to characterize the behavior they object to, and they’re usually wise to do so.

It is especially dangerous, then, that the word’s meaning is unclear. For some, cheating includes any willful breach of a game’s rules, or even of the background rules that constitute sportsmanship. At the other extreme, some hold that nothing is cheating if you don’t get caught.

One of the substantial divisions of opinion with respect to what constitutes cheating is whether the verb “to cheat” can be used intransitively. The test for this is whether it makes any sense to you to talk of cheating at solitaire.

For some, cheating at solitaire is impossible. Cheating is a transitive verb – it must have an object. It is of the essence of cheating that someone else suffers from the act, so you have to be cheating someone or you’re not cheating at all.

Thus, if you don’t follow the established rules at solitaire, you’re not cheating. The game is for your own amusement, and you are entitled to play it the way you find most amusing. You may not be playing the same game that other people are playing, but that is none of their concern.

There’s a solitaire game called La Belle Lucie in which a basic kind of cheat has been brought within the rules of the game. Once per game, you’re allowed to draw a card that’s buried in a stack to the top of the stack. This limited license for rule violation makes La Belle Lucie, to my mind, a much better game. And I’ve found that other forms of solitaire benefit from a similar license.

Grammatically, however, it’s well established that the verb “to cheat” can be intransitive, and that’s the way that many people use it.

I once had a computer that came with a Spider Solitaire program. The program had, as most do, an undo command, but it had to be used with caution. If you used the undo command in a way that the developer disapproved of, the computer would make a loud, unpleasant noise, display a message box calling you cheater!, and then crash the program. As far as that developer was concerned, you had no right to play his game unless you were willing to observe his rules, and he used his power to make the explicit rules he favored implicit.

It’s tempting to read into this solitaire question a broader attitude towards authority in general. Perhaps those who are prone to intransitive use of the verb “to cheat” find virtue in rule-following for its own sake. Those who do not may be more inclined to question rules, and to ignore those they find unproductive unless someone else is concerned.

I go back to the definition of game play as the pursuit of arbitrarily-assigned value, and, as in Kissing and Contract Bridge, am inclined to disapprove games in which the arbitrarily-assigned value is destructive of more genuine value. The rules of games are there to facilitate game playing as a kind of human interaction. When I am by myself, I make my own rules.

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