You can't Cheat at Solitaire
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It's a Puzzle!

There is still another study that has been added to the pile that shows that the students in our schools find their schoolwork too easy. I wish that I could launch into a paragraph or two that would decry the shameful decline in education, but my life as a student supports the theory that going to school is boring and definitely not difficult. Those moments in school that offered real stretching for my interests and abilities were few and far between, enough so that I remember those incidents clearly.

When I think of boredom and school, what I really remember was the long summer when I was 14 spent in bed recovering from mononucleosis. In a matter of weeks, I lost a quarter of my body weight and did not have the strength to climb the stairs to my bedroom without stopping to rest halfway there. About all that I could do was lie in bed and read or play solitaire, when I could keep my eyes open. That was boring! Boredom is its own challenge for even the least inquisitive of souls, and for one with a restless curiosity was an opportunity to overcome the ennui of my existence.

It did not take long to calculate the odds of winning a variety of different solitaire games even without a computer to keep track of hands I dealt. What became interesting was to try to calculate ways to increase the odds of finishing any particular deal of the cards. I made a most interesting discovery while convalescing that summer; how you played the first card could change the entire game. I had been very happy ignoring math classes with linear systems, but now I was looking at math that predicted dynamic systems that changed with the most subtle of influences. Now a simple deal of the cards provided a sense of wonder at the levels of complexity that were hidden with the cards dealt face down.

The first thing I discovered was that you cannot “cheat” at solitaire. Each deal is a puzzle to be solved, to find a solution that allows you to clear the table. The linear, binary notion of winning or losing offers no mental challenge. Instead, I played solitaire to find the sequence of actions that would solve the puzzle in the hope that there was some formula that could be applied to raising the odds of finishing any given deal.

The second discovery was more amazing. Card games were interesting when the dynamic system was the focus of play. For example, I became very interested in duplicate bridge because it was a text book for how complex the system was for playing the 52 cards. But card games are child's play compared the games that we play day to day. Which led to the knowledge that most of the stories we tell about our lives were stories that describe the multiple outcomes possible in the same set of starting points following a set of dynamic rules. I dealt games of solitaire until I began to see that my interactions with people were not about cause and effects at all. No; our level of complexity goes way beyond that.

The last discovery I made while shuffling cards and trying to gain enough strength to climb the stairs, was that school was cheating me again. I was a geek. Math was fun, but math in school was a pedantic and repetitive mantra of solving ten practice problems is good so, solving 1000 must be heaven. I had stumbled on elementary differential equations when the curriculum could not move beyond linear progression.

I recovered in time to resume school in the fall, but my interest in attending classes suffered a relapse. Imagine a teenager thirsting for knowledge entering a building that was the intellectual equivalent of the Sahara. I would return to those equations more than thirty years later to find that they were still fascinating in every detail because they helped me understand my world and the people who live in it.

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