I’ve cut back on sleeping pills. And I’m proud of that. I was taking them every other night, not a huge Amy Winehouse dose, but enough to knock me out pretty quickly. This was under doctor’s supervision after months of excruciating insomnia brought on partly by menopause. The doctor had started me on Ambien, but then I started to feel sluggish and moody, even more sluggish and moody than I do without sleeping aids, so I switched to Sonata. (Note to Self: Check out careers in pill naming. Possible names: Credenza. No, make that Cadenza. Mysteria. Ah, that’s it. Mysteria, because who really knows what’s in those little tablets.)
Quitting Sonata wasn’t as hard as I thought. I did go through a period of rebound insomnia and some pretty awful nightmares—I dreamt that Illinois legislators were trying to cut teachers’ pensions and that the Kardashians were still on television and that the Tigers were catching up to the White Sox in the American League Central Division. Giving up pills was easier, though, than forgoing my daily game of Spider Solitaire on the internet (MSN Zone), not the lame-ass single suit some people play, but four suit—Spider Solitaire at its most challenging. The problem with Spider Solitaire is that although there’s some skill involved, there’s no way to measure improvement. In addition, there are no non-internet-based Spider Solitaire tournaments where I can show off my expertise and win prizes and the admiration of fellow players: “Oooh, there goes Daiva Markelis, the Queen of Spider Solitaire.”
I’m a little ashamed of my solitaire addiction. I got suckered into the “most addictive game online” subheading, which should have been a flag as red as a Lithuanian beetroot. I ignored “most addictive,” thinking it applied to all those suckers out there with no self-control, not to an enlightened, disciplined person like myself.
Spider Solitaire is addictive because it operates under the principles of intermittent reinforcement. If you’ve taken even a basic psychology class, you know about intermittent and continuous reinforcement. Under continuous reinforcement, a rat receives a food pellet every time it hits the lever. Under intermittent reinforcement, the rat might be rewarded every tenth or fifteenth time. This doesn’t stop the rat from furiously hitting the level every chance it gets in the hope of a tasty morsel.
In Spider Solitaire, the human rat hits the start button to get ten cards face up. The human rat tries to get rid of a suite of cards by ordering them from king down to ace. The full suite then disappears, making an appealing whoosh sound. If the cards are non-synchronous—four aces out of the ten cards, for example—the human rat must then hit the draw button to acquire new cards. Very often the HR knows from the very first set of cards whether or not a particular game will end in success. The fact that most games end in failure keeps the HR pressing and pressing the new game button until victory is finally assured.
So— I win one game and lose the next seven and then get really pissed off and am determined to play until I win again. The Good Job! message that flashes across the screen after every hard-fought win reinforces my behavior. “Am I so easily bought?” I sometimes ask myself. The answer is yes. Or partly yes. The makers of my favorite version of Spider Solitaire wisely theorized that Good Job! is more gratifying than Congratulations. After I see the Good Job! I feel as if I’ve spent the day pruning bushes and weeding in the garden and can now look on with self-satisfaction at the fruits of my labor.
In Europe, Solitaire is known as Patience, because you are drained of every last particle of patience during the game. Solitaire/Patience was probably invented in Germany or Scandinavia, according to Wikipedia. Nineteenth century Germans used Solitaire to predict the future. If the cards on any given morning seemed favorable—that is, easy to line up —then the day would be auspicious. If a player couldn’t finish a game after a few tries, then no important decisions would be made that day. I believe it is this kind of progressive, rational thinking that eventually led to German inventions such as the Zeppelin, the Bunsen burner, the Mercedes-Benz, and coffee filters.
Most of my friends don’t know about my Spider Solitaire addiction. They will now, of course, which is one reason I’m writing about it. Making things public has always worked for me in terms of lessening undesirable behaviors. And, in the end, playing a game based largely on luck is about as productive and fulfilling as watching The Bachelorette. (Or anything with the Kardashians.)
Some of my friends think I’m addicted to Scrabble. I’m not addicted to Scrabble in part because there is so much skill in the game that with enough practice and study one can achieve a respectable level of measurable expertise. Scrabble is one of my enthusiasms, along with baseball and knitting. Speaking of baseball, getting pleasure from following a sports team is based in part on intermittent reinforcement. Would I watch the White Sox if I knew they’d win every single one of their games? You bet I would. But I’d get less enjoyment than if they lost some really close games to the Yankees but then went on to sweep the Rangers and then lost to Kansas City only to come back in the ninth inning in a crucial win against Detroit.
I enjoy Scrabble the same way I do baseball and knitting. I love baseball because there’s always so much more to learn about the game—obscure rules, history, statistics. All of this in addition to feeling as if I belong to a very select and important group of discerning fans. In knitting, I move on to more complex patterns and projects every year. I enjoy similar feelings of mastery in Scrabble. My vocabulary grows and my strategy sharpens the more I play.
One reason I decided to cut back on the sleeping pills was because they were affecting my Scrabble game. Once before a tournament I took a Sonata instead of my daily antidepressant. I was sleepy AND depressed.
I like the social aspect of Scrabble—travelling to tournaments, meeting new people, playing (and preferably beating) old friends and current husbands.
Solitaire is called Solitaire for a reason.