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Needers of the pack: A brief look at addiction to Solitaire

A few days ago I was interviewed by Business Insider about the addictiveness of the card game Solitaire (also known as Klondike and Patience). The ‘hook’ for the Business Insider article (no pun intended) was that May 22 is National Solitaire Day (NSD). A quick look on the online National Day Calendar confirmed that NSD does indeed exist (a celebration day that only began for the first time last year) and the website also pointed out that the game is over 200 years’ old and that Solitaire “truly went viral” in 1990 when Microsoft included the Microsoft Solitaire game in Windows 3.0 (as a way to teach people how to use the mouse on their computers). The NSD webpage notes that:

“Over the past 28 years, Microsoft Solitaire has been providing great entertainment to hundreds of millions of players in every corner of the world…In 2012, Microsoft evolved Solitaire into the Microsoft Solitaire Collection, which features five of the top Solitaire games in one app. Since then, the game has been played by over 242 million people and has become so popular that each year 33 billion games are played with over 3.2 trillion cards dealt!”

Back in 2000, a short article on internet addiction in The Lancet by Peter Mitchell noted that one of the pioneers in internet addiction research, the clinical psychologist Maressa Hecht Orzack claimed to have a problem (a “near addiction”) playing Solitaire. Orzack was quoted in Mitchell’s article as saying: “So now I don’t have a computer at work. [My playing Solitaire] was getting that serious”. Orzack was also quoted in the Business Insider article. Her Solitaire playing was a “growing obsession” and she neglected her work and lost sleep because of her Solitaire playing. She said: “I kept playing solitaire more and more – my late husband would find me asleep at the computer. I was missing deadlines. I knew something had to be done”.

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As far as I am aware, there is no empirical research about addiction to Solitaire, and I’ve never come across a published case study. However, I have mentioned Solitaire in a number of my papers over the years but all of them were in my critique of Dr. Kimberley Young’s taxonomy of the different types of internet addiction. Young claimed there were five different types of internet addiction (‘cyber-sexual addiction’, cyber-relationship addiction, ‘net compulsions’, ‘information overload’ and ‘computer addiction’). In a number of my publications in journals such as the Student British Medical Journal (1999), Addiction Research (2000), and the International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction (2006), I argued that the typology was flawed and that most of the examples Young provided were addictions on the internet, not addictions to the internet (and echoing my assertion that individuals are no more addicted to the internet than alcoholics are addicted to bottles).

The reference to Solitaire was in relation to Young’s final type of internet addiction – ‘computer addiction’. One of her examples of ‘computer addiction’ as the playing of Solitaire on computers. (I found this strange particularly because the example didn’t even rely on being on the internet – it was merely about individuals being addicted to playing Solitaire on computers and laptops). Young never provided any empirical evidence that she had ever met or treated anyone with an addiction to Solitaire, just that being addicted to Solitaire would be classed as a ‘computer addiction’ in her typology.

Young is not the only social scientist to use Solitaire as an example in an addiction typology. In a 2008 paper published in the Journal of Applied Social Science, Jawad Fatayer outlined what he believes are the four types of addiction – alpha addictions (addictions that impact the body and physical health such as nicotine addiction and food addiction), beta addictions (addictions that impact the mind and the body such as alcohol and other drug addictions), gamma addictions (all behavioural addictions), and delta addictions (two or more addictions experiences simultaneously). Addiction to Solitaire was listed as a gamma addiction (but again, there was no empirical evidence to support the claim that Solitaire addiction actually exists).

Business Insider spoke to two other psychologists in addition to myself. Dr. Chris Ferguson (with whom I have co-authored a few papers) said:

“It’s important to recognize the difference between really liking something and having a clinical addiction. People (say) ‘I’m addicted to cupcakes’, ‘I’m addicted to chocolate’ meaning ‘This is a really fun thing that I like to do a lot’. There’s a huge debate that goes on in the field right now about whether video games can be compared to things like substance abuse, or if video games are more similar to hobby-like activities that many people enjoy — and some people might overdo…a fixation with Solitaire is more of a behavioral addiction – an obsessive behavioral pattern that can be a sign of underlying mental distress or illness. People who have mental health issues, or are simply under stress, tend to be drawn to things that are fun and distracting. And that’s mostly good, actually. It’s just that sometimes, for some individuals, they may begin to really overdo those activities as a form of escapism…It’s not about technology. It’s about mental health”.

A clinical psychologist, Anthony Bean said:

“There are some clear signs that Solitaire might be playing too big a role in your life. (If you’re) noticing you’re putting more time than other areas into the game and, let’s say, not paying attention to your family, not paying attention to work, not paying attention to school”.

My contribution to the Business Insider was taken from an email I sent the journalist. Very little of what I sent was used. I was asked two specific questions: (i) what characteristics of the game Solitaire might make it addicting? and (ii) what should people be aware of as signs of a disruptive addiction to Solitaire (or gaming in general)?

In answer to the first question, I wrote that addictions rely on constant rewards (what psychologists refer to as reinforcement) and each game of Solitaire can be played quickly and individuals can be quickly rewarded if they win (positive reinforcement) but when they lose, the feeling of disappointment or cognitive regret can be eliminated by playing again straight away (negative reinforcement – playing as way to relive a dysphoric mood state). I also stated that addictions typically result as a coping mechanism to other things in a person’s life. They use such behaviours as a way of escape and the repetitive playing of games can help in such circumstances. For the overwhelming majority of people, such playing behaviour will be an adaptive coping mechanism but if the game takes over all other aspects of the person’s life and compromises their relationships and their education/occupation (depending upon their age), this becomes a poor coping strategy because the short-term benefits are heavily outweighed by the long-term costs.

In relation to the second question, I outlined what I believe to be the six core criteria of addictive behaviour and outlined them with what I believed a genuine Solitaire addiction would constitute. My response was purely hypothetical because I have never met or even heard of anyone being genuinely addicted to Solitaire. So, hypothetically, Solitaire addiction would comprise anyone that fulfilled all of the following six criteria:

  • Salience –This occurs when Solitaire becomes the single most important activity in the person’s life and dominates their thinking (preoccupations and cognitive distortions), feelings (cravings) and behaviour (deterioration of socialised behaviour). For instance, even if the person is not actually playing Solitaire they will be constantly thinking about the next time that they will be (i.e., a total preoccupation with Solitaire).
  • Mood modification –This refers to the subjective experiences that people report as a consequence of playing Solitaire and can be seen as a coping strategy (i.e., they experience an arousing ‘buzz’ or a ‘high’ or paradoxically a tranquilizing feel of ‘escape’ or ‘numbing’).
  • Tolerance –This is the process whereby increasing amounts of time spent playing Solitaire are required to achieve the former mood modifying effects. This basically means that for someone engaged in Solitaire, they gradually build up the amount of the time they spend playing Solitaire every day.
  • Withdrawal symptoms– These are the unpleasant feeling states and/or physical effects (e.g., the shakes, moodiness, irritability, etc.), that occur when the person is unable to play Solitaire because they are ill, have no computer connection, etc.
  • Conflict – This refers to the conflicts between the person and those around them (interpersonal conflict), conflicts with other activities (social life, hobbies and interests) or from within the individual themselves (intra-psychic conflict and/or subjective feelings of loss of control) that are concerned with spending too much time playing Solitaire
  • Relapse– This is the tendency for repeated reversions to earlier patterns of excessive Solitaire playing to recur and for even the most extreme patterns typical at the height of excessive Solitaire playing to be quickly restored after periods of control.

Finally, I just want to reiterate that I know of no evidence to support the contention that there are individuals genuinely addicted to Solitaire. However, I do think it’s theoretically possible even though I’ve yet to meet or hear about such individuals.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Distinguished Professor of Behavioural Addiction, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Fatayer, J. (2008). Addiction types: A clinical sociology perspective. Journal of Applied Social Science, 2(1), 88-93.

Griffiths, M.D. (1996). Behavioural addictions: An issue for everybody? Journal of Workplace Learning, 8(3), 19-25.

Griffiths, M.D. (1999). Internet addiction: Internet fuels other addictions. Student British Medical Journal, 7, 428-429.

Griffiths, M.D. (2000). Internet addiction – Time to be taken seriously? Addiction Research, 8, 413-418.

Griffiths, M.D.  (2005). A ‘components’ model of addiction within a biopsychosocial framework. Journal of Substance Use, 10, 191-197.

Mitchell, P. (2000). Internet addiction: genuine diagnosis or not? The Lancet, 355(9204), 632.

National Day Calendar (2018). National Solitaire Day. Located at: https://nationaldaycalendar.com/national-solitaire-day-may-22/

Widyanto, L. & Griffiths, M.D. (2006). Internet addiction: A critical review. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 4, 31-51.

Young K. (1999). Internet addiction: Evaluation and treatment. Student British Medical Journal, 7, 351-352.

Basic Instinct 2: Counting the cost of blackjack (again)

In a previous blog I looked at the psychology of following ‘basic’ strategy and card counting based on the seminal work by Ed Thorp. Compared with other forms of gambling, there has been very little psychological research into blackjack – about one or two studies per decade by my reckoning. In the 1970s, Dr. Nicholas Bond (who at the time was at the California State University at Sacramento, USA) did some research asking blackjack players some simple questions like ‘When do you take insurance?’ and ‘What do you do when you have 7-7 and the dealer has 6 up?’ Bond’s results showed that most players did not know when to spilt pairs and had the wrong idea about the value of insurance. For instance, players often said that insurance should be taken “when the cards are running right” suggesting that players can predict the run of the cards and when the dealer will turn over blackjack. Although this research revealed strategy errors it didn’t give any insight into why such errors are made.

Dutch psychologists Dr Gideon Keren and Professor Willem Wagenaar went one stage further than Bond and examined in great detail the strategies and beliefs of regular blackjack players. They observed 112 players in the natural environment of a casino and then interviewed 149 players. They found that lots of blackjack players have many erroneous beliefs particularly if they claim they are following basic strategy. The most interesting findings were that players believed (i) a bad player could spoil a game for everyone, (ii) they felt worse if they lost on 20 than if they did with 13, (iii) they only knew if their decisions were correct after the round was over, and (iv) that if they were very unlucky on a particular day they should quit playing. While some of these beliefs may be understandable (and I’ll explain why below), if blackjack players follow basic strategy, none of these beliefs should exist. In short, the findings suggest that players believe in luck and conservatism as a legitimate strategic approach rather than the principles of basic strategy.

It is clear from players’ feelings about “bad” players that they are displaying what we psychologists call a ‘self-serving bias’. Put more simply, when good players win they attribute the outcome as something that was deserved whether or not it came about through other players’ incorrect play. However, when another player plays badly by asking for too many cards, the game may be spoiled for the other (better) players. It will be spoiled when a good player loses because a poor player has taken one card too many. Such players ignore the role of the bad player when the “wrong” cards they receive lead to a win.

These findings also shown that regular blackjack players have the illusion that they can control luck by playing when their luck is in and quitting when their luck is out (although such a finding is not unique to blackjack and can be found among gamblers more generally). What is interesting is that blackjack players appear to conceptualise ‘luck’ as a personal characteristic that can come and go like emotional mood states. It is therefore little surprise if players believe bad players can spoil the game for others – they believe bad players can change the run of good luck for others simply by taking too many cards.

According to the late Australian psychologist, Dr Michael Walker (University of Sydney, Australia), another interesting implication of Keren and Wagenaar’s research is that players are clearly unconcerned about the long-term correctness of decisions but see each hand as a contest with the dealer that may be won or lost depending on the decision made by the player. Take the case of a player who has a hand of 13. Players in such a position will make a judgement concerning the likelihood that the next card will be a 10. Most players will not hit 13 against a dealer’s 7 or 8 if there has been a run of small value cards, but will hit 13 if they are convinced that the next card is not a 10. In such situations, players find out the accuracy of their decisions once the round is over. Most players (including myself) dislike holding on 13 – it is too far from 21 to be psychologically comfortable but there is still the possibility of busting if a 9 or 10 is drawn. If we are dealt 20, there is an elated state because we feel the dealer is unlikely to beat our hand. If the 20 is beaten, we feel psychologically cheated whereas on 13, players can blame themselves for not hitting.

A study by Albert Chau (University of Hong Kong) and colleagues at Monash University (Australia) carried out a blackjack study on a small number of university students. They wanted to investigate whether departures from rational play in blackjack reflected ignorance and/or fatigue. The students were taught basic strategy in blackjack and then asked to play a simplified version of blackjack on computer. Initially the students followed basic strategy but this was eventually discarded for much higher risk strategies. Irrational play didn’t affect ignorance or fatigue (and the student players didn’t perceive basic strategy to be effective). Chau and colleagues argued that “because basic strategy is not a personalized strategy, it seems less likely to be maintained in the face of losses – players were more optimistic that they might win when utilizing their personalized strategies”.

In summary, blackjack is clearly a game that the player can win if basic strategy is used as a starting point. The strategy can be modified as the deck composition changes and good card counters are able to extract an edge over the casino. However, psychological research has shown quite clearly that regular players deviate significantly from basic strategy and make sub-optimal decisions because they perceive themselves as being engaged in a hand-by-hand contest with the dealer. Dr. Walker makes the point that since the characteristics of good play can be specified, blackjack is a good example of the extent to which players can bring about their own losses through the false beliefs that they hold. These false beliefs are held tenaciously, and despite playing countless hands, the beliefs that bring about gambling losses are maintained in the face of failure.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Bond, N.A. (1974). Basic strategy and expectation in casino Blackjack. Organizational Behavior and Human Performance, 12, 413-428.

Chau, A.W.L., Phillips, J.G. & Von Baggo, K.L. (2000). Departures from sensible play in computer blackjack. Journal of General Psychology: Experimental, Physiological, and Comparative Psychology,127, 426-438.

Keren, G.B. & Wagenaar, W.A. (1985). On the psychology of playing blackjack: Normative and descriptive considerations with implications for decision theory. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 114, 133-158.

Thorp, E.O. (1966). Beat the Dealer: A Winning Strategy for the Game of Twenty-One. New York: Random House.

Wagenaar, W. (1988) Paradoxes of gambling behaviour. London: Erlbaum.


Basic instinct: Counting the cost of blackjack

Playing blackjack is relatively straightforward. Most of us played variations like ‘21’ and ‘pontoon’ as children. In the casino, all a player has to do is make a bet before a card is dealt and decide whether to ‘hit’ or ‘stand’ on the total. Simple. However, as with the psychology of all great games, the rules are easy enough for almost anyone to play but can take a lifetime to master.

One of the main reasons that blackjack attracts regular gamblers is that it is a game that the skilful player can expect a profit in the long run. It is the only game that casinos offer where the chances of winning favour the gambler. A gambler’s playing strategy is dictated by how they can influence the outcome simply by taking or avoiding extra cards. Research into the psychological strategies of blackjack playing have shown that gamblers fall into one of three main types. Firstly, there is the ultra-conservative “never bust” approach where the gambler sticks on any hand that could go bust on the next card (i.e., any hand of 12 and over). Since the dealer must draw until they reach 16, this approach will certainly pay off some of the time. A second popular strategy is ‘mimic the dealer’ where gamblers sit on 17 or more but draw to 16 or less. The psychology here is that if it’s good for the dealer it must be good for the gambler. However, very few regular players will follow either of these simplistic strategies.

Most gamblers adopt optimum “basic” strategies in which the decision to hit or stand depends on the ‘up-card’ held by the dealer. The player knows that as the game progresses, the number of cards left in the shoe is limited. If a player keeps count of the ratio of 10 value cards to non-10 value cards they can place minimum bets when the deck is favourable to the gambler and maximum bets when the ratio is favourable. The smaller the ratio, the richer the deck is with 10 value cards and the greater the advantage to the gambler. This well known card counting method was first laid out over 40 years ago by the mathematician Ed Thorp in his classic 1966 book Beat The Dealer.

Some people have said that the book stands in relation to gambling as Einstein’s theory of relativity does to physics – it changed perception of reality! More elaborate counting methods are available based on awarding points to low, medium and high cards and by keeping a running count of unseen cards. Over the years, many people have used elaborate systems in order to keep count.

The reaction of the casinos to card counting has been predictable. Many in the gaming industry view card counting as cheating and will ask players to leave the casino. Many casinos use up to eight packs of cards in the shoe to make counting hard. In casinos where only one or two decks are used, the cards are constantly reshuffled. Some casinos even teach the dealers how to card count so that they will only reshuffle when the odds are favouring the gambler. What’s more, the casinos find card counters easy to spot. They will make minimum bets on most hands and then occasionally make very large bets to take advantage of favourable decks. Therefore, really good counters must also be able to ‘camouflage’ their counting methods by being more variable in their betting strategy.

The good news for card counters is that most casinos prefer smaller decks so that more games can be played per hour (which means more money for the casino). Most casinos know that card counting gamblers may lose count or patience. Furthermore, some gamblers are competent in the short term but may crack under pressure with the long hours needed to make a consistent profit. It is estimated that one out of 20,000 players is a genuine counter and of these only one in twenty is a winner.

Research has been carried out into the most common errors that blackjack players make while gambling. One of the most well known was a study carried out in Holland by the psychologists Dr Gideon Keren and Professor Willem Wagenaar on 112 regular blackjack players. Wagennar showed that 44% of playing errors involved not taking an extra card when they should have and that 16% of errors involved taking an extra card when they shouldn’t have. They also found that the error rates were related to the value of the dealer’s up-card. When the players should have stood they were less likely to do so when the dealer’s up-card had a low value. Where they should have taken an extra card, they were also less likely to do so if the dealer’s up-card had a low value. Keren and Wagennaar also showed that players exhibited poor insurance strategies when the dealer’s up-card was an ace. These findings clearly show that most gamblers play conservatively in an attempt to stay in the game. They stand when extra cards should be taken, do not double up when they should do, and take out insurance unnecessarily.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Nicholas A. Bond (1974). Basic strategy and expectation in casino Blackjack. Organizational Behavior and Human Performance, 12, 413-428.

Keren, G.B. & Wagenaar, W.A. (1985). On the psychology of playing blackjack: Normative and descriptive considerations with implications for decision theory. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 114, 133-158.

Thorp, E.O. (1966). Beat the Dealer: A Winning Strategy for the Game of Twenty-One. New York: Random House.

Wagenaar, W. (1988) Paradoxes of Gambling Behaviour. London: Erlbaum.

Tell-tale signs: Non-verbal communication in poker playing

I have to admit that I am not a good poker player. However, if I was, I would certainly try to use the psychology of non-verbal communication to my advantage. A number of years ago, Peter Collett (formerly at Oxford University) published a book on the psychology of ‘tells’. Collett deliberately lifted the core topic of his book from the non-verbal world of poker players. A ‘tell’ is basically an action that reveals what a person is thinking and are often so tiny that they may not even be noticed.

In poker, many players try to infer what kind of hand a person has by looking at the way the card player holds their cards, gazes at the chips or scratches their face. Tells can be both conscious and unconscious. Collett has spent time studying politicians and has highlighted the ‘tells of power’ such as the way George W. Bush used to bite the inside of his cheek when he is highly nervous or anxious, and Bill Clinton’s tendency to bite his lower lip as a way of demonstrating his sincerity. Most of these behaviours are intended to be hidden, but are what psychologists call ‘emotional leakage’. Many psychologists have carried out research into non-verbal communication. However, as soon as a non-verbal ‘rule of thumb’ is well known by the general public, the knowledge can be used to their advantage. For instance, if police are told that criminals scratch their nose or look to the left when they are lying, they will obviously avoid such actions when being questioned.

When it comes to playing poker (or any card game of skill for that matter), an already skilful player will have the upper hand if they can learn to read the non-verbal cues of the other players. One of the problems is that most ‘tells’ differ from person to person. The trick is to try and memorise what the person did at a particular point such as the way they act when they raise the amount of money being staked, or the behaviour they display just before they are about to fold.

Unconscious tells are linked to negative emotions such as anxiety. If a player has been dealt a bad hand, naïve players are likely to show their psychological discomfort through nervous reactions such as unconscious leg or finger tapping. Serious poker players will already know all about tells and will usually have learned to develop their own type of ‘poker face’ to bluff opponents. This is all part of the psychological battle in playing most card games of skill. There are also what have been described as ‘transition tells’ where people display common but repetitive behavioural patterns in times of uncertainty and/or where people cross psychological boundaries.

Collett provides the examples of politicians such as ex-British Prime Minister Gordon Brown who plays with his shirt cuffs and strokes his hair. Obviously, with so much television footage, psychologists have a much easier time in trying to analyse the unconscious everyday tells of those in the public eye. Playing cards with someone you’ve only met a few times where there is no opportunity to replay the event over and over is clearly much harder! But some good poker players do appear to have the ability to read other players and it is this ability that can separate the very good poker player from the great.

Players can also learn to use false tells as a way of bluffing their opponent. The most common that Collett has described is the ‘power tell’ which is often used by political leaders in some of their actions (such as the way they walk). Just like at the way George W. Bush walked. His arms swung and swaggered. His shoulders were very exaggerated. He was trying to show the public that he was the leader of the Western world and what a powerful position he was in.

In a game of cards, poker players will also try to assert their dominance by using more subtle ‘power tells’ by smoking a cigar in a particular way or showing off when shuffling the cards before dealing. The whole point of power tells is to look sincere and dominant and they can be used in a wide variety of contexts including poker. In essence, power tells are about ‘one-upmanship’ and this is the bedrock of most skill-based card games. Even the language of power tells is lifted from the gambling world. In everyday human behaviour, Collett describes power tells as behavioural actions which “raise the stakes” and allow people to metaphorically or symbolically “put their cards on the table”. While power tells are usually conscious and deliberate, most non-verbal human behaviour is totally unconscious and the vast majority of people can’t help but show their inner thinking through actions such as folding their arms.

The whole area of non-verbal communication is a fascinating area of psychological study. Human behaviour is complex and there are too many individual differences to predict what any given person will do in a given situation (such as playing poker). However, by learning to understand what all these unconscious movements mean, we can start to gain access to the window of the gambler’s mind.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Collett, P. (2003). The Book of Tells. London: Bantam Books