Friday, March 15, 2013

Aunt Sylvia's Game

Have you ever had a long-term goal such that you've been trying for years—even decades—to accomplish a thing and been unsuccessful for so long that you reached the point where you weren't sure it was going to happen in your lifetime?

I have. More than once.

1. The Friendly Arctic
I looked for a used copy of this 1921 classic about Arctic exploration and Inuit culture for decades, before I finally stumbled upon a hardback copy (for just $8!) in a used bookstore near the Amtrak station in Eugene OR. I wrote about this recently in my Jan 13 blog, Freezing & Starving to Death.

This took around 25 years, but perseverance finally paid off.

2. San Francisco Giants
This has been my #1 sports affiliation ever since Horace Stoneham moved the team from New York City to the City by the Bay in 1958. While the Giants have had more good years than bad, they were only able to get to the World Series every once every other decade, and seemed (at least to this die-hard fan) to be snake-bitten when they did. Over the course of their first 50 years, they got invited to the ball three times, yet always reverted to a pumpkin when the clock struck midnight:

o  In 1962 the Giants overcame a two-game deficit with just three to play on the final weekend of the season, catching the hated Los Angeles Dodgers at the buzzer. That forced a best-of-three playoff, which the Giants survived by plating four runs in the top of the ninth of Game 3. Whew! Alas, in the Series, they fell to the New York Yankees in seven games, losing the last one in a heartbreaker, with Bill Terry out-dueling Jack Sanford, 1-0, where the only tally came on a bases loaded double play, and Willie McCovey ended the game by lining out to Bobby Richardson in the bottom on the ninth with Felipe Alou on third and Willie Mays on second. We were so close! These were the Giants of Mays, McCovey, Juan Marichal, and Orlando Cepeda.

o  In 1989 the Giants were swept by the cross-bay Oakland A's, in a series that was most noteworthy because of the Loma Prieta earthquake that rocked the Bay Area while Candlestick Park was full of people awaiting the start of Game 3. Luckily, no one in the stadium was injured. These were the Giants of Will Clark, Robbie Thompson, Kevin Mitchell, and Matt Williams.

o In 2002 the Giants squandered a three-games-to-two advantage and were unable to close the deal against the Anaheim Angels. Especially galling was how the Giants coughed up a five-run lead in the sixth inning of Game 6. These were the Giants of Bobby Bonds, Jeff Kent, Jason Schmidt, and Robb Nen.

Then, in 2010, a miracle happened. Not expected to go far in the playoffs, the Giants rode their magnificent pitching staff to post-season dominance:

o  In 2010, the Giants were inspired by the play of rookie sensation Buster Posey (called up in June), taking them all the way to a five-game beat down of the Texas Rangers, and a Series win for the first time since the franchise had moved west. These were the Giants of Posey, Tim Lincecum, Aubrey Huff, and Brain Wilson (fear the beard!)

o  In 2012 the Giants caught lightning in a bottle for a second time. This team won six straight elimination games in the playoffs to capture the National League pennant and then de-pantsed the Detroit Tigers in four straight. These were the Giants of Posey, Pablo Sandoval, Matt Cain, and
Marco Scutaro.

It took 52 years, but the San Francisco Giants finally got 'er done.

3. Aunt Sylvia's Game
As a child, I played a lot of card games. In addition to such standards as War, Crazy Eights, and Hearts, my sisters and I played a gob of solitaire, including an obscure two-deck monstrosity that my sisters picked up from a distant relative, Aunt Sylvia—whose location on the Schaub family tree is a complete mystery to me. Here's how it works:

After shuffling the two decks together, you turn cards over one at a time filling 13 piles in sequence. From your supply, you set a card aside face down to form a new stock pile every time any of the following happens:
A. The turned card lands in its corresponding pile (such as a four landing in the fourth pile, or a queen in the twelfth pile).
B. You turn up an ace or a king.
C. You complete a round of adding a card to each pile.

Thus, if you turn up an ace in the first pile, you add two cards to the new stock pile (one for A and another for B). If you turn up a king in the 13th pile, you add three cards to the stock pile (one for A, one for B, and one for C).

In a typical layout you'll have around six cards in each pile, with 26 cards (more or less) in the new stock pile. If you've been less lucky in the layout you may have seven cards in the first few piles and fewer than 26 in the stock pile; if you've been fortunate you may have only five in the last few piles and few more cards in the stock pile.

Once the layout is complete, you turn over cards from the new stock pile one at a time. If, say, you turn over a seven, then you pick up the seventh pile and can look at every card--all the while retaining their order in the pile. Based on what's in that pile, plus the top card on the other 12 piles, you can move cards from the 13 piles onto eight discard piles: there are two for each suit; one built from the ace up to the king, and the other from the king down to the ace. After completing all the moves that are possible (or that you choose to make), you return the pile that you had fanned out to its place in the layout and draw a new card from the stock pile, repeating this process until the stock pile is exhausted.

The object is to collapse all the cards into the eight discard piles. Until Wednesday, I'd never won.

There is one more nuance to the rules. As the two discard piles in a given suit approach each other, there is a special point where the card wanted in one pile is the exposed card in its mate (this will happen whenever you have exactly 13 cards in the two piles combined, which is halfway toward the 26 you are trying to get into those two piles). At that point, and that point only, you are allowed to move cards from one discard pile onto the other, to take advantage of accessing a card in that suit that is currently available in the 13 piles.

Also, if the same card is available in two places, you are allowed to peek underneath both to see if you have a preference for which one to take.

It is almost impossible to win this game. Most attempts result in only half the cards (or less) making it into the eight discard piles. Wednesday though, just outside Salt Lake City, my ship came in. On the very last card I turned from the stock pile, I was able to play over 20 cards to win the game. It was an exceptionally lucky finish. Woohoo!

This took 55 years, and I don't know if I'll ever play that game again. (How could I ever derive more satisfaction from it than I got today?)

Now I'm wondering about the existential meaning of it all. Should I buy a lottery ticket, or be prepared to die?

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