Winning at Forty Thieves

Brought to you by Semicolon Software, makers of Solitaire Till Dawn.

[Before you start] [The Strategy] [Summary]

Here's a tough game, and one that often leaves beginners at a complete loss -- it may seem like there's absolutely nothing you can do to win this game. But that isn't true at all; Forty Thieves is a fascinating game with a subtle strategy. Learn it well, and you can win 10% or more of your games.

Before you start

You'll need a copy of the sample game; click here to download it. You'll also need Solitaire Till Dawn to play the sample game; click here to download it. Make sure you have version 2.1 or later because earlier versions don't have a move counter. The latest release is version 3.0. The upgrade is free to registered owners of any earlier version.

If you don't know how to play Forty Thieves, see the Rules for Forty Thieves before going any further. If you don't know how to use the Undo and Redo commands to watch a sample game being played, see Using the Sample Games. If you see a word that's unfamiliar to you, you can probably click it to see its definition. Now you're ready to start!

The Strategy

Tip #1: Plan ahead

Planning ahead is the key to Forty Thieves. We have several good moves available, right at the start of the game. First, we can immediately play up the A of Diamonds. Next the 3 of Diamonds goes onto the 4; if and when a 2 of Diamonds shows up, both of these cards will follow it up onto the Ace. Beneath them is a 6 of Diamonds, which with luck will go soon after, and that in turn will make the A of Hearts available.

Under the 3 of Diamonds we found the 6 of Spades. Moving the 5 of Spades to it reveals the J of Diamonds; moving that to the Q of Diamonds reveals a 5 of Diamonds. And now we have a run of available Diamonds, from the 3 up to the 6, in piles 8 and 10 at the right of the layout. All we need is the 2 of Diamonds to get rid of them all -- but we'll have to wait for that. No 2 of Diamonds's are in the layout, so they're both in the hand; they'll show up later, and we'll have to hope it won't take too long. (And another bonus -- when the 5 of Diamonds goes, we'll have a K of Spades to play the Q of Spades onto.)

Next we'll move the 9 of Clubs onto the 10 of Clubs. When playing this game, we saw a different move first: one of the 3 of Clubs's can be moved to the 4. But moving the 9 first reveals a 5 of Clubs, and then we can move the 4 to the 5, and after that a 3 to a 4. Plan ahead!

Tip #2: Make low-ranking cards available

At move 6 we want to move a 3 of Clubs onto the 4. We have two 3 of Clubs's, side by side, to choose from; we choose the one on the right because it makes a 2 of Hearts available. Because the foundations build up from Aces to Kings, we'll want to play low cards before high ones, so we should concentrate on making low cards available.

Tip #3: Empty piles are good

Below the 2 of Hearts are a J of Spades and a 10 of Diamonds, and we notice that once the 2 is gone, we can move both of these cards to other piles, leaving pile 3 empty. This would be very valuable. Because any available card can be played to an empty pile, having an empty pile or two gives us many more opportunities to move cards around and organize the tableaus. Later on, when we actually have an empty pile to work with, we'll see some concrete examples of this. For now, we'll just say that "empty piles are good" and that's enough reason for us to plan ahead to try to empty one out.

We're now at move 7, and it's time to deal because we have no more tableaumoves available. The card we deal is the 10 of Hearts, which is useless because we can't play it to either the tableaus or the foundations yet. This is typical: most of the cards you deal will just sit in the discard pile for a long time, and the discard pile will stretch longer and longer as you play. If you're lucky (and clever), it will eventually start shrinking again as you near the end of the game; but until then you'll just have to be patient. Keep dealing until you find a useful card.

At move 13, we get a piece of luck: we've dealt a 2 of Diamonds! Now we can play it and all those other Diamonds up to the foundations. This reveals the A of Hearts, and that and the 2 of Hearts can also go up. All of this in turn has revealed a bunch of Spades, so we can now make some tableau moves to get them together. We are lucky to be able to put them all on a K of Spades that has nothing underneath it; since it will probably take a while to get all these high-ranking Spades up to the foundations, it would be unfortunate to have other cards trapped beneath them.

Tip #4: Use empty piles to reveal cards

At move 23, after collecting all the Spades, we have another opportunity. The 10 of Diamonds, as we planned earlier, can now be moved, leaving an empty pile. We said before that this was good, and now we can see why. In pile 6 is a Q of Clubs covering a 2 of Clubs, a bad situation: a high card covering a low card. Let's move the Queen to the empty pile, then the 2 onto the 3 of Clubs. Now we still have an empty pile (a different one), but the 2 of Clubs has become available and it and the 3 can be played to the foundations as soon as we find an Ace.

Tip #5: Conserve empty piles

If we hadn't been able to move the 2 of Clubs to make a new empty pile, we probably would have left the Queen and 2 alone. It's usually best to use empty piles in a way that doesn't use them up. That way you can use them again and again, instead of just once. Sometimes you just have to use up an empty pile, but you shouldn't do it unless your need is great.

Tip #6: Conserve singletons

What's a "singleton"? It's a card that's not in suit and sequence. At move 25, we had two 3 of Clubs's that we could put the 2 of Clubs on. The one at the left was not part of a sequence of Clubs; the one at the right was part of a 5-4-3 build. Because the rules allow moving only one card at a time, it will be difficult for us to move the 5-4-3 to another tableau pile (although not impossible, as we'll see later). Adding the 2 therefore doesn't make it much worse. But if we put the two on top of the singleton 3 at the left, then it too would be part of a build and would become difficult to move. By leaving it alone, we preserve our ability to move it elsewhere.

Don't take this rule too literally. Of course it's important to collect cards into builds in suit. You'll spend most of your time and effort doing exactly that, and you'll have to cover up quite a few singletons to get your builds started. But when you have a choice between covering a singleton or covering a build, choose to cover the build.

Now that we have an empty pile, it's a good time to look over the tableaus to see whether there are any other useful moves we can make. Unfortunately there aren't any right now, so we're back to dealing. Watch the next few moves on your own; they don't illustrate any new principles, so we won't comment on most of them.

At move 39 we have dealt an A of Clubs, so now we can clear out those Clubs we've been building.

Tip #7: Don't block your split builds

At move 50 we have a decision to make. We've dealt a 7 of Spades, and we could play it onto the 8 of Spades in pile 8. But look out -- we have a 7-to-4 build of Spades in pile 1. In effect, we have a big King-to-4 build in Spades, split between two different piles. When we find a 2 of Spades-3 of Spades to play to the foundations, we'll be able to play all the rest of these Spades up as well. But if we now play the 7 from the discard onto the 8, then we won't have a perfect "split build" any more; there'll be two 7's instead of one. When we later start playing to the foundations we'll have to choose which 7 to send up.

This means that we won't be able to get at the cards beneath the Spades builds in both piles; one pile will still have a 7 of Spades blocking the rest of the cards in its pile. But if we leave that 7 in the discard pile, then we will be able to clear out both builds later on. Which is better? Clearing the Spades from pile 1 will leave a nearly empty pile, and the low 4 of Hearts that's left may be easy to remove as well. And clearing pile 8 will leave a completely empty pile. Two empty piles -- that would be great! And leaving one 7 in the discard pile for now doesn't seem too bad -- perhaps later on we'll be able to play it onto the other 8 of Spades, which is still in the hand and hasn't been dealt yet. For these reasons, let's leave the 7 in the discard pile, and just keep dealing.

At move 55, we deal a K of Clubs. Put it in the empty pile, and move the Q of Clubs onto it, so we still have an empty pile.

At move 78, we deal an 8 of Clubs. Play it on the 9, move the 10 of Spades to the empty pile, then move the revealed 7 of Clubs onto the 8. We still have an empty pile!

At move 84, we deal a 4 of Hearts. We are tempted to play it onto the foundations, but wait -- remember that split build of Spades? We're still waiting to deal the 2 of Spades. When we do, we can get one of the 3's under the 7 of Hearts (by using the empty pile to move the 7), and then play up all the Spades. That will reveal the 4 of Hearts under pile 1, and we can then play that to the foundations and get our empty pile back. Which way should we go? We won't get an extra empty pile by waiting, because we must give our current one up in order to get the 3 of Spades. And the other 3 of Hearts is already in the discard pile, back a ways. Too bad -- but it looks like we'll be a little better off abandoning our plan to get two empty piles from the split build of Spades. Let's go ahead play the 4 of Hearts from the discards now. And right after, we can move the J of Hearts to the empty pile, and play up the revealed 5 of Hearts, and we still come out of it with an empty pile.

We get the 2 of Spades in the very next deal (at move 88), so let's go ahead and use it. When the dust settles, we haven't done as well as we'd hoped; we still only have one empty pile. But we now have six piles with only one card each, so our prospects for making more empty piles are looking pretty good; and we did get a lot of cards onto the foundations.

So we keep dealing, and sure enough at move 106 we've dealt a 2 of Diamonds. It goes to the foundations along with the 3 of Diamonds, and now we've got two empty piles. We don't have a use for them right now, but we will later.

Tip #8: Move builds using empty piles

At move 110 we deal a J of Clubs, which we play onto the Queen. And now see what we can do with two empty piles! We have a 10-7 of Clubs build, four cards' worth, that we'd like to get onto the Jack. With two piles we can do it -- watch: The 7 goes to an empty pile, then the 8 goes to the other empty pile; now we temporarily have no empty piles left. Next the 7 goes onto the 8, regaining an empty pile. The 9 goes there, the 10 goes onto the Jack -- and now we can start peeling the 9, 8, and 7 back onto the 10. When we're done (at move 120) we've moved the entire 10-7 build, and we still have both of our empty piles!

At move 123, we've dealt an 8 of Diamonds that lets us play up that Queen-to-9 build. Then we move the J of Spades to an empty pile, put the 2 of Spades on the 3, and move the 10-9 of Spades onto the Jack, using an empty pile to help move the two-card build. We finish at move 133 with three empty piles. Progress!

At move 136 we get the A of Spades, and play it and the 2-3 to the foundations. Four empty piles! Then the 6 of Hearts appears, and takes the 7 of Hearts to the foundations, and we have five empty piles.

Tip #9: Late in the game, use empty piles to reduce the discard pile

Right about now is the time to start looking seriously at the discard pile. We really need to start reducing it; too many valuable (i.e. low-ranked) cards are buried in it. Here's the tip: When we have enough empty piles, and the remaining tableau piles have only a few cards in them (especially if they hold only a few buried valuable cards), then we may want to start using the empty piles to hold cards from the discard pile.

We're at move 142. We've thought this out ahead to make sure it will work, but you can just watch the action unfold for now. We start bringing down cards from the discard pile, and putting them into empty spaces if they won't fit anywhere else. As we do so, we keep our eyes open for opportunities to conserve empty piles by making builds.

We are able to reduce the discard pile by quite a bit, but at move 165 we stop, leaving ourselves one remaining empty pile "just in case," and continue dealing. Later, as we manage to create more empty piles again, we'll continue pulling down cards from the discard pile, whenever it seems advantageous to do so. For example, almost right away (move 166) we deal a 4 of Spades, clear out another pile, and use it to pull down a couple more cards.

At move 185, we deal a 9 of Diamonds. We play it on the 10, and can then bring the 8-7 of Diamonds over to it as well. Notice that although the rules say you can move only one card at a time, the 8-7 moved together. This isn't a strategy tip, just a shortcut in the Solitaire Till Dawn program: Solitaire Till Dawn will let you move a build as a single unit, provided there are enough empty spaces that you could have accomplished the move one card at a time. The program is a bit conservative about this, so sometimes you'll find you have to move the cards separately anyway.

At move 187, we spot another opportunity. We can move the K of Hearts-to-10 of Hearts to an empty pile, and rearrange some other stuff to regain the empty pile. This reveals the cards that were under those Hearts.

Finally, at move 192, we start bringing cards down from the discard pile again. We're getting a bit desperate: there are only two cards left to deal, and we still have a long way to go. We need to get at the low-ranked cards in the discard pile! Fortunately, from here on out it's easy -- just bring 'em down, and play 'em up. At move 245 (phew!) we're done, and we have our win.


We've seen nine tips for success at Forty Thieves. Here they are again:

Plan ahead

Perhaps this should be the last tip instead of the first, because you can't plan ahead unless you know what to plan for! But on every move, think about what effect your move will have on the future. Which cards will be covered, which revealed, and of those, which will you need soon?

Make low-ranking cards available

Low-ranking cards will go to the foundations before high-ranking ones. Don't let low cards stay covered by high cards if you can help it.

Empty piles are good

Always try to create as many as you can.

Use empty piles to reveal cards

You can put any available card into an empty pile, and that lets you get at the cards underneath the one you've moved.

Conserve empty piles

Don't fill empty piles unless you really need to. Try to use them in ways that let you finish an operation with (at least!) as many empty piles as you started with.

Conserve singletons

If there are two places in the tableau where you can play a given card, and one place is already part of an in suit build while the other isn't, then play on the build. Singletons (cards not part of a build) are easier to move than builds, so the cards beneath them are easier to reach: try to keep it that way.

Don't block your split builds

An in suit, in-sequence run of cards may be split across two piles. If so, think hard before adding cards to the top part of the split build. That will make it impossible to play both parts of the build up to the foundations all at once, which is a capability you may wish to preserve.

Move builds using empty piles

Although the rules allow moving only one card at a time, builds can be transferred if you have empty piles to use as waystations. The more empty piles, the longer the build that you can move. (Solitaire Till Dawn understands this and will sometimes let you drag a build as a single move, just as a shortcut.)

Late in the game, use empty piles to reduce the discard pile

Inevitably, the discard pile gets longer and longer during the first and middle parts of the game. If the game goes well, later on you'll have lots of empty piles and the remaining tableau piles will be well-organized. That's the time to start thinking about reducing the discard pile by moving cards into the empty piles.

Forty Thieves isn't easy. Even with these tips and a lot of practice, you'll lose most of your games. But when you win one (and you will!) it's incredibly satisfying. Take a bite out of crime -- defeat the Forty Thieves!

If you have any new tips for our collection, please write to us! We'll add your tips to this page and sign your name to them.

Copyright 1996, 1997, 2000 by Semicolon Software. All rights reserved.
Last modified March 5, 2000