Winning at Klondike

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

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

Okay, before we're sued for false advertising let's admit up front that Klondike is a game where even the best strategy isn't going to help much. Wins are rare no matter what you do; and even with casino scoring, you're going to lose money. But you can improve your scores, and since Klondike is easily the most popular solitaire (in the United States, if not the world) we think it's worthy of study.

In this article we'll primarily be studying the "casino" version of Klondike, the toughest variety there is. That's the game you can expect to lose, both on average and on almost every game. But the techniques are applicable to other variations, and we'll add a few tips for the easier varieties before we're done. The "familiar" variant included in Solitaire Till Dawn is tough enough that you'll still lose most games; but you can win many more than the "strict" variant, and with casino scoring you can actually show a profit.

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 Klondike, see the Rules for Klondike 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

We begin at the very start of the sample game, with the initial layout complete and no cards moved yet. We're in luck: the A of Diamonds is available and could be moved to the foundations immediately. There's never any reason to delay playing up an Ace (although we'll see that there may be reasons to delay playing other cards), but we have a habit: we always deal once before moving any cards. That first deal shows us one more card, and gives us a little more information to work from. Sometimes it can make a difference.

Tip 1: Deal once, immediately

The first card dealt is a 3 of Spades. We could play it onto the 4 of Diamonds, but we're in no hurry. There's a faint chance we'll find and prefer the 3 of Clubs, and to preserve that faint hope we'll play the Ace first. That's a risk-free move, and we may find something to our advantage under the Ace.

What we find is a 4 of Clubs, and while it is playable we no longer see any reason to procrastinate on the 3 of Spades. A series of obvious moves follows, until move 7.

Tip 2: Play higher cards first

At move 7 we have a King that could be moved to an empty space, and we have two opportunities to create an empty space. Which shall we choose? Although the difference is subtle this time, we choose to move the 5-4 rather than the 3 because the 5 is a higher-ranking card than the 3. Doing so helps preserve our ability to organize the builds of low-ranking cards.

Tip 3: Don't mix suits (if you have a choice)

What do we mean by "organizing the builds of low-ranking cards"? We mean that it's best if you have builds of only Spades and Hearts, and other builds of only Clubs and Diamonds -- or the other way around: Spades with Diamonds, and Clubs with Hearts. We think of it as "braiding" the suits. Suppose you have two builds that go from the 5 of Spades and 5 of Hearts down to the 2's, and that contain only Spades and Hearts. Then when you get the A of Spades and A of Hearts, you can build on them all the way up to the 5's. But if one build contains a 3 of Clubs instead of a 3 of Spades, you could get stuck at that 3.

How easy is it to braid your builds? Very difficult, because usually you don't get much choice. It's much more important to move cards, any cards, than to obsess about keeping the suits straight. If you have only one black 3, and only one red 4 to play it on, you should probably just play it without worrying about the suits. But sometimes you get a choice, and then you should be more careful.

How important is it to braid your builds? Not very, because even if you do manage it, often it won't matter. But once in a while, you'll find that it can save a game to be able to run such a braid of suits up to the foundations in order to reach the cards hidden beneath them.

So, to recap: at move 7 we chose to play the 5-4 instead of the 3. We did this in order to delay the "braiding" of the lower-ranked 3 until later, when we might have some choice about the suit we play it onto. All in all, it's a mighty slim hope, but if you want to improve your score at Klondike you have to seek every tiny advantage -- and then play a lot of games, so that these tiny advantages have time to add up and become noticeable.

And after all that careful thought and explanation, a move or two later another King appears, and we wind up moving the 3 onto that 4 anyway. Oh, well!

Tip 4: Preserve your options

Another way to say this is "Don't move a card until you can gain something from it." At move 12, the newly-revealed 8 of Clubs could be moved onto the 9 of Hearts. But we won't do it yet. It doesn't gain us anything right now: the move would create an empty space which is useful only if we have a King to put in it, and we don't have a King. And delaying the move preserves an option: we may find the other black 8 in a while, and if the 9 is still free, we can choose to move either 8 onto it.

Like our previous choices, later events may make our choices worthless. The other black 8 may never appear; or perhaps the other red 9 will show up so that there's no shortage of destinations for black 8's. But sometimes, sometimes, leaving a choice open will benefit you later on. It's worth doing.

Still if a homeless King comes along, we'll move that 8 like a shot. Placing a King in an empty pile is a pretty valuable thing to do, usually much more important than a little flexibility in placing 8's.

Tip 5: Reduce disorder and expose cards

At move 21, we have another interesting choice. There is an available red 7, and two black 6's that could be moved onto it. One is on the discard pile, one in the tableau. Which should we move?

This is a toughie. Every card left on the discard pile blocks the cards beneath it, and the pile can get quite full. (Remember, we're playing "casino" or "strict" Klondike, where we're not allowed to pick up the discard pile and redeal from it.) In this as in any solitaire, the more cards you have exposed, available, and ordered, the better off you are. A large discard pile means a lot of cards that are blocked and disordered, so playing from the discard pile is good. On the other hand, the 6 of Spades in the tableau is covering six face-down cards. These cards are not only blocked and disordered, they are hidden: we don't even know what they are.

On the whole, we prefer to play from the tableau unless we know there are important cards down in the discard pile. In this case, we remember (because we were paying attention!) that there are only two cards under the 6 in the discard pile, and they are not currently very important ones. So here we decide to play from the tableaus.

After that move, we again have no interesting choices until move 36, when we could play the black Queen onto the red King. We decide to procrastinate -- perhaps the other black Queen will appear later and prove more tempting.

Tip 6: Don't be greedy

At move 44, we have just played the 2 of Spades onto the Ace, and we could follow it with the 3 of Spades -- but we don't. This may seem surprising: under casino rules, every card played to the foundations is worth $5. Why turn down easy money?

But we might need that 3 later! The A of Hearts and 2 of Hearts have not yet appeared. If the 2 appears in the discard pile before we find the Ace, the 2 could get buried. By keeping a black 3 available, we have a storage space for the 2 of Hearts that could save the entire game.

In general, you should never play any card to the foundations unless you are guaranteed that you won't need it as a holding place for a lower-ranked card. The easiest way to remember this is by a simple rule: don't play any 3's to the foundations until all the Aces have been played. Don't play any 4's until all the 2's have been played. Don't play any 5's until you have all the 3's, and so on. That simple rule is too strict, and can be broken safely in a number of different cases; but if you want an easy-to-remember, no-thought rule, that's a good one.

At move 49 the missing 2 of Hearts does appear -- but we don't move it onto the 3 of Spades that we have carefully saved for it. There's nothing under the 2 and we have no homeless Kings, so there's nothing to gain right now from moving the 2: that's Tip 4, preserve your options. We preserve the option of playing the 3 of Spades up to the foundations, to make money and to expose what's beneath it. Yet we won't play the 3 of Spades yet, because a homeless King could still appear and then we'd want to move the 2. That's Tip 4 again.

At move 51, we get a break: the 3 of Clubs is dealt. Now we can go ahead and play up the 3 of Spades, and replace it with the 3 of Clubs. All our options are still open, we've made a little money, and we've found a temporary home for the 3 of Clubs while we wait for the A of Clubs to show up: a very useful move.

Tip 7: Strike while the iron is hot

At move 55, we deal the 4 of Spades, and immediately play it to the foundations. That seems to flout Tip 5 (don't be greedy). If we saved the 4 of Spades in the tableau, it might serve as a holding place for the missing 3 of Hearts. But of course we can't save the 4 of Spades in the tableau, because we don't have any red 5's to put it on. In this case, it's better to take the money and run, because otherwise the 4 might simply get buried in the discard pile.

At move 65, we have just played the A of Clubs and 2 of Clubs to the foundations, and we have an opportunity to play the 3 of Clubs as well. This time we take it, even though the 2 of Hearts still has no other home. The reason is that we have only one homeless King left (somewhere -- we haven't found it yet), and we also have an empty space to put it in when it shows up. We therefore will never need to move the 2 of Hearts to make room for a King, so we will never need a 3 to move it onto. We can play up the 3 of Clubs safely.

The 4 of Diamonds goes up immediately afterward; since all black 3's have already gone to the foundations, there is no reason for any red 4 to linger. But the 5 of Spades stays behind, in case the 4 of Hearts shows up.

Tip 8: Late in the game, count cards

At this point (move 67), we have three cards left unseen and face-down in the tableau, and two left undealt in the hand. This is a pretty even distribution, and doesn't help us much. But in some games you'll find that you have two in the hand and six in the tableau, or the other way around. From this you can make some shrewd bets: that last Ace I need is probably in the discard, or probably in the tableau. And with that information you can start bending the usual rules. Perhaps you shouldn't normally play that 3 up to the foundations, but that last Ace is probably under it, so you'd better go ahead.

This sample game doesn't illustrate the point, so we've had to get a bit hypothetical. Sorry about that, but Klondike is hard enough to win without waiting for a game that will perfectly illustrate every tip!

Tip 9: Very late in the game, go for the gold

And here's another tip that's unnecessary in the sample game: when there are only a couple of cards left in the hand, it's usually better to play cards to the foundations than to continue to make nice builds. With only a couple of cards left to play, the chances of getting a nice build that will enable further play may be very slim. Time to grab every $5 bill you can reach.

But in our sample game, there's no need for tips 8 and 9. At move 68 we deal the A of Hearts, and from there on out we have no troubles at all. At move 82 the last card is revealed (we might have done it sooner, actually) and we have a guaranteed win.


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

Deal once, immediately -- Every revealed card is a strength, giving you more information on which to base your choices. It never hurts and sometimes helps for your first move to be to deal.

Play higher cards first -- It's more important to organize your lower-ranked cards than your higher-ranked ones, because the lower ones block the higher ones. Playing the higher cards first may give you more options for organizing the lower cards later on.

Don't mix suits -- It's best to "braid" your builds in paired suits, because then you can send entire builds to the foundations together if you have to. But give this tip a low priority, and follow it only when you actually have a choice of suits.

Preserve your options -- Don't make a play unless there's an immediate benefit to doing so. Later on you might find that you'd prefer a different play.

Reduce disorder and expose cards -- Good advice in all solitaires. Expose and make available as many cards as you can, and minimize the number of cards that aren't in neat, orderly builds.

Don't be greedy -- Don't play a card to the foundations if it still has a potential use in the tableaus.

Strike while the iron is hot -- But if a card appears in the discard that can be played to the foundations, and can't be played to the tableaus, go ahead and play it up.

Late in the game, count cards -- Counting cards can sometimes give you a strong hint on where to find the missing cards you need. Late in a game where this is true, ignore the other tips and do what you need to do to expose those cards.

Very late in the game, go for the gold -- When you're sure you have only another card or two to play, give in to your greed. You probably won't get much more useful building done, and so you'll be better off just playing up every card you can. This tip is useful for improving your score in a game you expect to lose.

Tips for easier varieties of Klondike

We've been studying strict or "casino" Klondike, where you deal one card at a time and are allowed no redeals; and where a red 3 on a black 4 can't be picked up and moved onto the other black 4. Many people prefer an easier-going variation, in which such cards can be moved, or in which the deal is three cards at a time, and the discard can be picked up and turned back into the hand whenever the hand is emptied. The strategy is different for such variants. Here are some useful tips for them:

Don't worry about braiding if your rules allow you to move that red 3 back and forth between the two black 4's. Instead, look vigorously for chances to do exactly that. You may be able to play the 4 of Spades to the foundations even though you can't yet play the 4 of Clubs.

Prefer tableau plays to discard plays -- If you have a choice between playing a card from the tableau or one from the discard, you're probably better off choosing the tableau. Remember, you'll get many more chances to play discarded cards because you can pick up the discard pile and deal from it over and over.

Don't play three in a row from the discard pile -- It's important to see different cards every time you deal out the hand. If you deal a packet of three cards and play only one of those cards, then the next time you deal past that point you'll see different cards. But if you play all three, the next time through the only difference you'll see is that one packet of three cards is missing; all the other exposed cards will be the same. That can easily leave you stuck. It's usually better to skip playing a card, even a valuable one, rather than play three in a row.

Play first from the end of the hand -- Each time you pick up the discard pile to begin dealing anew, deal once all the way through the hand without playing anything. Notice which cards can be played, and remember what the last playable card was. Then pick up the discard pile and deal again; this time ignore all playable cards except the last one that you noticed. That way all the earlier playable cards will still be there on the next deal, ready to be played. This kind of careful, miserly dealing will get the most out of the cards in the hand.

All right, you've read the tips, studied the sample game, and you're ready to take on Klondike -- congratulations! But don't get your hopes too high. We find that by using these techniques for strict or "casino" Klondike we can win about three times as many games as we can when we just play every playable card without thinking about it. But (brace yourself) that means that instead of winning about one game in a hundred, we win about three games in a hundred. Instead of losing almost $11 per game on average, we lose a little more than $6. These tips won't turn you into a Klondike wizard -- but they'll help.

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 Saturday, March 5, 2000