Winning at Spider

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

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

Spider is a difficult game, requiring both luck and skill to win. We have heard claims that a real expert can win more than half of all games of Spider; but we can't do it, and we've never (yet!) met anyone who can. But we can win around one game in four if we work hard at it, and here's how we do it.

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 Spider, see the Rules for Spider 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. The first thing to remember in Spider is the rule that says you can build down without regard for suit or color (so any 7 can be played on any 8, for example) but you can only pick up and move builds that are in suit. In the first move, we might start by putting the J of Diamonds on either Queen; but since neither is a Q of Diamonds, we'd rather not. If we did, we wouldn't be able to pick up the Queen until we'd removed the Jack.

Tip #1: Build in suit

So the first thing we look for are moves in suit, and fortunately we have one: The 2 of Diamonds goes on the 3 of Diamonds. And we have another: the 6 of Diamonds can go on the 7 of Diamonds, but right here at the second move we already made a mistake: we moved that J of Diamonds anyway. We weren't paying attention, and we didn't notice the 6 of Diamonds and 7 of Diamonds. (We hosted a sleepover for our 7-year-old son and his friends the night before playing this game, and of course no one got any sleep. That's our excuse, and we're sticking to it.)

At move 2, we again miss the 6 of Diamonds and 7 of Diamonds, and instead move the 6 of Spades onto that 7. Luckily, this move exposes a series of opportunities to play in suit, up until move 6 when we must do something else.

Tip #2: Expose new cards

At move 6 we make a move that may seem strange: we move the J of Diamonds from one black Queen to another. We haven't made a move in suit, and we haven't exposed any new cards. Why did we bother? The answer is that this move may make it easier to expose new cards. There are cards we haven't seen under the Q of Clubs, but none under the Q of Spades. Moving the red Jack off the Q of Clubs will make it easier to move that Queen when a free King turns up, and see what's underneath it.

Next we must make some out-of-suit moves, because there's nothing else to do (except deal, and you should never deal unless there's no other useful moves to make). At move 9 we've found a 7 of Spades, and that makes it possible to recover from the mistake we made with the 6 of Diamonds. In the next few moves we are able to create an in-suit build of Diamonds and another of Spades.

Tip #3: Build on high cards first

We continue in this vein for a while, making plays in suit when possible, and out of suit when there's nothing else to do. As you watch the play, notice our preference: when we make plays out of suit we choose to move the high cards first. The reason for this is subtle. A mixed-suit pile can't be moved to get at its face-down cards; it's useless except as a place to move other cards to. If we start with low cards, it won't take long to build it down to the Ace, and then it's completely useless because you can't play anything onto an Ace. But if we start high, we'll have more opportunities to put cards on that pile, and we'll get maximum benefit from it.

Tip #4: Keep piles in suit

Notice also that when we must play out of suit, we try to play onto piles that are already out of suit. (Move 15, where we move the 10 of Hearts to the far J of Diamonds instead of the near one.) We don't want to "pollute" an in-suit pile if we can help it, because we want as many chances as possible to expose new cards. Piles that are in suit should be kept that way as long as possible.

Tip #5: Empty piles are good

At move 21, we can see another point illustrated. Here we are about to move a 7 onto the 8 of Hearts. We have two 7's to choose from, and both are out of suit. Which shall we take? We choose the 7 of Spades, because it is covering fewer face-down cards than the 7 of Diamonds. But if exposing cards is good, then don't we want to choose the pile that has more face-down cards to expose? Nope -- because an empty pile can be filled by any available build (not just by Kings, like in other solitaires). If we empty a pile, it becomes more useful because we can do more things with it, as you will see.

At move 29, we succeed in making an empty pile (it's pile 3, the third pile from the left). There are some neat tricks you can do with empty piles, but unfortunately we're not in a position to do any of them yet, so be patient. For now, we'll just use it to expose more cards, by moving the 4 of Hearts into the empty spot.

At move 33, we are finally out of things to do. Not bad, either -- in many games you'll get stuck much more quickly. Of course, we're not really stuck yet: we're just out of useful tableau moves, so that means we deal a fresh row of ten cards from the hand.

Tip #6: Don't deal until you have to

Dealing is good news and bad news. The good news is that you get ten new cards to work with; the bad news is that they're almost guaranteed to all be out of suit or sequence, making it difficult to get at any of the rest of your layout. This time we're lucky; by move 37 we've emptied a pile again. At move 40, watch how we use the empty spot to get some of our piles more in suit: First the 3 of Spades goes to the empty pile, exposing a J of Diamonds. Then the 10 of Diamonds goes onto the Jack, exposing the J of Hearts; then the 10 of Clubs goes onto the J of Hearts. We finish at move 43, and we still have an empty pile! Next we do it again, this time finishing at move 47 with the King to 6 of Diamonds in suit. We keep this sort of thing up until move 54. At this point we can't think of anything else useful to do that will preserve the empty pile, so we just move the 8 of Hearts there to see what's under the 8. It's a 3 of Diamonds, not useful to us right away, so it's time to deal again.

(It is tempting to leave an empty pile or two, if you have them, when you deal. But the rules don't allow it! All piles must have at least one card in them, or you're not allowed to deal.)

We are now at move 56, right after our second deal. We now spend a while "organizing things," getting suits together where we can and building out of suit elsewhere. We won't comment on these moves, but you should study them to get more experience in these maneuvers.

Tip #7: When to Break Up a Build In Suit

If building in suit is good, why would you ever want to break up a build in suit? At move 70 there's an example. In pile 9 is a 6-to-Ace build in mixed suits -- in fact, in all four suits. We'd like to get at some of its higher cards if we can; scattered around the layout are a 4 of Clubs and a 3-2-A of Clubs that would go nicely on the 6-5 of Clubs. But we only have one empty pile to work with; what can we do?

We can break up the 3-2 of Diamonds, that's what. Watch: the A of Hearts goes to the empty pile, the 2 of Diamonds goes on the other 3 of Diamonds in pile 4. (In a way it's a shame that that 3 is a Diamond; it doesn't have to be, and if it weren't, it would demonstrate this point more clearly.) The A of Hearts goes back on the 2 of Diamonds, now in pile 4. At move 73 we have our empty pile back, and we've accomplished something: in pile 9 there used to be three different suits covering the 6-5 of Clubs, but now there are only two -- we are closer to our goal of reaching those Clubs.

Now we use the empty pile to exchange the 3 of Diamonds for the 3-2-A of Spades, and now there is only one suit covering the Clubs. (We also take the opportunity to move some cards from pile 1 to pile 5, but that's not relevant to this point. We just thought it might be helpful to reduce the number of suits in pile 1.)

We're at move 77. Let's use this technique again, and break up the 6-5 of Clubs. At move 83 we've converted it to a 6-5-4 of Clubs (with a different 5 than we started with), only one card of a different suit covers it now, and we still have our empty pile. That's all we can do for now. But a few moves later, while making move 87, we'll get lucky and uncover a 2 of Diamonds that is the key to bringing together the 6-5-4 and the 3-2-A of Clubs.

Now the Clubs start to come together in the two far right piles. We didn't plan this far ahead, but as we keep bringing things together in suit, long builds like this one will start to appear. At move 93, you can see the long build of Clubs taking form; by move 98 we have the Clubs in suit from 10 down to Ace. The King-Queen-Jack are in pile 5, under another build in mixed suits; now we'll work to expose those Clubs. At move 102, we sacrifice our empty pile (moving the K-6 of Diamonds there) to get at the Clubs underneath, and in the next move we can bring all the Clubs together and then discard them. Our first score!

Tip #8: Move Kings to empty piles reluctantly

This tip was sent to us by reader Alex Dresner (thanks, Alex!), and we just broke it at move 102. Of course, it's not a hard-and-fast rule. More often than not, you will have to move Kings into empty piles in order to get at the cards beneath. But doing so will make it hard to empty that pile again; you'll have to wait until you can discard the King as part of an entire King-to-Ace build in suit, and that could take a long time. Instead, look for other cards you can move to the empty pile, ones you can hope to move out again soon.

You can break this rule when you have no other good moves left, and you need to fill an empty space in order to deal. You can break it late in the game, when you have several empty piles and it won't hurt so badly to give one up. And you can break it when you think you will gain enough to compensate you for the loss of the empty pile. In this case, we got a lot of benefit from moving the K-6 of Diamonds: we were able to reduce the chaos in pile 10 and discard a build of Clubs from pile 5, exposing a new card and nearly emptying that pile; and we can hope to finish the build of Diamonds soon and discard that as well.

Time to deal again, and once again we begin our routine of "organizing things." The random cards we get don't leave us many choices, so we must deal again at move 112, and then again at move 118. That was our last deal, so from now on we're on our own. If we get stuck, the game's over.

Tip #9: When to Avoid the Obvious

At move 126, there's a free 2 of Clubs on pile 8, and two Aces we could move onto it. It's tempting to choose the A of Clubs, to stay in suit. But under the A of Clubs is a 9 of Diamonds, and a look around the layout shows us that we can't do anything with that card. The A of Diamonds isn't in suit, but there's a 6 of Hearts under it that we can move onto a 7 of Hearts, and then we can turn up a new card -- much better. We take that choice, and the turned-up card is revealed as a 7 of Clubs.

Next (at move 128) we reveal an 8 of Clubs, and at move 130 we again have an obvious in-suit play, the 7 of Clubs onto the 8 of Clubs. But again we avoid it, this time because we can use the 8 of Clubs temporarily to straighten out some Hearts and Spades. The moral is: don't make obvious moves too quickly; sometimes there's a better way! At move 133 we can give in to temptation and move the 7 of Clubs onto the 8 of Clubs.

By move 137 we have enough opportunities that we almost can't go wrong. Choose one at random -- we chose to work on the run of Diamonds in pile 1, at the far left. Quickly we have a full King-to-Ace build (move 141) and we can discard it. Second score! Next, the Spades, and another score at move 148. As we discard more builds, the layout gets emptier and it gets easier and easier to work with the remaining cards. After 196 moves we have won our game.


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

Tip #1: Build in Suit

In-suit builds can be moved to reveal the cards underneath.

Tip #2: Expose new cards

Good advice in any solitaire. Hidden cards are useless; get at them as quickly as you can.

Tip #3: Build on high cards first

You can't build on an Ace. Building on high cards first keeps your piles useful as a place to park other cards.

Tip #4: Keep piles in suit

If it's good to build in suit, then it's bad to spoil an in-suit pile by adding out-of-suit cards. When you have a choice, play out-of-suit cards to piles that are already mixed-suit.

Tip #5: Empty piles are good

Any available card or build can be moved to an empty pile. You can use them to expose cards that are underneath other suits, and you can often empty that pile or another one again after such an operation.

Tip #6: Don't deal until you have to

Dealing exposes new cards, but it covers your builds randomly and makes it harder to reach the cards underneath.

Tip #7: When to Break Up a Build In Suit

A pile with three out-of-suit builds can sometimes be converted to a pile with only two out-of-suit builds. You'll need an empty pile to put the topmost build on, and a pile to move some of the lower cards in the middle build to. If the two topmost builds were in sequence, you can reclaim the empty pile by getting those builds together again. (This one's hard to explain in general terms. If it still seems mysterious, go back and study moves 70 - 83 of the sample game again.)

Tip #8: Move Kings to empty piles reluctantly

Kings can't be moved out of an empty pile, except by discarding. Empty piles are valuable, so defer such moves as long as possible. Make them only when necessary, or late in the game when you have many empty piles.

Tip #9: Avoid the Obvious

Not always, of course. We just mean you should think before you make any move. Sometimes the obvious move isn't the best one.

Dylan Thurston wrote to us in July of 1998 to suggest that our strategy doesn't emphasize empty piles enough. He wrote, "If you have 4-5 different piles with just a single stack in them, I find that your chances of getting one of them immediately empty on the next deal are rather high; and it's very important to try to get at least one open pile per deal, to try to sort out whatever the deal gave you." In order to create as many such piles as possible you will probably have to bury your other piles under a welter of mismatched cards; but in the end game you can use your many empty and near-empty piles to sort all that out.

Mr. Thurston also reminds us to look for opportunities to discard. This is usually not possible until late in the game, but can often be done while many piles are still quite chaotic. Discarding helps to simplify the layout and sometimes helps to empty a pile. Thank you, Mr. Thurston!

Here's another look at Spider, which uses Solitaire Till Dawn's Undo and Redo commands. These tips are used by permission of the authors:

Additional Spider tips © Robert and Dori Riggs of Berkeley, California, Jan. 1, 2003:

1. Runoffs, which Mr. Thurston calls "discards," are the key to victory in four-suit Spider. Virtually the entire strategy should be built around setting up runoffs.

2. There is a strong correlation between hands in which the first runoff occurs prior to the last deal and hands that are won.

3. One tactic overlooked in your tips is the importance of using the "take back move" [Ctrl-Z] feature, particularly in connection with early deals. Control Z is very important to explore the "hidden" cards. The early deals are the most productive by far and need to be extended to the utmost.

4. A point system can be devised for analyzing various alternatives that are presented during the early deals, when the overall strategy of the hand is not yet clear. Based on our experience ­ we would propose the following "point values" for moves:

Turnover resulting in empty pile -- 3
In-suit lay -- 2
Turnover resulting in new pile card that is not an ace or king -- 2
Turnover resulting in new pile card that is ace or king -- 1
Cross-suit lay -- 1

Add all points ensuing from a single move. Thus, an in-suit lay that also turns over a new pile card is worth 4 points. A cross-suit lay resulting in a turnover that exposes an ace is worth 2 points. In-suit lay without turnover is also worth 2 points. Etc.

5. We agree that kings should be installed in empty piles reluctantly and usually only when a specific strategy is being followed. Access to the cards underneath a king should be noted as a legitimate reason for moving the king. Other heuristic preferences to be noted: (1) seek to gather the longest same-suit strings possible (this is related to the importance of planning for runoffs, discussed above); and (2) turn over piles with the smaller number of remaining cards (this is related to the importance of empty piles, correctly emphasized by Mr. Thurston).

6. To increase one's sustained win percentage, abandon lost hands early. Concentrate energy and attention on winnable hands.

That's it! You'll need to practice and start getting experience in these techniques, of course. Spider is a difficult game for anyone to play, and remember that even when you get good you'll still lose most of your games. (Unless you get very good -- if you do, please write to us and teach us your techniques!)

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 1995-2000, 2003, 2004 by Semicolon Software. All rights reserved.
Last modified August 12, 2004