Did you know that Haagen-Dazs was invented in the Bronx? It’s true; Danish doesn’t even have an umlaut. It’s an example of foreign branding--the tradition of giving local stuff a far-off name to make it sound exotic. Clever marketers especially liked to associate their goods with cultures known for such products, such as Denmark’s reputation for dairy. In puzzles, the preferred tactic was to ascribe the source to someplace known for intellectual pursuit (see: Chinese Checkers and the burr puzzle called the Chinese Cross). Of course, all this was much more popular back before a Google search could reveal the truth. In these days of cultural appropriation, it just makes us cringe.
Speaking of cringing, in my blog article about P vs NP puzzles, I said that Eulerian paths were the predecessor of the Icosian Game, “which was the ancestor of several of our games, such as Peg Solitaire, The Last Fighter and Pythagoras Star.” So what am I to make of the picture below of Anne de Rohan-Chabot, Princess of Soubise playing peg solitaire forty eight years before Euler’s work was published? Well obviously a retraction is in order, but I’m left to wonder exactly how a game’s supposed grandchild appeared decades before the game’s grandfather? Is this a case of two great minds both coming up with the same idea, the puzzle equivalent of convergent evolution? It’s happened before, such as with Newton and Leibnitz both inventing calculus at the same time, but I think something much simpler is going on here.
Black Sheep? Nope, Different Family
It makes sense upon further investigation that peg solitaire wouldn’t be descended from the Icosian Game: it isn’t about finding a single path. Instead, solutions to peg solitaire work as a series of shorter paths, as each marker eliminates one or more others in a series of hops, only to be eliminated in turn. Moreover, the game doesn’t always require that the player start and end in the same space, like with the others. The original European version can’t actually be solved that way at all.
“This isn’t the first time I’ve been confused by solitaire”
Indeed, it was only after the introduction of the popular English variation that “Central Solitaire” was introduced. This is the version with a 33 hole board, while the European version has 37. We only carry the English for now, with either the round or square board, but you can play the English or European on our combined board. As with Go, the simplicity of peg solitaire gives rise to its own complexity, which in turn leads to its own language among enthusiasts, who talk of “packages” and “purges” and “catalysts” the way Go aficionados talk about ladders, chains and chainbreakers. There are at least six board variations, including a triangular version that plays out in a more Hamiltonian style, sometimes called the Cracker Barrel Game in the United States.
This isn’t the first time I’ve been confused by peg solitaire, having first encountered it under the UK name “Solitaire,” which in America refers to the category of card games with only one player. These card games are known as “Patience” in the UK, hence there’s no need for the word “Peg” when speaking of peg solitaire to people across the pond. While not the globetrotter that chess is, the game has developed popularity in India as Brainvita, and popularized in some parts of the West under the commercial names “Hi-Q” and “Madagascar Checkers.”
And it appears I’m not done being confused. The provenance of most classic puzzles is difficult to trace, but peg solitaire may have the most convoluted yet. It’s pretty clear that the name “Madagascar Checkers” is more foreign branding, like Haagen-Dazs, but what about the legend that it’s sometimes called “Solo Noble” because it was invented by a 17th century French aristocrat to while away a Bastille incarceration? Even without Gene Hackman, there’s clearly a French connection here. The first printed reference to the game dates from the August 1687 edition of the French literary magazine “Mercure galant,” with the above-referenced picture of the princess playing the game. “Solo Noble” is actually French, and one could visualize the pegs as scheming courtiers, eliminating each other in Machiavellian fashion until there was only one left. Could that have actually been the original name of the game? Could the “solo noble” have actually invented the game while cooling his heels in jail?
“We regret the error, but appreciate the puzzle”
If so, it would be a story to rival the murder of Sir John Suckling, but I was determined not to jump to conclusions again. After lots of research on the subject, I finally found a copy of the original 17th century article, but it was in French. Having gone this far, I ran chunks of the text through Google translate, chuckling at how it translated “pegs” as “ankles” so that you had little ankles jumping over each other. The article is written in epistolary form, as a letter replying to someone’s inquiry about the game, describing how it has just arrived in France and is all the rage in court and the salons, so it would appear it was invented someplace else. For their part, the editors of the magazine advise their reader that this new and exciting game comes from...America.
Straight from Google translate, it reads: “It may be that the Inhabitants of the New World who love to be in particular, as they go alone in Hunting with their bow & arrows, when they are back, plant their little arrows in holes in their boxes, & by the agitation they give them, make the Solitaire Game.”
Hustled by History
So there you have it, folks. At the far end of the trail, my best lead turns out to have nothing to do with Bastille incarceration, but was in fact more foreign branding. While it was probably invented in or near France, someone thought it sounded cooler to credit the quivers and arrows of Native Americans for the invention. Because who doesn’t like the idea of playing a game from the other side of the planet? Anyway, my head hurts. I’m going to lie down and relax, maybe play some Solitaire. Cards or pegs, from France or Madagascar, it’s still a fun game. You’re welcome to join me. As the saying goes, we regret the error but appreciate the puzzle.
References:Photo: Anne Chabot de Rohan Princesse de Soubise (1663-1709) with Peg Solitaire, portrait painting, 1687. This is the first known document proving the existence of that game. https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/0/0b/Peg_Solitaire_1687_on_Portrait_of_Princess_Soubise_by_Claude-Auguste_Berey.jpg
By Matthew Barrett