Learn to Play Freecell the Dreamagic Way
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Lesson #2: First Principles

It is obvious that one of the very first sub-goals one must have is to get the aces played in the home spaces. However, as you will discover, this sub-goal must often be deferred. The more difficult the game at the outset...we will tell you later how to assess difficulty...the longer it may have to be deferred. One of the ways of deferring the playing of the aces to the home slots is by moving cards in and out of free buffer slots, in order to achieve what amounts to the TWO MOST IMPORTANT principles in playing Freecell skillfully.

Before we get into those, let's look at some simpler guidelines. You should always be on the lookout for Win-Win moves. That is, if a move or series of moves advances the game without filling any additional buffer slots, then by all means, take that move or those moves IMMEDIATELY. Later, you may not have enough free space to do it. Some of these sequences may involve temporarily filling buffer slots or holes, but should eventually restore the state in which you started to be truly Win-Win. Clicking either of these buttons, or , will bring up fully animated examples of a couple of Win-Win situations.

The partial animation script below...simply hit the space bar to advance the script and the backspace key to back it up...will illustrate this principle in more detail.

That last example actually demonstrated a couple of other principles as well. We might call these two principles The Most Important Principles when playing Freecell. The first of the most important principles is what we will call the stacking principle. That is, as you play the game and produce stacks of red/black or black/red sequences, the more cards you have stacked, the higher the likelihood that the next card that is exposed...by moving the card or cards that are on top of it...will be playable. In addition, stacking preserves the empty buffer slots to be used later. This becomes more and more important as the game progresses, since you must eventually remove all the stacked cards to the home spaces, which we will call unstacking. A crucial decision to be made in every game is just when to change from stacking to unstacking. We will help you make this decision in the lessons ahead.

The second of these primary principles we will call the Hole Principle. The reason is clear. A basic rule of Free cell is that you can only move one card at a time. However, Freecell allows you to take a shortcut when you are moving a stack from one column to another, moving the whole stack at once...if you have enough free space. The following animation demonstrates what actually is taking place when you move a stack.

Freecell allows the shortcut because it would be boring and pointless to make you do it moving only one card at a time.

There are four empty buffer slots at the outset. This means you can move at most five cards at a time. You can fill all four slots and then place the top card of one of the columns in sequence on one of the other columns. This is important when moving stacks from column to column, since it means that you can move at most five sequenced cards at a time. Now, however, suppose that one of the columns is empty as well. In that case, you can move a stack of TEN sequenced cards, since the first five could be moved to the empty column, the next five to the target column followed finally by taking the five cards from the previously empty column to the top of the target column. The rule is simple...the number of free spaces is the number of free buffer slots plus one times the number of holes plus one...or...

F = (B + 1) * (H + 1)

...but you do not have to remember it exactly, since if you try to move a larger stack than the free spaces allow, you will be told so and exactly how wrong you are. That is, you will get a message something like "You tried to move X cards and you only have enough free space to move Y". Let the program do the counting for you. However, this should illustrate quite clearly, just how important holes are to successfully playing the game. You could do much worse that attempting...in each and every game...to first make a hole, then try to play the aces. In very difficult games, this is almost certainly the strategy you must use.

In any case, making holes, stacking and playing cards to home is exactly what we meant when we said "advancing the state of the game."

To summarize:

By the way, a Hole is simply a empty column, one from which all cards have been played elsewhere. It is a little surprising that the least important subgoal is to play the cards to home, when that is the final goal! Are these principles cast in steel? No they are not. The secret of becoming really, really good at playing Freecell is to know when these "rules" must be ignored. In relatively easy games, this is not important. They almost play themselves once you have gotten used to playing. It's on those devilishly difficult games that these rules...and when to break them...becomes paramount.

Below is an entire game along with explanations of each move. Go through it, then go back to the home page and play a few games at random, to see if you have learned well so far.

Note that after emptying two holes, the number of possibilities to finish the game are many. We have chosen to play conservatively, following the rules to the end of the game. This is good practice when you are learning, since it gets you into the habit of making "proper" moves, even if you don't really need them. By thw way, we have taken to calling the last move...the one that frees up all the remaining cards to automatically be played to home...the "zipper"...because the unstacking is "zipped" to conclusion by the program.

Please send your comments and suggestions to the author, Willy Chaplin at:
willy@dreamagic.com (Willy Chaplin)