Churchill Solitaire: Why Donald Rumsfeld made an iPhone app

The former defense secretary says he learned of a special version of Solitaire played by British Prime Minister Winston Churchill during World War II. Now, you can play it on an iPhone.

R. Norman Matheny/The Christian Science Monitor
Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld at a press conference in February 1976. Mr. Rumsfeld -- who gained infamy as an architect of the Bush administration's strategy in the early days of the Iraq War -- has developed a Solitaire app modeled on a version of the game played by Winston Churchill.

Unknown unknowns, indeed. A new app based on a version of Solitaire played by British Prime Minister Winston Churchill heavily invokes his spirit — it’s promoted as “the most diabolical version of Solitaire ever devised,” and is promoted with the tagline “never give in” from a speech he gave in 1941.

But the app’s driving force is a more controversial figure: former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, often described as a key architect of the Bush Administration’s strategy in Iraq.

In a Medium post, Mr. Rumsfeld straightforwardly lays out how he came to learn the game from Belgian diplomat André de Staercke, describing his foray into app developing as, “I’ve done business, politics, and war. Now I’m trying my hand at mobile gaming.”

Mr. De Staercke, who Rumsfeld met in the 1970s while serving as US Ambassador to NATO, learned the “uniquely challenging game,” which uses 10 rows of cards instead of the usual seven, spread across two decks, from Churchill, who played it during the London Blitz beginning in 1940.

“As they plotted to turn back the Fascist tide, De Staercke came to know Churchill under incomprehensible stress: the Luftwaffe’s nightly bombing raids of London, an America reluctant to be dragged into another world war, and an entire world that looked to be on fire,” Rumsfeld writes. “I can remember de Staercke sitting across from me on a plane somewhere over Europe playing the curious game, dizzying columns of miniature cards arrayed on the table between us. I asked him what he was playing and he proceeded to tell me the origin of the game he called Churchill Solitaire after the man we both very much admired."

The app – which is initially free, then costs $1 per 25 levels – is laced with references to Churchill, including allowing a player to begin playing as a classmate of Churchill’s at the British military academy Sandhurst, and dramatic music. “So in practice, this is really more ‘Churchill’s Buddy Solitaire,’ " notes a Wired review of the app.

Rumsfeld is famously inscrutable — the documentarian Errol Morris once reflected that after hours of interviews for a 2014 documentary, “he remains a mystery to me—except for the possibility that there might not be a mystery.” During a 2011 radio interview, he answered a question from the comedian Louis C.K. asking if he was “a lizard from outer space who eats human flesh,” with an unprompted story about a man buying him dinner in New York.

His Medium post is filled with touches of gentle humor and references to Churchill’s legacy. “I’ve signed off on something they call ‘UX,’ ” he writes, referring to the common shorthand for "user experience." Rumsfeld notes that he wanted to enter the tech world out of an enjoyment of the game and a desire to preserve it. Profits from the game, developed by Snapdragon Studios with input from Rumsfeld in partnership with Churchill’s family, will go to charity.

“Churchill Solitaire is not a game for everyone. It takes patience and perseverance, cunning and concentration, and strategy and sacrifice,” he writes at one point. “I can’t say if this is the last app I’ll ever be involved in — after all, I’m only 83, ” he adds. “But it is safe to say that Mark Zuckerberg has nothing to worry about.”

Comments on the post were unsparing. “Eagerly anticipating your gamification of waterboarding,” writes user Lisa McIntire, while another comment asks, “How about a conscience. Could you develop one of those?”

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