Domino!

MSC Buon Gusto - - Contents - Clark Nor­ton

Around the Caribbean, you’ll hear this tri­umphant

IF YOU THINK OF DOMINOES AS A REL­A­TIVELY PLACID PAS­TIME FROM YOUR CHILD­HOOD, you prob­a­bly didn’t grow up in the Caribbean. Played is­land-style, the game of dominoes is any­thing but tame.

From Puerto Rico to Trinidad, Ja­maica to Bar­ba­dos, the Do­mini­can Re­pub­lic to St. Lu­cia, Cuba to Cu­ra­cao — and many is­lands in be­tween — dominoes is the un­of­fi­cial na­tional game, ri­val­ing the in­ten­sity of other regional pas­sions such as baseball, cricket and soc­cer. Through­out much of the Caribbean, you may see domino games spring up in parks and beach­side pic­nic ar­eas, un­der the near­est shade trees, in bars, on side­walks — just about any­where is­lan­ders can rus­tle up some play­ers and nd a suit­able ta­ble or other at sur­face.

And while the strate­gies re­quired to win at this de­cep­tively sim­ple-look­ing game of “con­nect­ing the dots” are al­most chess-like in their com­plex­ity, you won’t nd the hushed at­mos­phere that of­ten sur­rounds a chess match. Caribbeanstyle dominoes is played at a rapid pace and with a rau­cous fer­vor that of­ten draws spec­ta­tors at­tracted to the com­mo­tion.

Slam! That’s the un­mis­tak­able sound of the vic­tor bang­ing his win­ning tile down on the ta­ble, quickly fol­lowed by slid­ing the tile into place — the “slam and slide” tech­nique — and the tri­umphant cry of “Domino!” To the win­ner (or win­ners) go the right to crow a bit (or a lot), and to start o the next game by play­ing the rst tile, a big ad­van­tage for sea­soned com­peti­tors. The losers, mean­while, have been “domi­noed” and can only await their turn at vic­tory if they’re suf­fi­ciently skilled.

Around the Caribbean, you’ll hear this tri­umphant call wher­ever there’s

An­cient Roots

Ar­chae­o­log­i­cal ev­i­dence shows that dominoes may have been played as long ago as 1300 B.C. in Egypt, and may orig­i­nally have evolved from dice; the same sets of num­bered dots, one through six, ap­pear on both dice and dominoes, and the rec­tan­gu­lar domino tiles re­sem­ble at­tened out dice cubes. The rst writ­ten ref­er­ences to dominoes date from 12th-cen­tury China, and by the 18th cen­tury, the game had made its way to Italy and France, where it’s be­lieved to have de­rived its cur­rent name from the black­plenty and-white gar­ments worn by Do­mini­can monks.

Dominoes then fol­lowed the Euro­pean trade in rum and slaves to the Caribbean, where gen­er­a­tions of is­land na­tives have adopted the game as their own, al­tered some of the tra­di­tional rules in cre­ative ways, and taken it to new heights of pop­u­lar­ity, pro­fi­ciency and air.

Though played with eal, the game is well suited to the Caribbean’s ca­sual vibe. You don’t need much in the way of equip­ment: two to four play­ers; a set of tiles (usu­ally 28) marked with two sep­a­rate group­ings of dots or blanks on one side; and a sur­face big enough to spread out the “bones,” as the tiles are of­ten called, for form­ing rows of con­nected dots.

Each player typ­i­cally draws seven tiles to start.

Any left­over tiles lie in the “bone­yard.” De­pend­ing on the rules and scor­ing method se­lected — mul­ti­ple vari­a­tions are pos­si­ble, many of them spe­cific to cer­tain is­lands — a game may re­quire of spare time, as well as a healthy sup­ply of rum or beer. Some go on for hours.

The strate­gies re­quired to win at this de­cep­tively sim­ple-look­ing game of “con­nect­ing the dots” are al­most chess-like in their com­plex­ity.

Sur­pris­ingly Com­plex

While the ba­sic ob­ject of dominoes is to be the rst to dis­card all your tiles — lin­ing them up with the match­ing ends of pre­vi­ously played tiles — that de­scrip­tion is de­cep­tively sim­ple. It

only be­gins to hint at the com­plex strate­gies re­quired to mas­ter the game as it’s played on the is­lands.

Top-level play­ers, for in­stance, are of­ten able to de­ci­pher which tiles their fel­low play­ers are still hold­ing by mem­o­riz­ing all the pre­vi­ous plays in a game, much like a good black­jack player counts cards to give him­self an edge. This skill en­ables them to block their op­po­nents and force them into los­ing a turn or draw­ing ad­di­tional tiles from the bone­yard (de­pend­ing on the ver­sion of the game they’re play­ing), both po­ten­tially fa­tal to the op­po­nents’ chances.

Ex­perts aside, one of the at­trac­tions of Caribbean dominoes is that play­ers come from all ages and ex­pe­ri­ence lev­els. Rules and strate­gies are of­ten passed down from older gen­er­a­tions to the younger, and some schools use the game to teach early math skills. For adults, it’s more about so­cial­iz­ing and brag­ging rights. While men are usu­ally the most pub­licly vis­i­ble play­ers, women com­pete as well — though they tend to be less vo­cal in putting down los­ing op­po­nents, a hall­mark of many male matches.

Be­sides serv­ing as a bridge be­tween gen­er­a­tions, Caribbean dominoes also spans dif­fer­ing cul­tures and her­itages: unit­ing English­s­peak­ing, Span­ish-speak­ing, Dutch-speak­ing and French­s­peak­ing is­lan­ders through mu­tual love of the game.

In­tense Ri­val­ries

But it cre­ates ri­val­ries among them as well. With dominoes tak­ing on nu­mer­ous vari­a­tions from one is­land to the next — Cubans, for ex­am­ple, of­ten play with more tiles than is com­mon else­where — each is­land’s res­i­dents tend to pro­claim that their ap­proach to the game is su­pe­rior. “Al­though other coun­tries play and com­pete with a high de­gree of se­ri­ous­ness,” Bar­ba­dos Man­ager Ver­non Git­tens said fol­low­ing his team’s vic­tory in the 2014 world cham­pi­onships, “we take it to another level.”

It’s hard to ar­gue with that. Bar­ba­dos — home to the World Coun­cil of Domino Fed­er­a­tions — has cap­tured 10 world cham­pi­onships be­tween 1991 and 2015. St. Lu­cia, Do­minica and Antigua & Bar­buda have been Bar­ba­dos’ clos­est com­peti­tors.

Ja­maica, how­ever, can lay claim to some of the most in­ven­tive ver­sions. A Ja­maican domino game col­or­fully known as “Cut

Throat” pits ev­ery player against ev­ery other player, rather than two sets of part­ners against each other as is more typ­i­cal in four-per­son matches. To slam down the ul­ti­mate “Domino!” a player must win six games, while at least one op­po­nent — said to be “in jail” — wins no games at all. Oth­er­wise, play must start over.

The re­sult is that the play­ers who have won at least one game of­ten con­spire to keep the “jail­bird” safely be­hind bars … and make no se­cret of it. “Friendly taunt­ing is not only en­cour­aged, it’s in­trin­si­cally built into the struc­ture of the game,” notes game de­signer and blog­ger Matthew Gal­lant. “They stack the odds against the weak­est player, then pro­ceed to mock him for it.” While it may sound cruel, how else would a “friendly” game called Cut Throat be played?

Thanks largely to Do­mini­cans, Puerto Ri­cans, Cubans and other Caribbean im­mi­grants to main­land Amer­ica, dominoes has been gain­ing re­newed pop­u­lar­ity in the United States as well, par­tic­u­larly in New York and Florida, which hosted a re­cent world cham­pi­onship match. Much the same domino fever per­sists in the im­mi­grant com­mu­ni­ties there as in the Caribbean.

But there are no more vi­brant forms of the game than those prac­ticed in the is­lands them­selves. If you hear the slam of tiles pierc­ing the trop­i­cal air, stop and look around. The tri­umphant cries of “Domino!” can’t be far be­hind.

Top-level play­ers are of­ten able to de­ci­pher which tiles their fel­low play­ers are still hold­ing by mem­o­riz­ing all the pre­vi­ous plays in a game, much like a good black­jack player counts cards to give him­self an edge.

Catch a friendly domino game while in St. Ge­orge’s, Gre­nada.

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Dominoes is hot in Ha­vana.

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