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
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.
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.
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.