To paraphrase Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) in Goodfellas, “As far back as I can remember, I wanted to be a domino player.”
When I was a kid and I’d go with my dad over to his cousin’s house to visit the relatives (who were originally from Kansas City and Bigfoot country, Seguin, Texas), the men at some point would depart to what would be termed a Man Cave today, a room off the garage really, to play “bones”--dominoes, that is. Us kids weren’t allowed back there unless one of the wimmin’ folk had a message for one of us to deliver. When I got to do it, I’d just stand there in the doorway to their room, watching the fancy set of ivory dominoes, face down, getting mixed over the surface of the card table. The men would be smoking Camels or Lucky Strikes, my dad’s brand, with cans of Hamm’s or Pabst beer at the elbow of each one of them.
I didn’t know then how they figured out, what with all those dots on those tiles, their scores. But the men would call out “ten” or “fifteen,” and sometimes one of them would be ecstatic and slap down a domino with gusto and yell out “twenty,” to the consternation of the others. I can’t remember now if it was Pop who taught me, or how I picked it up; but, wow, once I learned the game, I found out it was part luck--you draw your dominoes face down so you don’t know what you’ve got until you got ’em--and part strategy, as there are moves when you can block another player from putting down a tile or you can lock up a frame if you think you have the lowest amount left in your hand, then you receive the points of the others.
The game of dominoes, or so I’ve cobbled here from them Internets, is believed to have originated in China in the 12th century, though Egyptian or Arabian origins are also theorized. Dominoes appeared in Italy in the early 18th century, and spread to the rest of Europe throughout the remainder of the 1700s, becoming one of the most popular games in family parlors and pubs alike.
The word domino appears to have derived from the traditional appearance of the tiles--black dots on a white background--which is reminiscent of a “domino,” a kind of hood, worn by Christian priests.
Unlike chess, playing dominoes isn’t a metaphor for other aspects of life. But puffing on a good cigar, maybe a short glass of rum or scotch at your elbow, some Coltrane or John Lee Hooker on the juke, three or four other players around the table, coupled with some mild trash-talking, and you’ve got yourself an afternoon of fun and frolic, my friend. And as you can see from the graphic to the left here, there are various domino tournaments sponsored by diverse entities. There’s this one that seems to be a combination of playing the Madden 11 NFL game on Xbox and dominoes. I wonder if, like so-called Chessboxing, you have to play the video game, gain a level, then freeze the game and play a round of dominoes, going back and forth. Then there was also a domino tournament in Houston sponsored by La Gloria Cubana cigars, which makes a fine product, as far as I’m concerned.
But the best tournament has got to be the one in Abkhazia. A place that sounds like one of these countries you’d make up for your thriller novel. It’s on the Black Sea, and apparently the people there see themselves as independent, though others would say they are part of Georgia. Anyway, skipping lightly over that deep bone of contention, it turns out they get down in Abkhazia. They had themselves their eighth domino championship go-round last October. The Dominican Republic took the top honors, with a team of Abkazian and U.S. representatives coming in 14th place.
So--snap!--I know what I’m doing this coming October. Getting myself ready for the ninth annual worldwide smackdown camp-peen-ship. Abkazia, here I come!
(Editor’s note: Readers of Gary Phillips’ work will recall that the game of dominoes figures in a couple of his Ivan Monk detective adventures, particularly in “Boom, Boom,” one of the tales included in his soon-to-be re-issued book, Monkology: 15 Stories From the World of Private Eye Ivan Monk.)