The Only Game in Town

Why the author thinks Dominoes is the world’s best game, and he its best player.

March 1975By Comments

I have been urged to write this dissertation about the Game of Dominoes simply because I am the world’s foremost expert. I cannot recall ever having lost in Dominoes except for a random game here or there slyly donated to aid personal pity or long-range strategy; never, however, have I lost a series. Ever. Even when ill, or playing in the rain.

Every Domino title or honor available in 47 states and the District of Columbia is mine; I here challenge the cowardly other three states, plus all known districts, territories, or possessions and will spot them the shape of the table. Indoors or Outdoors.

I am particularly renowned as the State Domino Champion of Texas, having won the title in 1938—at age nine—from my father; it was earned rather than inherited. No other King of record ever has lost a championship Domino series, tournament, or challenge once past the age of puberty. This demanding history caused my father to die of a broken heart only 34 years after I beat him. I loved the old man, but I am not particularly sorry he squandered his double-five when blank was the spinner and I held the five-blank. Poor Dad, his fatal weakness was a failure to respect the potential damage of repeater rocks.

Even so, my father several times held the World Domino Championship. Things are not so clear-cut in this jumbled age, but back in the 1930s the World Domino Championship was settled every Saturday afternoon in a small hut behind Loren Everett’s combination filling-station and ice-house in Putnam, Texas. I saw the Greats almost from the cradle. Standing barefoot and wide-eyed among other village “sweaters” as we learned their idiosyncrasies or cracking points. Old Man Bob Head, grizzled and unshaven in faded Big Mac overalls, was a long-range plotter; once he had you drawing from the boneyard, he would domino for enormous profits and beat you in two hands. He couldn’t stand jawboning, however—a fatal weakness: a good Domino player must keep his cool. In such ersatz intellectual games as golf or chess, where one must only put one ball in one hole or leap willy-nilly from square to square, silence is required of spectator and competitor alike. The good Domino player learns to shake off crowd noises or heckling the same as the boxer or football player and has much more on his mind.

Quick of temper, Old Man Head was always an easy mark for my Uncle Claude. Uncle Claude, the town barber and an incurable optimist who ran for county commissioner nine consecutive times despite no overt encouragement from the voters, was a front-runner—one who would talk you to death should he get a 30-point jump: “Say-Mr. Head, how much is six and fourteen? Why, I do believe I made twenty!” Or, having scored on three successive plays, “There’s a rule—ain’t they—that if you can’t count you got to pass or draw from the boneyard?” Let the slaughter continue and he would drawl, “Mr. Head, I’m thinkin’ of teachin’ Dominoes. You reckon you could scrape together enough people to join my beginners’ class?” Old Man Head, furious, would blunder time and again: overlook a count, forget whether aces or deuces had been established as the spinner, miscount the number of blanks or sixes still out.

Uncle Claude, in turn, never could beat unflappable old Franklin Pierce Shackelford, the farm-implement dealer. A fat, red-faced, white-haired man who looked like South Boston politicians I later would know, Mr. Shackelford never panicked. “Church ain’t over ’til they sing,” he’d mildly remark while Uncle Claude attempted to blitz and intimidate him; he would pause for long cogitations, causing Uncle Claude—who preferred his Dominoes hectic and rapid-fire—to drum the table impatiently. By game’s mid-point, Mr. Shackelford would begin to nickel-and-dime Uncle Claude to death: gimme five, gimme another five, gimme ten, gimme five. My uncle would begin to sweat; his eyes would dull; his chatter would become more mechanical and desperate. Invariably, Pierce Shackelford nipped him at the wire—by five points, ten, rarely more than fifteen. Long before football taught me of those curious mental tugs and tides that establish winners, I learned in that old Domino Hall something of “team momentum.”

Though Pierce Shackelford was a patient technician, he seldom could beat my father. When they had become old men, and my father visited Putnam, Mr. Shackelford said, “Clyde, I’ve always wondered how you beat me so regular. I know I knew Dominoes as good as you. But for 30 years you beat me three times outta four.” My father grinned and suggested it had been four times outta five. “Well, whatever, Clyde. Anyhow, I never could figger it out. You just wasn’t all that much better than me.” My father laughed: “Why, Pierce, I never tried to play scientific against you. I let you do all the heavy thinking and worrying. I taken every count I seen on the board without worrying about my next play or what I had in my hand.” Mr. Shackelford was at once astonished and skeptical: “Naw, Clyde, that’s the way amateurs play.” Vastly pleased, my father said, “Sure ’nuff, now, Pierce. Your style was to always figger out what I’d do next. And I knowed if I didn’t know then you couldn’t know neither. So I just taken the count, even if it looked like I was cutting off my nose to spite my face.” Mr. Shackelford turned red, rose with great dignity, and stiff-legged it to more gentlemanly precincts.

Though Dominoes constituted a large part of the community’s social life along with political pie-suppers and church doings—everyone played family tournaments at home, and challenged the neighbors—Putnam’s more pious mothers warned their sons (and, sometimes, their husbands) against visits to the Domino Hall. Community women, barred form the premises by custom and breeding, conjured up lurid fantasies of drunkenness, foul language, gambling, and possibly diseased naked dancing girls. Occasionally, a lad did hear mild expletives uttered in distress, or witnessed sullen losers required to pay the house nickel after each game; tempers sometimes flashed, and there was a fistfight or two. My father permitted me to sweat the games, so long as I didn’t tattle to mother. I was about nine, on a cold, rainy Saturday afternoon with the Domino Hall virtually empty, when my father unexpectedly invited me to join him in partners against old Tom Brandon, a cattle trader, and my Uncle Claude. It made me dizzy with joy; I felt I had become a man as surely as if I had been bar mitzvahed.

After holiday feasts or during family reunions, the Dominoes were broken out as soon as dishes had been whisked from the table. These games taught me something of the grown-ups. Uncle John Gilbert, I deduced, was not naturally competitive: he laughed too much, enjoying himself even in defeat. Uncle “Vit” Vittitow, though an honest man, so cherished victory that one had to take care he wouldn’t claim the “down” out of turn. I learned that my father held a grudge against a certain old uncle long before I knew its roots, simply because Dad played against him with such grim dedication and flashed a tight, hard grin in victory. Only last summer, when my mother’s people—the Clarks—convened at Lake Cisco, I reestablished blood and cultural ties over the Domino table with cousins who had become semi-strangers. I hope they will understand a reporter’s obligation to reveal that I won the tournament, taking seventeen of twenty-one games. They played honorably and well; it was their bad luck to have a real Champion in the family.

The last time an outsider challenged me for the Texas State Domino Championship was in the summer of 1972; the unfortunate’s name was Wayne Oakes, who wore the colors of Austin. Mr. Oakes is a nice fellow, a reputable citizen, and looks reasonably good in his clothes; he just doesn’t understand Dominoes very well. The match began at mid-day in a Hill Country tavern, moved on to a second tavern, and then a third, before being finished after dark on Mr. Oakes’ home table in Austin. It is my duty to report that I beat him sober, drunk, whistling, left-handed, and with him marking; I do not recall that Mr. Oakes scored so much as 95 points in a single game, 250 points being required to win. He has, I hear, retired from competition.

Understand, now, I am talking about “straight” Dominoes. None of your so-called “Forty-Two” or its disgusting derivatives such as “Nello”—which is simply “Forty-Two” ass-backwards—or other tutti-frutti versions. These are games for children and ribbon clerks, games as pointless and as sissified as Bridge, games as mindless as Checkers or Old Maid; they would put an insomniac to sleep. Why, better to play Monopoly, Lincoln Logs, Pick-Up Stix, Chinese Checkers, or other Christmas games requiring no skill. Absolutely no science reposes in “Forty-Two”; it is the equivalent of paint-by-numbers sets. A random game of chance, its addicts are those who have failed at “straight” Dominoes and covet an occasional accidental victory. Even married couples can play it and, what’s worse, they do.

Only if no other game is available will the true straight Domino aficionado consent to play four-handed “partners”: the only testing that matters comes in two-handed games, one-on-one, where one man faces another eyeball-to-eyeball until somebody blinks. (Notice, please, I said “where one man faces another”: it is not a sexist remark to report factually that no female who ever lived played a decent game of Dominoes; such information is simply and purely a matter of historical record.) In playing “partners,” one may be victimized by the capricious or whimsical malpractices of a misguided ally or by cheating opponents who employ covert, illegal signals by hand, eye, or verbal codes.

When one Domino player faces another, however, the showdown is as lonely and inevitable as the old western six-gun fight: the slow gun will die. Infrequently, it is true, the slow gun may accidentally snap off a lucky round. Over the distance, however, with class having the better statistical chance to assert itself, the fast gun will win. This is why, when challenged to do a championship match, I require all pretenders to agree to a minimum of fifteen games; those who capture as many as five are entitled to rematches within six months.

This has only happened once. In 1948, when I was a war veteran attempting to re-adjust to civilian life and had double-pneumonia besides, I escaped with only a 9-6 victory over Mr. A. L. (Al) Purvis of Fort Worth. In the rematch, I smashed him fifteen-love; Mr. Purvis now sells real-estate. From 1949 to 1961, I lost not a single game in championship match play. In the rain and wearing broken eyeglasses, I was held to a 12-3 victory about four years ago to Dr. LaMoyne Livingston of Comfort, Texas; he has since moved his practice to another town and has joined Dominoes Anonymous.

I shall give no detailed explanation of Domino rules here, assuming that anyone who has played so much as one game thinks himself an expert; at least, my average challenger seems to be so inclined. I shall, however, happily, list those components I have found most valuable in a lifetime of unbroken Domino successes:

• Intelligence: This is, of course, a mere affirmation of the obvious. Dominoes requires more native brains than chess, calculus, or Harvard College, and I say this as a former professor. The race is always to the swift. You will see why it is such a brainy game as we move along.

• Confidence: Getting it is no problem; keeping it is. Approximately 64 per cent of my former opponents have sought mental-health therapy.

• Defense: George Allen, coach of the Washington Redskins, preaches that defense wins football games. So, too, with Dominoes. I will eschew counting—whether five or thirty-five tempts me on the board—if it appears likely my opponent may hold a repeater rock. The secret is to score only when the odds are against the opponent repeating or topping your count. To use another football analogy, don’t give up any cheap scores; he can’t beat you if he can’t score. Should your opponent appear eager to run fives on you, cut them off as quickly and mercilessly as you would a mooching in-law: fives are lethal scoring weapons, the hydrogen bombs of Dominoes.

• Flexibility: Each rule has its exception. When faced with an opponent who himself plays defensive Dominoes, I unexpectedly blitzkreig him for two or three rapid big counts—fifteen, ten, twenty—and then, as he throws caution to the wind, I abruptly shift back to a steel-trap defense. Usually, he’ll play wild for one or two more plays, taking counts I’m likely to match or top, before realizing he’s been had. By then, he’s out of control and you can beat him humming.

• Aggression: One need not play conservatively simply because one honors defense. Anytime I have four or more Dominoes of the same suit, I will ignore obvious counts in order to “pass” my opponent and send him to the boneyard in long, vain searches for the needed trey or six. If you are running blanks, aces, or deuces on him, then he’s got to draw some god-awful big ’uns. You then domino for excessive profits, demoralizing him beyond quick recovery.

• The Down: When one has the “down”—i.e., the opportunity to play the hand’s first domino—more opportunities than simply scoring present themselves. Inferior players, unable to make ten on the down, grow churlish; often they foolishly settle for making five when they might better use their down to establish the suit they prefer as the spinner, or rid their hands of large garbage: a lone six-five, etc. If one is faced with the down and has absolutely nothing in one’s hand to promote, thought may be given to fouling up the opponent’s hand. For example: should you own a given double and no others in the suit, then down it. Your opponent likely has at least one in the suit, and if your hand is varied you are almost guaranteed to play on the other end. This also prevents his establishing the spinner of his choice. If you happen to down the double in a suit where he’s strong, keep playing on the other suits so he must cut off his own preferred rocks and can’t accumulate in the spinner-suit toward a cinch domino. The “down,” like football’s specialty teams, may break a close game wide open.

• Psychology I: Again, as with football, Dominoes requires mental preparedness. The player ready to play is halfway home. One must not let one’s attention wander to television sets, the jibes of hecklers, or small fires. One chatters incessantly to those who abhor it, and remains mute in the presence of most who would talk. Even while chattering, however, the superior player will be certain that the calculating corner of his brain never rests. If you can’t verbally thrust and riposte while keeping your mind on the dominoes enough to observe your opponent’s pattern and recall what rocks have been played in each suit, then silently suffer your opponent’s wiseacre cracks until you’ve beaten the poo-poo out of him. Then let him decide who’s dumb.

• Psychology II: After you’ve obliterated an opponent in a given hand—or game—idly say, “One day, Oakes, I sure would like to know why you played it that way.” This implies the sheerest stupidity on his part, and gives him something extraneous to think about during the next few hands.

• Psychology III: Since the loser of the previous game always gets the “down” to begin the next, never fail to remind him “The pig-tail gets the down” or “The down goes to the weeper” or “The down’s to the man an hour late and a dollar short.” There are endless variations: just be certain to brand him a loser in his own mind as frequently as possible.

• Psychology IV: Late in a hand, should you be in possession of a great number of rocks because you’ve been forced to draw from the boneyard until it’s bare or nearly so, casually remark, “You’ve got the five-deuce and the double-four,” or whatever is appropriate. This is possible by knowing what’s on the board and in your own hand. Many opponents will be disconcerted by your declaration, even if capable of the same trick themselves. After you’ve successfully called an opponent’s hand in this manner two or three times, then miscall one of his rocks. He’ll be so eager to prove you wrong he’ll likely play it at the next opportunity; if you’ve figured it right, he thus plays the rock you want him to play.

• Psychology V: Laugh, as if you didn’t intend to, while your opponent is studying the board. He’ll be so determined to discover the danger you’ve convinced him exists that he may overlook the obvious, and thus blunder. For good actors, a sigh, a slight headshake, and a fleeting grin will work as well.

• Psychology VI: Play rapidly against those who ponder or hesitate; conversely, slow down against those who love slam-bang action. This is easier than it sounds: while your slow opponent is pondering, you have the opportunity to ponder the various potential options without appearing to. Thus when he plays, you snap back so quickly he thinks he’s pitted against a computer. This gives him no breathing room; no sooner has he made his difficult choice than he’s forced to think out yet another difficult decision. It helps to say periodically—quietly, and with a touch of solicitation—“Do you pass?,” as if to indicate he faces an impossible situation, or soon will. Against the action-loving foe, on the other hand, never say a mumbling word during those long silences while you pretend to ponder: do not answer his questions, the telephone, or a small child’s pitiful cry for help. Do nothing to assist time’s slow passage. Even after you select the rock to be played, pause with your arm in mid-air, purse your lips thoughtfully, and then place it ever so slowly and gently down.

• Psychology VII: If it appears your opponent is likely to domino—that is, end the hand by playing his last rock before you can—then get rid of your larger rocks. The primary reason is obvious: to keep from being caught with a big count in your hand. The second benefit is more subtle: if your opponent catches you with four rocks, say, he’ll have sugar-plum visions of scoring no less than 35 points. If you surrender, against those great expectations, noting more than blanks, aces, deuces, and treys, he’ll be disappointed and demoralized. This is especially effective after you’ve dominoed on him for large profits, and he has anticipated sweet revenge.

• Psychology VIII: At the point where it appears most propitious—and here you must judge your man, whether you should act when the game is close or as you begin to pull away—you kindly and innocently ask the opponent whether he is capable of beating a notoriously bad Domino player of mutual acquaintance, as: “Burnett, have you ever beat ole Wayne Oakes?”

• Psychology IX: When ahead, or after enjoying a particularly profitable hand, announce the score during each subsequent shuffling of the dominoes; when behind, yawn and otherwise act as if the score is a matter of supreme indifference at that point in time.

• Psychology X: Appear totally astonished when you quickly “go out”—i.e., win a game—as: “My God, already?” You may follow by saying, “Gee, I didn’t realize . . .” and let it trail off. Or say, “Mercy, that’s the quickest I ever ….” It may make the opponent super-cautious in the next game: he won’t want to be understood too quickly. You are then free to take bold gambles while your opponent—concentrating on keeping the score respectable—may be timid in claiming repeater counts or reluctant to initiate his own offensive.

• Psychology XI: After a particularly close game, especially if your opponent appears pleased by his effort, say: “You’re a little rusty, Wayne, but otherwise that really wasn’t too bad.”

• Psychology XII: If safely ahead of an opponent, and you need five or ten to win when it is your down, do not down the rock that would put you out. After you make the necessary five or ten on the board, smile and permit your opponent to realize you kept the game going longer than necessary. This implies the utmost contempt for his skills, and is particularly shattering in the early going.

• Psychology XIII: Against a pressing, desperate foe periodically ask—as if you aren’t keeping track—“Whose down is it?” Eventually, backed into a corner and fearing to lose the game during the next hand, he’ll claim a down out of turn. One then looks sincerely puzzled and says, “No, wait—I believe you downed the six-four that time and got in all that trouble. Isn’t that right?” He’ll agree, of course, reaffirming that he was in deep trouble and, hopefully, will feel cheap and guilty as cheaters properly should.

• Psychology XIV: Never appear to doubt the tall tales of your opponent, no matter how improbable. Except for us Champions, who have no need to gild the lily, Domino players are incorrigible liars and braggarts. Smile, nod, and politely murmur as your opponent tells of humiliating ole Joe or ole Bill or ole Bob. Then you say in admiration, “Gee, Cedric, you must have really been good . . . back then. Gimme twenty-five….

These tips, while helpful to amateurs, are largely known to the ranking players of Texas. The real professional secrets I shall reserve until next faced with a worthy challenger, if any. You don’t think Amarillo Slim would show you his hole card, now do you?

What To Play With …

A serious Domino match is usually played with ivory rocks. But in the West Texas oil patch, many of the best players have a set of A.L. “Babe” Ringle’s mesquite dominoes.

Ringle lives in Big Lake, a small oil town about an hour’s drive from San Angelo, Midland-Odessa, or Big Spring. He finds mesquite in the pastures near Big Lake, cuts it into strips in his garage, and then into small blocks the size of dominoes. After sanding and varnishing several times, he works the dots in with a drill, paints them with a cotton-covered toothpick, and makes a box for the set. Needless to say, he can’t make too many at this rate, but he makes all he can and he sells all he makes. His dominoes can be purchased in Big Spring, Odessa, San Angelo, Rankin, and Big Lake, as well as in Ruidoso and Artesia, New Mexico. Oh, yes. He has also sold 36 sets to Neiman-Marcus.

When The Pips Are Down

Dominoes is easy to learn and hard to master. Any ten-year-old can grasp its fundamentals; after that his progress is largely determined by his own cunning and other personality skills that cannot be taught.

The game is played with 28 rectangular blocks known as dominoes, or rocks. The face of each domino is divided in two, each half containing markings similar to a pair of dice—except that some are blank. The 28 dominoes represent all possible combinations from double blank to double six.

In two-handed Dominoes, the players draw for the right to start the game (known as the down). After the dominoes are reshuffled, each player draws seven; the remaining fourteen rocks go into the boneyard to await the unwary or inattentive player. Any domino may be played on the down, but subsequent play is restricted: players must follow suit by matching the pips (spots) on the exposed ends of the dominoes. Rocks are placed end-to-end, except for doubles, which are set down at right angles to the main line of dominoes. The first double played becomes the spinner and may be developed in all four directions, but other doubles do not affect the direction of play.

Players may score in two ways. After each play, the number of pips on all open ends is added; if the sum is divisible by five, a player scores the total. (A six-four on the down would score ten for the opening player; his opponent could retaliate with a six-one to score five). When a player puts down his last rock with a triumphant “Domino!” he scores the value of the pips in his opponent’s hand. The strategy is simple: score, keep your opponent from scoring, block his plays and make him draw from the boneyard, and then go out. Game is 250, or anything else you want to make it.

That’s all you need to know to become State Domino Champion except Larry L. King’s telephone number.

. . . And Where To Play

Some of the best Domino players in Texas live in and around the town of Taylor 30 miles northeast of Austin. For many years they would gather at Zieschang’s Bar and Cafe in nearby Noack, until the day several years ago when the place burned to the ground. Undaunted, the regulars continued to play on the slab until the cafe was rebuilt. Domino Parlors inspire this kind of loyalty, and in return, they have enriched the social and cultural lives of their communities. The pervasive smell of stale beer that seems common to most Domino Halls leads the uninitiated to describe them as “dives”; in truth, however, that smell is as much a part of Dominoes as the crisp scent of autumn is of football.

Where to play—Austin: Town Pump Lounge, 1500 Barton Springs Road (country and western music and shag carpeting); Corpus Christi: Wilson Building Sandwich Shop, 613 Leopard (everyone from businessmen to ranchers); Dallas: Pla-Mor Recreation Club, 1913 Commerce (offers Bridge and Pool also); Forth Worth: Idle Hours Club, 103 W. Exchange (near the stockyards); Houston: La Bodega Wine Cellar, 2402 Mandell (a highbrow pub with imported wines and cheeses); San Antonio: El Fenix Grill, 925 W. Houston (good sandwiches).

Put Up or Shut Up

“I’m a pretty good Domino player, but it’s a bad game. It’s too much of a sure-thing game. You can learn to be a perfect Domino player—there are plays that are automatically right and plays that are automatically wrong. Games like Backgammon and Bridge are still evolving; we’re not close to knowing all there is to know about them. The inferences in Dominoes are simple compared to Bridge. Anyway, who is this Larry King? I’d back Red McLaughlin of Oklahoma City against him any day.”—Oswald Jacoby, Dallas, world champion Bridge and Backgammon expert.

“Dominoes is a good game, an intriguing game. It’s very definitely a game of skill; I’d say it’s only about ten per cent luck. It requires a lot of concentration and thought. You tell Oswald Jacoby that if he posts $10,000 I’ll back another man from Oklahoma against Red McLaughlin, and if he’ll post twice that, this anonymous guy and I will play some partnership Dominoes against Mr. Jacoby and his Red McLaughlin. You can tell him that, you hear?”—T.A. Preston, Jr., Amarillo (Amarillo Slim), world champion Poker player.

Alaska, Montana, Rhode Island.

Unless it is the double-five.

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