Texas Primer: Forty-Two

Don’t tell a player that this Texas game is just luck—and don’t ever call it dominoes.

Have you ever played a game of 42? Chances are, if you’ve been around Texas very long, you have. The game, after all, was invented in Texas. It may be waning now—it’s hard to compete with Jacuzzis and VCR movies—but 42 endures. Granted, it’s not the major pastime that it once was, but it does and will survive.

What is 42? you may be asking. Well, it’s a domino game with rules like bridge. It is played with partners, the object being to win tricks, or rounds of play, and while doing so to capture “count rocks,” or point-scoring dominoes. The name 42 comes from the method of scoring. Each trick is worth one point, and each domino whose spots total five or ten is worth the total of its spots. When you add all the count rocks and the tricks together, the sum is 42. I won’t go on trying to explain it; just play 42 a couple times, and you’ll understand it far better than I could describe it here.

Some dismiss 42 as a game of luck. The late bridge expert Oswald Jacoby said it is, and a lot of Texas’ top domino players—Charles B. Wallace, Ralph Foster, and George McAlister among them—agree. Now, it may be true that the mathematical calculations required in 42 are less intricate than those required in regular dominoes. And the rules of 42 may be fairly simple compared with those for bridge. But 42 is no more a game of luck than poker is. Forty-two is a game of bluff, finesse, psychology, and calculated risk. The timid player never wins, nor does the compulsively intrepid one. Forty-two is a fast game with straightforward rules, but it is rough on those who don’t consider their opportunities seriously. Sort of like life, you might say.

Texan William Albert Thomas, of Garner, a town west of Fort Worth, invented the game of 42 as a boy of eleven in 1887. Card playing was frowned upon in Thomas’ family, so as a way to avert boredom, he and a pal named Walter Earle adapted the rules of whist, the popular predecessor of bridge, to dominoes. In a fairly short time, traveling salesmen spread the new hybrid pastime across the region, but the most avid 42 players were, and always have been, in Texas. The San Francisco—based International Domino Association, which controls all domino play on the West Coast, has never heard of 42. There is an East Coast domino league, based in New York, and guess what—no one there has ever heard of 42. The Encyclopaedia Britannica devotes six paragraphs to dominoes—originated in China, were carved from actual rocks, emigrated to Italy, spread throughout Europe, inspired Eskimos to gamble wildly on “bone” rocks made from ivory—but the entry makes no mention whatsoever of 42. Ah, but the Fun Encyclopedia, published in New York in 1940, says that 42 “comes close to being the national game of Texas.”

I should add that what appears to be the world’s largest domino manufacturer just happens to be in Waco. That’s right, deep in the heart of Texas. Puremco Manufacturing, the only domino factory in the Western Hemisphere, sells 75 percent of all its dominoes within the state. Of course you can buy those little toy dominoes made in Taiwan, or you might know a crotchety old hand in West Texas who would carve you a set out of mesquite. But realistically, if you want well-made dominoes, you’ll get them from Puremco.

And if you want to play 42, you’ll play it in Texas. The game even seems to be enjoying something of a revival, with statewide 42 tournaments now being held in Halletsville and Irving. Most of the time, though, 42 is played among friends in homes and domino halls. You might play it on a yuppie patio, in a high-pressure play-off in downtown Carthage, or maybe in the basement of a Baptist church on a Sunday evening after the service. Some summer night you might be lucky enough to play 42 at the kitchen table of folks who own a home where the windows go up and down and who haven’t yet heard the news that Texas has become cosmopolitan. When Uncle Homer bids 36 on three little trumps without the double, you can always say you were there the night he pulled it off.

But don’t bother to brag about it in Ohio, California, or Florida. They won’t know what you’re talking about. In Ardmore or Clovis or Shreveport they might smile, but venture farther than that and you’ll just draw a double blank.

Tags: THE CULTURE

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