The Only Game in Town

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

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

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