If you go out to Lake Buchanan and play Dominoes with Everett Scrivner, and stay long enough for him to get to know you, he may tell of the games and hustlers of the oil camps and the cotton towns out in West Texas, and recall the smoke and the silver-backed ivory dominoes and the oak-rimmed battleship linoleum tables of the teens, twenties, and thirties. You still hear about him in the Domino Halls, and I recently told him I kept hearing his name from the old-timers. I asked him if it was true that he had been the best in the world. “No,” he said, after some thought, “but I beat hell out of them that said they was.”
Everett grew up at Dermott in Scurry County, learned Dominoes as soon as he could count, and was a champion Domino player at nineteen. His first championship matches were the ones the players had themselves in the tents on Red Cross Row of the Burk oil boom in 1917. Scrivner had come to Burkburnett after his entire cattle herd froze standing up in the New Mexico blizzard of 1916. He and his wife Virgie—who calls him “The Wizard”—and infant daughter arrived in their covered wagon during the worst influenza epidemic on record. Pine boxes were stacked like cordwood on the freight wagons to Wichita Falls, and whoever was able to drive the wagons brought back aspirin, lemons, and canned soup to be passed out in Tent City.
Like Scrivner, the others had abandoned the plains of New Mexico, Texas, and Oklahoma. It was like a gold rush, except the fever was for work. They built oil tanks, throwing a twenty-pound sledge hammer twelve hours a day for 80 cents an hour; afterward, they cleared the cots and swept the floors and put their money down. Playing Dominoes and Poker and Pool, they forgot the sickness and failure and tasted winning. And they played. They played by lantern light until their eyes or the coal oil gave out. When they lost it was like bleeding and when they won they gave some back, and through it all they held a loaded piston on the tent flap.
The boom faded, and Scrivner went to work for the Fort Worth & Denver, then for the Santa Fe, playing as he traveled, taking the best the parlors had in Childress, Texline, and Amarillo. After 10,000 games, Scrivner had all the mathematical possibilities in his head. He says a seven rock hand has over 1,100,000 possible combinations. “When I set down across from a real Domino player and he downed first and I looked at my hand, I could just write on a piece of paper every play that was going to happen, and who was going to win and by how many points. You can’t do that with an amateur. No telling what somebody like that is going to decide to do. And there’s luck in Dominoes. There’s luck in what hand you draw and there’s luck in whether you know how to play what you get.”
Scrivner leased the basement of the building that is now Thompson’s Shoes on the southeast corner of the square in Snyder, and opened his own Domino Hall. “The house owned the dominoes, and if whoever it was played long enough, the house would own all the money. I made $55 a day, but expenses was high. Dominoes burned by a cigarette had to be replaced; if sanded down, a domino stood out. And one thing a hustler always saw was a different domino. I had two sets of genuine ivory dominoes for each of six tables. They cost fifteen dollars a set in 1934 and I hear they’re close to a hundred now. Ivory makes a lighter sound than those celluloid ones they still have. In 1934 you could walk into a Domino Hall and listen to the kind of dominoes they was shuffling, and know whether that parlor was making any money.
“Dominoes have to fit absolutely flat on the table. Battleship linoleum like you use on a domino table is abrasive. Dominoes will wear until they won’t stand on edge, and some tiles wear more toward the ends and become rockers. Old boy I knew would feel every domino during his shuffle, if it would rock enough for him to get his fingernails under it. Usually the boys that was good at that was dice players. Clay Patterson kept his fingers tender, to feel the spots on the dice. Or take Hogmouth Birdwell, he’d put on a pair of overhauls, shake his dice into his pocket, hang a cotton sack over his shoulder and set up down by the cotton gin. He didn’t pick any cotton, but he picked the pickers.”
Everett, a natural heavyweight, insisted on discipline in his parlors. The hustlers came through, making the December cotton money circuit from Lubbock through Post, Snyder, and Hermleigh, then through Big Spring to the oil patch gold of Odessa, Crane, and Rankin. A good Domino hustler could make $100 a day. “All the time I run a Domino Hall,” Everett says, “there wasn’t three who wasn’t cheaters. There was shufflers and there was markers and there was high-scorers —every time they would chalk they’d just add five. Old boy come in, he was a shuffler. He’d have five of a kind under one hand. He would come around in a circle, drop them off with that hand, and pick them up with the other, and go on around and drop them off over there. His hands were big enough, so you just couldn’t see there was dominoes under there. I watched him close for two months and finally I caught him, playing two old farmers. He was getting all their money, winning the game on his shuffle every time. I walked up and when he went to change hands with them dominoes, I just put my hands on his and held them, and I said, ‘Now just cut them dominoes out, I want to look at them.’ He had two doubles and the four biggest treys.”
“A lot of the old men that would come in regular were just trying to get out of the house. Maybe they lived with their children and at the Domino Parlor they could be boss again. They was all kinds. There was the neck yoke players. That was somebody who filled in if you needed another player and you paid for his games. And there was sweaters. They was players that didn’t play. There was this old boy sweating out a Domino game, sitting on the back of a cane-bottom chair with his feet in the seat. The one playing had a chance to make twenty and domino and he missed it and the other player pat blocked him and this old boy fell off that chair and picked it up and hit the one that had lost over the head with it. He had quite a bet on the side.”
Today, at 76, Scrivner says he’s not as sharp as in the old days. If his powers have declined, the only difference seems to be that he likes to rest every four or five games. Recently I completed my 52nd game with Everett Scrivner and the series tally stood at 5-47, guess whose favor. “I wish I was a good Domino player,” Scrivner allowed.
“I wish you was too,” I said.