Esta página no está disponible en español.


They Bond. They Brag. They Boogie. And The Game's Just Getting Started On Long Island

By Collin Nash

June 15, 2003
Copyright © 2003 Newsday. All rights reserved. 

Two hundred players seated at homemade card tables padded with carpet remnants went at it. Every so often, one of them leapt to his feet in a celebratory dance reminiscent of a touch-down boogie - its choreography punctuated with the player's pounding the table with all his might. Boom, boom, boom, boom.

Among the masses at the US Domino League's ninth annual tournament in Mount Vernon, N.Y., earlier this spring were teammates Mark McKoy and John Murray of Westbury, who sat across from each other in quiet contemplation, glancing at each other, then at the dominoes in their hands and finally at the ones laid out before them. They had yet to join in the victory jig, but not to worry. The tournament was still young. When you eat, sleep and breathe the game, Murray said, you don't dwell on the occasional trouncing. You just live for your chance to inflict sweet revenge. And that will come, he said, as surely as there are dots on the dominoes. "My whole life revolves around it."

It's a sentiment Murray, a transplanted Jamaican, shares with a great majority of his countrymen. To them, dominoes, a mainstay in most parts of the Caribbean and in Puerto Rico, is more than a game. It's a cultural institution. In Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx, home to large enclaves of Caribbean immigrants, dominoes are the backbone of social clubs, which double as the headquarters for local teams. While the clubs are less widespread in Nassau and Suffolk, their intensity is just as high, with much of the activity centered in hole-in-the-wall restaurants and grocery stores.

"The game has always been popular, but in isolated pockets," said Daniel Gough, president of the US Domino League and organizer of the Mount Vernon tournament, which drew more than a dozen competitors from Long Island.

The increasing popularity of the game has not been lost on corporations, many of which shell out sponsorship dollars at tournaments in hopes of cashing in on the lucrative Caribbean market. With major corporations such as Air Jamaica, Western Union, the Victoria Mutual Building Society, Guinness and AT&T coming aboard, Gough said the widening exposure has brought the game out of living rooms and dens and onto the social club and entertainment stage. "I anticipate it will grow even more as it gains more commercial appeal."

And, as they've done with another Caribbean mainstay, carnival, island nations have seized on dominoes as a means of boosting tourism.

In October, the oceanfront Renaissance Jamaica Grande Hotel in Ocho Rios will host the fifth annual World Championship of Dominoes. Teams from all across the Caribbean and the U.S. eastern seaboard - New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Florida, Maryland and Georgia and Washington, D.C. - will revel in the sun-drenched birthplace of reggae music as they compete for bragging rights and cold, hard cash totaling more than $50,000. To get to the world tournament, players must compete at qualifiers that will be staged in various cities throughout the Northeast beginning June 15. Tournaments like the one in Mount Vernon in March are considered warm-ups as partners prepare for highly competitive play.

A $50,000 purse is a lot of money for the once-humble game. Domino pieces have been traced to China as far back as AD 181. By the 12th century, variations of the game and the number of pieces - 21, 28 and 55 - cropped up in Italy, France, Russia, Egypt and China.

Straight dominoes, or the double-six game that is commonly played today throughout most of the Caribbean, was formalized by the French in the 18th century. French sailors, it is believed, introduced the game to the British, who introduced it to the colonies.

To the casual observer, dominoes looks like a simple game. Typically paired as partners, each of the four players picks a predetermined number of dominoes (called a hand) from the shuffled face-down dominoes on the table. Moving counter-clockwise - a tradition for most players from the English-speaking Caribbean - each player matches, if possible, the dots on his piece with dots on dominoes already played. The first person to play all his dominoes - or the one with the fewest dots left in his hand when nobody can make a play - wins. Domino heavies pride themselves on the ability to combine efforts with their partners to outmaneuver opponents. The ability to analyze, strategize, counter-strategize and memorize the game as it proceeds separates domino diehards from the novices.

On Long Island, the game is less about major tournaments and more about backroom games and boyhood memories.

Caribbean immigrants from across the Island, but especially in Nassau County, meet not only in their own homes but at local grocery stores and small eateries specializing in ethnic foods and products. At the Taste of the Island restaurant in West Babylon, commerce thrives alongside culture. In Uniondale, SM Grocery on Nassau Road bustled with activity one recent Friday evening serving takeout jerk, oxtails, escoveitched fish and other Jamaican staples while a steady procession of patrons dropped in to schmooze and quench their domino thirst in pickup games on the sole table in back.

There, Owen Greenwood was telling stories from his boyhood in Jamaica when a slight man hawking knitted red, green and gold caps came up to him. Spotting Greenwood's mountain of dreadlocks hidden beneath his black tam, the man launched into his sales pitch. Greenwood carefully examined the cap, stretching it with both hands buried inside. "This no big enough for my dreads, boss," he declared. The man insisted he try it. Whipping off his cap, Greenwood slowly unwound his dreadlocks, letting his hair fall to his waist, then to his knees and finally to the floor. "See what I'm sayin'?"

Greenwood, born and reared in the rough and tough capital of Kingston, picked up the conversation where he left off. "Every man come from yard [Jamaica] play domino," he said in thick patois. "It's like it's the national sport."

For some, it's an obsession.

"I've seen players so obsessed, you wonder about them," said Danny Pitter, a construction worker from Westbury. "Some guys, you can't even talk to them during a game."

Pitter attended a typical Friday evening domino gathering inside the tiny Bamboo Hut Restaurant on Urban Avenue in Westbury recently and talked about his love of dominoes. He picked up the game as a boy when he lived in Manchester, Jamaica, next to a grocery store that doubled as a bar and domino hangout. The way partners were able to communicate, as if by telepathy, fascinated him. At first "it was baffling," he said. But as he delved into the game, he found that the silent communication between partners was not so mysterious.

In domino lexicon, particularly among Jamaicans, this mode of play is referred to as open court or coded domino. Coding, a means of telling your partner what to play, takes a variety of forms. There's body language, such as the bat of an eye or tic-like movement. Or verbal signals, such as a cough or clearing of the throat. Mastering the coded game requires playing with the same partner over time. A wide and ever-changing repertoire of signals doesn't hurt, either. "Really good players can decipher your code," Pitter said.

In tournament play, the rules bar code.

"Coding is cheating," said Ruddy Schaaffe, the chief organizer of the world championships. Schaaffe, a Jamaican who lives in Miami, said corporate sponsors frown on coding, so he employs a variety of tactics to keep the event clean. A corps of referees patrols the playing area, which also is monitored by video cameras. If a player habitually scratches his head or has some sort of tic, the referees don't bother him, Schaaffe explained. But if every time this same player makes the same gesture his partner plays the same domino, he gets a warning. If it persists, he gets booted from the competition.

Backroom players bemoan the no-code rules.

"Plenty people say coding is not domino, but to me it's the highest level," said Norris Barnett, a Jamaica native from Brooklyn who recently was playing inside the basement home of his club, Social Machine, on East 51st Street in Brooklyn. "The mental game is a game of chance," he added, almost shouting to be heard above the din of four ongoing games, a small television with a Knicks-Celtics game and a sound system pumping out old-school reggae.

Differences in styles aside, the game itself is divided along national lines, and few appear to cross them except in organized tournaments.

Dominicans, Puerto Ricans and players from the English-speaking Caribbean play the double-six game; Cubans play with domino sets as high as double-nine. Cubans also play with nine pieces per player, while most others use seven. Typically, games among most Caribbean groups consist of two teams of two players. But players from Guyana often play the every-man-for-himself game. Cubans, who also play this game, call it "guerra," or war.

No matter the group, players constantly wage war - a war of words. Trash talking, boasting and good-natured insults are as much a part of the game as the nostalgic memories of home often stirred up by it. "It's the only game where you can inflict insults and rivals don't take it personal," Dave St. Hill said during the brief, reggae-infused intermission at the Mount Vernon tournament. A game of one-upsmanship, it goes hand in hand with bragging and ragging, said the Barbados native from Hempstead.

This makes it a mostly male affair.

But women such as Marva Forde are bucking that tradition. A native of Barbados now residing in Woodhaven, Forde was the sole female competitor in Mount Vernon. The only girl among six children, Forde said she learned the game hanging out with her brothers and their domino-playing friends. She's not the least bit intimidated by all the machismo and posturing that goes on, she said. In fact, she prefers playing with the opposite gender. "Their level of play is higher," she said.

The emotional outpouring can reach fever pitch.

High kicks were just as plentiful during the Mount Vernon tournament as high fives and table-pounding. Michael "Birdman" Jarrett leapt to his feet, prancing and jumping and making like a Rockette in a celebratory dance after chalking one up for his club, the 53 All Stars of Brooklyn.

At a nearby table, two pairs of rivals got into it after a midgame dispute erupted, causing a heated argument that took two referees to calm things down and order the game replayed.

Outside the roped-off playing area, Sharon Murray, Janet McKoy, Erica Kiren and Claudette Brown of the Bronx cheered at the top of their lungs. Decked out in white, they jumped up and down excitedly, pumping their fists in the air as they screamed "fire, fire, fire, go fire," in support of the Spitfire team from the Bronx. "We don't know the game that well, but we love to come out and cheer on the guys," said Brown, a sales associate for a discount furniture outlet in the Bronx.

Jillian Houston and Angela Steadman of Brooklyn watched the goings-on from the bleachers, where they kept tabs on the progress of their team, Social Machine from Brooklyn. In the end, Social Machine topped the other teams in Mount Vernon and took home the winning prize and airline tickets courtesy of Air Jamaica. "We love it," Houston said. "We look forward to coming every year. It's a chance to just let your hair down and mingle with others from home."

Romeo Simpson drives to Philadelphia from his Freeport home every Wednesday after work to play dominoes with his cronies from the Delaware Valley Sports Club. He doesn't return until early Thursday morning, he said, but his wife understands. "This is my hobby."

Throwing on a bright red shirt with the club's insignia over his church clothes, Simpson dashed out of the house to make the Mount Vernon tournament. "I will go to any lengths to play a game of domino."

Self-Determination Legislation | Puerto Rico Herald Home
Newsstand | Puerto Rico | U.S. Government | Archives
Search | Mailing List | Contact Us | Feedback