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York Daily Record

Dominoes: The Game Some Call Puerto Rico's National Pastime Is Popular Among Local Latinos

JENNIFER VOGELSONG, Daily Record staff

August 21, 2003
Copyright ©2003 Bell & Howell Information and Learning Company. All rights reserved.

Clink-clack, clinkity-clack, clink, clink, clack.

The clatter of shuffling domino tiles echoes through the halls of the Spanish American Center in York.

A new round begins in the all purpose room, and the clatter drops to a soft and regular clinking as each player takes his or her turn at the table in the corner.

Every few minutes, they toss out allegations of cheating and good- natured jabs along with their tiles.


Laughter erupts, punctuating the soothing clicking of the game pieces.

"Bueno, bueno ..." Blanca Silva tries to calm the group, stirred up after 69-year-old Rafael Montalvo accuses her of cheating to win the round.

As the center's senior program director, 44-year-old Silva often gets pulled into games of dominoes with the senior citizens who stop in three times a week to socialize, eat, make crafts, or play games.

Dominoes is a favorite pastime for members of this group, many of whom hail from Puerto Rico, where dominoes is king.

The game, easy enough for children, yet challenging for adults, is an important thread in the social fabric of many Latin American countries. Some men gamble on the outcome of the games, women socialize between rounds, and children compete in tournaments after years of playing dominoes with family and friends.

The Puerto Ricans transplanted to York have memories of old men setting up tables in the street as evening falls on the island, or uncles teaching children to play the game during family gatherings. All five of Silva's children play dominoes, even her 16-year-old daughter, who grew up here. "She loves to play."

Silva says dominoes is the most popular game among Latinos, but neither she nor Montalvo can explain why. "I guess it's because it's cheap to get you buy a set of dominoes and it lasts you forever," Montalvo says. "And you can take it anywhere." Unlike playing cards, dominoes won't drift away with an island breeze, and can be wiped off if they get wet and sandy on the beach.

Tiles lined up in front of him like freight cars in a train, Montalvo breaks out in song: "El sabe por donde se va ..." (He knows where he's going ...)," perhaps talking about the play 39-year-old Carmelo Tirado is preparing to make.

Montalvo's melody trails off, giving way to the tapping of Silva's long fingernails on the table, mixing with the tinkling of the tiles.

A set of 28 tiles, the most popular in Puerto Rico, can be used to play any number of games, including Double Six, Chickenfoot, Mexican Train and Spinner. Each presents its own challenges, combining competition with camaraderie.

"In Puerto Rico, there are people who can tell you what tiles you still have (in your hand) based on what is already on the table," Tirado says.

He spins a tile face down between his large fingers and watches the other three players make their moves in silent concentration. Silva says she's seen fathers shoo their children away from the domino table, telling the noisy young ones, "you're breaking my concentration."

In a serious match, looking away from the game can mean missing a play or failing to catch opponents cheating by passing subtle signals across the table indicating which tile to place. Whistling, or tapping the left or right foot are some common "trucos," or tricks, of cheaters. Smiling tells your partner you have the double six tile, which sports a full set of dots much as a smile shows off a mouthful of teeth.

Some players slam down tiles in hopes of intimidating their opponents. Montalvo plays in a more nonchalant manner, flipping his pieces into the middle of the table. But his aloofness doesn't fool Silva. "That doesn't go there," she scolds in Spanish, pulling back the two he tried to match with a three. "They caught me," Montalvo says, with a mischievous smile.

Dr. Miguel Lugo, author of the book "Competitive Dominoes," says he and other Puerto Ricans sometimes call dominoes the national pastime. "Everybody and anybody plays it," he says. "Like most great games, it's part luck, but there is also an intellectual aspect to it."

Lugo, an eye surgeon near Orlando, Fla., says many companies in Latin America, or in parts of the United States with large Latino populations, will often give away sets of dominoes with their company logo on the back, rather than pens or coffee mugs, during promotions.

Lugo collects dominoes, bringing back sets from Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and other countries. He even ordered a personalized set with stitched corneas engraved on the backs, representing his profession.

Catalino Gonzalez, 61, of York has been playing the game since he was a young man in his 20s living in Villalba, Puerto Rico. These days, he plays whenever he gets together with others, whether it be for a picnic, party or other social gathering.

"It's fun and relaxing," he says. "Some people dance, some like to listen to music. Others play dominoes."

Silva says it's not uncommon for games to last into the wee hours of the morning. "Dominoes is like a tradition for us." Reach Jennifer Vogelsong at 771-2034 or



There are many games that can be played with domino sets, and the rules vary from one country to the next, or even from one group of players to the next. But here are some basics on how to play Double Six, the most common form of the game:

A set of 28 domino tiles are placed in the center of a table, face down.

Four players sit around the table, partnering with the person across from him or her to make two teams of two players each.

One player shuffles the tiles by mixing them up with his or her hands.

Each player takes seven tiles, placing them in his or her 'hand' on edge, facing so that the other players cannot see them. Some domino tables have special ledges on the edges to help keep the 'hand' upright and hidden.

There are different ways to determine who will play first. One way is to have each player draw a tile and agree that whoever has the highest number tile starts the round. Once the first tile is placed in the center of the table, each person plays one domino in turn.

Each player must match the number of dots on an end of a tile in his or her hand to the open end of a domino already played. If the player cannot make a match, he or she must pass. Double tiles are traditionally placed on the table perpendicular to the tiles they match, forming a "T" shape.

Play continues until one player runs out of dominoes, calling out, "domino," or none of the players can make a match.

Each player counts the value of the remaining tiles in his or her hand.

The team with the low score wins.

The losing team counts the value of their remaining tiles and that total is awarded to the winning team.

A game continues until one team reaches a pre-determined score, usually 100 or 500 points.


Dominoes: small tiles traditionally carved from ivory or bone, with small, round pips of inset ebony. The tiles are used to play many different games and these days are more often made from wood or plastic.

Tiles: the actual playing pieces.

Pips: dots on the tiles.

Blank: an end of a tile with no pips.

Double: a tile with the same number of pips on each end.

Shuffle: to mix the tiles while they are face down on the table.

Line of Play: the configuration of tiles laid out on the table as the game is played.

Double Six: the most common dominoes game, played with a 28-tile set in which a double six is the highest value tile.



The oldest domino sets date from around 1120 A.D. Dominoes appear to be a Chinese invention, apparently derived from cubic dice. According to the Web site, each domino tile originally represented one of the 21 results of throwing two dice. One half of the tile is set with the number of pips from one die and the other half contains the pips from the second die.

Dominoes were introduced to Europe sometime in the early 18th century, making their first appearance in Italy, and later arriving in the Americas along with immigrants.

Scott Pitzer, general manager of Puremco Inc., a Texas-based domino company, says, "Dominoes was the game of rural America, the oil field, and of many southern protestant churches." Playing cards was considered to be a form of gambling by many churches, but dominoes was not.

Puremco was the last American dominoes manufacturer. In 2000, the company moved its production to China and Taiwan for economic and competitive reasons but still does the packaging, marketing and personalization of its dominoes in Texas.


The name 'domino' is thought to come from the French word for a Christian priest's winter hood, which was black on the outside and white on the inside. 'Domino' is also a style of mask featuring a black and white motif.

Like playing cards, domino tiles have faces and backs. The backs of the tiles are either blank or decorated with a design or logo.

Domino sets can be found in almost any color combination, but the most common combinations are white tiles with black pips and black dominoes with white pips.

Domino tiles are usually twice as long as they are wide and usually made to be exactly half as thick as they are wide so they can stand on edge without falling over. A domino tile can be of any size, but is typically about 1 inch wide and 2 inches long.


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