I can remember playing dominoes as a kid and must say I was a bit surprised when I first arrived in Cuba to see so many people playing this “kid’s game.” The fact is, on one level, dominoes is just that. It’s a simple-to-understand game where players simply match up the dots while creating a line of tiles that snakes back and forth on whatever flat, playing surface can be found. The fact is, the game can be as easy or as complicated as those seated. While some insist on silence and concentration, others play the game like it’s an afterthought that happens to be taking place at a block party.
However, I can also remember playing “Black Jack” with my younger brothers (most likely, cheating). That’s a pretty simple game, too, but ask anyone that has seen “Rain Man,” and you realize a big part of mastering the game is counting the cards.
This, of course, is well beyond the bounds of my limited cerebral capacity, but I’ve been told that it’s how skilled domino players get an edge over their rivals.
There are several different ways to play the game, but the predominant method on the island is played with “Double 9” dominoes with two, two-person players, each taking 10 tiles, which leaves 15 tiles that are never seen. Taking that into consideration, a good domino player must figure out a strategy, by watching which tiles are played and the demeanor of his/her partner and their adversaries.
Dominoes is oftentimes considered Cuba’s “second national sport,” and over the past several decades, it has spread beyond the stereotypical “old men sitting around chomping on cigars.”
The game is literally part of Cuba’s societal fabric and brings together the old and young and builds lifelong relationships, complete with an insane amount of trash talk.
I must say it pleases me to have lost count of how many times I’ve sat across an old wooden table from Cuban friends, old and new, puffing on a Montecristo #4, taking a healthy swig of an ice-cold Cristal beer, and slamming down the final domino, to the chagrin of my Cuban opponents. Further proof that beginner’s luck is alive and well.