My official introduction to the game of dominos begins one day when a flash of reflected sun catches my eye. As I move in its direction, my curiosity draws me over to a popular curbside hangout. The three-foot tall beacon of light is a trophy! There are five men next to it in chairs basking in glory over winning the annual Villa Riva Domino Tournament. I am lured over to meet the local heroes and learn a thing or two about the game.
In typical Dominican fashion, the players reward my curiosity with a friendly invitation to sit down and join them. One man politely offers me a wooden chair that appears solid, despite a collage of repairs. From my rickety seat, I observe at length this multi-layered game I had previously disregarded as simply matching dots.
The sound of dominoes being shuffled can be heard throughout every pueblo in the Dominican Republic. During weekdays after lunch and into the night on weekends, people play on street corners and under banana trees. This game is the number one past time for most men. Makeshift surfaces for playing pop up out of nowhere while other tables are permanent fixtures finely crafted with special drink holders to accommodate refreshments.
There are four players at a table made up of two teams. The first team to accrue 250 points first wins. Points are awarded for a variety of skillful moves. Most points are gained when one teammate plays his last domino and the dominos remaining in the opponents hands are counted and tallied. The game is all about counting and tracking the domino pieces to prevent the opponents from slamming down the winning piece.
Stevie (Wonder) He is in his mid-sixties and wears extra dark, oversized, wrap-around sunglasses. His smile exudes pride with his place at the winning table. Stevie has on a pair of incredibly hip leather boots. His edgy appearance is authentic and easy, like a true rock star at the peak of his career.
Tigure (Tiger)- This dude has a style typical of the men who enjoy carousing in the streets and mingling with the ladies. His unbuttoned shirt exposes multiple layers of gold chains, while ferocious tigers stretch out their claws on the loudly colored polyester garment. His jewelry announces that he has money from Nueva Yor (New York).
Nike A jokester in his mid twenties, this guy is full of annoying comments to distract the opposing team. He uses smart-aleck remarks and other board-side antics to entertain himself while others are thinking. He is quick and strategic. His flashy grin says the same thing that the logo on his t-shirt represents, Just do it! BAM! He smacks down a domino, brilliantly placed.
Tortuga (Turtle) He is the oldest of the bunch; still playing in his late seventies. Squinty eyed and pensive, he never looks away from the board or speaks. He wears a pair of flip-flops worn down to a 1/8 of an inch with stapled toe-straps. He believes that being slow and steady wins the game.
Professor This retired high school math teacher sits quietly off to the side of the table as the fifth member of this team. His role as score keeper is of crucial importance to the game. Professor uses speed and a mathematicians intellect to calculate each score in the blink of an eye before the dominos are flipped over and shuffled for the next round.
SCORING, STRESS, AND SUCCESS
The tablet in which scores are recorded and tallied is a historic relic representing hundreds of hours passed playing dominoes. These are hours of conversations shared, bonds strengthened, and bottles of rum emptied. The pages of the score book have softened, each sheet covered from top to bottom with columns of numerals printed in a variety of manuscript styles and pen colors. The teams are listed not by name, but by symbols l or - , indicating if the team is sitting parallel or perpendicular to the street.
In the hours I sit observing, I learn how to close the game, when to shout, Kapi, kua! and the meaning of truncado. I learn that it is not cheating if you look to see what dominos the other players hold if it is the last round and your turn has passed. In a tight game, entire crowds will move and huddle behind the remaining players, straining to see who has the winning ficha (domino). Not even the click, click, click of a lady in heels will tear eyes off the board at the end of a close round.
After a lengthy and thorough study of the game, the moment comes when chairs scoot, the table wobbles, and a voice hollers, Let the Gringa play! Professor announces he will be my teammate. I pray I dont disgrace him or myself. I take a deep breath, push away my illusions of numerical inadequacies, and put on a game face. I smile to myself thinking it will be impossible to fool these guys.
As we begin, I feel out of synch with the rhythm of the plays. I need more time to think, and these guys make quick decisions. Occasionally, I just throw down a domino in haste, with an air of confidence to hide my lack of understanding. Though I have played before, I am nervous and confused most of the time. It is clear when I make a stupid play as someone tells me frankly, Necesitas contar. You need to count. I shrug in ignorance and give a weak smile. However, I also fool them some of the time with lucky plays. Thats when they say to each other, Ella sabe jugar. She knows how to play. This comment puts force behind my plays, and soon I am slamming the pieces down almost as loudly as the experts.
I keep asking who is winning because the rounds end before I can count up the score. Just when I am starting to see dots on the players faces, Professor and I win the match! I am completely astounded. I wonder if it was an honest win. The players appear convinced that I know what Im doing. Im elated and begin to imagine myself leaving my Peace Corps projects behind to lead a life filled with domino tournaments and product endorsements.
The group invites me back to play another day. I continue to learn more strategies each game, though the losses are stacking up. Fortunately, it hasnt changed their impression of my playing ability. Whenever I see Nike at the corner colmado, he flashes me a bright smile and announces to everyone, La Gringa sabe jugar!