Slap! Bang! Crack!
The domino player slams his tile, with a flourish, onto a sturdy card table, jumping to his feet. He wants everyone within earshot to know what a great play he just made. He’s pleased with himself. The other three players lean back in their chairs, pass a few comments. Some jokes are made (often at the expense of the losing players). Those standing nearby draw closer. They are waiting their turn to play in the next round – but they know better than to interrupt the game.
It’s another absorbing evening of dominoes at the local bar, accompanied by a sip or two of rum. Music plays on the sound system and there is much chatter in the background. But a game of dominoes is not just a social gathering; it is often full of drama. The four players seated at the table are very quiet for some time, concentrating hard - until a decisive move is made, when there is an eruption of noise.
Dominoes may seem like a simple game to the uninitiated. However, in Jamaica it is a discipline - an exercise in strategy, guile and computational skills.
“You just have to be alert,” insists Garfield “Birdman” Robinson, who plays dominoes for at least two hours every night in his close-knit Kingston community. “You must watch the game closely.” He says a good player does not have to be a mathematical genius; he/she must, however, have a good memory regarding tiles that have already been played, especially those of his/her partner.
Most Jamaicans play dominoes with a partner. “Cut Throat” dominoes (where individuals play for themselves) is not very popular. Serious domino players do not switch partners. The two players rely on each other. It’s a very close relationship, based on trust and understanding.
When played on a national scale, partner dominoes is a team sport. Regional teams or clubs compete in several sponsored tournaments, staged throughout the year. Some teams have militant names like Eradication and Strike Force and Fire Strikers. Others are more charmingly named: Rainbow and Peace and Love and Ackee Pod.
Administered by the Sports Development Foundation in Jamaica, dominoes was declared an official National Sport in 2010. In 2012 Jamaica hosted the 10th Annual Domino World Championship in Montego Bay, under the auspices of the International Domino Federation and Jamaica’s National Association of Domino Bodies (NADB). More than 20 countries and over 650 players attended.
First Vice President of the NADB – which has over 10,000 individual members - Humbert Davis notes: “Dominoes is the most edifying learning tool in Jamaica. We are very proud of our schools program, which focuses on Math and Comprehension, using dominoes. It’s about information, regeneration, and teaching the children how to observe, to perceive.”
The NADB’s program has been in twenty schools involving around 1,000 students, for four years now. “It’s a huge program!” Mr. Davis notes with enthusiasm.
Well, the “domino effect” has certainly been felt in Jamaica for some time. The game has ancient Chinese roots. Dominoes made their way to Europe in the eighteenth century and first appeared in Italy. For at least the past hundred years, the game has become a passion for Caribbean people of all ages – across social classes and age groups.
Although generally more men slap those tiles than women (Birdman admits his dominoes group is male-dominated), Mr. Davis says girls are always keen to play in the NADB school programme. Dominoes is not only played in bars, but also in homes, on verandahs, at private parties. Even on day trips to the seaside, a domino table is invariably set up. Domino games are a feature of “Nine Nights,” all-night gatherings where family, friends and neighbors celebrate the life of a person who has recently passed.
So, what is the secret of winning? “Stay alert, stay focused. That is the key to winning games,” asserts Birdman. “And you have to understand your partner.”
He adds: “The game of dominoes brings people together in unity. I also like to test myself, so it’s the competition, too. New contenders are always coming forward!”
(Photo Caption: Staff and colleagues of the Jamaica Social Investment Fund play dominoes outside JSIF’s booth at the 2016 Denbigh Agricultural Industrial Food Show in Clarendon, Jamaica. Photo courtesy of JSIF.)