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Surviving Dominoes

Surviving Dominoes

by Andreas Clark

When they tell the story about how four fun-loving Cubans, partial to rum, the guaracha and pork, who haven’t seen each other in three weeks suddenly meet, and immediately make plans to have a great time next Sunday, to bring their wives and kids (if they have any) to sit around a table from noon to midnight, we might think that something is not quite right, that this story has got to be all wrong.

But it isn’t so far off; all that’s missing are a few details. First, at the table there have to be glasses half-full with rum, two ice cubes per glass. And if the rum is Havana Club Añejo Especial, all the better. It’s not that expensive and normally there is no hangover. Next, they are going to spend the afternoon playing a game that originated in the Far East, requiring concentration, memory, knowledge of mathematics, logic and tons of common sense. Do you get the picture? They’re playing dominoes.

As in poker, dominoes is one of those games that isn’t played with the tiles you have, but with the ones you don’t have and especially, with the head of your opposition, and above anything else, you play with your partner against other partners. That’s what makes it important because cooperation between partners will make all the difference.

For starters, one has to decide on the opener: even or odd? Each couple has to make that choice about a tile selected at random and placed face down in the center of the table. At that moment, invariably, one of the people designated to choose will say: los hombres no paren (Men don’t give birth), a play on words, specifically par (= even) resembling parir (= to give birth)]. Therefore, their choice will be on the odd or, the not-even. If they guess correctly, they get to open and if perchance they have it in their hands, they will undoubtedly start off with la caja de cerveza (the case of beer), the double nine. This is not the same as the double eight, which is called la caja de muerto (casket for the dead, or coffin).

If you don’t have the case of beer, sometimes you can have the caja de laguers (case of lagers), starting with another double because that is going to increase the possibility by one hundred percent that right off the bat you are going to see your opponent tocar madera (tapping on the table to pass) and begin the game in the sort of bad mood that is going to last right up to the end. But if you should begin with anything less than a double, something is wrong: it means that the person who opened hasn’t got a clue about how dominoes are played.

But watch out! That isn’t necessarily so bad because what is important is to win, and to win in dominoes you have to play well. Nobody better for this than the person who sits down at the domino table knowing nothing about the game. The worst that can happen to you is to sit down to a game and discover that one of your opponents, or even worse both of them, have never played before. If you win, it won’t be recognized as a real victory because winning over beginners isn’t really winning. However, if you should lose, and that does happen—unfortunately it happens much more frequently than you would expect—it will be a defeat that will be rubbed in your face over and over again, for the rest of the afternoon and in the most serious cases, until the day you die.

One of the central rules of dominoes is that nothing is relative and what has the most weight at the domino table is to forget the rules. Even though you may have heard it said that dominoes is a game invented by a mute, they also say that if others are talking, you should shout. Of course shouting just for the sake of shouting isn’t the point; you have to know what to shout and then shout as if you were the sixth dan Master of Dominoes, recently graduated from the Shaolin Temple, for example, crying out sin cola nacen los patos (ducks are born tailless) when you put a five down or when you hit the table with your tile exclaiming te cogió la puntilla (you got caught by the nail) revealing your contribution of the zero-one tile. Or screaming agachao (crouching) at whoever suddenly puts down a tile, which, had they done so two turns back, would have avoided making their partner pass their turn… and demanding dale agua (give it some water) whenever you think that the person shuffling the tiles before the game starts is doing it too slowly, too carefully or with something nasty in mind.

And there is something, or rather someone, who is always present at the domino table: the Prowler. That’s the person who doesn’t talk much, who circles around all the players, looking at everyone’s tiles, wearing the face of a philosopher, but never uttering a single word. The Prowler observes every tile, making it look like they understand every move and grimacing with approval or disapproval. But they are really envious, dying to play, but knowing full well that whenever they try, they lose big time. It doesn’t matter how many long, long nights they have tried to apply reason, to understand and to learn that damned game of dominoes, playing all alone in front of their computer screen. That person is me!

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