by Ricardo Alberto Pérez
The game of dominoes is one of the pastimes that best identifies the nature of Cubans. It covers every inch of the island, providing the preferred entertainment for its inhabitants. But the most interesting aspect of this activity is what goes on around the table where four players made up of two pairs vie against each other with singular fervor.
In official championships and in other regions of the world, seven rectangular tiles numbered from 0 to 6 are distributed to each player thereby putting 28 tiles in play; they are shared by the two battling pairs. But in Cuba, it is common practice to use ten tiles per player since this game runs from 0 to 9, with only forty of the fifty-five tiles in play. There will always be fifteen that are excluded from the proceedings and this adds greater mystery to the contest when players are deciding how to make their moves. When the tiles are stirred before getting distributed, the Cubans have a special name for this: darle agua al dominó.
The game inspires the same passions in the large cities like Havana and in the most remote rural areas. Every location reflects the peoples’ habits and cultural levels. Traditionally, years back, campesinos used to include dominoes in their local fiestas called guateques. That was very common in the days when electricity hadn’t yet reached those areas. In the main neighborhoods in Havana, it is not unusual to see dominoes being played on front porches, in parks and on the sidewalks.
Playing dominoes provides an excellent excuse for having a few shots
of rum with friends, of exchanging opinions on the political scene
worldwide and the latest gossip in the neighborhood in an informal,
pleasant manner. It is also great for getting together with people you
don’t get to see very often and so demonstrate their friendship with
them. It’s true that for some people dominoes is practically an
addiction. They need to sit down at the domino table day after day, very
often staying until the wee hours, finding it difficult to leave the
Dominoes have spontaneously left their imprint on popular Cuban expressions. Many sayings have evolved into language that is used to describe day to day situations. Two examples of this are the phrases viró con fichas [turned with the tiles] or se trancó el juego [the game has been cut off]. The firstone refers to the fact that someone has suddenlydone or said something completely unexpectedand the second one describes how some situationhas ended without any possibility of going on.
When families and groups of friends decide to spend a few days at the beach during the holidays, renting a house or going to a hotel on the coast, dominoes are always on the what-to-bring list. While you are waiting for a meal or at the end of the day, it is a perfect way to spend some relaxing moments.
Domino players fall into different categories. Their behavior depends on their temperaments. Some domino tables are rowdy and others are silent. Some players throw down their tiles with a loud “clack” and others place them on the table with great delicacy. In Cuba you will hear it said that the game was obviously invented by a mute person since any comments uttered may provide clues or useful information for your partner and that would generally be to the disadvantage of the adversaries.
Domino games are often surrounded by nonparticipant hangers-on who turn into impromptu game analysts. Since they are able to see everyone’s tiles around the table, they can criticize both the good and the bad moves throughout the game.
Even though some players are bona fide strategists, it is a fact that the game is essentially unpredictable. Nobody ever has the last word because luck is generally the determining factor for the proceedings.
Another curious detail is the way Cubans have been assigning names to the tiles over the years. The tiles’ nicknames depend a lot on the players’ quick wits and imaginations. For example, putting down a “1” is called puntilla or the blank tile is la que hinca; zeros are referred to as Blanquizal de Jaruco; threes are tres tristes tigres, fours are gato, six is Ceiba de Agua and eights are Ochoa.
Dominoes in Cuba are so popular that they have practically earned organized sport status with the best of our players representing the country at international competitions. Spontaneous tournaments are born in the neighborhoods, the initiative in most cases of the most enthusiastic local players, and they spotlight an amazing array of talent.
What can be more idiosyncratically Cuban than dominoes?
Dominoes in Santiago de Cuba
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