Dominoes: A Cuban Tradition

“Young Cubans gathered around a domino table under the sole streetlight at midnight in Arroyo Naranjo.”

My father always warned me that if you are interested in buying or renting a new home you need to ask the neighbors what they think of the area, and then go back during the evening hours to see what the neighborhood is like when everyone is done working and has had a few cocktails.  And so it happened that I found myself walking down a dark street in Arroyo Naranjo—my neighborhood just outside Centro Habana— at nearly midnight back in September.  I was relieved to see the same tranquility the neighborhood had during the day.  We walked up the hill on San Leonardo, in the middle of the empty street.  I enjoyed the silence, the clean air and the cool night breeze…all things I had been missing while living in the middle of el Vedado right off the Malecon.  The only noise I heard was a slight clicking and shuffling of plastic that got louder as we approached the top of the hill.  There, under the sole streetlight, was a group of young Cubans playing dominoes on an old card table as the neighborhood slept around them.  They sat, silently and studiously examining their pieces and shuffling them around the board, occasionally grimacing, smiling or muttering some phrase that sounded like gibberish to me, a domino outsider.  There was something poetic about the sight… beautiful, romantic and undeniably Cuban.

Being from the United States, the only time I ever remember seeing someone playing dominoes when I was growing up was on t.v.  In recent years as I went to Miami on research trips, I would sit outside Máximo Gómez Domino Park and watch the little old Cuban men smoke cigars, sip Cuban coffee and sit for hours playing dominoes with their fellow Cuban-Americans.  The park has a distinct Cuban energy, even in comparison to the rest of Hialeah.  Standing among these men engaged in a game so clearly a part of their culture and tradition made me feel like I was in a park in Habana.  During a point in my life when I was so desperate to make it to the island, even if only for a day, this was my little piece of Cuba in the US.

Years later, dreams of making it to Cuba realized, I find myself walking through the streets of Habana and its surrounding neighborhoods daily.  I see the same faces of old Cuban men; strong, wise and wrinkled by years of struggle and hardship, just like the men in Miami.  They drink their cafecitos, smoke cigars, and play domino from dawn ‘til dusk.  But here in Cuba it is not just old men sitting around tables all day debating politics and baseball.  In Cuba, every Cuban is a part of the game, and the game is a part of every Cuban.  Of course, there are still tables of old men debating baseball (very loudly)… but in today’s Cuba their grandchildren or wives may be playing at the next table, or upstairs in their home.  Claudia Rodriguez Gustavan, 21-year-old Habana native, told me,

In all of Cuba they play domino on any corner.  Now it is part of the cubano.  Without domino, there is no cubano.  Without cubanos, there is no domino.  It is part of us.

“Cuban men of various ages sit outdoors playing domino beside a storefront in La Palma”

The History & Basic Elements of Domino in Cuba:

Originally an Ancient Chinese game, domino has been a part of Cuban culture for generations.  (An understandable cultural overlap considering the presence of Chinese culture—as well as Spanish, African, and to some extent Jamaican and Haitian— in Cuban history.)  Bruno Hourin, a 71-year-old cubano from Arroyo Naranjo, told me his grandfather taught him the game over 60 years ago, adding that the game has “an eternally historic value.”  Indeed, for Cubans, domino more than just a game.  Juan Manuel Rodriguez, a 61-year-old man from Villa Clara, explained that domino also “forms groups, creates teams, creates friendships and helps in moments when people are having personal problems.”  In addition, the game creates bonds between generations as the game is passed down to children and grandchildren and develops essential skills within Cuban children like mathematics and strategy.

Typically, domino is played with 4 players making up 2 teams of partners.  Yet describing the basics of the game beyond this is complicated, as there are various forms of domino played throughout the island.  In the Oriente, the eastern portion of the island famous for cane fields, beautiful landscapes and being the birthplace of the Cuban struggle for Independence, Cubans play a more basic version of domino.  In the traditional domino of the Oriente, the game is played with 28 pieces, from 0-0 to 6-6, and the game ends when one team reaches 20 points. In Habana, the game is played with 55 pieces, from 0-0 to 9-9, and the game ends when one team reaches 100 points.

For Cubans, who love arguing as much as cafecito and chicharron, the merits of either form of domino versus the other is as good a topic as any for debate.  A few days ago I sat in my own living room and watched as two Cubans from el campo, both now living in Habana, discussed rather heatedly whether their traditional form of domino was more or less difficult, or even deserved to be called domino.  The debate lasted for about 20 minutes, ending in a stalemate when they both agreed this was not worth getting upset over.  (If you want to see upset in a debate among Cubans, go to the Parque Central in Centro Habana to listen to the men debate baseball…which can end in screaming and street fights.)

In Habana, the game starts much like Scrabble.  The fichas (**if you see an italicized word that you do not recognize, scroll to the guide at the bottom for help) are all turned face down and shuffled around the table.  Then each player selects 10 fichas and places them in his or her fichero so no one else can see them.  The player with the highest double piece plays that piece to start the game (in the Oriente, this would be 6-6, in Habana, 9-9).  If none of the layers have the 6-6 or 9-9, the next highest piece starts.  And so the game goes on, playing by matching numbers to the pieces played at either extreme of the board (or cabeza) until someone runs out of pieces or no one has a move.  Several rounds of this sort are played until a pair will have sufficient points to win the entire game.

“Domino tables line the patio of a local retirement home, where elderly Cubans gather all afternoon socializing and enjoying the Cuban pastime.”

The Players & The Game in Action:

The energy and atmosphere of a game of dominoes in Cuba depends on the players involved in the game.  Some players take the game very seriously and can play for hours in complete silence, while other more recreational players will engage in conversation, gossip, jokes and lively domino banter, shouting the names of each number as they play a ficha.  (See guide for examples of the names.)

The men of the older generation are typically those serious players who prefer to play in silence.  (I learned this several weeks ago when I approached a table of old cigar-smoking cubanos playing domino on the street and attempted to engage them in domino conversation and was unceremoniously dismissed.)  Yet just as often, they men play socially with friends from the neighborhood as a way to unwind after work.  22-year-old teacher David Nieto from Arroyo Naranjo told me he plays practically every day on his block with a group of guys in the park.  A few blocks away from my house at the Casa de los Abuelos, Bruno and dozens of other elderly Cubans, both men and women, gather every day on the patio and play domino for hours while gossiping and asking about each others families.

Cuban women today are also enthusiastic domino players.  All of the women I spoke with about domino admitted to being regular players with groups of friends, family or neighbors.  Teresa Trujillo, a 49-year-old University of Habana Professor from Habana, called domino, “my favorite sport.”  Teresa told me how she had passed the game on to her daughter, adding, “It is also important to teach the children domino from a young age because it gives them agility and skills with mathematics.”

These Cuban children play the game regularly, as a means to have fun with their friends. However, the general consensus among my interviewees is that actual strategy and understanding of the technical aspects of the game do not develop until around age 15.  Hamin, Alexia and John Carlo, all 12 and under, told me they started playing domino at age 5 or 6.  When asked what their favorite domino memory was, all three told me about the first time they won a game.  Indeed, domino is a game for the entire family, and is often enjoyed by the entire family at once.  It is not uncommon to see an entire family gathered around a table during the evening hours, at a family party or all together at the beach, playing domino.

So if all Cubans everywhere play domino, why is it that we only ever see images or the old men with a cigar one hand and a domino in the other?  Why do the tourists walking through Habana Vieja rarely see tables of women or children playing domino in the streets?  The answer to this is access.  (Just because you do not see something, does not mean that it is not there.)  The children I spoke with talked about playing domino at birthday parties, family parties, or in the homes of cousins or friends.  Similarly, the women play domino with family or socially in the homes of friends during the day.  Often, if it the men who socialize outdoors, playing domino in the street for all the world to see.

“A group of young Cubans play domino while standing guard at the local grade school during a holiday in October.”

The Game Over Time:

In 1977, New York Times journalist George Volsky wrote an article on the “Cuban Refugees” in Miami and their favorite pastime, dominoes.  His interviews with a group of Cubans who left the island in the years (or in some cases days) following the Revolution mostly resulted in the same story of Cubans and domino that exists today on the island.  Men gathered in a park from 10 am until 11:30 pm when the park closes, many of them then taking the game indoors until the wee hours of the morning. [1] Only one thing was dramatically different between the dominoes of the older generations of upper and middle-class Cubans living in Miami in the 70’s and the game today: the role of women. Teresa Mendez, one of the women interviewed by Volsky, said, “A decent woman shouldn’t play the game.  If someone were to ask me whether I do, I would regard it as an insult.”  Yet Romamaria, wife of a local working-class Cuban and domino champ, said of her husbands skepticism towards playing with women, “He’s just afraid we’ll beat him!,” going on to brag about how well their daughter played the game.[2]  This indicates that the view of women in domino was as much class-based as due to generational traditions.

Though domino was once a game reserved for men in some circles in Cuba and Miami, this has certainly changed in society today.  Yet Maria Josefa Mariño Pi, 49-year-old cubana from Yara, speculates on reasons Cuban women may have been absent from the game in the past:

In the early years of the revolution those [women] who did not play—it was for lack of time because they were busy studying or working…and later, with the passing of time  with the conditions that have been created with the presence of equipment like the reina and rice cooker…the women have more time…and they have more access to all of society.  Now when they have time they play domino.

If class or generational restrictions once existed that limited the access women had to the game, they have now all but disappeared.  While there are still traditional housewives in areas of the Oriente (the Cuban countryside) whose schedules do not allow them time for domino, cubanas of all ages and economic backgrounds here in Habana are absolutely wild for the game.

Domino has played an additionally vital role as a means to maintain a strong sense of unity among the Cuban people, which many Cubans hail as the strongest aspect of their society.  In a society rich in culture and tradition, domino provides Cubans of all walks of life a chance to join together in friendly (or sometimes fierce) competition and preserve the Cuban tradition of domino.  Indeed, when asked about the social value of the game, many Cubans I interviewed touched on this very issue.  Clara Hernandez, a 62-year-old cubana from Regla, explained, “the social value [of domino] is that it unites people of different ages and economic backgrounds.”  David Nieto added that, “it brings together people from different zonas.”  This has ultimately strengthened the role of domino in Cuban society to the point that Juan Rodriguez stated,

Domino is part of la vida cubana; like congris and tostones.  It is a tradition.

Though the game of domino and its presence in Cuba has not changed over the decades, the world around it has.  So how does domino stay popular among young Cubans living in a PlayStation generation? Though Teresa Trujillo explained that it is easy to start children playing domino from an early age because “the rules are really simple,” developing a strategy and real knack for the game is not so simple.  In his article on domino, George Volsky explained, “While luck might influence the outcome of one hand, in the long run the ability to memorize all the moves and the understanding between partners makes the difference between average and good players.”  After speaking with some of the younger Cubans, it is clear that the strong societal value of education and intelligence plays a strong role in the continued popularity of domino among the children in Cuba, and that developing these skills to become one of the “good” players is something they aspire to.

The responses of these young Cubans when asked about the value of domino compared to PlayStation or poker really speaks to the societal values of relationships and education in Cuba.  10-year-old John Carlo told me he likes domino because “you need a lot of intelligence and agility…It is a tradition.  You can make friends and it makes you smart.”  12-year-old Alexis explained, “for me, I like [domino] more than cards or other games also because it is a complete game….you are looking at what you have to do, trying to darle pase the other person that is after you…and it is fun.”   While they admit the other games available are also fun, and they play those as well, these children recognize from a young age the value of the skills learned in domino.  I think it is safe to say that as long as Cuban children continue to hold these values and Cubans continue to pass the game on to their children and grandchildren, domino will remain a part of Cuban culture, and youth culture, regardless of the new technology available.

“A group of domino players and onlookers gather in Centro Habana on a Sunday afternoon in September.”

A US American’s Observations of el domino in Cuba:

While researching this article, I was unable to think of any comparable game in our culture as Cubans have with domino.  In many ways, I have found the game similar to Scrabble, both in the way the game is played and the strategy and skills it teaches…yet groups of kids in Chicago and Austin are not sitting around tables at parties playing Scrabble and reminiscing about their first game with their grandfather.  Instead, they are playing Call of Duty or Texas Hold ‘Em.

Groups of young Cuban men gather around card tables playing dominoes for hours every day with the same enthusiasm of the groups of our young men playing poker, yet they scoff at the thought of playing for money, maintaining that the benefit of winning is the intangible knowledge that you and your partner outwitted and out-strategized the other team.  They develop connections with their partners, form friendship, socialize, strategize, and perpetuate a valuable tradition.  Domino for Cubans is a transtemporal and transnational phenomenon; it has survived for generations, formed a part of the culture of the Cuban community in Miami and strengthened bonds between neighborhoods and families.  In Habana and Hialeah, el domino is and will remain a part of the cubano.

 

“The double fichas. In the Oriente, the game is played only to 6-6.”

Cubanisms, Cuban Dichos and el Domino:

While researching this article I had the opportunity to sit and quietly observe a few games in action, asking questions only between manos, and only when everyone was in a good mood.  Unfortunately, after watching these games I was even more confused about how things work as I was before I had really watched a game.  Domino in Cuba is like an entirely new language.  There are special phrases and expressions and gestures, and it is impossible to understand the game without understanding their meaning.  Now, thanks to the help of my neighbor Davis, who sat patiently with me for over an hour explaining the game from start to finish and helping me construct a domino dichos list for my katieincuba readers, I think I have it down!  The following is a handy guide to understanding Cuban domino and strategy:

Domino dichos

darle pase   Playing a piece that you know the next person can not play off of, so        they will have to pass.

tocar  The player taps or knocks on the tableto indicate that he has no move and is passing.

ficha   The name for the domino pieces

fichero  The name for the wooden piece used to holdthe fichas.

dar agua/mover The act of shuffling the pieces before the players choose their fichas.

zapatero / pollona  A shutout.  The name for a game when thelosing  team finishes with 0 points.

culillo   An epic turnaround.  For example, if one team has only one point to go before winning and the other pair has 0 and the losing team ends up winning the game.

mano  The name for each round of the game.  Often, many manos are played before a team has enough points to win.

matar cabeza  When one team catches on to the strategy of another and steals their next move from them by blocking a play.

cabeza The name for the extreme ends of the playing area where new fichas are placed to move the game forward.

tanto  The name of the points that go towards the score of the winning pair at the end of each mano.

Forro  If you make a mistake and accidentally place the ficha on the wrong cabeza.

Trancado   What is called when absolutely no one has a ficha they can play.  When this happens, the pair of the person who has the lowest number when adding the number on each of the fichas wins, and they take the points of the losing couple.

            Names for the domino pieces (fichas)

0          la blanca, la que le gusta al negro, blanquizal de haraco

1          el unicornio, el que saca al guey de fango, la uña, el solitario

2          el Duque (Hernandez)  –In honor of the Cuban-born Yankees Player

3          el triste, la tripa, el tribilin

4          cuaba, cuarenta y más murieron, cuatrero que roban vacas

5          sin comer no se puede vivir, sin queño pati plumo, quintin bandera

6          se hizo el loco, ceiba

7          el honor de un hombre, 7 mil y más murieron

8          Ochoa Mendieta

9          nuevecito, nuevita puerto el mar

6-6      pareja guey

9-9      la que más pesa

 

“The game expands as players place new fichas at one of the 2 cabezas of the playing area.

[Interviews]

*All interviews used in katieincuba are conducted and recorded in person by the author, or using distributed questionnaires filled out by Cuban interviewees.  Translations from Spanish done by author after interviews.

  • Teresa Trujillo, 49 year old University of Habana Professor from Habana.

Interview date: 29 September 2011.

  • Claudia Rodriguez Gustaván, 21 year old computer technician from Habana.

Interview date: 10 October 2011.

  • David Nieto Muñoz,  22 year old Computer teacher from Arroyo Naranjo.

Interview date: 10 October 2011.

  • Clara Hernandez Gomez, 62 year old retired civil engineer from Regla.

Interview date:  11 October 2011.

  • Juan Manuel Rodriguez, 61 year old civil engineer from Villa Clara.

Interview date:  11 October 2011.

  • Alexia Sanauria Menendez, 12 year old 7th grade student from Viborra Park.

Interview date: 10 November 2011.

  • Hamin Cebrian Velasquez 12 year old 7th grade student from Habana.

Interview date: 10 November 2011.

  • Maria Josefa Mariño Pi, 53 year old chemical engineer from Yara.

Interview date: 10 November 2011.

  • José Bruno Hourin Martín, 71 year old retired lawyer from Arroyo Naranjo.

Interview date: 10 November 2011.

  • John Carlo, 10 year old student from Habana.

Interview Date:  15 November 2011

  • Davis Hernandez Tus, 46 year old clinical lab tech from Punto de Maisi.

Interview Date:  15 November 2011

[Interview Questions]

1)   At what age did you buy or receive your first domino game?

2)   At what age did you start playing domino?

3)   At what age did your children start playing domino? (if applicable)

4)   Do you play with a regular group or with different people every time?

5)   Do you know if there are any domino clubs or groups in your neighborhood?  Tournaments?  Domino meeting places/parks? Famous players?

6)   What is your favorite memory or an interesting story about domino?

7)   What is your favorite thing about domino?  How would you compare domino to other games like cards of video games?

8)   In your opinion, what is the social value of domino? What is the role in domino in Cuban life?

9)   Have you played for money or prizes, or just for recreation?

10)         What is the longest round of domino you have heard of?

11)         * for elderly Cubans * As someone with more life experience than the others I have interviewed, can you comment on aspects of domino that may have changed over the years? (for example, the participation of women, playing for money, the popularity of the game in Cuban society…)

[Footnotes]

[1]Volsky, George, “Domino Games are Dominant Pastime for Many Cuban

Refugees in Miami,” 1 October 1977, New York Times, 39.

[2] ibid.

“The game starts with the person with the highest double, ideally 9-9 (or 6-6 in Oriente)”

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