Domino is serious business in Cuba. When I lived there, many a night was spent drinking viña or rum and playing countless rounds hasta la madrugada. As the night wore on and the rum wore thin, the voices would get louder and the rhythm more intense. Bang! someone would slam down a tile – “te cogí!” they would shout at their opponent, “I got you!”. The victim, helpless, would groan, curse and push over their tiles in frustration. An argument would ensue with their partner across the table – “I thought you had twos! Why the hell did you kill my sixes?!” Meanwhile, the winners like greedy little bankers would get to work counting up their scores for the round, taking brief pauses to gloat and fan the flames of what could often become a rather heated exchange. I’ve never heard of dominoes-induced divorce, but it would not surprise me.
Now, if you’ve played dominoes, some of the above would have made sense. However, if your idea of dominoes ends with lining up the tiles and knocking them down (as mine once did), it was most likely gibberish. Domino is such a big part of Cuban social life that it pays to have a little understanding of the game before going – who knows, you could even win a round (always controversial as a foreigner).
Simple or doble
There are two types of domino – one where the numbers on the tiles go up to six, and one where they go up to nine. The first, called simple, is, well, simpler. It is much more mathematical and logical to play. The second, doble, is not only the most popular but also the most fun. It still maintains a logical base, but introduces a healthy dose of risk and chance.
Both varieties are played as a group of four, in pairs, i.e. two on two.
- Sit around a table (square and intimate works best) so that each partnership sits opposite one another.
- Place all the tiles (fichas in Spanish) face down on a table.
- Shuffle the tiles by mixing them around with your hands.
- Each person takes 10 tiles in doble (7 in simple) – don’t show your tiles (or cheekily glance at others’. You are better than that).
- For ease of play, arrange your tiles as much as possible into groups of the same number.
How to play – the basics
One person starts by placing a tile on the table. Let’s say they play a tile displaying a six and a five (not an ideal strategy, but more on this later). The next player now has has three options: 1) play a tile with a five on it, 2) play a tile with a six on it, or 3) pass. The process continues and a snake-like line of tiles is formed, always with two possible sides to play on – the head or the tail.
The object of the game is to play until either one person has used all their tiles (in which case they and their partner win) or until the game “locks” because nobody can play a tile. If the game locks, everyone counts the value of their tiles and the person holding the lowest value wins.
The winning team then scores the total value of the opposing team’s tiles. Most people play to either 150 or 200.
How to play – Some essential rules
- If you can play, you must play. If you can’t play, you knock on the table to pass.
- As in most card games, you cannot talk about your tiles or strategy with your partner.
How to play – the details
1. In the first round, you need to determine who starts (the lead is a major advantage). In subsequent rounds, the pair that wins the previous round leads.
The traditional way of determining the starting pair is for someone to pick a random tile and ask their opponents if it is “pare” or “none“, slang for par (even) and impar (odd), referring to the total value of the tile. Once they have guessed, the tile is flipped over. If they were right, they start, if they guessed wrong, the partnership that selected the tile starts.
2. If you have the lead, you now need to decide who will take the lead within your pair. Ideally, it should be the person with the strongest hand (to give you an idea, a strong hand would be if you had four (or more) of a number). You should also try to lead with a double – i.e. a tile that has the same number twice, because 1) you clearly communicate your strong number (see strategy point 6), and 2) you increase the likelihood of getting bonus points (see 5 below).
Because you can’t technically talk about your tiles with your partner, this part of the game is always awkward. If you have a strong hand and the corresponding double, you can simply say to your partner that you are starting – obviously they will object if they think they have a better start. Conversely, if you have a fist-full of basura (trash), ask your partner to start. Sometimes there may be some back and forth, but if there’s too much (especially if you start talking about having or not having a double, or worse, the numbers you have) you can expect the other team to get pretty pissed.
3. The first tile is called “la salida” and is an important tile in the game (more on this in a moment). Play moves to your right or anticlockwise (the opposite to most conventional card games). Doubles are played perpendicular to the rest of the tiles like so:
5. The next person plays on the first tile (either side) with the corresponding number. If the second player cannot play on la salida, many people have a rule that this is an instant 20 bonus point to the starting team.
6. Play continues, but ideally the next player (being the partner of the first player) should play on the tile just played and not kill la salida.
There are a few reasons for this, but at this stage, there are two important ones. First, it will communicate to your partner and the the table that (erroneously) that you don’t have the number played as la salida. Because domino depends to a large extent on tacit communication with your partner, this is not good. Second, it will place your partner (who currently leads) at a disadvantage. La salida is ideally a number they are strong in. That strength only lasts as long as they have more of that number than the opposition. If you kill la salida (or any other tile that is of the same number later), you have prevented the opposition from using up one of their tiles with that number. In other words, an opportunity to weaken you opponent has been lost, and your partner’s relative position is weakened.
7. Play until one person finishes their tiles or the game locks.
1. Count. Keep track of how many tiles have been played of each number. There are only 10 tiles of each number in doble and 7 in simple (blanks included). In doble, not all tiles are in play so you have to estimate (7-8 is a good assumption) and can never be sure. In simple counting is far more important as all tiles are in play (this is also why I find it more boring).
2. Understand the strengths and weaknesses of all the players. Most important is the player to your right. Figure out what they don’t have and keep playing it to keep the pressure on. Also be aware of your partner and try not to kill numbers they seem strong in, or put unnecessary pressure on them by playing numbers they are weak in.
3. Two options, one tile. Sometimes you can play a single tile on either side to create a situation where each end of the snake is the same number. See strategy point 2 above. Do not mess this one up or someone may throw something at you.
4. Know when to throw in the towel. If you know you are going to lose, become a botagorda (see below) and start getting rid of high-value tiles.
5. Know when to lock it up. If you have kept count, you will know when there is a danger of locking the game up. Sometimes it is easy to get so into playing out your key strong number that you accidentally lock up the game at the wrong time. If you have more tiles than your opposition, or have high-value tiles, avoid locking up the game.
6. Communicate effectively. Read the signs your partner gives you. If it is clear they are strong in fives, for example, and they suddenly kill a five instead of playing on a two at the other end of the snake, this is a pretty clear indication they do not have twos. Make it your mission to kill the twos and don’t play them if you can help it. Likewise, be aware of how your actions will be read by your teammate and what the opposition is communicating. This and strategy point 1 are where the real magic happens.
7. Have fun with it!
Domino slang and swag
In Cuba, domino is a game that sweats slang. It is also a game where gloating, banter and arrogance are not only expected, but encouraged. As the night goes on, it becomes louder and more aggressive – sometimes people actually get grumpy. Below are ten bits of slang to get you started on building up your domino swag.
La gorda – meaning “the fat lady” is the name given to the double-nine. This is a terrible tile to have at the end if you are the losing team. Consequently, it is often used as the starting tile.
Botagorda – a word taken from the verb “throw out” and the word for “fat”. A botagorda is person who plays with one strategy only: dumping high value tiles. This strategy is often adopted by people who aren’t great at the logic of the game or mathematics. Unfortunately for the more “intellectual” players, it is a strategy that can and does prevail, especially when the game is unintentionally locked. It is a good strategy to adopt as a beginner until you get a feel for the game, but people will notice it and you will eventually be identified among the lower classes of players and treated with the according levels of respect. This has the flow on effect that you cannot engage in the gloating and banter that goes into a good game of domino with the same level of authority. Moral of the story: learn better strategies as soon as you can.
Matar – meaning “to kill”. This verb in its appropriate form is used to describe the act of playing on a particular tile so as to neutralise the effect of that number. Towards the end of the game, as the stakes get higher, it is not uncommon, while a person is thinking about what tile to play, for the next player to say “cuidado, que te mato” (careful, ’cause I’ll kill you) – inducing doubt as to whether the player is able to force the next player to pass.
Pollo or pollona – Literally, “chicken”. This is the name given to a game win (i.e. 150 or 200 points) where the losing team failed to score any points. Often a chicken will be drawn on the score sheet. It goes without saying that this is a highly embarrassing outcome to be avoided at all costs.
La salida – the name given to the number on the leading, first-played tile. As discussed above, this tile is very important in game play and tacit communication.
¡Toma (feona)! – The equivalent of “take that (ugly)” – Use “Toma” as you noisily slam down a tile that you know the next player cannot play on. The addition of “feona” is optional and makes the expression cheekier, but obviously more aggressive. Use it wisely with people you know to avoid unintentional offence.
¡Coge! – With a similar meaning to “toma” (both mean “to take” in English), this is a great response when someone is presumptuous enough to hit you with a “toma” when, in actual fact, you can play on their tile. With a smug grin on your face, slam down your tile with authority while you say it.
Se trancó – It locked. This phrase is stated when the game locks up (i.e. nobody can play) but everyone still has tiles. Everyone then reveals their tiles by putting them face up on the table to be counted.
¿Te dolió? – “Did that hurt?” – Say this when you play a tile and the next player passes.
Vírala que se ahoga – Ok, a bit longer and harder, but major pro status points if you can bust this out. This phrase (meaning “turn it around ’cause it is suffocating”), is used when someone places a double tile (normally placed vertically) horizontally as if it were any other tile. It is a mistake when people do this, and accordingly, great banter to burn them about it.