Sam Leith

‘I been born to play domino’

Sam Leith attends the World Championship of Dominoes in Jamaica, and finds the contestants thumping the tables and dancing the funky chicken

Text settings

The sound in the Grand Hall is like the chattering of sparrows. Milling at the door, most wearing bright yellow T-shirts with plasticky decals so big they practically double the weight of the cotton, are the domino sharks, kibitzing and waiting their turn for the tables. Inside, at the far end, a dais is decorated with an ascending series of enormous silver trophies. And filling the centre of the room, fenced off by the rows of trestle tables behind which spectators sit and holler encouragement, are dozens and dozens of tables of people playing dominoes. That chattering noise is the sound of little plastic tablets being shuffled.

We’re in the depths of the Jamaica Grande, a resort hotel in Ocho Rios on the north coast of Jamaica. Upstairs, a steel band trills to sunburnt tourists, surrounded by indoor palm trees and Flintstones-style Styrofoam rocks. Down here — in a hall made faintingly hot by erratic air-conditioning — is where the action is: the 2003 World Championship of Dominoes.

Organising a domino tournament presents some special challenges. In the first place, there is the national temperament. At 3.15 on the first day of the three-day tournament, nearly four hours after the deadline for registration is supposed to have passed, they’re still enrolling teams. The official in charge shrugs. ‘What can you do? This is Jamaica.’

By the end of the day, 222 teams of two have registered to play: more than ever before. They come from throughout the islands of the West Indies, from ten US states, from Cuba and from Canada. Last year, they said, there was even a team from the UK. That we aren’t represented this year (especially considering Britain’s special place in the Jamaican diaspora and in that country’s history) seems to me to be a shaming failure on the part of our sports minister.

The biggest difficulty with organising a domino tournament, however, is preventing cheating. The $25,000 first prize is a lot of money anywhere, and a hell of a lot of money in Jamaica. In amateur dominoes, ‘coding’ — secretly signalling to your partner what dominoes you have in your hand, or telling them what to play — is commonplace, sometimes even permitted. And the ways of coding are legion. So the longest sections of the seven-page rulebook drawn up by the tournament’s chairman, Ruddy Schaafe, are concerned with sharp practice and its penalties. Special no-peeking domino-holders have been introduced this year; all peaked caps must be worn backwards; and play has to proceed, anticlockwise, along a specially designed domino-track marked on the grey felt of the little square tables.

Each table is attended by two or more judges, watching the players’ every facial and bodily twitch, and noting them on pads. These are outlawed: ‘i) Facial contortions including sporadic chewing, head movements and gesticulations; ii) Erratic, excessive and unnatural eye movements; iii) Finger &/or hand expressions or directions, touching of body parts etc.’ If anything you do — anything — is seen to accompany a pattern of behaviour by your partner, it’s three strikes and you’re out. Last year a man was expelled from the quarter finals when he was caught marking the backs of his dominoes with a bit of sandpaper hidden under his crotch.

Play, then, proceeds in a sober, thoughtful manner — players barely moving except to pose their dominoes on the table — until one team wins a set (it’s scored very like tennis, though play is more like whist), and all hell breaks loose. Typically, one player leaps to his feet and bangs the table with his fist, while his partner yelps and dances the funky chicken in his chair, to the visible disgust of the defeated team.

It’s in just such a victory celebration — at the semi-finals on Day Three — that Norman Lindo first catches my eye. Lindo is a hulking Miamian with a look of scowling intensity on his face as he plays. His partner, Steve Martin, is smaller, balding and smiles more. They’re playing a local team, and it’s a tense game. Finally, they see them off. Lindo’s composure breaks, and he administers two or three vast thumps which the table barely survives. Dominoes bounce off it on to the floor, and Lindo, place in the final secure, makes his way to the side of the hall for a glass of water.

Dominoes is Jamaica’s national game, practically a national obsession. Instead of scratchcards or bingo, the Jamaica Observer promotes itself with a ‘Supa Cash! Dominoes’ game. You see Jamaicans playing alfresco as Russians do chess or Chinese mah-jong. ‘You have bellhops here and you have businessmen,’ one of the tournament’s organisers, Richard Lue, told me. ‘At the domino table they’re equal.’ Butch Stewart, the owner of the tournament’s lead sponsor, Air Jamaica, played an exhibition match against last year’s winning team, and came within an ace of beating them. (‘They went crazy in the hall,’ he says. ‘Dominoes aal mout’ an’ talking.’)

Lindo, 31, Jamaican-born and now working in Miami as a facilities manager, is no exception. ‘Never miss a game a domino. I’d play every day if I could,’ he says. ‘Girls and dominoes — that’s it.’ He’s not worried about playing against a home crowd. ‘I look at me dominoes, I don’t see the crowd. I just focus on me dominoes, concentrate on me game. I been born to play domino.’

The final, which is played to best of five, kicks off with a double six. Five or six TV cameras are trained on the table. Judges and judge supervisors, hunkered at each corner of the table and peering over shoulders, outnumber the players. At first, it looks bad for Miami. The home team — from Jamaica’s capital, Kingston — creams the first set 6–2. When Oneil Duffus poses his winning domino, he slaps the table once. A domino groupie in the front row of the audience voices her support. ‘Big man in town! Big man in town!’ she hollers. ‘Whack it, man! Whack it!’ Martin rolls his neck and exhales noisily. He gets up, paces round the table, returns. Lindo stays put, shoulders slumped, features drawing in towards the centre of his face. When Miami squander a 5–2 lead to lose the second set 6–5, it looks like it may be all over. Lindo looks physically sick. But then, from two sets down, they start to get the plays.

Kingston are stymied by a series of doubles. Lindo and Martin breeze through the set 6–1, and it is Duffus and his partner Clifford Langley whose turn it is to look queasy. Half an hour later they’ve won the fourth set 5–2 and Martin hammers the table and takes off to bump fists with supporters in the crowd. Miami are back in the game.

Miami take the first game in the final set — then Kingston take the next two in a row. A woman in the crowd starts whooping ecstatically and banging wood. A photographer approaches her. She stops and stares at him evilly. He retreats. Miami take another. Then another. Then another. Martin raises both hands above his head and rolls his neck. Lindo is still impassive. 4–2. If they can get the next, they’ll be near impossible to catch. It goes 5–2, and this time even Lindo raises an optimistic arm. Clifford Langley lifts his yellow T-shirt to wipe his face, revealing a bright yellow string vest underneath it. The next game gets under way. Every eye in the hall is concentrated unblinkingly on one thing as Lindo and Langley and Duffus and Martin take turns, one by one, to pose little white-dotted tablets on a little grey felt table.

And then Lindo is on his feet, his last domino posed, and his meaty fist is pounding the table so ha rd I think he’s going to break his fingers. Steve Martin rockets out of his chair like a jack-in-the-box and starts jumping up and down as high as he can. The spectators are roaring and the Kingston team is nowhere to be seen. Steve Martin is so overexcited he falls over. And Norman Lindo, the facilities manager, and Steve Martin, the electrician, are the dominoes champions of the world.