Sam Leith 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

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.

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