The clatter of colliding plastic fills the air in Miami’s Little Havana. To the uninitiated, this might sound like someone dropped a bucket of marbles. The noise is actually from sets of 55 dominoes being “shuffled” violently against one another on numerous tabletops. The shufflers are about to play Cuban Double-Nine Dominoes in Domino Park.
If baseball is Cuba’s national sport, dominoes is the game of the Cuban people. No matter where they are. “Since I was a kid, my father always played,” says Jorge Padrón, president of Padrón Cigars. He’s speaking of José Orlando Padrón, his father and the company’s Cuban-born founder. “In the old house, he put an air-conditioner in the garage. He’d close the door and everyone would smoke cigars.” Jorge started playing at 17. “Now, dominoes is part of every Padrón event.” Serial games can take hours.
Generally played in two teams of two, it’s a “blocking” game. The goal is to play all your dominoes while keeping your opponents from doing the same. The tiles, called bones, are scattered face down on the table. Each player draws one. The person with the “fattest” domino (the one with the most pips) goes first. The double-nine, or la gorda (the fat lady) is the biggest. Then, each player takes 10 dominoes, with 15 left over. The leader lays down a domino to start a line. Subsequent players must match a number on the dominoes previously played or pass if there’s no match.
Counterclockwise play continues until one player is out of bones—and wins—or the game is blocked (trancado) when no one can play a matching domino. Then, the player with the fewest pips on his remaining dominoes is the winner. His team scores the sum of the pips held by the losing team. The goal is to reach a prearranged number of points (usually 100) over several hands.
Dominoes is supposed to be played without talking, but we Cubans can get emotional. Play a domino that blocks your partner and you’ll get a withering stare. The game is simple to understand, but mastering strategy gets complicated. Veterans understand who’s holding what and what’s on the table. They’re also the ones enjoying their cigars the most.