Dominoes in the Dominican Republic

During the early afternoon, many Dominicans love nothing more than to sit in the shade with friends and beer, playing dominoes.

That’s right, that game with the double-ended dotted tiles that you played as a kid!

In the Dominican Republic, dominoes is taken to a new level. It is a game of intense strategy, fast-thinking moves, and expert bluffs.

The Rules

Dominican rules differ slightly from international dominoes rules. But the basics are the same.

A dominoes set has 28 tiles, called fichas in Spanish. Each tile is white and has a configurations of black dots at each end, 1-6 dots, like a die, or a blank. So, you might have a 2-3 tile, or a 6-6.

The aim of the game is to be the first to put down all the tiles in your hand onto the board. You do this by matching dot patterns to place the dominoes end to end on the board.

Dominoes games usually have four players, split into two teams of two.

A new turn means you can place a new tile down on the board. Your new tile has to match dots with an open space on at least one end. So, you form a chain of tiles, like 3-2, 2-4, 4-1, 1-0, etc.

If you play a double (i.e. a tile with the same dot pattern on both ends, 4-4, 2-2), you place the tile across the line of dominoes to form a T shape. Some people play that you can’t play off a double.

If you can’t play, you pick up a face-down tile from the pile.

Scores are added up at the end of each round using the unplayed tiles leftover. Players use several different complex systems to count up the score. Sadly, they elude me at this time.

I do know that dominoes games here are usually played to 200, 250 or 500 points. This takes a good few rounds to reach.

The basic concept is pretty simple. It’s popular with young children.

The skill comes in when players become aware of more than just what is on the board and in their hand. The intense stand-offs that ensue are no child’s play.

Tile-counting tactics

If you’ve heard of card counting, a similar concept is done with tiles.

In dominoes, there are 7 suits: ones, twos, threes, fours, fives, sixes, and blanks. Each suit has 7 tiles: ones have 1-0, 1-1, 1-2, 1-3, 1-4, 1-5, 1-6.

Your schoolroom maths is right, 7 x 7 = 49 and not 28, like the number of dominoes tiles. Some tiles overlap suits, so 1-3 is also 3-1, but they don’t repeat as there’s only one of each combination in a set of dominoes.

The best players keep track of every move and pass, and learn new information about their fellow players’ hands with every turn.

They count how many of each suit has been played, and use other players’ passes to figure out which tiles are likely still in the pick-up pile.

Teams work together to out suits that are favourable to them, and block the other team from getting rid of their tiles.

Repite, mata y tranqua

A key dominoes strategy in Dominican play is ‘Repite, mata, y tranqua’ = ‘Repeat, kill, lock’.

If you have many tiles of the same suit, you should keep putting down as many of them as you can. Hopefully, your teammate will notice you doing this and will play to help you keep going on that suit. Repite.

If an opponent is on a roll with one suit, you can kill or block their streak by playing a suit you think might force them to pass their go. If their teammate is trying to help them continue, you have to block their moves, too. Mata.

When a game of dominoes is nearing its end, timing is everything. Whoever places the game-winning tile has the chance to ‘lock’ the game, blocking remaining tiles so that no one else can play another move. You need to be alert to chances to lock the game at a time that is most favourable for your team. Tranqua.

As you can see, there is a lot going on, and I’m only just grasping the very basics. Understanding the nuances of dominoes takes years of observation and practice.

Dominoes in Dominican culture

Dominoes is deeply embedded within Dominican culture. In a family home, there will typically be a special table dedicated to playing dominoes. The table is square and has a ridge or groove on each side for players to arrange their tiles. It also most often has a hole in each corner – that’s where your cup of beer or rum sits.

Games usually take place in the hottest hours of the day, to pass the time when the searing heat makes any other activity unbearable.

Because dominoes games are often played outside, they can be quite public events. Known good players may draw a crowd of friends and neighbours to their table.

While games are mostly friendly, many dominoes players will play for money and some can get pretty competitive. In this way, though the games are not alike, you can imagine dominoes as the Dominican equivalent of poker.

Close dominoes teammates have played together for many years, sometimes decades. Pairs can amass hundreds of hours of experience reading each other’s body language, so that they can interpret every little facial tick or gesture.

The dominoes table is sociable but good players possess an intense focus. Nothing can distract them from the complicated mental juggling of tile-counting, people-reading and anticipating upcoming moves.

It is even said that every action and word relates to the game somehow. Teammates might communicate through a particular way of slamming a tile down on the table or laughing. Any argument or joke could be part of their secret code of signals.

You can imagine how fascinating it is to watch these games, and try to decipher what’s really going on!

Why not give dominoes a go while you’re in the Dominican Republic? It is, after all, a national pasttime.

A set of dominoes makes for a great souvenir or gift for that friend who loves games (you know the one).