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Domino effect consumes a Texas town

Crafty old-timers test their wiles and wisecracks against young upstarts in Hallettsville, home of the championship for Texas 42, a dominoes craze unique to the state.

March 19, 2012|By Molly Hennessy-Fiske, Los Angeles Times
  • Teams square off in Hallettsville, Texas, for the annual Texas 42 dominoes championship. The complex game is uniquely Texan and a source of pride for its players.
Teams square off in Hallettsville, Texas, for the annual Texas 42 dominoes… (Molly Hennessy-Fiske,…)

Reporting from Hallettsville, Texas — The older man in the Dallas Cowboys cap and plaid western shirt swirled dominoes across the glossy card table. Dozens of players did the same, and a cacophony rose from the tables arranged across the Knights of Columbus Hall.

"Are you enjoying beating us old folks?" 70-year-old Louis Eames asked above the din.

One of his opponents at the table, Jody Badum, 40, smiled so wide his beard met his sideburns. "Louis," he said. "I'd write it on a bathroom wall if I had a pen."

The men shared a laugh and then turned to serious business — this month's Texas State Championship 42 Domino Tournament, which drew 77 two-person teams from across the state.

The game, sometimes called "Texas 42" or simply "42," is uniquely Texan, with domino tiles used like a deck of cards. Typically played by old-timers, it's now drawing a new generation, which explained the presence of Badum.

The owner of an Internet service provider company in cosmopolitan Austin, Badum wore a blue button-down shirt, jeans and rockabilly motorcycle boots. Eames, a rancher from rural Leona, wore boots too — the cowboy variety.

"You already beat us in the morning," Eames said, referring to qualifying rounds.

"I'd rather beat you in the afternoon," Badum said, referring to the finals.

Eames chuckled as they drew their dominoes.

"I just can't get over his respect for his elders."

***

Texas 42 was conceived in 1887, the story goes, by a pair of inventive Fort Worth-area boys whose strict Baptist father forbade card playing. Technically not playing cards, they devised a game using a set of dominoes that resembles bridge and other "trick-taking" games, such as spades.

The boys even designated "suits" — all tiles with a 6, for example, belong to the same suit — and teams play for points. The highest number of points possible in a hand is 42, hence the name.

In time, the game spread statewide.

"If you learned it," Badum said, "you learned it from a Texan."

Though a mobile generation and Internet versions have allowed the game to migrate out of state, it's still mostly a Lone Star pastime. "This game is played in virtually every senior center in Texas every day," said Nick Carter, 66, secretary of the National 42 Players Assn.

For Texans living elsewhere, it's a reminder of home. Molly Piskun, an office manager in Los Angeles, flies back each year to compete with her partner, Patricia "Patty" Cutshaver, an emergency room nurse from College Station.

"Everything else in our lives outside this tournament has changed — family, work — but we come here and nothing has changed," Cutshaver said.

Here is Hallettsville, a town of about 2,200 some 100 miles southeast of Austin. Texas 42 has been passed down by generations of German and Czech immigrants whose descendants also stage the South Texas Sausage and Polka Fest in Hallettsville.

Cutshaver and Piskun, both 31, who learned the game as Aggies at Texas A&M, competed wearing matching purple feathered tiaras, one of many bold fashion statements on display. An elderly couple took their seats wearing matching western shirts with domino appliques. One young man wore Mardi Gras beads, another a purple T-shirt advertising "Exotic Mating Rituals."

An older gentleman in a Members Only jacket asked Badum what he did for a living, and winked.

"You don't feed cows, do you?"

Yet they all speak the same language — not just Texan, but the domino dialect.

Tiles are "rocks." The blank is "Little Willy." The top three dominoes in a suit are the bull, cow and calf. The more valuable dominoes that add up to five are nickels; tens are dimes; threes are treys. The 6:3 is the "Devil Domino"— as in three sixes.

Eavesdropping on players requires a translator until you experience what Badum calls "the click" of comprehension.

"I had a six ace for an off and I walked it."

"I keep throwing count — I've got a lot of grease over here."

"My four was protected until you made treys trump."

The game is complex and, to the uninitiated, often bewildering. But that's also part of 42's clubby appeal, its connection to Texas pride and family.

Badum's partner, Aaron Kuntschik, 39, a handyman, grew up near Hallettsville playing dominoes with his parents. He taught it to his sons and joined a fledgling 42 club seven years ago in Austin.

The club started with eight teams, mostly playing at dive bars like Ginny's Little Longhorn Saloon and Billy's on Burnet. They quickly attracted more teams, as many as 37 this year, outgrowing the largest space Kuntschik, now club director, could find: Dart Bowl, a bowling alley.

Being from the capital, where many embrace the slogan "Keep Austin Weird," the club put a spin on the game, adopting team names like Obviously Not Golfers, Eye Candy and Squirrel Assassins. They even developed their own style of playing, some opponents say.

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