In N.M., dominoes' serious side


Game: 100 men in Curry County play "42," carrying on a tradition of fellowship begun nearly 50 years ago.

March 20, 2000|By Toby Smith | Toby Smith,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

CLOVIS, N.M. -- The Domino Theory in the high plains of the Southwest says that if you start playing the game of 42, you likely won't stop till you're covered with dirt.

Dominoes goes by different names -- ends, muggins, all threes, billiton -- and different rules across the country. Depending on where you play, tiles, also known as rocks and bones, are set down end to end, side by side, sometimes in tracks.

Along New Mexico's rural eastern border, with Texas just a hop away, "42" dominoes, which can be traced to before the 1920s, has for years been more popular than a cow with twin udders.

Legend has it that 42 was invented by a Baptist kid who wasn't allowed to play cards. It is a lot like the card games bridge and pitch: Four players, playing in pairs, draw seven dominoes to form a hand. Each hand is worth a possible 42 points. As in bridge, there are tricks and suits and trumps and bids.

"But 42's a heck of a lot better than bridge," argues Maurice Smith. "In bridge, once you bid, there's another guy, a dummy, lays down his hand so's you see what you can make. With 42, there's no dummy. We're all playing blind here."

Indeed, some say learning 42 is a bit like putting overalls on a donkey -- it takes a while.

The Curry County 42 League began in 1951 and is the oldest continually running domino round-robin in the United States. The league begins play in the late fall, right after hunting season, when the shorter, colder days reduce work on farms and ranches. Play climaxes with a tournament just before spring -- with its long hour of chores -- begins. .

Clovis, the seat of Curry County, once was a thriving railroad town. The roundhouse is gone, but the town's mammoth grain elevator, rising like a stately castle from the flapjack-flat horizon, remains a testament to the area's lifeblood: agriculture. Running cattle and raising wheat, corn and milo keep Clovis and its 34,000 citizens going.

Once a year, the red-brick New Mexico National Guard Armory plays host to the 42 tournament. Parked outside are pickup trucks -- four-door beasts with bales of hay in the beds. Inside, wind-burned men push around little black spots with big, calloused fingers.

Ten teams. One hundred players. Twenty-five tables. No prize money, just nifty trophies with gold dominoes fixed to the tops.

"This is about fellowship," says Smith, a hefty gent of 56. "We all know each other. We leave our guns at the door. We play for the fun."

"We play to win," corrects Roy Snodgrass, 64.

Forty-two may be a kick to play, but it has never pulled in huge crowds. Besides the competitors -- all male -- the only other people in the National Guard Armory this night are members of the Curry County Women's Extension Club. They're on hand to serve supper to the players: brisket, slaw, wedges of pie and enough coffee to flood the Pecos River.

Women are not prohibited from playing; they simply like to do other things besides pick up plastic rectangles. "My husband would rather play than eat or sleep," Elaine Myers says with a yawn.

"It ain't a spectator sport," admits Terry Fish, who is in the trucking business.

"We don't like nobody hanging over our shoulder looking at us," adds Dewey Pierce, who farms in tiny Pleasant Hill, N.M., which has maybe 500 people and no stoplight. "Forty-two players don't like to hear doors slamming or any sudden noises. You gotta concentrate in this game."

The playing tables resemble a ball park's outfield wall: Painted on the corners of each table are the names of sponsors: Clovis Hog Co., Mesa Liquid Feed, Power Pump Service.

Cecil Nolen, slight as a fence post, serves as tournament referee. He hustles about with a sugar shaker, spreading cornmeal on the tables as he goes. "Better to slide the dominoes," he explains.

A few minutes later, he blows a whistle and taps a hand clock. The dominoes -- large, thick ivory-colored bricks -- are spread with the spots down on the tables and then spun about in a swift motion that resembles scouring a horse trough.

"The garden," as the shuffle is called, and its outcome frequently cause players to mutter, "This dang garden's got weeds." Forty-two takes skill, but lots of luck is involved. Says Fish, "You either have the rocks or you don't."

Games last 15 minutes; partnerships last decades. During the supper intermission, Rick Ketcherside, with a belt buckle nearly the size of a hubcap, reveals, between bites of pecan pie, that he has been coupled for more than 20 years with Roy McDaniel. "I know how Roy plays and how he thinks, just by reading the dominoes and listening to what he says."

Listening? Doesn't that indicate cheating? "Hey," protests Ketcherside, "we don't need to give hints or clues."

Yet cheating does occur.

"You're really not allowed to talk about anything that can lead on your partner," says Dewey Pierce. "Oh, you might hear, `This hand is like a foot,' that sort of thing. But you're not s'posed to -- no whatyacallit, code words, no hand signals."

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