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It’s an easy game to learn but a difficult one to master.

If Vieques – as well as the rest of Puerto Rico – were to have a national pastime, it wouldn’t be horseback riding or snorkeling. It would be playing dominos! Residents learn this strategic table game at an early age and play resolutely and passionately the rest of their lives. It makes sense that island dwellers play dominos and not cards for practical reasons. Sitting in the plaza or by the sea players don’t have to worry about their “cards” blowing away or getting wet!

Groups pop up all over the island. You will find games at the beach, at bars, colmados, on the Malecón and on benches in Isabel. There is a dedicated group that plays all weekend at La Nasa, young and old joined at the tables, knees bouncing, fingers tapping, and keys jingling. It’s a fast, fun game with long stretches of silence then raucous laughter and shouts. It is more than the game – it is a ritual, a social gathering with families interacting, relationships forming, husbands and wives teaming up, and newcomers and old “pros” meeting. News and gossip are passed around like the many cold cans of Medalla while music moves some of the on-lookers.

Despite the party atmosphere, players maintain etiquette. Protocol requires the losing team to get up from the table and take a break for a drink or a dance as the challengers sit down. Games, or manos, are played counterclockwise and a match is the best of seven games. Major faux pas are leaving people waiting when you know you have the game won (throw down your tiles if you’ve got it in the bag) and reneging, the mistake of holding a tile that should be played.

The game is always friendly but very competitive. Like most serious players of any game, no one likes to lose. If you lose four straight games the match is over and you are the “chiva” or goat. The opposing team might “baaaaaaa” at you. You don’t want to be the goat. Players have a style of play as well. Some slam the keys down with authority, others quietly slide them into place. There’s always some degree of one-up-manship, a little chiding or teasing or bragging. The goal is always to get the person who plays after you to pass, so the person who plays before you is your worst enemy in the game.

Like any game it’s supposed to be fun. Play with people who will help you understand the game, then move up to the “pro” level players when you’ve gained some confidence. Joe Popp, a North American who has learned the game well since moving here a decade ago has played with most of the island’s “pros”. They still teach him a thing or two when he gets the chance to sit in. “There is strategy involved,” he says with a smile. “In dominos you can’t win with a bad hand but you can lose with a good hand.”

For those new to the game here are some fun facts.

The first mention of the game of dominos comes from China’s Song Dynasty (966 – 1279 AD)

The name domino is derived from the resemblance to a kind of priest’s hood (black on the outside, white on the inside) worn during the Venice carnival.

There are 28 rectangular tiles, or bones, to a set, each with a line on its face side dividing it into two squares. Each square is either blank or marked with up to 6 dots informally called pips.

Although there are several games to be played, the traditional game is for 2 to 4 players with the objective to empty one’s hand, a domino, while blocking opponents from doing so. In the end, a score is determined by counting the pips in the losing players’ hands.

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