For hundreds of Caribbean-American New Yorkers, a subterranean domino league offers a relaxed reminder of home. But when things get serious, they get really serious.
Eunice Griffith sits on her tan couch with her hand on her head, thinking over her new work schedule. She has more hours now, something a single mother of five, with two children at home, might be glad for, but a tinge of disappointment still slides through her voice. Her brown eyes and wide smile are warm, but tired. Well-loved family board games fill the large TV stand across from her, and a single tea candle burns in the corner. Her daughters are keeping to themselves, and she may be imagining less time with them, to cook dinner or help with homework or braid her seven-year-old’s waterfall of hair. But what she speaks of tonight is having less time for dominoes.
When she leaves the apartment, Eunice pauses on her way down the gray staircase, leans over the banister, listens. Sometimes she can hear loud slams behind the door to the first floor unit, a sure sign her father, Ken, is in there playing dominoes – a game whose goal is often to slam the tiles on the table louder and harder than anyone else. But it’s quiet tonight. Ken Griffith – ‘Guru’ as most people call him – is already in the basement next door, waiting for members of the Bajan Caribbean Domino League to show up for practice. Two and a half decades after moving his family to New York, Guru converted the basement at one of his two Brownsville, Brooklyn homes into Club Strauss Street, one of eight basement ‘arenas’ where the delicious victories and bitter pains of the domino season unfold. Strauss Street is now filled with glittering trophies, custom game tables and a framed print of two men playing dominoes, overlaid with the words, “Bones ‘The Dominologists.’” (“Bones” is another term for dominoes.)
Marlene Griffith, Guru’s youngest, at forty-five, lives and plays at Strauss Street, but she hasn’t arrived to practice yet. She and Guru don’t have to practice much, anyway. They’ve played together for decades and don’t need the elaborate signs that some players use: exaggerated eye movements or, as Eunice jokes, code phrases like “all my children.”
Dominoes runs through the Griffith family’s blood as much as Barbados does, even if the league itself still strives to mix the right cocktail of competition, rules and Bajan (referring to people from Barbados) nostalgia.
* * *
“Goodnight” is their greeting when they enter the basement clubs. Kiss cheeks. Pass Coronas. If they’re not just West Indian but also from Barbados then they might exclaim “Cheese on bread!” — the Bajan expression of surprise at seeing a friend who’s been away too long.
Tonight, a woman in dark sunglasses says “Five-Love” as she watches a partner’s game from the corner of a basement known as Club Winthrop in the neighborhood of East Flatbush. The women’s team is on the verge of victory and the men’s team is silent, trying their best to ignore the comments coming from the sunglasses. “Even if you have to swallow a domino…don’t let them get one,” she presses the women. A set is done when a team wins six games, and winning six games to none – “Six-Love” – is the best kind of victory.
Smells of fish and chicken are filling the basement in East Flatbush, wafting from just behind the bar where Eunice Griffith is stationed for the night. Her strawberry hair is neat and shiny, and she hasn’t eaten all day because she’s been saving up for one of the best cooks in the league.
“A man in the kitchen, no woman help, and the food is good?” She raises her eyebrows as if she’s sharing an unbelievable secret.
A large man with braids and a high voice is cooking on an ancient Prosperity Buffet Stove, with just enough burners and ovens for green banana, fried pork, sticky okra and creamy breadfruit. Players swallow forkfuls in the front half of the basement, which is bare and gray but for a blue map of Barbados speckled with pictures of sailboats, caves and smiling children.
Then flies the final domino of the warm-up game, a chair sliding back. “SIX-LOVE!!!” one of the women booms, and the four players erupt in a cacophony of female victory cries and male contestations. Some onlookers laugh. Others shush them, embarrassed.
Eunice isn’t as competitive as many of the players in the hundreds-strong league. “I don’t mind if I win or lose. I’m not going to have a heart attack, or something,” she says. But if her team is slacking, she won’t hesitate to be their cheerleader.
It is rare to have such a relaxed attitude in this league. Since its founding in 2006, the Bajan Caribbean Domino League has grappled with the varying levels of competitiveness that flow through its members, not to mention their willingness to follow the professional etiquette of dominoes. It is even harder to enforce rules on nights like this one in Club Winthrop: Tonight is a friendly, non-season competition called a “pull-a-rama” in which four or five tables of games will end with a single winner. Here you can scream and shout “SIX-LOVE!!!” if you want. For many, tonight is just about hanging out. Not everyone plays like the Ward twins from Montel Sports Club, their eyes trained on the growing domino chain, all their senses poised to read their other half’s next move. And this isn’t the World Tournament in the islands either, though many in the Bajan Caribbean Domino League are itching to prepare. They don’t have to worry about that until next year though; then a team will train under the rules before they go to Antigua. Even during the league games that count, not every club and every referee is so austere. People want to laugh, to live in a game that means home.
For Eunice, dominoes is less about the game than the people, the extended Caribbean family scattered throughout Crown Heights, Brownsville and East Flatbush. Though Barbados is only about half the area of New York City with a population one twenty-ninth the size, there were nearly 25,000 immigrants from the tiny island living in the five boroughs in 2011. That same year, when Eunice lived and worked as a tutor in Boston, a bus of fifty players from the Bajan Caribbean Domino League showed up on her doorstep after a long weekend of games in the city – and they were hungry. With little forewarning from her uncle, who was on the bus, Eunice scrambled to make breakfast for the team: coffee, eggs, sausage and swordfish. “They were all over my house eating. I said, ‘Find a seat where you can find a seat.’” She laughs, remembering them sitting on the stairs, in the backyard, at the kitchen counter. Two years later, she moved back to New York to be with her family and, just as importantly, to finally be part of the pictures Marlene sent her of the league. She’s now the assistant secretary.
Eunice, forty-six, was born in the South East English county of Oxfordshire to a British mother and a Bajan father, and she retains the peculiar half-British accent of a child who moved to America in the middle of growing up. In England, she knew about Caribbean dominoes mania but had hardly been around other West Indians before arriving in New York in 1981. Her family traded a huge countryside two-bath house with a front and backyard for a tiny apartment, but in her new neighborhood, Eunice was part of a larger black community than ever before. She was thrilled to sit on the stoop with cousins from her father’s eight brothers and sisters, with other neighbors who felt like family too. She dreaded her mother opening the front door to say “Tea time!” calling her in for the evening. But inside that apartment, Guru educated her in dominoes.
Once, when she was learning to play, her brother said, “Oh Daddy, it’s just a game.”
“Oh, no, it’s not just a game!” Guru scolded. “Every play means something. You don’t just put down a domino, you have to think about why you’re putting it down!” Eunice and her sisters laughed.
“We still keep playing,” Eunice says now. “You know, we’re game people.”
Even Eunice’s seven-year-old can play.
* * *
Back at Club Winthrop, Eunice’s boyfriend Errol Jordan is standing by the bar, aching for a chance to poke fun at her.
“You got lucky,” Errol says, pressing at the story he wants to tell. Earlier, he bested or tied her in eight or nine domino games before she could finally get the upper hand. Eunice shoots him a glare. Errol is tall, muscular and confident, a natural leader who has risen through the ranks to vice president of the league, in charge of thirteen clubs this year, tournaments throughout the country and abroad, and the annual Thanksgiving feast that he always, always plans his travels around. Tasked with keeping his players and competitors in a happy equilibrium, Errol never keeps the management of the league far from his thoughts. It’s a change of pace from the dominoes of his childhood.
Growing up in Black Rock, Barbados, Errol’s mother couldn’t afford to buy cooking oil. Instead, she’d buy pig fat off wasted carcasses, melt it down, pour it in a jar and, when it solidified, cut off a chunk to grease the pan for fish. Errol and his friends didn’t have television, so they found other ways to entertain themselves. Sometimes, they’d each take a loop of string, wrap it back and forth between fingers on opposite hands, like cat’s cradle, pull their palms apart and count all the diamonds they made. Sometimes they played cricket or soccer. Sometimes they played dominoes.
Everyone did. It wasn’t so much taught as simply absorbed in the islands, kids watching old men play under flickering street lamps until the early hours of sultry summer mornings. Dominoes is the Caribbean pastime, the West Indies’ obsession. A game some relish for the chance to drink and swear. Others do it for the tournaments. Their rules. Their trophies. Titles like “Queen.”
Eunice may know Errol’s competitiveness, his love for titles and trophies, more than anyone else. After all, the trophies are unabashedly enviable: massive green, red and blue things, usually topped with a golden cup, a golden pair of wings and, at the very top, a golden domino, poised as if about to spin on one corner. Errol’s name is engraved on one trophy, next to a title for 2012 MVP from Montel Sports Club.
Eunice is proud that she played so well against Errol that early evening, once she harnessed the right combination of skill and luck. Though Eunice spends days at work dreaming of large tournament halls where all the Saturday night matches could be played simultaneously, dominoes is still just a game, a way to be with other Bajans, not a passion satisfied by sweeping victories.
“I may not play dominoes well,” she concedes to Errol.
The MVP smiles. “It’s okay, you got other talents, baby.”
* * *
In a pack of double-six dominoes – which contains twenty-eight dominoes, or cards – there are 168 dots, or ‘eyes.’ Dominoes are usually plastic now, but they’ve been made variously out of wood, bone and Bakelite. The game began as early as the tenth century in China, migrated 800 years later to Italy and France, and accompanied French prisoners to England in the late 1700s. From there, double-six packs sailed with colonists to the West Indies, where the game has become so serious that Jamaica hopes to make it an Olympic sport.
There is a particular ritual to Caribbean dominoes.
How you hold them. When each player picks his seven pieces from the pile of face-down cards, he holds five in one hand, two in the other. The dominoes press against one another so tightly – his thumb on the tops, the other fingers cradling the bottoms – that you think his bones might break. But this way, he can see all the eyes at once. Sometimes, under the customary row of five, a skilled player dangles a sixth domino between two fingers. In his free hand, he turns the seventh over like a piece of candy.
How you score. You count the games you win with chalk-lines on the table, pennies if the table’s made of plastic. You earn five points if you win Six-Love. Three if you win and don’t pull off the shutout. If you’re down Five-Love then win six games in a row to become the victor, you’ve just made a very special ‘Chinese Six-Love,’ but you won’t necessarily get any bonus points.
How you slam. Though official rules prohibit talking and World Tournaments forbid slamming dominoes on the table, there is no joy like a final domino hammer to end Six-Love. The right arm arches back, tile at fingertips. The limb swings around like a catapult, plummeting towards the table, and deals the deathblow from the elbow, sending everything – cards, cellphones, chalk dust – flying, like a grenade going off.
The slam is the blurred line between the serious and the sentimental, the moment when casual players turn hopelessly engaged in the win, when stern competitors forget the required composure. But it fills the room with noise, life, so much that some players suggest earplugs for the uninitiated or say that the metal pin at the center of a domino – once meant to hold bone to wood, now preserved in tradition – was meant to steel the piece against the slam.
In February 1917, Tsar Nicholas wrote to his wife that dominoes was his “half-hourly game of patience every evening.” No one in Russia slammed like the West Indians – and certainly not for three-hour matches.
* * *
In the Curaçaon writer Frank Martinus Arion’s novel Double Play, the tale of a domino game that lasts an entire day, one character laments that, in comparison to dominoes, chess is the “classy” game of “nice clocks that you press when you’ve made your move”; and yet, dominoes requires just as much strategy, coordination and concentration. “You think, of course. You certainly think. A lot. You sure do.”
In 1625, so one myth goes, a group of Spaniards guarding the Puerto Rican fort of El Morro were thinking so hard about their game of dominoes that the Dutch captured the sprawling stronghold. In reality, the Spanish held El Morro against attack. But the story probably would have been true if Lionel Blackman, founder and former president of the Bajan Caribbean Domino League, had been one of those Spaniards.
On a late Saturday night in October, Lionel is drinking Absolut Vodka with Canada Dry ginger ale, and, when the ginger ale runs out, straight Absolut. “Some people take this thing as serious as lunch, dinner and breakfast,” he says of the dominos flying around him. “And then some just see it as another way to spend an hour or two.”
Lionel takes dominoes as serious as three square meals a day.
Tonight, he’s standing at the back of Hilary’s Delights, another East Flatbush basement venue where clubs Seabreeze, G East 43rd Street and Bajan-To-Go play their home games. Hilary’s has a little more decoration than Club Winthrop. A long mirror stretches along the top third of one wall. On it, a painting of famous black women, a framed puzzle of Barack Obama and a map of Trinidad. That’s where Hilary Bowen, the namesake and homeowner, is from. She stands with her hands on her hips behind a bar topped with catering pans and doles out barbecue chicken wings and French fries. Hilary is quiet among the screeches of outrage and victory cries of “Hallelujah mon!” and “Leave it to Beaver!” that leap from the tables.
Hilary and Lionel aren’t playing tonight – team Seabreeze has a bye week – so they watch G East 43rd Street decimate Montel’s Team 1.
“I thought it would be a little closer,” Lionel says, watching the start of the second ninety-minute half of the game. “At the end, we’ll know who comes out first…It could be a change of tides right now. So we’ll have to wait and see.”
Lionel is calm and patient in his assessment of the game. A weathered veteran – he was in the U.S. Army medical corps for a decade before he became a citizen – and a month into his sixties, he dresses with less adornment than some of the other men here, who wear gold and silver medallions depicting maps and flags of Barbados. Lionel shows pride for his country with a black and royal blue cap that has an embroidered trident on the bill and the word “BARBADOS” in yellow on the Velcro strap. Decades of smoking have given him a gruff voice, yet his demeanor is inviting. His eyes are either dark brown or dark blue, depending on how his face is angled towards the light.
Lionel spent six seasons as president of the Bajan Caribbean Domino League before resigning last year. “I gave my whole life to this,” he explained, recounting the tournaments in London, Toronto, Atlanta, and Barbados. These days, he spends more time playing the game he grew up with than arguing with the executive board about how it should be played.
Errol fields those discussions now. Lately, he’s been concerned about players’ manners during the games, which has likely prompted two signs, on red and blue card stock, posted in Hilary’s Delights:
“You are asked to please refrain from using obscene languages in the club house or you will be charge [sic] $2.00 each time you are caught.”
“Please respect Seabreeze, 43rd, and Bajan-To-Go club house. Any other club disrespecting captain will be fine of $20.00 each time you are caught. Please captain please control you’ll [sic] members. Thank you!!!”
These warnings are made for games like the match being played at Table 1, where a Jamaican pair from G East 43rd is throttling the Ward twins. The brothers, who share the same salt-and-pepper hair, wiry mustache and tired cheekbones, are mostly serious and quiet, except when they have a strong domino to slam. The Jamaican team is different: loud, rowdy and playfully pompous. The Wards are on the verge of paying some hefty fines.
“Take a pass!” shouts the larger half of the Jamaican team, who’s wearing a dollar-sign pendant on a silver chain. He points to his partner across the table, egging him on to skip his turn. He knows he’s won the game as soon as he can play. His partner passes.
“Take a pass!” he shouts again, pointing at David Ward, the more solemn twin, who frowns beneath his gray and black cap. He can’t play.
“WOOOEEEeeeee!!!” the man cries as he stands, slamming his winning card and then smacking his palm on the table just as hard, making the dominoes bounce like popcorn. Dots of sweat sparkle across his brow.
David excuses himself from the game, a scowl twisting his face, unable to endure the beating any longer.
It’s this type of “conduct” that makes Errol uneasy, and he tells the team captains during a Thursday night meeting: “The way we behave during our games, that’s prevent us from doing all the things that we would like to do…We have a lot of repair to do. If we want sponsorship, if we want people to be in our corner, we have a lot of repair to do.”
But Errol is not as strong-willed on rules, some captains feel, as they are. For them, if a team is expected to play in Antigua in 2016 — to have a chance of beating the Barbados National Domino Whist & Hearts Club, which has won the World Tournament more than any other country— the Bajan Caribbean Domino League has to start implementing international competition rules now; has to stop bending them for the sake of everyone having the chance to play.
Joseph Ward, the other twin, speaks up.
“The World Cup have different rules than here,” he says. “A lot of rules. You have between two seconds to ten seconds for you to play a domino…” Some people in this league can take five minutes to slam a card.
“Hold on a second, Ward. Hold on a second,” Errol interrupts. “We’re gonna have trials, right, to play [and then train for] the Antiguan tournament? The trials are gonna have the exact rules that we’ll be playing down there.” As the season builds up to the trials, the league will begin to incorporate more of the strict international competition rules that they usually ignore.
But Joseph worries that will be too late. “You have to start from start. You can’t just wait.”
“You can’t push a big spoon down a baby mouth,” Errol replies. After a few minutes, Joseph gives up his losing argument. The balance between a fun pastime and a serious endeavor is restored, for the moment.
Lionel would probably side with Joseph Ward. At Hilary’s, he speaks with a careful, weighty tone that betrays how thoughtfully he considers dominoes, the league, his life. It’s easy to believe that this man, on his first morning in New York, a little chilly in his corduroys, chased a would-be mugger with a meat cleaver from his kitchen. When Lionel’s father walked down to the corner store to confront the perpetrator, the young man said Lionel “had more heart” than he’d thought.
And yet, at moments in Hilary’s Delights, Lionel yields to the childlike fun of dominoes. He’s in it for the competition, but that other element seems vital too. The Bajan community has changed in the four decades since Lionel moved to New York, he says. It’s grown larger and yet, in some ways, more distant: Where six or eight people used to pile into a car together for a trip, now everyone takes their own car because they want to be able to “go home when they’re ready, when they feel like it, and when they feel safe.”
Still, Lionel can point out player after player in the room who he grew up with in Barbados. Now crowded into a fluorescent-lit basement decades later, they are together again.
“The togetherness, thanks to the dominos,” he says, “we still have that.”
* * *
Guru sits at the bar at Club Strauss Street, eating a warm fish cake on a yellow sesame seed bun. Marlene, his partner tonight, is in the other room, watching the start of the evening’s game: Strauss Stret versus Bajan-To-Go. Guru is a “closer,” meaning he won’t come in until he’s needed at the end, so Marlene waits to play. They’re usually lethal as a team. Oxfordshire and Barbados aren’t worlds away when they sit down in a Brooklyn basement to play dominoes.
Guru likes to tell people that he trains players at Strauss Street and then sends them off to play for other clubs. “If a student don’t surpass a teacher, teacher hasn’t done his job,” he says. That’s why everyone calls him Guru.
But at the game table, when Marlene and Guru step in with an hour remaining on the clock and Strauss Street trying to hold on to a leading score, she calls him “Daddy.”
“Daddy, no talking.
“Daddy, remember, though it’s a competition, you can’t do all that talking.”
She waves her hand at him. “He gets carried away.”
Guru is a tall man with a broad nose and wide, almond-shaped eyes. His smile is kind, his voice gravelly, but when he plays dominoes, an intensity crawls up through his soft cheeks and hardens his gaze. Earlier, he said you can have a good game even if you lost, that they aren’t playing professionally in the league, that it is just for fun. He said with a laugh that when he was a child in Christ Church, Barbados, he and his mother used to play as partners, passing dominoes back and forth to one another under the table; that when his father found out years later, he’d said, “My wife is a Christian lady, she never cheat, you did!”
But now, playing the game with Marlene, he’s mumbling under his breath, “Only one winner, only one winner.”
Marlene and Guru win the first two games. Then it starts getting shaky.
Marlene has Guru’s large smile. Her hair is pulled back in a ponytail, and she wears the first generation of Strauss Street’s gray team polo. “When I’m playing, I’m serious,” she said earlier, as she kept score. But between calling for quiet and cheering on the team, she erupted in fits of laughter, at times jokingly commenting on players’ technique as if she were a society gossip, her co-scorer saying, “They play slower than my grandmother. And she’s dead.”
Marlene and Guru play quickly enough, and before long, they’re tied with their opponents, five to five.
“We gotta bring this in,” she says to Guru. “They ain’t supposed to be the same score as we.”
The games they first played in that very house more than twenty years ago, the games they’ve played since then, were supposed to prepare them for moments like this, when victory is within reach, when points can be taken or given. When reputations have to be upheld.
Four dominoes left in his hand, and a smile grows on Guru’s face.
It’s still there when his next turn comes around, and this could be it. But maybe he didn’t see it coming. They lose.
Marlene wanders back to the scorers’ table, realizing that despite her performance, Strauss Street has enough points to win the night. Guru lumbers to the back room to play cards, laughing that within five minutes’ time of a game like that, his brother would be calling him from London, saying, “What happened, somebody beat you?!”
Even if they lost, it was a good game, if for no other reason than that they played together. In a game like that, Eunice would still have had fun, Lionel might have found a way to laugh it off. And when Marlene and Guru are finished, they’re back socializing with the community that is their family.
“Anyone in my family plays dominoes,” Marlene says, her British lilt slipping out on the last syllable. Marlene’s young daughter also knows how to play. She doesn’t play much, but she can.
Around Marlene, Bajans are eating chicken and rice and beans, sipping yellow Pulse energy drink, laughing, reminiscing; elementary school buddies chat at the bar. Barbados lives here, sheltered from native New Yorkers’ eyes, from the un-tropical cold, by a nondescript basement door.
“You have to learn,” Marlene goes on about her daughter, “whether you go with it or you don’t…you’re gonna play.”