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While traveling on a recent trip to Cuba I noticed men playing dominoes on a table in a park. There were several games going. This took me back to my childhood when my grandfather taught me how to play dominoes. We used an ordinary black wooden set that had the image of a dragon pressed into the back. I'm certain the dominoes came from the five and dime store. I also remember drawing face-down dominoes from the so-called bone yard when none of the remaining ones in my hand could be matched with those on the table. The first player to rid himself of all his dominoes by matching them to others on the table was the winner. This, I learned later, was the draw game. I haven’t played the game in a long time, but I’d like to know a little more about it. How and when did it originate? Are there different forms?



The game of dominoes, or bones, as some like to call it, has been around since the 12th century. Legend says that a Chinese statesman invented the game of dominoes which he presented to the Emperor Hui Tsung in 1120 C.E. and which were circulated abroad by imperial order during the reign of Hui's son, Kao-Tsung seven years later.

During the 18th century, the game reached Venice and Naples. No one knows if a set had been brought back from China or whether an Italian created his own game. The game changed in the translation from Chinese to the European culture. European sets contained seven additional dominoes, with six of these representing the values that resulted from throwing a single die with the other half of the tile left blank, and the seventh domino representing the blank-blank (0–0) combination. By the late 18th century, the game of dominoes had arrived in Britain from France where it became popular in inns and taverns.

The word "domino" probably came from the Latin word dominus, meaning “the master of the house.” This evolved through French, then English to domino. The word “domino” first referred to a type of monk’s hood, then to a black hooded masquerade costume with a white mask worn during the Venetian Carnival, then to the mask itself, and finally to one of the pieces in the domino set, namely the one-on-one tile.

The game moved from Italy to France in the early 18th Century and became a fad. By the late 18th century, France began producing two types of domino puzzles. In the first, a person placed tiles on a given pattern in such a way that the ends matched. In the second type, a person places tiles on a given pattern based on arithmetic sums of the pips, usually totals of lines of tiles and tile halves.

European-style dominoes are rectangular tiles of wood or ivory that are twice as long as they are wide. Each has a line dividing its face with two square ends. Each end has a number of spots called pips that range from one to six. There’s a single tile for each combination of the faces of a pair of dice. The backs of the dominoes in a set are either blank or had a common design. The domino gaming pieces make up a domino set, sometimes called a deck or pack. The traditional domino set consists of 28 dominoes, featuring all combinations of spot counts between zero and six. A domino set is a generic gaming device, similar to playing cards or dice, in that a variety of games can be played with a set.

Players through the centuries have called dominoes "bones" because the earliest ones were made from animal bones or ivory. In addition to "bones", dominoes are also called "tiles", "stones", or "men." The earliest dominoes, made from ivory inlaid of with ebony pips, .are among the most sought-after and rarest domino sets. Also, farmers in 19th-century rural England used ivory dominoes rountinely in the settling of disputes over traditional grazing boundaries and commonly referred to them as "bonesticks."

Tiles are generally named after their two values. Deuce-five or five-deuce are alternative ways of describing the tile with the values two and five. Tiles that have the same value on both ends are called doubles. Players refer to them as double-zero, double-one, etc. Tiles with two different values are called singles. The most common domino sets commercially available are double six, with 28 tiles, and double nine, with 55 tiles.

Modern commercial domino sets are usually made of synthetic materials, such as ABS or polystyrene plastics, or Bakelite and other phenolic resins. Many approximate the look and feel of ivory while others use colored or even translucent plastics to achieve a more contemporary look. Modern sets also commonly use a different color for the dots of each different end value—one-spots might have black pips while two-spots might be green, three red, etc.—to make it easier to find matching ends.

It’s amazing how many forms of the game can be played with just 28 dominoes. In addition to the basics like the draw game and the block game, there are games with unusual names like Sebastopol, Bergin, Rounce, Sniff, All Fives, Fives & Threes, and Flower and Scorpion.

While wooden dominoes are the most commonly found, the best ones are made of oblong pieces of ivory, with ebony backs. One hundred years ago, a set of polished bone dominoes in a mahogany box would have cost as much as $4, while ordinary bone dominoes sold for as little as 50 cents.

Dominoes are an affordable collectible. Only the best ebony and bone sets sell for $100 or so today. Celluloid sets from the 1930s, made by the Elkloid Company of Providence, Rhode Island, sell for around half that. Other sets, tied to special events like world’s fairs, can go for much more. And the more common sets like the one used above sell for very little.

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