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History of Dominoes

Tile games have been found in China as early as 1120 CE. Some historical accounts have traced evidence of the existence of the pieces, way back to a soldier-hero named Hung Ming (181-234 CE). Other historians believe that Keung T'ai Kung, in the twelfth century BCE had created them.

The Chu sz yam (Investigations on the Traditions of All Things) stated that dominoes were invented by a statesman in 1120 CE. This person is said to have presented them to the Emperor Hui Tsung, and that they were circulated abroad by imperial order during the reign of Hui's son, Kao-Tsung (1127-1163 CE). Other interpreters say that this document refers to the standardization and not the invention of the game itself.

Michael Dummett wrote a short piece in the history section of his "Game of Tarot" (page 35) dating the introduction of dominos in Europe to Italy, possibly in Venice and Naples, in the 18th Century . Although domino tiles are clearly of Chinese inheritance, there is a debate over whether the European tile set came from China to Europe in the fourteenth century or later or was invented independently.

A single domino was found with the Mary Rose wreckage (early 16th century), but it seems likely to have found its way there much later. On the whole, there is so much evidence for games in the 16th century and 17th century that if dominoes existed they would not have escaped the record.

European dominoes are rectangles that are twice as long as they are wide. There is a single tile for each combination of the faces of a pair of dice; the blank suit is the throws of a single die, for a total of twenty-eight tiles in the standard Double six set. Other sets with larger numbers of tiles were invented later, with the double nine and Double twelve sets being the most common extensions.

The word "domino" is most likely to be derived from the Latin, dominus (i.e. the master of the house). The vocative, domine, became the Scottish and English dominie (i.e. schoolmaster). The dative or ablative, domino, became the French and then the English domino. This word first referred to a type of monastic hood, then to a hooded masquerade costume with a small mask, then to the mask itself, and finally to one of the pieces in the domino set, namely the [1-1] tile.

The game moved from Italy to France in the early 18th Century and became a fad. By the late 18th century, France was also producing domino puzzles. The puzzle were of two types. In the first, you were given a pattern and asked to place tiles on it in such a way that the ends matched. In the second type, you were given a pattern and asked to place tiles based on arithmetic properties of the pips, usually totals of lines of tiles and tile halves. The book CREATIVE PUZZLES OF THE WORLD by van Delft and Botermans (Abrams, New York;ISBN 0-8109-0765-8 (hardcover) or ISBN 0-8109-2152-9 (softcover); 1978) has reproduction of an antique French picture puzzle which is assembled by matching domino tiles on the bottoms of the picture squares from this period.

The game arrived in Britain in the late 18th Century from France (possibly via French prisoners of war) and quickly seems to have become popular in inns and taverns at the time.

The word "Domino" is French for a black and white hood worn by Christian priests in winter which is probably where the name of the game derives from. Domino games are played all over the world, but they are most popular in Latin America.

Inuits (Eskimos, to use an old and incorrect term, for these North American natives) play a game using tiles made from bones that are very similar to Western Dominoes. This game was probably an imitation of Western games rather than a native invention.

Many of the games we associate with dominoes are quite modern. The block games seem to be the oldest of the European games. But Muggins dates from the early 20th century. Many of the games described on these web pages were invented in the last few decades.

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This page was contributed by Joe Celko (jcelko212@earthlink.net).   © Joe Celko 2001. Last updated: 9th September 2001