Domino games are played with great enthusiasm in Cuba, most often using a double nine set of 55 tiles. The principal form of the game, which is described on this page, is partnership dominoes (Dominó de Parejas) for four players.
The original version of this page was written by Joe Celko, based on interviews by Ms. Kelley of Cubans in Chicago, Houston and Miami areas. Further details were obtained from the book Dominó de Parejas by Humberto B. Aguas Calcines (Alexandria publishing house, Miami, 2017).
Players and Equipment
The game uses a double nine domino set of 55 tiles (fichas). It is played by four people, in two partnerships, partners sitting opposite. The direction of play is counter-clockwise.
Usually each player has a rack on which they keep their tiles until they are played.
Before the first deal, to decide who should play first in the first round, one player from each team chooses a tile at random, and the team of the player who drew the tile with more spots has the right to play first. They decide between themselves which player should begin. In subsequent deals a member of the team that won the previous round plays first in the next round.
The tiles are thoroughly mixed face down on the table: the process is known as 'darle agua' which suggests that it is like stirring water. Each player in turn then draws ten tiles and places them on their rack so that the other players cannot see the faces of the tiles. To make cheating more difficult the tradition is that the last person who touched the pieces during mixing should also be the last to take their tiles. The remaining 15 tiles remain face down and are not used during the round.
Any player who draws 5 or more doubles can show them before the play begins, in which case the tiles must be thrown in and mixed again, and the players draw new hands.
As in most domino connecting games, the tiles are played to form a line in which the touching ends of adjacent tiles have matching numbers. Doubles are conventionally played across the line at right angles, and the line may turn corners so as to fit into the available space.
The first player may begin by playing any tile from their hand. Play continues to the right (counter-clockwise). Each player in turn must add one tile to the line if they can. A player who has no tile with an end that matches either open end of the line must pass.
The play continues until either
- one of the players wins by playing all their tiles (this is known as 'dominar' or 'pegarse'), or
- the round is blocked ('trancado'): all four players still have at least one tile each but none of these tiles match either end of the line. In this case the winner is the player with fewest pips on their remaining tiles.
A cumulative score is kept for each team. The winner's team scores the total number of spots on the remaining tiles held by their opponents. The starting player for the next round is a member of the winning team.
In the event of a tied blocked round, in which two opponents have equally low pip totals, no points are scored, and the starting player for the next round is a member of the team that did not start the tied round.
The first team to achieve a cumulative score of 100 points or more wins the game.
If the winning team reaches 100 before the other team has scored any points at all, this is known as a 'pollona'. Achieving this by scoring 100 or more in a single round is known as a 'viajera' or 'tripollúa'.
To save discussions about which team member should start, some play that the winner of each round starts the next. In case of a tied blocked game the next round is started by the tied player on the team that did not start the tied round.
Sometimes the team that starts the first round is determined as follows. A member of one team takes an unknown tile at random from the shuffled set and a member of the opposing team guesses whether the tile has an even or odd number of pips in total. If the guess is correct the guessing team starts; if not the other team starts. (Since 30 out of the 55 tiles have an even total, 'even' is the best guess.)
Some play that the holder of the highest double dealt makes the first play of the first round. If nobody holds a double, players turn in their hands and it is redealt. This is very unlikely, since there are ten doubles in the set and only 15 tiles out of play.
The partnership game is sometimes played with a double-six set of 28 tiles in which case each player draws 7 tiles and all tiles are in play.
Another Cuban domino game Longana using the double-9 set is described on a separate page: this is an individual game for four players with a cross-shaped layout.
In her book Dominoes around the World (Morrow, New York, 1998), Mary D. Lankford gives an entirely different set of rules for Cuban dominoes. She gives credit for them to in her acknowledgments to Sylvia Mora Mavrogenes of the Miami Public Library, Ondina Arrondo of the Hispanic Library, Miami, Florida, and Ralph de la Cruz of Los Angeles, California. Lankford's Cuban Dominoes is a draw game with a double six set played by 2, 3 or 4 players as individuals. 2 players begin with 7 tiles each, 3 with 5 tiles each and 4 with 4 tiles each, the remainder forming a boneyard from which players unable to play draw new tiles during the game. The first player must begin with a double, drawing tiles if necessary until a double is obtained. Subsequent players must match one end of the layout, drawing extra tiles if necessary until they find one that can be played. When the boneyard is empty play continues without drawing: players who cannot play must then pass. Play continues until someone wins by running out of tiles or until no further plays are possible. A blocked round is won by the player with the lowest pip total remaining. The winner scores the total pip count of their opponents' unplayed tiles less the the pip count of their own tiles if any. The first player to achieve a cumulative score of 100 or more wins the game.
Comments & Strategy
Joe Celko writes:
There is a fair amount of slang in Latin American games. "Napoleon" is the word that is used to describe the situation where the two exposed ends on the line of play are a 1 and a 9. The [9-9] tile is called "caja de muerto", meaning "box for the dead" or "coffin", though the Spanish word ataúd (coffin) is not used. This contrasts with the practice in Puerto Rico of calling the [0-0] by that name.
You can find tournaments and weekly games at assorted Cuban centers in major cities. The Cuban Chamber of Commerce in Chicago has held domino tournaments. Casa Cuba of Houston has held an annual Cuban Festival in May, with a domino tournament. The Atlanta Cuban Club has regular bingo and domino games.
Scott Pitzer, President of Puremco Inc., which boasts of being America's only domino company, is extremely interested in Cuban Dominoes and its players as an upcoming market for his more expensive dominoes which have designs printed on them. Pitzer said laughingly, "An Hispanic game of dominoes is serious and emotional, with a lot of 'slamming' down of the dominoes, which often results in breakage. Consequently, our company gets many requests for replacement pieces. 'Domino Cubano' must truly be a game of 'gusto mucho!'"