Dominos: Inside a Continuing Cuban Tradition in Miami

Cubans continuously use the following terms in dominos: “Pollona”, “La Gorda,” “Caja de Muerto”, and “Petróleo,” as well as some other phrases.

Dominos is a popular game in Cuba and the traditions from the game have survived in Miami. They are part of a driving force that reinvigorates Cuban culture with the use of many popular sayings and a general understanding of the rules and customs of the game.

Dominos among Cubans, is usually played with four people consisting of 2 teams of two with a case of 55 dominos. The dominos must be shuffled appropriately on the table; no one’s hand glued to the gliding domino chips and then each person playing, picks 10 chips. The rest remain on the corners of the table, the number of dots each chip has facing down, so nobody can see them.

In some countries, such as The Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico, teams play with six dominoes. Not the Miami Cubans. Each player must play with ten “fichas” (term for Domino chips). To decide which team goes first, someone at the table must ask the opposing team “¿Pares o Nones?” Spanish for “Odd or even?” If it’s your lucky day you’ve guessed correctly and a member of your team has the “salida” by placing the first chip on the center of the table.

Jorge, 50, from La Habana, Cuba and one of the regulars at the Domino Park in the famous Calle Ocho in Miami, jokingly said “Dominos is 70% knowledge and 40% luck.” Others may or may not agree; however, within the game of dominos, memory and a little math helps.

Good memory allows players to track the numbers each player is placing on the table, a huge advantage of the game. If your partner puts down a particular number frequently, chances are he or she has many chips with that number of dots and will use it against the opponent. You can help your partner by playing to his or her strength, which then either forces your opponents to play the game defensively, instead of using their own strategy. It also assures your partner that you are backing him or her up.

Math skills are crucial towards the end of the game when you have only 1 or 2 fichas left because you can count quickly how many different numbers have been used on the table, which provides an educated guess for your next move. If nine out of the 9-numbered fichas have been used and you have the last 9-numbered domino you can try to close the game if you believe you can win, by having the lowest number of dots in your remaining chips.

Arguing in dominos is crucial another part of the game. Once the game has begun all eyes should be kept on the fichas and not on your partner. Failure to do so can result in cheating accusations from opponents or as Lourdes Pañeda from La Habana, Cuba likes to say “Tramposo” or cheater. You will even witness arguing between teammates or shall I say compañeros if you kill (or play against) their number. That’s another reason why you should memorize the number your teammate is throwing out or you will be accused of “ Mataste mi ficha”, translation “You killed my domino.”

Another part of the Cuban tradition in dominos, that still endures in Miami, is having a drink whether a rum and coke or Cuban coffee while playing. Ramón Pérez, 76, from Cienfuegos, Cuba states that “playing dominoes is a form of entertainment. You can drink and play.” When you ask some Miami Cubans what is the preferred drink at the domino table back in Cuba they respond with “Lo que hay” meaning “whatever you have” since Cubans are limited in what they can drink and eat in Cuba. Rum is a popular alcoholic beverage to have at the domino table in Cuba. The same holds true with Cuban coffee.

“If you don’t drink coffee than you’re not Cuban,” the saying goes. In Miami, the tradition still endures. According to an employee at Sentir Cubano, a store dedicated to Cuban culture, “People in Miami don’t drink as much during dominos because laws are stricter than they are in Cuba.” She did acknowledge, however, it is common to have a drink when people do play.

Last but not least are the sayings. Cubans continuously use the following terms in dominos: “Pollona”, “La Gorda,” “Caja de Muerto”, and “Petróleo,” as well as some other phrases. A “Pollona” occurs when the winning team has not allowed their opponents to score a single point during the game.

“La Gorda” or “the fat one” is a reference to the chip that has nine black dots, one each side. It is also called the double nine because disposing it eliminates the weight off of one’s shoulders. Cubans also call the double nine “Petróleo” because it is full of black dots leaving the ficha to look as dark as petroleum.

La “Caja de Muerto” or the “coffin” is the double six. If you look at the double six domino it resembles a box hence the term coffin.

Tommy Mas, 13, a student at Epiphany Catholic School in Miami, when asked why do you like playing dominos, he said “Because our family likes to play.” He also said he liked the game because “it makes me feel good when I make someone pass,” which means they don’t have any chips with that number.

This Cuban domino tradition which centers on family, drinking, sayings, arguing, and the rules of the game has thrived here in Miami and serves as great entertainment for those who take part in this Cuban custom. If you want to learn how to play or want some domino competition you now know where to go; to Domino Park on Southwest Eight Street, better known as Calle Ocho.

The Americano/Agencies