The history of Cuban dominoes

A Cuban family get together or party isn’t really complete unless someone sets up a table with four chairs and whips out a double-nine domino set. The Cuban version of the game comes with its own slang and idiosyncrasies and is a fundamental part of Cuban culture.

Via Periodico Cubano (my translation):

The history, slang, and idiosyncrasies of Cuban dominoes

Any respectable Cuban gathering must include a good game of dominoes. It’s said that after baseball, it’s the most popular pastime in the country. Cubans have taken ownership of this game and turned it into a cultural heritage.

Some claim dominoes arrived on the island through the migration of Chinese immigrants from California in the late 19th century; others attribute its introduction to Europeans. However, the exact origin of how dominoes became deeply rooted in Cuba, to the point of becoming a symbol of national culture, remains uncertain.

Its practice didn’t become popular until the early years of the Republic. It was primarily played in neighborhood cafés and stores before it definitively expanded among the members of the Vedado Tennis Club, the Miramar Yacht Club, and the Union Club, where various sports and social activities, such as poker, were promoted.

The traditional version of dominoes, known as “cabeza americana,” consists of 28 tiles, ranging from the double blank to the double six. This variant is the most common and is played in international competitions.

In Cuba, another version is also practiced, especially in the eastern part of the country. However, in the western and central regions, it is played with 55 tiles, from the double blank to the double nine, distributed in sets of 10 for each of the four players.

This version involves only 40 tiles, with the remaining tiles “sleeping” on one side of the table. Expert players argue that this style is more daring because 15 tile values are unknown, making it harder to predict strategies and requiring players to be more astute. Although chance and luck play a role in the game, other skills such as memory, deductive ability, logic, and even psychology are necessary to understand the gestures and expressions of partners or opponents.

You’ve probably heard that dominoes is a “silent game” or that it was invented by a mute person. However, the way Cubans play it is far from quiet. The table is filled with all kinds of euphoric and witty phrases, testing players’ imaginations.

These expressions can be common or spontaneously invented, emerging in the middle of a game. Some simply refer to the significance of the numbers in the charade, while others use words that fully or partially coincide.

Among the most commonly used phrases are:

  • One: pulla, puntilla, la uña, caballo
  • Two: Dulcinea, duquesne, duque, pato
  • Three: trío Matamoros, tríquiti, Teresa
  • Four: el cuarto de Tula cogió candela, cuartel, gato
  • Five: sin curva no hay carretera, cinco mil y más murieron, monja
  • Six: Sixto, septiembre el mes de las calabazas, caja de muerto al doble seis
  • Seven: la que no le gusta a nadie
  • Eight: Ochoa, Oshún
  • Nine: la puerca, novena de pelota, Nuevitas puerto de mar, caja de laguer al doble nueve

Phrases that describe specific tiles are also very popular: la que le gusta al negro, Blanquizal de Jaruco (double blank); cuácara con cuácara, la perfecta (double four); caja de muerto (double six). Without a doubt, few things are more Cuban than dominoes.

“Patria y Vida”: An Allegory with Dominoes

Dominoes served as and inspiration for music and was used allegorically in the song “Patria y Vida” (Homeland and Life), released in February 2021 by a group of Cuban artists, including Yotuel Romero, Descemer Bueno, El Funky, Maykel Osorbo, and Gente de Zona, in protest against the Cuban government. Its most famous line is: “Your five-nine, my double two; 60 years with the domino locked.”

The song’s title sets it apart from the official slogan “Patria o Muerte” (Homeland or Death), which has been used in Cuba for decades. The song criticizes economic difficulties, political repression, and the lack of freedoms in the country, advocating for a change in the political and social system.

The song was created during a period of increasing discontent and protests in Cuba and has been widely recognized for its impact on political discourse both inside and outside the country. It has been interpreted as a call for unity and the pursuit of a better future for the Cuban people.