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Last Updated: Wednesday, 28 June 2006, 09:43 GMT 10:43 UK
US sports TV bets on dominoes
By Tara Gadomski
In New York

The domino, long ago relegated in US minds as a toy for children to topple, is getting a new life, as the country's top sports broadcaster transmits the World Domino Tournament.

Men and women playing dominoes in J Wood Wright park in the Washington Heights
Street dominoes has a simple and quick rhythm (Photo: Mike Hodder)
Executives at the ESPN network say they want to make dominoes the next mainstream sport on television.

While even serious enthusiasts may balk at calling it a sport, the network's interest in the game is no surprise to anyone who's seen a rollicking street game.

It is played daily in Latino areas of New York.

Often hidden in the shady corners of public parks, you can hear the click-clack of the dominoes, long before you see the men huddled around the small tables.

The pounding of fists, the shouting of "ay-yay-yay", the clapping hands, the Spanish insults, and the laughing indicates that a game is well under way.


The centre of New York dominoes action lies in the neighbourhood of Washington Heights - the extreme northern end of Manhattan. Here the population is predominantly immigrant, and mostly from the Dominican Republic.

Victor Durang playing dominoes in J Wood Wright park in the Washington Heights . (Photo: Mike Hodder)
In our culture, families get together and eat, drink and play dominoes
Victor Durang
Local dominoes tournaments are organised regularly - with bragging rights offered as a prize. But more than a pastime, the game is part of the Dominican identity.

Victor Durang, 22, emigrated to the United States three years ago, and has already adopted a New York wardrobe and dialect. But he says he is holding on to the domino tradition.

"I grew up in the game. My father played it and my uncles played it. It's part of me. In our culture, families get together and eat, drink and play dominoes."

While some may debate the value of Dominican rules, over Puerto Rican rules and English rules, street dominoes has its own simple and quick rhythm.

First the pieces, or "tiles", are shuffled face down and four players select seven dominoes each. The player with the double-six tile starts the game and moving counter-clockwise around the table, players must lay a matching numbered tile on either end of the dominoes chain.

If a player does not have a matching domino, a knuckle rap on the table signals "pass". Whoever is out of tiles first, wins.

To the casual observer it may seem like an easy game of chance, but there is a strategy. In a move akin to card counting, the best players can calculate what opponents are holding by memorising the set. They use that information to predict and block other players' moves.

"The champions are the persons that are quiet. There are some louder people who like to scream all the time. For them, it's mostly social. But everybody has fun," Victor says.

'What's dominoes?'

But even with all the fast action and required skill, will dominoes really be successful on sports television?

I know a lot of American friends who play dominoes - a lot of Italians play, a lot of Canadians play... It will be very popular on TV
Leo Batista
The Spanish-language ESPN Deportes began broadcasting dominoes earlier this year, but no official ratings data is available for the channel.

But the network's real gamble began on 12 June when it started broadcasting the World Domino Tournament. It is last year's tournament but ESPN2 is aiming to spice it up by concentrating on players' lives and then showing the games.

The 2006 tournament is in November.

Most of the players in Washington Heights are confident that dominoes will appeal to mainstream America.

Alma Alvarado, 35, says she plays dominoes on the internet with people from all over the world, though she admits it is mainly a game for "people from hot countries".

And 52-year-old Leo Batista says: "I know a lot of American friends who play dominoes. A lot of Italians play, a lot of Canadians play. It will be very popular on TV."

However, many Americans who are not recent immigrants were confused when asked about dominoes on TV.

"What's dominoes?" asked a woman on a lunch break in Midtown Manhattan. Her friend explained that it is a take-out pizza chain. (For the record, that is called "Domino's".)

Many American men though, when asked, just acknowledged they would "watch anything on sports TV".

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