Not a Lady’s Capicú: The Politics of Dominoes

Apr 18, 2016
1:28 PM


My father always said: “Aim for a capicú [when the winning tile can be played on either open end of the layout of a domino game]. The slippers should fit on both feet. Never let them block you.”

It took us a while to learn how to position our tiles so, in the end, it’s a win-win situation. But we mastered our game. And by “we” I mean my partners and lifelong best friends, Dinorah Torres Soto, Ziara Oliver and, well, me. In the beginning it was a beach hobby, playing with the boys — yes, as in “all-male companions” — by placing the table on top of a “neverita” and playing the day away under the scorching heat. We’d sunburn, occasionally lifting the table before washing the tiles, to serve more cervezas. But we’d stay playing hours on end. Why? Because we’d win, over and over again. It became a badge of honor, and cause of shame for the boys. “Girls are winning,” they’d say. It came to a point the boys in the neighborhood of El Conquistador in Trujillo Alto, Puerto Rico stopped inviting us to beach outings and barbacoas. We became the terror of dominó. No one wanted to play with us. I make it sound like we were bullied in a schoolyard, and we sort of were. Mind you, we were college juniors.

The next year, the university held a national pseudo-tournament of “mental sports,” or so they called it. The games were to show strategic positioning, mathematical tactics, cryptic communication skills and team trust. Down the list, I barely recognized any of the games, except for chess and dominoes. Up until minutes after the last class, I saw it as a cultural game I watched the boys play, while gulping down copious amounts of cheap beer. I immediately knew our instincts were right: our winning streak wasn’t out of simply matching numbers, while creating some sort of snake-like shape with the tiles. We took this seriously. So I reconvened with the girls, and we made it a mission to make this sport a more inclusive one for women.

What are Dominoes?

Created by our Chinese brothers and sisters, as pupai in the 1200s, dominoes didn’t appear in the West until the early 18th century when it was first noted in Italy. It subsequently spread all over the European continent, then to England, and from there to our Americas. It rapidly became a very popular game in traditional inns and drinking taverns at that time. Today dominoes is most popular in South American countries and the Caribbean where it’s considered to be the national game of many nations.

Now, for those unfamiliar with the sport, dominoes, like playing cards and dice, is something of a generic gaming device. The pieces are simple building blocks that can be assembled in innumerable ways to create a large variety of games, ranging from the simply mechanical, to a mental sport requiring great skill and strategy.

Tiles are generally named after their two values. For example, 2–5 or 5–2 are alternative ways of describing the tile with the values 2 and 5. Tiles that have the same value on both ends are called doubles. Tiles with two different values are called singles. Every tile belongs to the two suits of its two values. 0–3, for example, belongs both to the blank suit and to the 3 suit. Naturally the doubles form an exception in that each double belongs to only one suit. The number of tiles in a set has the formula 1/2(n + 1)(n + 2) for a double-n set. And this is how you figure out your game plan, on the spot.

For years the game has been played mostly by four people, using mathematical strategic defenses and explosive offense, in silence. No communication is allowed. The Double Six Set is the preferred deck with the lowest denomination of game pieces, with 28 tiles. Each player must in turn then play a tile onto the table positioning it so that it touches either end of the domino chain which thus gradually increases in length. A player may only play a tile which has a number showing at one end of the domino chain or the other. Each tile being placed must be positioned so that the two matching ends are adjacent. Unless the tile is a double, the tile can be placed square in any one of the three directions as long as the two matching sides are touching fully. Doubles are always placed cross-ways across the end of the chain. A tile played to a double must also be placed accordingly, perpendicular to the double touching at its middle.

If a player plays a domino with the result that both ends of the chain show the same number (normally a number which is useful to the player and not useful to the opponents), that player is said to have “stitched up” the ends. And that’s what you, as a player, should aim for: an open door no one can force you to close. This paradigm was the basis of our analysis and strategic game plan.

The way the tiles are placed provides a small part of the entertainment. Here’s the interesting part: If a player can lay a domino, then it must be played. For entertainment cases, “pasar con ficha” (passing with a playable tile) is allowed, but not for tournaments. Otherwise the player “knocks” the table and play passes to the next player. The opposing players will, of course, make mental note of the numbers currently available on the table and try to ensure this happens again. This is your second goal: make your opponent miss a chance.

A Feminist Perspective

The overarching goal of our strategy was to span the boundaries of the game, so we studied the “women’s ways of knowing” theory. We made sure we always practiced “procedural knowledge,” instead of “subjective knowledge.” In other words, even if harassed by all these men, the end result was to win. Let actions speak for themselves.

Silence. There’s absolutely no communication allowed in dominoes, as a sport. No verbal or non-verbal communication allowed. The truth is in the math. Ideally, you’ll developed an innate instinct to read your opponent’s hand, and use that to your advantage.

First rule we created as a team: no guessing hands; we should always know. How do we know? We count. We read the tiles. Then, we read the players. No, this is not poker, but reading people is of great advantage. So the way our opponents position each tile is very telling. How the spinner on the tile reacts? Is the tile pointing at them or at us? Was it a soft landing or a poignant entrance? Did he breathe heavily? How long did he take to lay the tile? Did he switch tiles after one of us played? These and many other questions should always be in the forefront, to play a strategic game. Ultimately, the truth is in the math.

Second rule we vowed to obey: never let misogyny derail our concentration. We heard all sorts of comments, from “¿Esas nenas? por favor,” and “La mesa se puso sabrosa.” And of course, the most horrid ones: “Esto no es pa’ mujeres,” “¿Tienes fichas en las brassieres?” and even one guy told me “Si me ganas, te juro que te hago el favor” (referring to sex, to which I responded: “El único idiota que se atreve meter mano contigo eres tu mismo!”).

Third rule we established: never let them block. A hand may end when one player blocks it because there are no more open doors. If that occurs, whoever caused the block gets all of the remaining player points not counting their own. Here’s where politics come into play (no pun intended).

Fourth rule, and the most important one: trust each other. We created a special form of communication before each game, that involved math. It involved a somewhat sophisticated level of strategies and tactics all aimed for that capicú. It was time to unveil the masquerade, stop disguising, and play like women in business.

And so the dominó effect started. College-aged men everywhere were commenting about these two locas threatening their winning streak. In 1997-8 academic year, there we were, sitting at the last-hand table, and it was our turn. Silence. We earned a reputation of taking the game “too seriously.” And the crowned victorias became champions for that year, enduring numerous chauvinistic insults, as well as admiration from a few masculine allies. It wasn’t about men versus women; it was about respecting the game, the rules, and the culture.

The Politics of Dominoes

Dominoes were used in 19th-century rural England to settle disputes over traditional land boundaries. The “domino theory” is notorious for triggering the Cold War, establishing the notion that if one country fell under communist influence or control, its neighbors would soon follow. The Truman Doctrine, the Marshall Plan, NATO and the United Nations then became the foundation of American foreign policy through the Reagan administration and beyond, for about 50 years, based on this theory.

Nowadays, Communist China is opening up to the free market. Western societies have never had to take China seriously in economic terms — much like the girls in dominoes. The primary economic problem is the value of Chinese currency, the yuan, which is held very low. The longtime exchange rate of about eight yuan to one American dollar has created a trade deficit that continues to shatter world records. As a result of this immense wealth from the worldwide trade deficit, China has pursued acquisition of American companies. Talk about a domino effect!



“I can play both Chinese and Puerto Rican dominoes.” — Hillary Clinton

A CNN video shows Hillary Clinton apparently Hispandering in our beloved East Harlem community by playing a corrupted game of dominoes. From the 30-second clip, many rules are broken, just to let her win as capicú — which she clearly doesn’t.

Although I must recognize she probably isn’t aware of all the rules, the mere idea of pretending to win for the sake of a photo-op is degrading to the community and ladies like us, who took time to study the game and respect the rules. Yes, one may argue it was a jubilant moment and they were simply having fun. The stereotypes permeated in the video are apparent. From her shimmy dance and the screaming match, to knocking on the table while having a playable tile — it’s all the political smoke and mirrors my partners and I endured. The childlike “ooooh!” choir by spectators and players alike is reminiscent of the condescending cheer men would erupt in whenever we laid a matching tile. For women like me, it’s about dominating the game and changing the gender bias of the sport. Earning a capicú takes skill, strategy, practice, mental endurance and cultural respect. The set of assumptions, concepts, values and practices influencing the unrealistic views of our community must trigger a paradigm shift, especially when they’re used for political gains.

Furthermore, there are ulterior motives behind the Clinton campaign’s strategic stop. In her case, the prize at the end of the game is votes, money, political recruitment, and world domination. From a political standpoint, it evokes an Act 1 setup of a Shakespearean tragedy. After several U.S. wars of Napoleonic dimensions, our allies are scarce. Puerto Rico has become the tragic legal and socioeconomic poster child of the empire. China is poised to win the hand, probably by capicú. On the other end, however, Puerto Rico’s game has been blocked.

No, Hillary Clinton, that’s not a fair game of dominoes.


You can follow Marlena Fitzpatrick on Twitter @MarlenaFitz.