Dominoes fans flock to Andalusia for slice of Americana

Published 11:26 pm Friday, July 9, 2010

Editor’s note: The Associated Press provided extensive coverage of the Andalusia Rotary Club’s annual domino tournament. We thought it would be of interest to our readers.

(AP) — Dr. Charles Tomberlin grew up on a farm in rural Alabama where Saturday nights meant sitting on the porch, listening to the Grand Ole Opry on the radio and playing dominoes.

On cold winter nights, the dominoes players would gather by the potbellied stove at the local country store.

The 75-year-old Tomberlin is still playing dominoes today, in this age of Nintendo, the Internet and high definition television. And on Friday, he was one of many who gathered to savor this slice of Americana in south Alabama.

About 400 people, ranging in age from 8 to at least 80, gathered at a community center in Andalusia for the start of the two-day World Championship Dominoes Tournament. The event was begun in 1976 by Tomberlin and other members of the local Rotary Club as a way to celebrate the country’s bicentennial with a touch of Southern lore.

But organizers say it’s not just a Southern game; contestants have come from as far away as Australia.

In the early years, when legendary Alabama football coach Paul “Bear” Bryant and popular country comedian Jerry Clower often attended, the tournament drew as many as 1,250 players. That number has dropped, but Tomberlin said participation has held steady at about 400 for several years, and the old game still seems to have faithful followers despite modern distractions.

Tomberlin said Bryant helped put the championship on the map when he agreed to play in one of the early tournaments. He said Bryant is believed to have stopped along the way to Andalusia to practice the game with his driver because “he didn’t want to lose at anything.”

Dominoes, an ancient game that dates back more than 1,000 years, is played with pieces or tiles that are called “bones” that are marked with dots or are blank. Unused dominoes are kept in “the boneyard.” In some versions, the goal is to block opponents from playing their tiles.

Dominoes was once played in Europe by landowners to settle property disputes and avoid the more costly option of going to court, or in some cases, war.

“Wouldn’t that be a great way to do it?” said Andalusia Mayor Earl Johnson, 63, who is also a lawyer.

Tomberlin said dominoes remains popular because it’s a simple game that also requires strategy.

“It keeps you young. It keeps the brain active,” said Tomberlin, a radiologist.

Johnson, the mayor, said it’s still not uncommon to find men and sometimes women playing around the town’s courthouse square or in the back of stores. He said there’s a lively game every day at the senior citizens center.

Jack Perry, 73, who learned to play as a child at his family’s county store in rural Covington County, said dominoes can now be played on the Internet like poker and chess and other games. But he prefers the old version, where he can look his opponent in the eye. He said dominoes seems to be more of a men’s game, while bridge is more of a women’s game.

“It’s a game parents pass down to their children. Once you get a kid into it, they’re in,” Perry said.

Around the playing floor, where card tables were scattered throughout the large air-conditioned hall, the players seemed to illustrate what Perry was saying: They were mostly elderly men.

But there were exceptions. Meet 13-year-old Samantha Cheek, an 8th-grader from Montgomery, who won first place Friday in the 13- to 18-year-old division after winning the 8- to 12-year-old tournament three years in a row.

With her long blonde hair swinging behind her in a pony tail, Cheek quickly dispatched the mostly male and older opponents. She said she learned what she knows from her grandfather, the late Charles “Thomas” Brown, a frequent competitor in the tournament.

“He played every week. He taught me how to know what the other players have,” said Cheek, her braces shining when she smiled.

Another young player, 20-year-old Chris Authement of Baton Rouge, La., looked a little like a leprechaun dressed in a black and gold tuxedo. He said the secret to winning at dominoes is counting the dominoes that have already been played, the way some players keep track of the cards in blackjack.

A Baton Rouge radio disk jockey, Authement said his friends used to make fun of him for playing “an old man’s game.”

“But once I got older I started teaching my friends how to play,” Authement said.

Watt Jones, a 68-year-old retired banker from Wetumpka, said he always thought dominoes “looked rather boring,” until he was coerced into playing once after a round of golf and was quickly hooked.

“Those who love it are passionate about it,” Jones said. “Once you fall into the dominoes trap, you can’t get out of it.”