Deep in thought, David Boggan of Boerne squints at the last two white dominoes lined up in front of him on the wooden square-topped table. Which one should he play? Boggan flicks his right wrist and tosses one out then leans back in his metal folding chair and locks eyes with his partner. He hopes Sara Beth, his teenage daughter, can throw down a domino that will beat their two opponents.
At nearby tables, similar dramas unfold inside the noisy Hallettsville Knights of Columbus Hall. Help yourself to a kolach and coffee. It’s 9 o’clock on a bright March morning, and the 2016 Texas State Championship 42 Domino Tournament has begun. In its 35th year, Hallettsville’s event ranks as the state’s largest gathering of Texas 42 players. This year’s tournament is March 4.
In 2016, 73 teams of two from across the state and a few from New Mexico traveled to this South Texas town with its rich Czech and German heritage to vie for the state title. They’re fathers teamed with daughters. Husbands with wives. Grandfathers with grandsons. Best friends, college buds and siblings, too. Whether a working professional or a retired rancher, everyone’s clinking dominoes. By nightfall, two weary teams will face off, naming trumps and taking tricks, until one wins.
But wait. What do trumps and tricks have to do with dominoes? Not a thing, if you’re playing straight style, which awards points for creating domino chains with end sections that total multiples of five. For Texas 42, though, think bridge or spades played with 28 dominoes.
Most historical accounts credit two Texas boys for devising the four-player game in about 1887 in Trapp Spring (now Garner), northwest of Weatherford. Even though rigid religious mores of the time condemned card games, William Thomas, 12, and Walter Earl, 14, hid in a hayloft and played whist, a predecessor of bridge. When their parents found out, the boys were punished but not deterred. Together, the pair invented a similar game using socially accepted dominoes.
Their families loved the game. So did friends. Soon it became popular in nearby Mineral Wells, a resort where Thomas and his father delivered fruit from their orchard. Like small-town gossip, the game spread across Texas, passing from family to family and from generation to generation.
Thus was born Texas 42, named for the maximum number of points a player can win in one hand. Game rules and variations differ by locale, but most share the same objective: Capture enough dominoes with face values of five or 10 (such as blank-five or double five) to win. That’s accomplished by playing the highest trump (suit) of the four played dominoes (trick).
Sound complicated? It can be. That is, until you play a few games. Then, “treys,” “blanks,” “offs,” “marks” and other 42 buzzwords make more sense. Confidence grows when you can study your dominoes and make a bid or pass without help. Win a few tricks, and you’ve learned the basics of Texas 42, designated by the Legislature in 2011 as the official state domino game.
“You don’t have to be a great player to win,” assures Jody Badum, an Austin broadband company owner and president of the National 42 Players Association. “Forty-two combines luck and skill. That’s what keeps people excited about playing the game—they have a chance to win.”
Badum, 44, a Corpus Christi native who’s placed at past state championships but hasn’t yet won, grew up playing 42 with his family. So did James Parvin, 20, a fast-food restaurant manager from Abilene. He’s teamed up with grandfather Jim Smith, 64, to compete for their third year at Hallettsville. “I love this game more than baseball or football,” Parvin says between rounds.
Across Texas, the N42PA sanctions 30 or so tournaments, like Hallettsville’s, that draw serious 42 players. Members acquire points at tournaments to maintain membership and qualify for December’s Tournament of Champions. “Tournaments are a way to get people together who love to play 42,” says N42PA secretary Kent Kopnicky, 33, of Austin. He and twin brother Kole meet up regularly with the Austin 42 Club, which hosts games and tournaments at C. Hunts Ice House.
Morgan Scott, 38, owns Hwy 29 BBQ, a member of Pedernales Electric Cooperative, in Bertram. He’s also a member of the Austin 42 Club. “Hallettsville is where people who can really play come to compete,” Scott confides during a break. “There are no easy marks [points] here, just a lot of sharks.”
Mary Ann Dempsey, 72, a member of United Cooperative Services from Tolar, and partner Joyce Pence, 69, a member of Tri-County EC from Granbury, compete in Hallettsville for fun. “If it depends on me winning to pay the electric bill, then I’ll be sitting in the dark,” Dempsey quips.
Past state champ Waymon Carl “Trey” Newsome III, 46, of Mount Vernon brought his entire family to Hallettsville. While he plays, parents Waymon and Diane (sporting her domino-emblazoned Western boots) and wife Jennifer entertain 6-month-old twins Carl and Katie Ann.
Talk about 42 addicts! The Newsomes’ devotion runs so deep that Trey Newsome (dubbed as a baby with the nickname after 42’s three suit) recycled old barn wood to build the Trey-Deuce Domino Saloon, a community game hall served by Wood County EC. For Christmas, he gave his twins personalized dominoes and child-sized game tables. “We play 42 every Friday evening in the saloon,” Newsome says. “Sometimes Saturdays, too.”
Meanwhile, it’s high noon in Hallettsville. Playoffs pause for a catered barbecue buffet. Then games resume. One at a time, teams get knocked out. By 3 o’clock, Boggan and his daughter, clad in matching maroon domino T-shirts, head home.
“Hallettsville was on my bucket list, but now I can check it off,” says Boggan, 59, a communications director with the Boerne Independent School District and a member of Bryan Texas Utilities. “I grew up in Lockhart and watched my parents play 42. I started playing in high school. Then I went to Texas A&M and minored in 42.”
He’s only half-joking. Texas 42 permeates Aggie culture as a popular pastime. Students play the game at wooden tables etched with graffiti at the Dixie Chicken, an iconic hangout in College Station. “I learned how to play in 2000 when I served as a counselor at a Howdy Camp,” says Hallettsville contender Katie Campbell, 36, from Houston, referring to an A&M orientation session.
No matter where you play, chances are good that the dominoes on the table came from Puremco, founded in Waco in 1954 and once the country’s largest domino maker. Nowadays, an overseas company manufactures the marble-like dominoes for Puremco. Online or at the Waco store, you can choose from a variety of imprinted dominoes and order personalized sets, too.
Puremco’s story and more about 42 can be mined in Dennis Roberson’s Winning 42: Strategy & Lore of the National Game of Texas. The author, who played at Hallettsville for years with his father, explains the basics of 42, gives advice for winning, and shares anecdotes from old-timers and celebrities, such as Gov. Ann Richards, journalist Bill Moyers and singer-songwriter Robert Earl Keen.
Another famous 42 fan was President Lyndon B. Johnson, who played to relieve stress. On January 31, 1968, the Viet Cong launched a series of attacks against South Vietnam in what became known as the Tet Offensive. Around the clock, Johnson received updates. Between reports, he played 42 with colleagues. “For one week, there was a constant game of dominoes going in the upstairs living room of the White House,” the late congressman J.J. “Jake” Pickle recalled in a January 1975 interview.
Back in Hallettsville, there’s no time for a supper break. By 9:30 p.m., a dozen tired spectators focus on four exhausted finalists. Austinites Terry Pogue, 53, a firefighter, and Leslie Houston, 38, a technology strategist, partner regularly in competitions across the state and won the 2014 state title. The pair faces Gary Mobley, 49, who works for a farm equipment company, and daughter Erika Littrell, 22, a softball coach. They live in Saltillo and are members of Farmers EC.
Round after round, Mobley and Houston each rest their chins on one hand and toss out dominoes with the other. Pogue bounces a knee and fidgets in his metal chair. Littrell, poker faced and steely eyed, darts glances at her dad. This is her first tournament.
“I’ve been competing here for 12 years,” Pogue comments between hands. “It took me 10 years to get to the final table.”
Shortly before 10 p.m., the last game ends. First-place plaques and a cash prize go to the new state champs: Pogue and Houston. Mobley and Littrell receive plaques and cash for second place. “Keep playing,” Pogue tells Littrell as the two part ways. “We need young players to keep 42 alive in Texas.”
Littrell nods. Odds are, she’ll be back in Hallettsville next year.