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No Boneyard near the Soapberry Tree
Robert Cantwell
May 15, 1967
The flinty domino players of Oklahoma play a stern, granitic game, giving no quarter and asking none, but their current champion is an Indian chief who didn't even plan to play
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May 15, 1967

No Boneyard Near The Soapberry Tree

The flinty domino players of Oklahoma play a stern, granitic game, giving no quarter and asking none, but their current champion is an Indian chief who didn't even plan to play

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With tension like that centering on such famed former champions, no one paid much attention to Adam Kaulaity and Roger Tofpi. A domino tournament starts with a cheerful, noisy, picniclike atmosphere. The dramatic progress is through a long series of steely tests, the action growing slower and slower, the moves becoming more and more deliberate, the players getting increasingly nervous. If Tofpi, who looks like the Hollywood version of a great, silent Indian chief (possibly because he is one, from the Kiowa tribe), was noticeable as the day wore on it was because he did not tap his foot, rock his chair, crack his knuckles, fidget with the dominoes or give any sign of strain. Grave and impassive, he leaned back in his chair, folded his arms and appeared to be meditating or catching up on his sleep.

Kaulaity, on the other hand, became increasingly agitated as the games came down to five or 10-point margins. When he marked the score, he made such large X marks that he hardly had room on the page for them. Between games Tofpi walked slowly around the hall, paying no attention to the games that were still going on. "Yes, I have an advantage," he said pleasantly to a questioner. "I only learned to count up to five, and since this game is counted in fives it is easier for me."

By 5 o'clock there were only four teams left: a team of former champions—Albert Norton and J. T. Masoner, who had won the title in 1961 and had played together for years—a team from Texas that had just won the Texas state championship, a team of veterans from Apache, and Tofpi and Kaulaity.

"I feel better," said one player who had been eliminated by the Masoner-Norton team. "The team that beat me is still in there." But not for long. At 5:58 Tofpi and Kaulaity won the third and decisive game, coming back after having been 50 points behind.

At 6:20 the final round started. There were 40 people around the table, including two former world champions and a dozen Indians. Hugh Lair, a retired farmer from Apache, a round-faced, benign-appearing grandfather, and his long-term partner, O. E. Roberts, won the first game, Tofpi and Kaulaity the second. Everywhere else the hall was deserted. In the far corner the ladies' auxiliary cleared away the last of the sandwiches. Papers were strewn over the floor. Score sheets marked with innumerable X marks, and paper plates with scraps of pie and cake lay on the tables.

The final game began with a disaster for Tofpi and Kaulaity. At 6:50 they were even after the first moves; at 6:58 they were 75 points behind. Slowly the Indian team began to move up again—the score was 205-180—but Lair and Roberts now needed only 45 points to win the world championship. At 7:01 they scored another 20 and were only 25 points from the title. Then Tofpi and Kaulaity scored 20, and, a few moments later, 25 more. It was 225-225.

"Lost a lead like that," said a bystander in wonderment.

Now each of the four players had three dominoes left. Lair looked at the table for some time; he could not play, and tapped a domino on the surface.

"That beat him," said a voice. He was right. Like all good championship domino games, this one came down to a marginal difference in points—245-235—but Tofpi played his last domino and collected the winning five points from the dominoes that Lair and Roberts still held. The whole room was silent as the truth became clear—two heretofore unranked entrants, playing together for the first time in their lives, had beaten the best domino players anywhere to become the new champions of the world. Or at least that part of the world outside of San Francisco.

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