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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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The world of boxing and the world of dominoes have at least one thing in common: an occasional dispute about who is the world champion. The heavyweight division settled its problem when Muhammad Ali beat Ernie Terrell, but domino fans are still divided over whether the true champ is the winner of a swanky society affair held once a year in San Francisco where the entry fee is $100 a team or the winner of the annual World Championship Domino Tournament in Carnegie, Okla., which had been going on for 17 years before the Nob Hill crowd even thought of having their tournament. The dispute may never be properly settled, because nobody makes any money whatever out of being a domino champion and tragically few outsiders care whether they win the title or not. This may explain why contenders at the Carnegie tournament usually arrive looking somewhat sheepish, as if they were about to take part in an illicit cockfight. Upon entering the arena to watch the title matches in Oklahoma last time around, one half expected to find Jake Kilrain battling for the bareknuckle championship of the world.

The Carnegie tournament is always held on a Friday in late February or early March, when the farm chores in the country round have not yet become too demanding. Hours before the 23rd annual championship got underway there were lots of cars and trucks parked along the street opposite the fairgrounds at the edge of Carnegie. A few people were standing near a locked-up merry-go-round, next to a booth belonging to the Future Farmers of America. Birds were singing wildly in the smogless air, and in a grove of elms below the fairgrounds a sign pointed rather vaguely at THE LARGEST WESTERN SOAPBERRY TREE IN THE UNITED STATES. After a while a ponderous, slow-walking man wearing a black hat and a black Eisenhower jacket appeared on the scene. His name was Roger Tofpi, and before arriving, he had no intention whatever of entering the tournament.

Tofpi is an oldtimer in Carnegie. People there say he is one of the few Indians remaining who still farm land received from the original government allotment. Tofpi went to Indian schools in Rainy Mountain and Fort Sill and graduated from high school in Carnegie, where he played football and basketball. He had entered a few domino tournaments in the past, but he was usually eliminated after two or three rounds, and this year he didn't even have a partner to play with.

Neither did Adam Kaulaity, who is also an Indian and farms an original Indian allotment five miles west of Carnegie. But, unlike Tofpi, he had every intention of playing. "My partner didn't show up," Kaulaity said to Tofpi. "What do you say we try it?" And, for some reason, Tofpi agreed.

The Carnegie tournament is held in a long, low, sheet-metal building, half of which is floored, and the other half of which consists of a sawdust-covered area where animals are paraded before a small grandstand for stock sales. The floored section has room for only 24 tables—which means that only 48 teams can be playing at a time. Since 114 teams were entered, some time passed before the ribbon clerks could be eliminated and the hard-core experts could settle down to destroying each other.

Except for half a dozen women of the ladies' auxiliary of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, who passed in and out bearing endless loads of magnificent homemade pies, cakes and sandwiches from the kitchen at the other end of the fairground, the crowd was entirely masculine. Most of the players were middle-aged farmers, clean-shaven, with lined, weathered features. When domino experts play beginners they usually win quickly, and by large scores. Within half an hour, in the hazy, dusky, smoky hall, there was a shout from one of the tables; the first team had been eliminated. The losers were presented with a chocolate cake, which was cut up, passed around and consumed at once.

The form of dominoes played at Carnegie, as in most domino parlors of the Southwest, is a lethal game. In the milder San Francisco game, each player draws five dominoes, and the remainder are left in the center of the table, forming what is known as the boneyard, to be drawn on when a player has no domino in his hand that he can play. At Carnegie all the dominoes are drawn at the outset, so each player has seven in his hand to start and there is no boneyard. In both forms of the game the objective is the same: to add dominoes to the extremities of a growing octopus in the center of the table in such a way that the total of numbers shown adds up to multiples of five—the higher the multiple the better. The first player to get rid of his dominoes wins the hand for his team, and collects the total of the points on the dominoes that are still held by his opponents, to the nearest multiple of five. The first team to score 250 points wins the game, and the first team to win two games goes on to the next round.

In the plains country they play dominoes everywhere—at crossroad service stations, like that at Sickles, where a table has been set up under the fan belts and is always crowded, or at Eakly, a rural town where you can find 40 or 50 players congregated in the firehouse every day during the winter, or at Apache, a few miles south of Carnegie, where there are three domino parlors, or at wide-open Hobart, where the standard charge is 5� a player and the ordinary stakes $1 a game.

Only one domino player has ever won the world championship three times—Brownie Thomas, a wiry ex-baseball player from Apache. The only team to win the championship more than once is that of Herman See, manager of a cotton gin in the town of Cowden, and his longtime partner, H. B. Merrill. See and Merrill were on hand to try again last February. The luck of the draw pitted them in the first round against two other former champions. Glen Smith and Howard Hitt, well-to-do peanut farmers who keep in shape by playing as often as possible at the crossroads service station in Sickles.

The dominoes were shuffled fast, with the rotary motion employed throughout the domino country, somewhat like a pastry cook mixing dough. Each player picked up seven dominoes, nervously examined and arranged them in lines, realigned them, moved them around, and then, with an audible sigh from the spectators crowding around the table, play began. Hitt played the double five, and marked 10 points on his scorecard. A 10 is marked with an X, a five with a slanting line that is made into an X with the next score. Eventually Hitt's double five made the score 240-240. See thought a long time. He slowly placed the five-six on the table five. Smith snapped the six-blank on the table. It hit with a clatter. The total on the board was thus again 10 points. This meant that Smith and Hitt had a score of 250, and Merrill and See were finally eliminated.

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