If you happen to notice in the San Francisco Social Register, beside such names as James Mailliard or John Menzies or Edgar Osgood, a little symbol Pcu (for Pacific Union Club), it means those people are domino players. Poised in its chocolate-colored majesty on the crest of Nob Hill, fronting the lofty elegance of the Mark Hopkins and Fairmont hotels, the Pacific Union is housed in a magnificent converted mansion, overlooks a stupendous city-and-harbor scene and is one of the domino-playing centers of San Francisco, which means it is also one of the domino-playing centers of the world.
Or if you happen to hear Ted Baker, a San Francisco investment banker, playing the violin in the Bohemian Club orchestra, you can take it for granted that he is a good domino player. Everyone at the Bohemian Club plays dominoes. There are, of course, other qualifications for playing in San Francisco orchestras or for belonging to exclusive clubs, but right now dominoes has such a firm grip on the city that almost any clubman can be identified as a domino player, no matter what else he does.
The other day Mr. Baker put aside banking and music temporarily and, with his long-standing partner Ernest Blum, another investment banker and musician, won the domino championship of the world. They won it during a 16-hour tournament at the Commercial Club. This is another venerable San Francisco institution. It was originally known as the Merchant's Lunch Club, because the merchants of the city met there in 1852 to dine, organize the vigilantes and hang outlaws. Many merchants still eat lunch there, but their pastime has changed from quick justice to fast dominoes. The game is played on large tables for four, and food is placed on a small table beside each player and gulped during the clatter of the contest.
The Commercial Club occupies the top three floors of a building in the financial district. It contains a lofty dining room large enough to hold 400 domino fanatics, with room for waiters bearing drinks to pass between the tables, and room also for referees, officials and hostesses—likewise out of the Social Register—to carry results to a green scoreboard extending 40 feet across one end of the hall. It was there, at 9:30 on a Saturday morning, that Baker and Blum began the triumphant course that led to their world domino championship. With respect to the competitive aspects of this achievement, at the moment it is enough to say that by one o'clock or so on Sunday morning they had come out ahead of 199 other domino teams, largely made up of captains of industry, philanthropists, well-known physicians and famous lawyers, plus a few lieutenants of sport—yachtsmen, baseball directors, racetrack owners, hockey bosses, resort developers and football figures.
March 29, 1965
Among those left behind were: Walter Haas, the benevolent master of Levi Strauss, overall makers, the man who changed the clothing habits of the nation by converting blue jeans from farm garb to playclothes; Robert Lurie, a director of the San Francisco Giants, whose father owns the Mark Hopkins Hotel; J. Max Moore, a political and social fixture in San Francisco and organizer of a small company that grew great making hula hoops; Gordy Soltau, the scholarly-looking onetime end for the San Francisco 49ers, now a first-rate television commentator and domino player, who reached the quarterfinals; Melvin Swig, the president of the San Francisco Seals in the Western Hockey League, whose father owns the Fairmont Hotel; Alan Fleishhacker, grandson of the man who established the great zoo; John and Oscar Sutro, grandsons of the silver miner who gave Sutro Forest to the city; Melville Marx, who played on the team that won the world domino championship last year, who is renowned as the boldest gambler among domino players and who is the new owner of Golden Gate Fields and Tanforan racetracks; and an array of Spreckels, Guittards, Merrills, Hookers, Michaels and other families so celebrated that if you removed their names from Who's Who in the West it would be a So What.
When Baker and Blum had won the last game and the championship, William Zellerbach—of the Zellerbach paper family—presented them with the permanent trophy, a hefty piece of walnut marked like a double-5 domino. Staggering a little after his 16 hours of officiating and from the weight of the trophy, Zellerbach also gave the new champions four round-trip tickets to Copenhagen. Then everybody staggered off between the dark banks and brokerage houses on California and Montgomery streets and into the warm spring night.
The world championship tournament is a new development in the peculiar enthusiasm for dominoes that has swept San Francisco. However, the 100,000 habitual domino players who reside in the area are not primarily interested in who wins it. "Every player thinks he is the best in the world, no matter who the world champion is," says Palmer Mendelson, the head of a big produce firm who entered the tournament with his business partner.
San Francisco's domino fanatics play before tournaments, during tournaments, after tournaments, at lunch, on country weekends, on ski trips to Alpine Meadows, after matches at the California Tennis Club, before sailing from the St. Francis Yacht Club, at homes, at parties and especially at the 19th hole after a round of golf. "Dominoes are played at every golf club around here," Mendelson went on. "At Olympic, Green Hills, Lake Merced—maybe not as much at Lake Merced as elsewhere: they play a lot of gin there—at California Golf, Castlewood, Lake Chabot, Burlingame Country Club, everywhere. Burlingame is the oldest country club in California. Herb Caen, the columnist, once said the Pacific Union Club was so exclusive that when people finally got in they never came out again. Well, it is even more true of Burlingame."
Bing Crosby plays dominoes at Burlingame. Many Peninsula Golf & Country Club members belong to something called the Bombay Bicycle Riding Club, an organization that holds weekly domino tournaments, with 20 or so tables going steadily. The placid old Emporium department store, which does a big business selling domino sets (priced up to $100 for solid ivory), is currently holding weekly domino classes. These are taught by Dominic Armanino, a banker and writer. Last month India House, a fashionable restaurant, opened a special room for people who wanted to play dominoes at lunch, and the event was reported in the society pages with only a shade less attention than that given the opening of the opera.
The ordinary, run-of-the-club domino game in San Francisco is 1 and 10—that is, $1 a game and 10¢ a point. At Lake Merced Country Club it is 4 and 40—$4 a game and 40¢ a point. At the Pacific Union Club it is $8 a game and 80¢ a point. It is perfectly possible to drop $25 in a pleasant luncheon game at the Pacific Union. What, you may ask, is this thing called a point? San Francisco enthusiasts enjoy explaining dominoes to newcomers, employing as many technical phrases as possible—kickers, spinners, to wire—in a fashion that seems perfectly clear up to the time the newcomer starts to play. The situation is complicated because Dominic Armanino, after publishing Dominoes in 1959 (a bestseller in San Francisco for 15 weeks), copyrighted the name and rules of the game, which he calls five-up. Essentially, however, the San Francisco version of dominoes is a local adaptation of a gambling game played a century ago and known then as all fives or muggins. Napoleon Marache, one of the first U.S. chess authorities, included a full account of muggins in his Manual of Chess, published in 1866.
The game calls for four players to draw five dominoes apiece. The remaining eight dominoes in the deck are left on the table and called the boneyard (or the stoneyard, in old English how-to-do-it books). In the San Francisco game any domino may be played to start the action. The tiles are laid out as in a normal domino game, with a number from one's hand played against a number on the table, but in the San Francisco game (or in muggins) a point is scored whenever the total of domino spots at the ends of the line adds up to five or a multiple of five.
Suppose there is a 5 at one end of the line of dominoes and a 1 at the other. If you have the 1-5 domino in your hand and play it—the 1 on the 1, of course—the total number of spots at the two ends of the line is now 10, which gives you two points. Fifteen would give you three points, 20 would give you four points, etc. Score is kept on a cribbage board, with the first team to score 61 points winning. When you cannot play you draw from the boneyard, as in ordinary dominoes. As soon as one player has played all his dominoes, he has won that hand. The spots on the dominoes in the hand of the losing team are counted, and the winning team gets one point for each multiple of five. That is how points are made, and at 8 and 80 they accumulate with calamitous speed.
It would be easy to assume that this basically simple game is merely a fad in San Francisco, doomed to go the way of mah-jongg and the spelling game of Scrabble. But this is far from the case. As long ago as the turn of the century, muggins was so deeply rooted in the city's folkways that it began to be known everywhere as the San Francisco game. Why did San Francisco welcome it? The only scholar to deal with the subject was a gifted and little-known Philadelphian named Robert Stewart Culin, a state trooper and amateur ethnologist who eventually became a curator at the Brooklyn Museum. Culin came from an old Pennsylvania family—some of his ancestors were Swedish contemporaries of William Penn—and in his early years he liked to hang around the joss house and headquarters of the Lum I Tong on Race Street in Philadelphia while he was supposed to be working in his father's store. In his Customs of the Chinese in America, Culin wrote: "It is not easy to obtain much information from Chinese men concerning the games and sports of their childhood. They regard the subject as too trivial for discussion, and always burst into loud laughter when one, more good-natured than the rest, attempts to explain them."
Culin persevered, however, and over the years gradually extracted from these merry Orientals the material that went into such works as The Gambling Games of the Chinese in America and The t' Hing or Patriotic Rising, a Secret Society of the Chinese in America. In the 1890s Culin investigated gambling in San Francisco's Chinatown. There were more than 60,000 Chinese living in seven square blocks just north of the financial district. During the day they worked making overalls, earning $10 to $16 a month and their board. At night they patronized some 150 gambling houses, playing fan-tan or a complicated lottery game called white pigeon ticket or dominoes. In Dominoes, the National Game of China, Culin said dominoes is the "favorite social game of Chinese laborers in the United States, and is often played in shops after dinner, where all who happen to be present will gather around the table and watch the four players. It is an animated game. The players cry aloud as they play, and the sharp click of the long wooden dominoes as they arc whirled in shuffling and piled one on another adds to the noise." That is a good description, with a few minor changes, of modern San Francisco bankers at the end of the day's work.
What with dominoes in one form or another having been a part of the San Francisco scene since the Gold Rush, it came to Carl Livingston Jr., a descendant of Gold Rush-era storekeepers, that the local obsession might be a civic asset. It was 1960 and the Hunters Point Boys' Club had been formed, with clubrooms in an abandoned wartime cafeteria built for shipyard workers. As blighted areas go, Hunters Point was in fairly good shape, but there were few recreational facilities for the Negro children. With people like Willie Mays and Abe Woodson of the 49ers on the board of directors, the Hunters Point Boys' Club tried to fill the need by stocking the ex-cafeteria with pool tables and putting up basketball courts outside.
The budget was $25,000 a year. Livingston and William Fleishhacker, who were also on the Boys' Club board, were charged with putting on some sort of drive to raise part of this amount. "I suggested a domino tournament, because every club holds one for its own members," Livingston said, "and I thought we could get the clubs to send their winning teams to a citywide event." So the entry fee was set at $100 a team, and it was expected that about 100 teams would enter. But Livingston had not reckoned with the eagerness of lesser-known players to try their domino skill against socialites and celebrities (remember Palmer Mendelson's "every player thinks he is the best"). All sorts of clubs were hastily put together. There were the Lost Coot Gun Club of Petaluma and the Royal Eskilstuna Yacht Club of Sweden, the latter probably the most exclusive club in the world, membership being limited to two Swedes who were visiting San Francisco. In a particularly complicated Scandinavian joke, they named their yacht club for a landlocked mining town high in the Swedish mountains. In all, 142 teams entered. "I am about to do something that has never been done before in the history of mankind," said the then mayor, George Christopher. "I am about to throw out the first domino in a world championship domino tournament."
By the end of the day the Boys' Club had cleared $11,200, and the domino championship had been added to every social calendar in the city. But the annual tournaments remain highly informal gatherings. Thus there were loud cheers this year when Lawrence Metcalf, a grandson of Huntington, received a skunk cap for having, with his partner, made the lowest score in the championship. In dominoes, to be skunked means that the winning team has moved its pegs up and down the cribbage board to score 61 points before the losing team has turned the corner at the top of the board with 31 points. A team that is skunked pays double the stake.
The fact that domino players seem to have a weakness for practical jokes adds to the informality. For example, there is Robert Tuck, the president of a furnace works, who used to carry light plastic baseballs to Candlestick Park. When a high foul came into the stands, he would toss the plastic baseballs into the air while the real baseball was descending, much to the bewilderment of the crowd. At this year's domino tournament he limited himself to passing out printed warnings addressed to the Internal Revenue Service reading THIS IS A BUSINESS MEETING. Then there is Dan London, the manager of the St. Francis Hotel, who once had a cable-car bell attached to his Cadillac. He would startle motorists by ringing it on streets where there were no cable cars.
Domino players also have a weakness for dressing in some fashion appropriate to their game, such as the ruffled shirts with domino patterns worn by Wally Haas and his partner John Sutro at this year's tourney. Carl Livingston Jr. wore ebony and silver domino cuff links, and his wife Jean a matching pin, when they recently sponsored a domino benefit for opera students. But the all-time champion at dressing up is Mike Desiano. Many years ago, when he had a small plumbing business, he was cajoled into being photographed on horseback, wearing a false beard and pretending to be Don Gaspar de Portola, the discoverer of San Francisco Bay. He did so well at it that soon he was a permanent parade leader. Wearing a plumed hat, sword, coat of mail and embossed gauntlets, he appeared on St. Patrick's Day, Columbus Day and at innumerable festivals in between. "When he would pass by in his plumed hat people would say, 'Our plumber! There goes our plumber!' " said Mrs. Zellerbach reminiscently.
"No one seemed to know who I was supposed to be," Mike said. "Even in San Francisco, people would see me and say, 'Who the hell's that?' They thought I was Cortez. In North Beach they thought I was Columbus." Now a builder and apartment-house owner, Desiano finished near the bottom in this year's tournament, winning only two games.
"That first tournament was so funny and spontaneous there was never any question but that it would be an annual event," said Mrs. Zellerbach, who was hostess at the first and has served at all of them. The second year there were 176 teams entered. Last year there were 198 teams, and since expenses came to only $3,775 (with the San Francisco Chronicle providing publicity and the prizes being donated), the Hunters Point Boys' Club received $16,025 of the $19,800 paid in by the entrants.
By 1964 there were benefit domino tournaments for other causes going on all the time: the East Bay Women's Championship, with 46 teams entered; the Palo Alto tournament for a children's health fund, in which 100 teams paid $100 a team and which Tennessee Ernie Ford unexpectedly entered and nearly won; the De Young Museum Tournament, run by the top social women's auxiliary of the museum, with 80 teams competing; the Marin Symphony Guild tournament, a husband-and-wife affair costing $100 a couple; a mixed-doubles tournament for the Merola Memorial Fund, which gives scholarships to needy opera singers; a charity tournament staged by Mrs. Samuel F. B. Morse at Pebble Beach. So many of these were held and in such posh surroundings—the St. Francis Yacht Club or outdoors at the Meadow Club—that the officials of the Hunters Point Boys' Club, who had started it all, were wondering early this year if public interest might not be exhausted.
Not at all. A total of 200 teams signed up, and there could have been twice that many if there had been room for them. Unfortunately, the Commercial Club could accommodate only 400 players. It did not pass unnoticed that San Francisco now had a 400-member domino aristocracy, fixed at that number the way Ward McAllister once limited New York society to 400 members because Mrs. Astor's ballroom could hold no more.
Just as the championship tournament started, a further question was raised concerning its exclusivity. William Kent III, the chairman, received an indignant telegram from Carnegie, Okla., a town of 1,500 people on the Washita River, protesting that the winners of San Francisco's aristocratic event had no right to be called the world champions. The real world champion domino team was, as had been the case for 21 years, the winner of the annual domino tournament held at Carnegie. "We have no age limit and no entry fee," said Roy McCurley, the editor of the Carnegie Herald. "We provide free refreshments, consisting of sandwiches, pies and coffee all day to all contestants."
William Kent III, who is an agitated-appearing but pleasant-mannered young executive, immediately invited the winner at Carnegie to come to San Francisco and play. The time of the tournament made this impossible; the Oklahoma affair, with 184 contestants from Oklahoma, Texas and Kansas playing all day, would still be going on when the San Francisco tournament got under way. In addition, a different kind of dominoes is played in the Southwest, a seven-domino game known as 42, or moon. Four hours before Baker and Blum were victorious in the world domino championship in San Francisco, the veterans in Carnegie let it be known that the real championship had been won by two farmers from Fredericks, Okla.
By that time the Commercial Club scene was like a crisis day at an old stock exchange where the quotations were posted in chalk. The scorekeepers hurried from the tables to the scoreboard to put up the last scores of the hopelessly defeated; the possible contenders in the finals stood by with folded arms watching their rivals' totals; the empty glasses accumulated. After 10 rounds of play (two games an hour), the 32 teams with the highest scores moved into a special roped-off area where they met on a match-play basis with no time limit.
But it is what the losers did that somehow set this event apart from other sporting championships. They did not stay to watch the final matches, but neither did they leave the area of action in the manner of the vanquished the world around. Instead, they settled down again at tables all over the room and began playing dominoes. Such dedication to the game has resulted in there being two schools of thought as to what is going to come out of the city's domino craze. One school, led by Armanino, holds that the world is on the edge of a great domino boom. These people point out that President Johnson was photographed playing dominoes at his Texas ranch during the campaign. They keep track of famous people who play the game, such as Al Lopez, the White Sox manager, a top-ranking domino star—almost a professional—who plays with the cigarmakers of Ybor City in Tampa. They are filled with encyclopedic information about places where the game is played (among them Nacogdoches, Texas, Colorado Springs, Colo. and innumerable Latin-American and West Indian towns where games have been going on almost constantly for years), and they can tell you the stakes at such places as the Bankers Club in Mexico City ($100 a game). They are also familiar with melodramatic happenings connected with dominoes. In Houston last January 20, nine shots were fired, one man was killed and another wounded during an argument over a domino game in a café. Even the Russians have recently given this school of thought encouragement. They took a survey of leisure-time activities of Red soldiers and sailors and found that they were all playing dominoes. "The life of a person without interest is bleak and empty," ran a newspaper editorial on the subject. "Who of us has not seen such people loafing in a free moment, with nothing to do and no purpose? These are the ones who, oblivious of everything else, hammer away at dominoes...." Also widely printed was a letter from Seaman First Class V. Garadzhi: "Dominoes are a real evil in our unit. Oh, how I hate them, even though I myself frequently join in. As soon as we have any free time, our sailors begin to slap down the black tiles.... Even certain of our officers do not lag behind the sailors, and spend their free time just as purposelessly, to the knock of the dominoes."
The other school of thought holds that San Francisco's interest in dominoes comes from the fact that it is a local game, and these people do not want it to spread to other towns. "Old Dommie believes that dominoes will improve the breed," said one of his friends, referring to Armanino's crusade. "He is always discovering some professor or first-grade teacher who says the game is an aid in teaching arithmetic. But the real appeal of dominoes is that it is of no use whatever." According to these people, dominoes is more of a release than any other gambling game because there is something childlike about it. There is enough skill in the sequence of plays and in deducing where the unplayed dominoes are to make it interesting ("you can't think about anything else while you're playing") but it requires less concentration than bridge. These defenders of dominoes say that it is unique in another childlike respect: it is possible to concoct a logical, sensible defense of any play that one makes, win or lose. And dominoes are noisy. They snap, knock, crack, rattle, clink and clank all the time, a noise that seems compounded of the sounds of all the games of chance on earth—the rattle of dice, the click of poker chips, the flutter of cards, the whir of roulette. The players shuffle their dominoes with their fingers outstretched, arms moving in opposite directions, rather like a baker mixing the ingredients of some large piece of pastry, and the movement, the noise, the mock-melodramatic muttered appeals to fortune make a domino tournament seem the embodiment of chance itself, suffused with a busy purposelessness and a half-ironic intensity.
"Why, it's just a children's game," exclaimed one visitor to the San Francisco world championship, "and look what they've done with it." True, but who is to say that children's games aren't the best games of all—especially if adult gamblers can master them.