Domino world champ enjoys comradery of the game
Aug. 18, 2014 at 6 p.m.
Updated Aug. 18, 2014 at 11:06 p.m.
FLATONIA -- In rapid tempo, the cast of characters gathered around two square tables slammed down plastic dominoes with a crack that filled the covered patio.
The sound is part of the strategy, a way to prove dominance or catch their opponent off guard.
Within seconds of the first shuffle, Jim Foster has calculated his strategy based on his inventory of sixes and doubles. He's checked the score and who has the down.
"It's just an instinct," Foster said. "You just know."
A winner is declared in less than two minutes.
Last month, Foster, a 65-year-old accountant from Yoakum, split a $3,000 grand prize with Edward "Hoss" Elling, of Indiahoma, Okla., in the World Championship Domino Tournament hosted in Andalusia, Ala.
"It isn't about the money," Foster said. "It's about the prestige."
Today, the stakes are lower.
The men are playing for $10 bills that the four teams pass back and forth.
Through the game, they've been friends for decades. Their wives, girlfriends and daughters are not invited to the impromptu tournament tucked away among the rolling hills of an old family cattle ranch.
Joey Henke, 53, of Poth, organized the games.
He laughs about the group gathered at his family ranch in Flatonia. Even getting Foster to make the trip from Ponder in Denton County, where he lives part-time, took a bit of deception.
"I couldn't have gotten these guys out here to talk and visit," Henke said.
He met Foster at a Houston domino hall many years ago. His cousin, Scott, is Foster's domino partner.
"It's unreal and great," Henke said. "You can't describe it. You have to be good and lucky to win, so you have to be extra good and lucky to win two."
Unlike poker, domino players can't fold. You have to play the bad ones with the good ones.
"This game is about competition, it's about fellowship, and it's about having fun with your friends," Foster said.
He's the second person to ever win the world's two biggest domino tournaments in the same year.
The only other person to win the Texas State Championship 42 Domino Tournament and the World Championship Domino Tournament in the same year is Ralph Foster, of Mesquite. The men are not related.
"This has been about the best year I have ever had," Foster said.
The game has been around for generations, with some experts dating it back to ancient Egypt.
Despite its history, players worry about the game's future and how to inspire another generation to play. They toss around an idea to establish a youth division at the state tournament in Hallettsville.
Like most men on the patio, Foster cut his teeth on the double-six.
From the first time he watched his uncle George play, he was enthralled with the game.
"There was an abacus, and they'd tell me how many beads to pull, and I would mark his score," Foster said.
His father owned a filling station in Ponder with a table inside dubbed the unofficial gathering place of the farmers and locals. As soon as Foster could see above it, he started playing.
"All the old men just took me under their wing," Foster said.
Fred Legg, an old bachelor in his 60s who worked at the gas station, took Foster to his first domino tournament.
"Legend has it we won the tournament, but I don't recall," Foster said. "That was 55 years ago."
He and Legg became friends and shared strategies and stories.
"He was telling me all the different things he's done in his life. He said, 'Jim, I've been a failure all my life,'" Foster recalled with tears welling in his eyes. "I'm a little boy, looking at him, thinking, 'You're the greatest guy in the world.'"
As Foster grew older, he kept playing. Through the births of his daughters, a divorce and the births of his grandchildren, the 42 black and white tiles have been a constant.
"Sometimes, it's an escape from where you are, and sometimes, it's an escape to where you want to be," Foster said.
His made his first sojourn to the world tournament in 1984 in a Chevrolet Good Times van.
He and his friends swiveled the seats around, slapped a table in the middle and played dominoes all the way to Alabama.
These days, they rent a mobile home and hire a commercial driver who happens to be a fellow domino player. Foster jokes that it takes about two days to fully recuperate after the tournament.
Winning takes clever decision-making and knowing how to read people. Foster has an expert's memory and an accountant's skill to calculate what dominoes his opponents are holding.
"The neat thing about the game of dominoes is - and you can mathematically check it - it's very unlikely that you will ever see the same dominoes two times in your lifetime," Foster said. "If you do, you're not going to be playing with the same people with the same score. Every hand is unique unto itself."
When he's playing four-handed or with a partner, it's about accommodation.
"It's a partnership, kind of like life," Foster said. "You've got to give and take."
Even among friends, he plays with stoicism, avoiding any gestures that might tell his hand. When it gets down to the nitty gritty, Foster knows winning has as much to do with skill as it does with luck.
"The basic philosophy is we have 14 dominoes, and our opponents have 14," he said. "We have to make our 14 dominoes better than theirs."