How the Game of Dominoes Is Building a Close Family From a Social Distance

Domino players in East Harlem have found a way to keep the old-school game alive during the pandemic, even if it means masks and plexiglass. (Photo: Andrew J. Padilla)

EAST HARLEM — “Try to follow suit.” It’s a piece of advice that can serve you well not just in a game of dominoes but also in life. 

In the Manhattan neighborhood of East Harlem, playing dominoes has shaped the lives of generations of men who, during the pandemic, are now getting to know the table and each other in new ways.

Seventy-six-year-old John has been living in East Harlem for over 50 years. “And I still have my faculties,” he laughed while speaking with The Tablet July 21 over a game of dominoes with his friends Willie, Bobby, and Rocky. 

Lately, the group has been making similar small talk behind a plexiglass wall. Designed by one of the players as a health and safety precaution during the pandemic, the structure allows for each domino player to have their own partitioned, isolated area in which to play their part of the game. For these New Yorkers, it’s odd to be playing such a communal game from such a social distance. 

“I mean, you know, we weren’t used to it. Even with the mask, it’s kind of hard to,” Bobby said. “It’s all about safety first.”

The goal this summer is to “get everybody out, keep everybody safe,” Rocky added. “Nobody wants to stay cooped up in 90 degrees.”

The veteran of the group, John, has been playing dominoes most of his life but in past years, has seen the group of players grow to more than a dozen men and a handful of tables stationed in the courtyard of a local co-op. 

“We’re all from around the neighborhood, 109th, 106th. All over,” Rocky said. 

Not only do players hail from different areas of the neighborhood but Rocky notes they also come from a variety of cultures: “We got Jamaicans, we got Spanish, Puerto Ricans, we got Dominicans who play with us.”

Players bring their own tables, drinks and snacks to share with passersby who visit to watch or learn. (Photo: Wandy Felicita Ortiz)

While some, like Rocky and John, are dominoes veterans, “some people are still learning the game,” Rocky told The Tablet. 

The group welcomes curious players and observers of all ages and both genders to the table. 

“We got a couple of Chinese kids, Hispanic kids — 5, 6, 7 years old — that come out sometimes, and their parents let them sit down and watch us. That’s why we always have the coolers and snacks,” Rocky explained. “We don’t know who’s coming by. We all chip in and we get everything that we need.” 

Sometimes, players will also cook or barbeque for players and passersby. 

All are invited to eat, play and even reminisce. 

“We talk a lot of times about the old times,” Rocky said. “How, when they were growing up, parents or uncles taught them how to play the game, and then they passed it on.”

They ask about one another’s families and are sure to call each other on the phone when a member of the group has been away from the dominoes table for too long.

Sports are a hot topic as well but as much as people can be divided by their favorite sports teams, politics and religion are off-limits come game time.

“Most of the time, almost seven days a week we get out here. Sometimes it rains on us, but we’re still here playing,” Rocky said. 

For these dedicated players unity is key, and the chance to resurrect this game of old is something they seldom miss out on.

Equipped with hand sanitizer and masks, veteran players like Rocky come outside to cool off and play games during the hot summer months. (Photo: Wandy Felicita Ortiz)

“That’s one of the games that basically used to be popular in East Harlem,” Rocky recalls. “it’s really fading out. Not that many people play…We try to just keep it going.” 

“It’s a big family,” he added, one that you can easily join if you pull up a chair and follow suit.