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Dorchester, mattapan

Domino players losing venues to connect the dots

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Meghan Irons
Globe Staff / May 4, 2008

It's a Friday evening, and the 20 men in the basement of a house on Ridgeview Avenue in Mattapan are in a frenzy.

They sit at tables of four playing dominoes, their tiles guarded, eyes watchful, hands ready to strike.

"I'm going to punish you," one man declares.

As they play, they egg on opponents and berate teammates for making bad plays.

They argue if they lose. They argue if they win. But it's all in fun. This is dominoes - West Indian style - where passion for the game runs deep. But now the men and other members of Boston's Caribbean communities say they are losing their favorite haunts to play their beloved game.

Gone is Mattapan's key venue, Zodiac Domino Sports Club Association. The Windsor Cricket Club has long been closed. The New England Domino League has faded. Unity Sports Club in Dorchester doesn't have regular domino events anymore. The Caribbean Cultural Center in Dorchester has not organized dominoes in more than a year, although it plans to resume a schedule soon.

With fewer places to play, the men, and some women - most in their 40s and older - are gathering in their dining rooms and basements with friends and other domino fanatics to keep the games going.

Colin Reid, who hails from Jamaica and lives in Dorchester, is a fixture on Boston's domino scene.

"I've been in Boston since 1971," says Reid, who was Zodiac's assistant manager. "Two weeks after I got here, I found a place and played dominoes. There were at least a dozen places where you could play. Now, there is hardly any."

The same is true for Clive Miller, Gregory Mercury, and Hushburn Thomas, who say they used to look forward to heading out to social clubs to play after a long day's work. Now they head to their friends' houses.

"Since Zodiac closed, I don't get to meet with the guys," Miller said recently at Kay's Oasis in Dorchester, which opened its doors to domino players a year ago, after learning the men had nowhere to play. "As a matter of fact, since last summer, I've only played a few times."

Mercury says his hot spots are closed down now. "Mostly I just go and play with friends."

Passion for dominoes runs deep in the Caribbean community. The game is more than a pastime played on kitchen tables and summer porches. It's a sport with leagues, international tournaments, and trophies.

Even ESPN is betting on dominoes. A 2006 New York Times article reported that the sports network - on a roll from its success covering poker - believes dominoes "is the next big spectator sport."

The game can be traced to 12th-century China. It appeared in Italy in the early 18th century, and spread throughout Europe. Over the generations, it became popular in the Caribbean, where islands were colonized mostly by Europeans. When islanders migrated to the United States, they brought their devotion to dominoes with them.

"This is the only game that we West Indians can relate to, because we don't have the golf or the basketball" or other sports, Oris Ryan, a native of Montserrat, explains. "We play it passionately."

The New England Domino League thrived on that passion, and died because of it, some say. Disagreements ensued among the eight clubs and groups from various islands over how the game should be played and violations of the rules, says Joseph Buffong, manager of Unity Sports Club in Dorchester.

Mismanagement also contributed to the league's fall, some say. Around the same time, the Unity Sports Club stopped hosting dominoes as interest in the league faded.

The biggest blow, though, came in January 2007 when Zodiac Domino Club, a key player on Boston's scene for 15 years, closed. Though the players, who came early and left early, enjoyed the peace inside, trouble sometimes hovered outside.

In 2000, a man was stabbed to death outside the club. Four years later, another man who had been with friends inside Zodiac was fatally shot nearby.

But Reid says Zodiac was also a victim, cut down after a new law required all clubs, dance halls, and other venues to install sprinkler systems. "It had nothing to do with the violence," he says, "nothing at all."

Clive Trail, Zodiac's founder, says the club's decline began when the city started restricting the club's entertainment and liquor license and the number of people allowed inside its premises. Zodiac - with 75 members and 150 domino championship tournament victories - was forced to close.

The closing hit the domino community - and Trail - hard.

"I can't even go to see them," he says of the players. "It's so sad. The way they talk about it. I can't even leave my house. It really hurts."

Some of the players, though, have adapted to playing at home.

"It's much better now, especially if you are married," said Dennis Keith, a Dorchester firefighter.

"Your wife is glad to know where you are. She's glad you are not at the clubs. The way it is now, the wives hang out with us. . . . It's like a family gathering."

Meghan Irons can be reached at mirons@globe.com.

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