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Kansas City Dominates Dominoes

dominoes FINAL pic.jpg
Alex Smith

This past weekend, the tiny town of Andalusia, Alabama hosted the 37th annual world championships of dominoes. During those nearly four decades, and especially in the last ten years, Kansas City has come up again and again as the hometown of many of those who took home the gold. Just before they left for Andalusia, Alex Smith met with a couple of the champs to find out the reason for Kansas City’s dominoes dominance.

Even at six o'clock on a Monday evening, there’s plenty of action at the Green Duck Lounge. Pool players sink balls, baseball fans yell at the TV and regulars argue about everything from politics to the Bible. In one corner, a handful of men huddle around a small table covered in dominoes, shouting  their commentaries on a fast game. But in the center of the bluster, two men calmly stare at the arrangement of tiles. On one side is Jerome Wooten. Like everyone here, he slaps his dominoes down hard on the table, but he says he doesn’t have much need for intimidation tactics.

“Yeah, I’m more of the humble type of player, you know,” says Jerome Wooten.  “Since I win a lot, I don’t want to run the players off. So I tend to not say too much trash talk.”

Jerome Wooten may not be a household name, everybody here knows him as the world champion of dominoes. It’s a title he’s held for three of the past four years. Across the table from him is Travis Newsome, who’s a former two-time singles world champion. These two men are towering figures in the world of dominoes, working sometimes as teammates, and sometimes as rivals. And the Green Duck is a second home. Wooten says they both come here six days a week, three or four hours a day, preparing for major-league competition by taking on bragging wannabes.

“Now these guys do a lot of trash talking, but they’re not that good,” Wooten explains.

The competition will ramp up this weekend for Wooten and Newsome when they compete in the dominoes world championships. Actually, two different annual contests call themselves the world championships. There’s one in Jamaica, but the Alabama contest is the one Wooten and Newsome go to. Wooten first went to Andalusia in 1999, and even he was shocked at the devotion to dominoes he saw there.

“First time I went, I thought it was actually too much dominoes being played,” says Wooten. “We arrived there at Friday morning at around two o'clock in the morning, and they were playing when we got there. They played up until 6:30 that morning. Everyone went and showered, came back down, we ate breakfast, and the tournament starts at eight o'clock. They repeated that cycle the whole weekend, so a lot of the guys didn’t even sleep. It was, like, almost 24 hours of dominoes played every day. I thought I like dominoes until I went to Andalusia.”

Kansas City’s dominoes ascendancy started in 1973. That’s when Travis Newsome moved here to join his four brothers to work in real estate. The brothers grew up playing dominoes after school in Chapel Hill, Texas. The Newsomes brought to Kansas City their love for competition and strategy. They quickly earned respect among local players. Newsome says a focus on strategy is why Kansas City has so many champion players today.

Newsome explains, “When we play dominoes, we talk about plays: Why did you make that play? What was your thinking when you made that play? Did you not know this was going to happen when you made that play? That’s what we do when we were playing, and that type of discussion, that type of conversation, has really helped to put our game at a different level.”

Travis Newsome won the singles world championship in 1988 and 2003, and he won the doubles title in 1999. His brothers Robert, Jerry and Sterling are also past winner of the top doubles prize. Another Kansas City player, Wayne Morrow, also won the singles championship in 2001, but the Newsome brothers more or less ruled KC’s dominoes scene for years. That was until 1998, when Jerome Wooten first came along.

“There’s no person in Kansas City, or no person in this country that I’m aware of that’s even close to his level of…his game. When people talk about Jerome, I say Jerome is number one in Kansas City, and we don’t have a number two or number three or number four. The next person after Jerome is probably number five. So that’s how good he is,” says Newsome.

There’s a long tradition of dominoes in African American culture, and it was in this tradition Jerome Wooten and Travis Newsome learned and played the game. But white players organize and are the main participants in a lot of tournaments, especially in the South. Travis Newsome was invited to the Alabama world championships for the first time in 1978, and he says it was an eye-opening experience.

“It was really funny because we walk into this gymnasium, and there are, there must have been, at least 800 people playing dominoes,” says Newsome. “And there were no blacks there. So we said, ‘Wait a minute. White folks can’t play dominoes.’  And we thought we would win it with ease and come back to Kansas City with that $4000 first place check. That was not the case.”

Today, after both previously working in real estate, Jerome Wooten and Travis Newsome are now full-time domino players. They travel to many contests a year, and the prize money for a single tournament can be in the tens of thousands of dollars. Tournament play makes dominoes almost a different game than what goes on at the Green Duck. At professional competitions, loud trash talking is pretty rare, but Travis Newsome says psychology is still important wherever you play.

“My game is to make my opponent feel inferior, and intimidation – that’s part of my game,” says Newsome.

“How do you do that? How do you make a person across the table from you feel…”

“Well, maybe by how fast I play. You know, when they play a domino, I’m ready to play, and I’ll almost hit his hand putting my domino down. And I’ll say certain things trying to demean my competition a little bit. You know, that’s all kinda part of it. And after we walk around from the domino table, everything is cool, but at the domino table…Well, I tell people all the time, “I’m not trying to be your friend when I’m playing dominoes. I don’t want you to like me when we’re playing together. Because if you like me, that probably means you’re winning. So I don’t want you to like me when we’re competing. I want you to hate me.”

Newsome is also a dominoes teacher. He’s got a business called DominosEdKc that works to start dominoes after-school programs. And he tutors a few students privately. Newsome says that to be a good, players need to learn a skill similar to counting cards.

“We say, ‘Look, if there are seven dominoes over here, and if two have already been played, and you have two in your hand, then you know there are only three of them left. And you have to decide whether your opponent has those or whether or not they may be in the boneyard.’ So we have to teach that type of thing to the kids, and what I call – that’s deductive reasoning. What’s the probability of him having this particular domino? If he doesn’t have this domino, then I can win the game. So now I gotta make a decision as to whether or not he really has this domino or not,” Newsome explains.

But these days, Travis Newsome has more than strategy on his mind. He’s currently organizing a tournament for the Satchel Paige Foundation to take place in October in Kansas City, and he hopes this will become an annual, nationally-recognized event. Jerome Wooten, on the other hand, is focusing on the upcoming world championship, and offering the occasional tip to reporters.

“You should’ve asked me, ‘Am I gonna win this year?’ And the answer would’ve been “Yes. Yes I am gonna win this year.”

Update: Jerome Wooten won first place in the adult singles division of the Andalusia Rotary Club's 2012 World Championship Domino tournament. He also took sixth place in adult doubles with partner Timothy Webster of Jacksonville, FL.

This story was produced for KC Currents, which airs Sundays at 5pm with a repeat Mondays at 8pm. To listen on your own schedule, subscribe to the KC Currents podcast.

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