Poker-winning ESPN has dominoes theory
Sports network bets numbered tiles game due popularity boom
Corey Kilgannon, New York Times
New York -- The next big thing in sports programming is dominoes?
To the occasional player, it is a stretch to even call this quiet game of straight-faced strategy a sport. But anyone who has spent time in a Latino neighborhood in New York City could testify that dominoes played there -- with the slammed-down tiles, the verbal sparring, the bragging and bluffing -- is no parlor game.
From the opening bid, a simple sidewalk match will quickly escalate into a raucous, freewheeling spectacle: a mini-fiesta where salsa and cigars, Bacardi and brown-bagged beers have as much a role as the little colored tiles with dots.
The games almost always draw spectators, so perhaps it is no surprise that the ESPN sports network has declared dominoes the next big spectator sport and is promoting it as both a cultural touchstone and a highly competitive game, complete with rankings, formal tournaments, celebrity events and sponsors.
Encouraged by the success of televised poker, the network has begun combing New York City for top players and colorful clubs for its coverage and has been taping segments on formal tournaments and casual neighborhood games.
Hourlong domino shows now run Tuesday nights on the network's Spanish-language sports channel ESPN Deportes. Hoping it will be popular with English-speaking viewers, the network plans to show similar programming on ESPN2 starting in June.
"We think it will be the next cool thing," said Lino Garcia, general manager of ESPN Deportes. "We're connecting with the best places dominoes is played, so naturally we're going to start in uptown Manhattan and the Bronx, the places where it really happens."
Garcia said he hopes to repeat the success the network has had with poker -- its World Series of Poker is its highest-rated regular series. Like poker, domino games offer plenty of suspense at the table, with clever decision-making and reading the strategies of other players all pivotal to winning. The network will also televise the world championships next year from the Dominican Republic.
The plan, Garcia said, is not only to present dominoes in world-class tournaments and flashy celebrity events the way the network showcases poker, but to capture the excitement and charm of "the highly energetic games on street corners and small clubs in basements where guys go every day."
New York's neighborhoods are filled with characters who come together to play. Older men in caps and young men in muscle T-shirts and gold chains go at it, slapping dominoes onto flimsy tables, speaking in Spanish in games lubricated by Presidente beer and salsa music.
Luis Guzman, a well-known Puerto Rican actor, said in an interview that the domino table is an arena where the very dramas of life play out: love, hatred, revenge. Tempers can flare, and lifelong relationships can begin and end around a domino game.
Guzman recalled that when he grew up on Manhattan's Lower East Side, it seemed that every male Latino played dominoes.
"My pops would play for hours on end; all the men did," he said. "I know best friends who stopped talking to each other for years because of one game. After 10 years, one would still be saying, 'Man, why'd he play that one when he knew the other guy was holding the 6-3?' I know a guy who jumped out a second-story window and broke both legs after losing a domino game."
At a dominoes club in the Bronx called Hijos y Amigos de Altamira, the players had varying opinions about how old-school domino players accustomed to casual, free-flowing action would react to being analyzed and scrutinized by ESPN, which plans to install a dozen table-level cameras, along with others overhead and around the club.
"I think being on TV would make some of our players nervous," said Augusto Montan, 55, "but then again, I could name at least a few guys right now who would eat it up."