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A True Texas Tradition: “Texas 42” Domino Game

June 7, 2023 Texas, Texas History

In the vast Lone Star State landscape, where cowboy boots, bluebonnets, and Texas Longhorns are synonymous with the state’s identity, there is a captivating tradition deeply embedded in the heart of Texas culture: the “Texas 42” domino game or simply “42”.

While played by people of all ages in homes, churches, cafes, and clubs across the state, “42” is a unique game to Texas that has more in common with trick-taking card games like bridge and whist than it does with the typical tile-rattling domino games found at your local rec center or park.

“There are two types of people in Texas: those who play 42 and those who need to learn,” wrote Dennis Roberson in “Winning 42: Strategy and Lore of the National Game of Texas”, published by Texas Tech University Press.

42 is the Official State Domino Game of Texas

“What do trumps and tricks have to do with dominoes? Not a thing, if you’re playing straight style, which awards points for creating domino chains with end sections that total multiples of five. For Texas 42, though, think bridge or spades played with 28 dominoes,” wrote Sheryl Smith-Rodgers in Texas Co-op Power Magazine.

Over the years 42 has been embraced by iconic Texans such as President Lyndon B. Johnson (where a constant game of dominos going in the upstairs living room of the White House helped him relieve stress), singer-songwriter Robert Earl Keen and journalist Bill Moyer.

“I hope that someday when George and I have more time to relax and play dominoes, we will pick it up again. We had such fun playing 42 with our good friends,” said First Lady Laura Bush while in the White House, according to Roberson’s book.

It is no surprise then that 42 was designated as the “Official State Domino Game of Texas” by the 82nd Legislature in 2011.

“The game is a true Lone Star original and a testament to the ingenuity and fun-loving nature of Texans, making it a most fitting symbol for our state,” read the resolution that passed unanimously.

42: A Game Steeped in Texas History

The state legislature says that research by Fort Worth Star-Telegram journalist Christopher Evans traces the roots of 42 back to 1887 and two North Texas boys from Trapp Springs (now called Garner) who were discovered playing cards in a hay loft.

“12-year-old William A. Thomas and 14-year-old Walter Earl one day found themselves in deep trouble with their parents when they were discovered in a barn hayloft playing the card game auction whist, which is similar to the modern game of bridge; card games were considered sinful in the boys' devoutly Baptist families, and William and Walter were disciplined for their actions,” read the state resolution.

The Texas State Historical Association Handbook of Texas says that William and Walter then had the ingenious idea to create a card-like game utilizing dominos.

“They turned to dominoes, which was not deemed to be sinful. The two boys devised and fine-tuned the rules for a new card game with dominoes called 42,” according to the Handbook of Texas. “Thomas and Earl introduced the game to their families, and they taught it to their small community. Thomas delivered fruit from his father's orchard to nearby Mineral Wells, and he also taught those townspeople to play 42.”

From there, 42 spread across the state of Texas.

“Four-handed Texas 42, which involves bidding and playing for points, spread by word-of-mouth to family parlors, picnic tables, and back rooms at small town cafes before being exported by Texas soldiers to the front lines of World War II. It was an early favorite in Texas A&M dormitories that housed students from rural areas,” says Texas Highways.

The popularity of 42 may have peaked in the Baby Boom era when television was the new kid on the block, but Authentic Texas says that The game is still popular, mainly in Texas. Hallettsville hosts an annual state championship on the first Saturday in March.”

Rules of the Game: How to Play 42

Like many card games or other table games, the best way to learn to play 42 is to sit down and play it with others.

Texas Monthly, perhaps, published the most succinct explanation of how 42 is played in 1988 by Michael Hilton: “What is 42? you may be asking. Well, it’s a domino game with rules like bridge. It is played with partners, the object being to win tricks or rounds of play, and while doing so to capture “count rocks,” or point-scoring dominoes. The name 42 comes from the method of scoring. Each trick is worth one point, and each domino whose spots total five or ten is worth the total of its spots. When you add all the count rocks and the tricks together, the sum is 42. I won’t go on trying to explain it; just play 42 a couple of times, and you’ll understand it far better than I could describe it here.”

Hilton also had some advice: don’t tell a 42 player that the game is just luck and don’t ever call it “dominoes”.

“42 is no more a game of luck than poker is. Forty-two is a game of bluff, finesse, psychology, and calculated risk. The timid player never wins, nor does the compulsively intrepid one,” wrote Hilton.

Bidding and Taking Tricks in 42

42 may have a lot in common with the card game bridge, with bidding before hands and then taking tricks to score points, but the game is surprisingly easy to pick up.

“You don’t have to be a great player to win,” Jody Badum, an Austin broadband company owner and president of the National 42 Players Association, told Texas Power Co-Op Magazine. “Forty-two combines luck and skill. That’s what keeps people excited about playing the game—they have a chance to win.”

Teams sit across from their partners at tables and typically draw for a high domino to see which player will shake (or shuffle) the dominos face down first.

All four players will draw a domino so they will each have seven in their “hand”.

Then comes the bidding. A player's bid is their guess on how many points they think their partnership can win during the hand based on the dominos they see in front of them.

A minimum bid is 30 points, and the maximum bid is 42.  Some bidding protocols, according to the Austin42 website:

  • Bidding begins with the player to the left of the Shaker and proceeds clockwise ending with the Shaker.
  • Each player may bid only once, in order.
  • Highest bidder wins the bid (and declares trump).
  • Each player may either pass (not bid) or bid higher.

Remember the game is called 42 and here, again, is how we get to that number:

  • Total points available in any hand are:

o   1 point for each trick won for 7 total points.

o   5 points for each “five-pointer” tile (5/0, 4/1, 3/2) won for 15 total points.

o   10 points for each “ten-pointer" tile (5/5, 6/4) won for 20 total points.

So, 7 + 15 + 20 = 42!

Like in card games, trump cards beat all other suits when played. Trump in 42 can be ones (aces), twos (deuces), threes (treys), fours, fives, six, doubles, or no-trump (which is called “follow me”).

The winning bidder, after calling trump, leads the first trick and the other players follow in a clockwise manner by each playing one of their dominos. The player winning the trick leads the next trick and play repeats until all the dominos have been played.

Typically, if a team meets or exceeds their bid then they are awarded all the points they win during the hand, and the opponents are awarded points they won as well. If a team fails to meet its bid, then they receive no points, and the opponents get credit for the original bid plus the points they won during the hand. Often the first team to reach 250 wins the match.

In some variations, a simple “mark” is awarded to the winning team of each hand, with typically seven marks needed to win the match.

42 is a True Texas Social Affair

42 is more than just a game—it's a social affair that brings people together. Whether playing at home with family and friends or in local tournaments, the game fosters a sense of community and camaraderie with players sharing laughter and friendly banter.

Despite the rise of digital entertainment and modern games, 42 continues to be passed down through generations, preserving a cherished Texan tradition and providing a welcome respite from the fast-paced world we live in.


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