When someone mentions trick-taking games, they almost always mean card games. But of course, almost is the key word there. Today, we’re going to be playing with dominos, looking into the official domino game of my home state that I never heard of before digging into historic games.
Texas 42 may not have a sordid past, but it does have a murky one. There are at least two different stories of how it was invented. The one most commonly passed around is from a 1985 newspaper article, which cited an interview from 1927 with William Thomas. He claims to have co-invented the game with a friend of his when he was 12, after they were caught playing cards in the hayloft of a barn in Garland (then called Trappe Spring) around 1887. Their town was devout Baptist, and they were punished for sinful card playing, but dominos were allowed, so they figured out a way to play cards, specifically trick-taking, with dominos.
The other version is from an article in 1915, which states the game was invented in Mineral Wells, by a brakeman who worked on the Santa Fe rail line, while he was on vacation, and bored in his hotel room. The paper only gave his last name, Giescke, and explained that he’d been musing over the properties of dominos. Games played with multiples of 5 were pretty popular, and he noticed that between the 1-4, 2-3, 5-0, 5-5, and 6-4 that there were a total of 35 points in a double-six set. Since there were also 28 total dominos, a 4-player partnership trick-taking game would have 7 tricks. Add 35 and 7 together, and you get a total of 42 points, which is how he came up with the name.
The process described in the second story sounds more feasible from a game-design perspective, but keep in mind that both stories were written after the game was incredibly popular. Since Texas is known for tall tales, it’s not unreasonable to think that people would claim to be the inventor of a well-known game, since these things are extremely difficult to prove when the game is mainly passed around through word of mouth.
Regardless, Texas 42 is a 4-player partnership point-trick game. The goal is to bid how many points you will take, then earn “marks” for reaching your bid. If you fail to make your bid, the opposing team scores the marks you would have earned. These marks, oddly enough, are drawn on a score-pad to form the word ALL, with each mark earning one line segment, like Hangman. Counting it up, it looks like 7 marks wins the game.
In a standard set of double-six dominos, there are 28 tiles, and 7 “suits.” That is, the numbers 0-6 on either side of the domino determine the tile suit. In Texas 42, the double of each suit is the highest-ranking domino, followed in descending order by the rest of the tiles sharing the same suit number.
This by itself is intuitive enough, but the problem that comes to mind is how do you decide which suit a tile is when you play it? The official ruling is that when a non-trump tile is led to a trick, it is the suit of whatever the higher number is.
As an extreme example, let’s imagine that the suit of 3s is trump for the hand. You have the lead, and you lead with the 0-6, under the mistaken belief that you just played the six of the zero suit, just one tile less than the double-blank. Unfortunately, you immediately lose the domino to the 1-6, because you actually played the zero tile of the sixes suit, the lowest ranked tile if the suit. Of course, then they lose it to the 0-3, and threes are the trump suit. Later in the same hand, someone leads the 3-5. Because threes are trump, it counts as being a member of the threes suit, so it actually is the five of threes.
Clear as mud? Good, me too. The computer stomped me for like half an hour before I caught on how to lead properly. I’m also terrible at choosing the appropriate bid for the hand, even though I understand the rules. Just because you know the game well enough to teach it, it does not mean you are actually skilled at playing it.
To sum it up:
- Trump Suit: Double high, followed by the six of that suit down to blank, always
- Non-Trump Suit, When Led: Counts as a member of the higher suit number on the tile
- Non-Trump Suit, Following Led Suit: Ranking within the led suit is still double high, followed by the six down to the zero. So leading a 2-4 sets the trick suit to fours, and the 5-4 is still a member of the fours suit during the trick.
The Deal and Bidding
The dealer for the hand shuffles the tiles by “washing” (mixing) them face-down on the table, and each player receives 7 dominos. The dealer’s opposing team get to draw first, followed by the dealer’s partner, and finally the dealer. Then each player, starting with the dealer’s left, gets one bid for points or marks.
Bids are a declaration of how many points you think you can take during the game, or how many marks you are willing to risk if you think you can take all the tricks. 30 points is the lowest bid, all 42 points is 1 mark, and the opening bid is maxed out at 2 marks, although the bid itself can go higher. If all 4 players pass, their hands are turned in, and the next dealer shuffles.
Normally, after winning the bid, the declarer declares the trump suit and leads to the first trick. The led suit must be followed, if possible, or may be trumped if you have none of the led suit. Remember, trumps belong to the trump suit and nothing else. For example, if twos are trump, and someone leads the 4-6, and you have both the 3-6 and 2-6 in your hand, you must lose the 3-6 to follow suit. Tricks are taken by the highest-ranked domino of the suit led, or the highest trump.
The declarer may also call no trumps, or “follow me.” This means there is no trump suit for the hand, and the suit for the trick is always determined by the higher side of the domino led. Remember, the double of each suit counts as the highest tile in that suit.
Tricks remain face up and are displayed next to the winning player in sets of 4, presumably to check for mistakes in who won the trick. If playing for all 42 points, these may be stacked to only show the 8 dominos of the last two tricks taken.
However, there are a couple of special contracts the declarer can attempt instead. During the bidding, they just bid the appropriate number of marks, and announce the contract before beginning play.
- Nello: If every player before them has passed, the declarer may bid 1 or 2 marks and go Nello instead of passing and going to the next hand. This bid is to attempt losing every trick. The declarer’s partner turns down their dominos and is out of play for the hand, making it a 3-hand game. There are no trumps, and doubles are a separate suit, from 6-6 down to 0-0. A led domino counts as a member of the higher-numbered suit, as usual, and a double may not be played to the trick unless no other dominos of the led suit are in hand. In this bid, the point tiles do not matter, only successfully losing all the tricks.
- Plunge: The declarer must hold at least 4 doubles to choose this contract, and must have bid al least 4 marks (this is the only way an opening bid can be higher than 2 marks), or 5, if the bid was already 4 before their turn to bid. The declarer’s partner chooses the trump suit, with no hints from the declarer. They must then win all 7 tricks.
Variations of Play
In some games, there are a few other trump options, or differences in the contracts. These are all optional rules, and should be agreed on by all players before beginning the game.
Follow Me (no trumps) declarations may choose whether doubles count as high or low within their suit.
Doubles Trump is a declaration that the doubles themselves are a trump suit, and no longer count as a member of their own suit. This means that if a double is led, players must play a double to follow suit, or discard any tile if they have no doubles.
Nello players may choose how doubles are treated during their attempt.
- Doubles high: Doubles are the highest tile in their suit
- Doubles low: Doubles are the lowest tile in their suit
- Doubles take doubles: Doubles are a separate suit, ranked 6-6 down to 0-0, and not a member of their numbered suit. This is the normal way Nello is played.
- Doubles take doubles, inverted: Doubles are a separate suit, ranked 0-0 down to 6-6.
Splash is similar to a Plunge bid, but only requires 3 doubles, and a bid of 2 marks. The declarer’s partner chooses the trump suit, as usual, but they also lead to the first trick. Again, all 7 tricks are required to win.
Sevens is another special contract in which the point tiles do not matter. A trick is won by a domino whose pips total is closest to 7. If more than one tile is tied, the first one played wins the trick.
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