Game of ‘42’ spread from West Texas around the world

Readers may wonder how I get ideas for columns. I read non-fiction books on Western history; I attend history conventions and take notes. Also, I buy books and take notes when I travel on vacation. Conversations with folks also lead to ideas.

This week's column just fell into my attention like a row of tumbling dominos. Last week I was chatting with a bank employee while we were waiting for a clerk to copy something. How our conversation progressed to the young man telling me that the game of "42" played with dominos started in Mingus, Texas in the 19th century, I'm not sure.

He said that cowboys were trying to make a domino game be more like poker, so they changed it so they could take "tricks."

Since my husband used to have a deer lease near Mingus, and my mother-in-law remembered it from her youth as a wild town, I perked up. After all, cowboys mean Western history. I acted incredulous, so the young man said he looked it up on the Internet and told me to do the same. I did.

Well…The Handbook of Texas, the encyclopedia of Texas history, cites the history of Mingus, but does not mention the game of "42." However, it states that the game began in Garner, Texas, in Parker County, which is only one county over from Mingus in Palo Pinto County. The two towns are only a few miles apart. Maybe the two towns adopted the game at about the same time, and now both claim it. That certainly happened a lot.

The movement of young farm boys raising hogs or calves in clubs to show at the county fair, and ultimately state fair, was an idea whose time had come in the first decade or so of the 20th century. Jacksboro claims to be the first to start the type of club that later became 4-H for farm youths, but the idea spread so fast that places all over the mid-West claim they had the idea first.

The story goes that "42" began in 1887 in northwestern Parker County in rural Trapp Spring, which now is a part of the small town of Garner. Parker County is west of Fort Worth, and part of Azle is in Parker County. Two boys, William Thomas, age 12, and Walter Earl, age 14, got in trouble for playing cards. Their parents were devout Baptists, and card playing was considered sinful. (In Western movies, remember all the gambling and shooting around those card tables in the saloons!) When the parents forbad the boys' card playing, they remembered the domino games their parents engaged in and decided to create a different game with the dominos, one that allowed participants to take tricks like in cards. In effect, they wanted to play cards with dominos.

Their new game became a bidding game with trumps, where two teams could challenge each other to win the most points. The boys used a standard set of 28 dominoes. The name of the game resulted from there being 42 points in each hand.

The two boys either showed the game to their families, or perhaps a father caught them playing it and decided to investigate. Soon people in the Trapp Spring community picked up the new game. Because Thomas traveled to Mineral Wells frequently to deliver fruit from his father's trees, he taught someone there how to play. Thus, the game spread.

A few years later both the Thomas and Earl families, apparently very close friends or family-related, moved to Fannin County in northeast Texas. Of course, they carried the game with them and taught people there. By the 1940s the game was said to be played all over Texas, and someone deemed it the "national game of Texas."

Texas soldiers even carried it nationally and overseas during World War II. Various towns across the state sponsor tournaments, and a state championship tournament is held in Hallettsville each year the first Saturday in March. In 2011 "42" officially became the State Domino Game of Texas.

Apparently the earliest form of the regular game of dominos began in China as early as 1120 A.D., but some Chinese trace it back to a soldier named Hung Ming who lived from 181 to 234 A.D.

I've never played "42." My nose is always in a book.