This article by Ray Spitzenberger first appeared in IMAGES for July 8, 2021, East Bernard Express, East Bernard, Texas.
“Whap! Whap! Whap-whap!” The sound of dominoes slapped on the table echoed throughout the room! These “42” players took their game very seriously, and it showed in the passionate way they played the game. The game of “42” is very popular throughout Wharton County.
While the rural-Texas-born game of “42” was played in Lee County where I grew up, it was second fiddle to the much loved German card game of Skat. When I first moved to Wharton County, I witnessed the same kind of intense zeal for “42” my family and friends usually gave to Skat. While I learned to play both “42” and Skat in Dime Box, I was never very good at either. If winning meant a lot to you, you didn’t want to be my partner!
My wife grew up in Galveston, where her family and friends played Rummy, Bridge, and Canasta. Then she moved to New York, where many folks played Mah-Jongg with domino-like tiles, and where “42” was totally unknown. Finding ourselves invited to play “42” by our new acquaintances in Wharton and East Bernard, I played poorly and she learned “42” as she played it. We felt embarrassed to play the game so poorly with folks who loved it so fervently.
As the years passed, she and I would back away from really competitive “42” games and players who played fiercely. Now, in our retirement years, still timid about taking on aggressive “42” sharks, my wife decided to learn to be competitive. She bought a book on winning at “42”, entitled, Winning 42: Strategy & Lore of the National Game of Texas, by Dennis Roberson.
This great read has been advertised as the first book to be written about the rules and strategies of “42”, in spite of the fact that the game was invented and has been played in Texas since 1887. The fact that this 186-page book, published by Texas Tech University Press has gone through five editions suggests a lot of people have read and liked it. My wife bought the 5th edition, published in 2020, and she is carefully studying the winning strategies.
The “Forward” and “Preface” in the book present the origin and history of the game, so loved by rural Texans. It’s geography rather than ethnicity, because the game is popular with Germans, Czechs, Swedes, Irish, etc., statewide.
From the book, I learned that “42” was invented by a couple teenage boys, ages 12 and 14 in 1887, in the small Texas town of Trappe Spring (now named “Garner”), not too far from Ft. Worth. The strong Christian beliefs of the townspeople caused them to ban card-playing of any kind, as it was the work of the devil. Apparently, the boys enjoyed playing cards and did so regularly until their parents found and burned their decks of playing cards. As a consequence, the boys made up a “card” game played with dominoes, which came to be called “42.”
They shared the game with others, and soon it was played openly by most, including the ladies in town. It appears that playing cards was “wicked,” but playing similar games with dominoes was not. Having grown up in a family that loved card games, especially Skat, I was somewhat startled to discover that card games were considered sinful in 1887.
The avid interest in “42” made it one of the most popular domino games in Texas rural communities, if not the most popular. By the 1940’s, rural Texans were having “42” nights with their friends, and families were playing it on family game nights with the kids. Soon, there were domino parlors in most small towns, where you could also go to play this exciting game with others who loved it as much as you did.
Eventually, “42” tournaments were held throughout Texas, with Hallettsville usually the location for the Annual State Championship. Skat tournaments were also held in German communities, and many German Texans competed in both tournaments. No doubt we Texans are a competitive bunch.
Whenever we held “game nights” at our church in recent years, most folks played “42”, my wife and I still playing badly. And that’s one reason Peggy bought the book by Dennis Roberson. Playing to win is important to a lot of people! Oh, come on, it’s just a game!
Ray Spitzenberger is a retired WCJC teacher, a retired LCMS pastor, and author of two books, It Must Be the Noodles and Open Prairies.