The Art of Domino

Domino is a table game played by two or more people. The goal is to place a domino tile on the table so that its number shows at one end and the other end of the domino chain. Once placed, additional tiles are played upon it, extending the chain until all numbered dominoes have been covered. The player who has the most dominoes showing at one end of the chain wins the round. Many variations on the rules exist. Most commonly, however, a player earns points by touching an opposing player’s dominoes. A player may also score by playing a domino that counts as either one or two (e.g., a 6-6 can count as either six or twelve).

Hevesh is one of the world’s most celebrated domino artists. She has designed structures that involve hundreds of thousands of dominoes. Her largest installations take several nail-biting minutes to fall, but Hevesh says the most important ingredient in her creations is physics. Gravity is the key force that makes her designs possible, she explains. By standing a domino upright against the pull of gravity, it stores potential energy. Once a domino is knocked over, that potential energy converts into kinetic energy, which causes it to collide with the next domino and start a chain reaction.

European-style dominoes are traditionally made of bone, silver lip ocean pearl oyster shell (mother of pearl), ivory, or a dark hardwood such as ebony with contrasting black or white pips inlaid or painted. The most common set has double-nine pips on each end and can contain up to 55 tiles. Larger sets, often called extended sets, contain a greater maximum number of pips on each end and can contain as many as 190 tiles.

While the rules of most domino games are fairly simple, a lot can go wrong with a domino layout. The layout is a grid with the ends of the dominoes labeled “open.” Depending on the game, a tile may be positioned on a long side of a double or a short side of a double. Moreover, the rules of a particular game often state that only the open ends of a domino are valid for play; other types of connections are forbidden or discouraged.

The term “domino” itself does not appear until the mid-18th century, when it first appeared in France. Its etymology is obscure, though it was likely coined from an earlier sense of the word, which denoted the hooded cloak worn by a priest over his surplice at carnival or masquerade events. It is also thought that the word was inspired by the contrast of the ebony domino pieces with the white of the clergy’s clothes. The word has also been suggested to refer to a hooded garment worn by the players of an early form of poker, perhaps to circumvent religious proscriptions against playing cards. Earlier still, it may have been a synonym for the hooded cape that a priest wore over his surplice during a celebration of the Feast of Corpus Christi.