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Looking back at:

Willie Nelson Loses
Domino Championship

By Michael Barr
Michael Barr
Willie Nelson considered himself a world-class domino player until one day in Luckenbach a couple of cagey veterans cleaned his clock in the unofficial Gillespie County Domino Championship.

Willie had been playing dominoes since he was a kid on the cotton farm near Abbott, Texas—a wide spot in the road between Waco and Hillsboro. Playing dominoes, in that part of the world, was an acceptable alternative to cards—a sinful game associated with gambling and drinking. The popularity of dominoes really took off during Prohibition.

There are a number of popular domino games like Moon and 42, but straight dominoes is the game usually played in domino parlors, pool halls and courthouse basements all over Central Texas. Straight dominoes is Willie's game.

While Moon and 42 are trick and trump games, straight dominoes is played by laying dominoes (called rocks) end to end. The dots on the touching ends must match. If after a play the dots on the exposed ends total any multiple of 5, that player or team is awarded that number of points. The player or team with the most points at the end is the winner.

Straight Dominoes
Straight Dominoes
Photo courtesy Michael Barr

Dominoes is a noisy, blue-collar, workingman's game. It seems fairly straight forward. I'm told there is strategy involved, but darned if I know what it is.

The game has a language all its own. The "spinner" is the game's first played double. The double blank is "a bar of soap." The double 5 is the "Gold Nugget." Any domino with 5 dots on either end is a "dancing girl." "Man overboard" is the term for a player unable to play and must draw a rock from the "boneyard."

Willie Nelson is no red-headed stranger to high-stakes domino games. He once played Amarillo Slim in a game of dominoes for charity. They played in the poker pit in Las Vegas.

The first year Slim beat Willie 5 games to 3. The next year Slim won 5 games to 2.

"I'm closing the gap," said Willie, the eternal optimist. The man could see a silver lining in a funnel cloud.

Willie especially enjoyed a game of dominoes with old friend Carl Cornelius, owner of Carl's Corner, a convenience store and truck stop on I-35 not far from Willie's birthplace in Abbott. They played for money but the big prize was bragging rights.

It was no game for the faint of heart. The trash talk was brutal.

"Carl thinks he can play dominoes," Willie said, "but he's been the source of my income for years."

"This time I'll let Willie keep his clothes," Carl replied. "I've already got a closet full of bandanas and tennis shoes."

Willie would go just about anywhere for a good game of dominoes. Back in August 1976, he called Oliver Ottmers at Luckenbach and asked him to line up the two best domino players in Gillespie County. Willie and his partner, Zeke Varnon from Hillsboro, were looking for a game, and they were in no mood to take prisoners.

And so on a warm Sunday afternoon Willie and Zeke took on Louis Gerhard and Calvin Steubing in a game of dominoes under the shade trees behind the Luckenbach store. The Gillespie County guys were quiet and confident. Willie and Zeke talked big but couldn't back it up.

In the end, it wasn't even close. The Gillespie County champions drubbed Willie and Zeke 4 games out of 6.

At the Luckenbach store they tell another story about that game. They say that when the contest was over, Willie and his entourage were relaxing around the table, doing their best to soothe the agony of defeat.

Meanwhile, a man and his wife stopped in to take a look at the most famous small town in Texas. While strolling through the grounds at Luckenbach they saw a group of men sitting under the trees, surrounded by a cloud of smoke.

The wife told her husband that one of the men looked familiar. It was the guy with braided hair. He had a long neck in one hand and a cigarette in the other.

"That's Willie Nelson," the man said, "and that's no cigarette."

Michael Barr
"Hindsights" February 1, 2023 Column

Related Articles:

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"Old-timers still remember Willie carrying his guitar to school..."

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"Nelson is a red white and blue American who has never forgotten his small town roots."

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July 1976 in Gonzales County

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