By Army Pfc. J.P. Lawrence
Special to American Forces Press Service
Nov. 4, 2009 - The game is dominoes on this autumnal night on Camp Savage. Army Maj. Joan Carrick shuffles the small spotted tiles, then sends them skidding around the card table. Across the table sits Carrick's dominoes partner, Army Staff Sgt. Larry Saunders. To her left and right sit her opponents for the night, Army Capt. Timothy Vandewalle and an Iraqi interpreter known as Denzel. By day, the four members of Multinational Security Transition Command Iraq help to develop and equip Iraqi security forces. But late at night, when they gather around the table and break out the "bones," they have a chance to connect over the friendly competition of an ancient game, a game where the loudest language spoken is the clickety-clack-clack of dominoes.
Dominoes is something of an Iraqi pastime, although less so among the younger generations, says Denzel, who has been playing for 30 years.
While many Americans associate dominoes with a pizza chain or toppling the tiles, the game is serious business in Iraq, often played in coffee shops from Mosul to Baghdad to Basra, as well as in many other countries. Hundreds of players from across the globe traveled to Russia for the World Domino Championship recently, and matches often are televised in Latin America.
Far from being just a children's game, dominoes is a game of skill requiring players to use the dominoes in their hand to create the most opportunities for themselves and eliminate possibilities for their opponents, while not unintentionally blocking their partner.
"This game is about two things: counting and guessing," Denzel said. "Counting the dominoes on the table and guessing what your partner has. If you are doing well with this, you're going to have something."
Each player is involved in a race to match all their tiles with those laid out. Partners gain points equivalent to the value of their opponents' remaining tiles when one of them runs out, until one team scores 151 points or higher.
After the shuffle, Carrick and Saunders, both from southwestern Virginia, raced out to a huge lead against Vandewalle, of Illinois, and Denzel.
"Are you ready to hit the panic button?" Saunders says.
"Not yet," says Denzel. "Just a few big hands and we're back."
Carrick and Saunders had ample reason for worry. Their first game of Iraqi dominoes ended in a huge comeback.
"We played Denzel and another interpreter," Carrick said. "The first couple hands were kind of rough, because I didn't understand the rules. I was thinking American dominoes, and once I figured it was counting dominoes and knowing there was only seven of every type, by the third hand we started winning, and we ended up wining the game overall."
"It was a 118 to zero, and we came back and won," Saunders said.
After a spirited comeback, Vandewalle and Denzel soon found themselves on the brink of defeat.
"Can't stop it," Vandewalle says. "Either way, they'll go out."
"That's the life," Denzel says. "Maybe we'll have a lead tomorrow."
The final tile was laid, and then it was over. Watches were glanced at. It was late. Tomorrow, the work of building relationships with the Iraqi people would resume. The game was packed up and the table stood empty.
By playing these night games, the four are able to connect the dots on positive relationships between Americans and Iraqis, with each side learning from the other.
When she first started playing Iraqi-style dominoes, Carrick recalled, she had trouble understanding the rules. But with help from Denzel, she was able to master and enjoy a game that is part of Iraqi culture.
The next night, the four played a different game, and this time, Denzel was the student. It is a cycle repeated across Iraq during this stage of the war: growth through symbiosis, and symbiosis through mutual respect.
"It makes me have a good relationship with the people I work with," Denzel said. "We are living here like a big family."