HALLETTSVILLE, TX – On a cold Sunday morning inside the Hallettsville Knights of Columbus Hall, an unmistakable sound grows louder.
At tables scattered throughout the hall, dominoes are tossed on the wooden surfaces and shuffling commences, as the 68th Texas State Championship Straight Domino tournament gets underway.
Hallettsville, which sits between San Antonio and Houston, is well known for its connection to the game. Competitors come from around Texas, the country, and even the world come to play in the small town.
This year, 85 teams showed up to play. Of the 170 players, Bob Henke, of Hallettsville, may be one of the best around.
"Some people tell me... don't you get tired of playing dominoes? It’s the same thing over and over,” said Henke. “Well, there ain't two hands alike.”
Henke has seen more than a few hands, having played in this tournament for nearly 60 years.
“I missed two tournaments, I think, when my first wife was sick, before she passed,” remarked Henke. “Otherwise, I don't miss."
Henke won the state championship in 2007 and just minutes earlier, was inducted to the Texas Domino Hall of Fame, which is conveniently housed at the Hallettsville Knights of Columbus, too.
He was one of two inducted on this morning. His partner was his son-in-law, also a long-time domino competitor. Their opponents, by pure chance, were the team of Emma Orsi, of Pearland, and her grandfather.
In contrast, this was Emma’s first time playing competitively, needing to apply for a waiver because of her age.
"I’m 11-years-old and I’m in 6th grade,” explained Orsi.
Meantime, on the other side of the room sat Rosemary Etzler, 91, of Hallettsville. She chose to play with her grandson.
“My brothers and I... we all played dominoes at home. We were just raised up with dominoes,” said Etzler. “It’s just a good sport, and a good pastime.”
Etzler, too, has played in the tournament many times. Eddie Kubon sat at a table in the far corner of the room. His domino record is extensive. Not only has he won the state championship before, but he has also won the World Domino Championship in Alabama.
"You get a little nervous sometimes and sometimes it’s a little hard to sleep the night before,” admitted Kubon.
But as he will tell you, drawing the right domino is everything.
“It is about 75% luck, 25% skill,” explained Kubon. “You got to get some good dominoes.”
The competitors start playing dominoes first thing in the morning and often, the competition goes well into the night. It is a double elimination tournament. After Monday’s first round, Rosemary Etzler was sent to the consolation bracket.
"We were way ahead of them, and then all of a sudden the dominoes just turned bad,” said Etzler, with a chuckle.
Eddie Kubon’s team was successful and moved on in the winner’s bracket. Then, came the upset of the morning.
"We got beat. Very simple as that. We got beat two out of three,” said Henke.
Emma Orsi and her grandfather pulled the ultimate upset over hall-of-famer Bob Henke. Orsi won her first tournament game and moved on to the second round.
“It was very nerve-wracking because I’ve never played against older people - just my family and my grandpa,” said a relieved Orsi. “So, I was very jittery putting my dominoes down.”
All the players involved said they plan to return next year, win or lose. This beloved east Texas game seems to have this effect on people.
"I’d like to win it one more time before I die and hopefully, I got a few more chances, if don't get it today,” said Kubon.
None of those interviewed would make it to the championship, with Joey Henke, of Poth, and D. Scott Henke, of Hallettsville, taking the top spot. Hallettsville is also home to the Texas State 42 Domino Championship, making it the domino capital of Texas.