If you happen to notice in the San Francisco Social Register, beside such names as James Mailliard or John Menzies or Edgar Osgood, a little symbol Pcu (for Pacific Union Club), it means those people are domino players. Poised in its chocolate-colored majesty on the crest of Nob Hill, fronting the lofty elegance of the Mark Hopkins and Fairmont hotels, the Pacific Union is housed in a magnificent converted mansion, overlooks a stupendous city-and-harbor scene and is one of the domino-playing centers of San Francisco, which means it is also one of the domino-playing centers of the world.
Or if you happen to hear Ted Baker, a San Francisco investment banker, playing the violin in the Bohemian Club orchestra, you can take it for granted that he is a good domino player. Everyone at the Bohemian Club plays dominoes. There are, of course, other qualifications for playing in San Francisco orchestras or for belonging to exclusive clubs, but right now dominoes has such a firm grip on the city that almost any clubman can be identified as a domino player, no matter what else he does.
The other day Mr. Baker put aside banking and music temporarily and, with his long-standing partner Ernest Blum, another investment banker and musician, won the domino championship of the world. They won it during a 16-hour tournament at the Commercial Club. This is another venerable San Francisco institution. It was originally known as the Merchant's Lunch Club, because the merchants of the city met there in 1852 to dine, organize the vigilantes and hang outlaws. Many merchants still eat lunch there, but their pastime has changed from quick justice to fast dominoes. The game is played on large tables for four, and food is placed on a small table beside each player and gulped during the clatter of the contest.
The Commercial Club occupies the top three floors of a building in the financial district. It contains a lofty dining room large enough to hold 400 domino fanatics, with room for waiters bearing drinks to pass between the tables, and room also for referees, officials and hostesses—likewise out of the Social Register—to carry results to a green scoreboard extending 40 feet across one end of the hall. It was there, at 9:30 on a Saturday morning, that Baker and Blum began the triumphant course that led to their world domino championship. With respect to the competitive aspects of this achievement, at the moment it is enough to say that by one o'clock or so on Sunday morning they had come out ahead of 199 other domino teams, largely made up of captains of industry, philanthropists, well-known physicians and famous lawyers, plus a few lieutenants of sport—yachtsmen, baseball directors, racetrack owners, hockey bosses, resort developers and football figures.
Among those left behind were: Walter Haas, the benevolent master of Levi Strauss, overall makers, the man who changed the clothing habits of the nation by converting blue jeans from farm garb to playclothes; Robert Lurie, a director of the San Francisco Giants, whose father owns the Mark Hopkins Hotel; J. Max Moore, a political and social fixture in San Francisco and organizer of a small company that grew great making hula hoops; Gordy Soltau, the scholarly-looking onetime end for the San Francisco 49ers, now a first-rate television commentator and domino player, who reached the quarterfinals; Melvin Swig, the president of the San Francisco Seals in the Western Hockey League, whose father owns the Fairmont Hotel; Alan Fleishhacker, grandson of the man who established the great zoo; John and Oscar Sutro, grandsons of the silver miner who gave Sutro Forest to the city; Melville Marx, who played on the team that won the world domino championship last year, who is renowned as the boldest gambler among domino players and who is the new owner of Golden Gate Fields and Tanforan racetracks; and an array of Spreckels, Guittards, Merrills, Hookers, Michaels and other families so celebrated that if you removed their names from Who's Who in the West it would be a So What.
When Baker and Blum had won the last game and the championship, William Zellerbach—of the Zellerbach paper family—presented them with the permanent trophy, a hefty piece of walnut marked like a double-5 domino. Staggering a little after his 16 hours of officiating and from the weight of the trophy, Zellerbach also gave the new champions four round-trip tickets to Copenhagen. Then everybody staggered off between the dark banks and brokerage houses on California and Montgomery streets and into the warm spring night.
The world championship tournament is a new development in the peculiar enthusiasm for dominoes that has swept San Francisco. However, the 100,000 habitual domino players who reside in the area are not primarily interested in who wins it. "Every player thinks he is the best in the world, no matter who the world champion is," says Palmer Mendelson, the head of a big produce firm who entered the tournament with his business partner.
San Francisco's domino fanatics play before tournaments, during tournaments, after tournaments, at lunch, on country weekends, on ski trips to Alpine Meadows, after matches at the California Tennis Club, before sailing from the St. Francis Yacht Club, at homes, at parties and especially at the 19th hole after a round of golf. "Dominoes are played at every golf club around here," Mendelson went on. "At Olympic, Green Hills, Lake Merced—maybe not as much at Lake Merced as elsewhere: they play a lot of gin there—at California Golf, Castlewood, Lake Chabot, Burlingame Country Club, everywhere. Burlingame is the oldest country club in California. Herb Caen, the columnist, once said the Pacific Union Club was so exclusive that when people finally got in they never came out again. Well, it is even more true of Burlingame."
Bing Crosby plays dominoes at Burlingame. Many Peninsula Golf & Country Club members belong to something called the Bombay Bicycle Riding Club, an organization that holds weekly domino tournaments, with 20 or so tables going steadily. The placid old Emporium department store, which does a big business selling domino sets (priced up to $100 for solid ivory), is currently holding weekly domino classes. These are taught by Dominic Armanino, a banker and writer. Last month India House, a fashionable restaurant, opened a special room for people who wanted to play dominoes at lunch, and the event was reported in the society pages with only a shade less attention than that given the opening of the opera.
The ordinary, run-of-the-club domino game in San Francisco is 1 and 10—that is, $1 a game and 10� a point. At Lake Merced Country Club it is 4 and 40—$4 a game and 40� a point. At the Pacific Union Club it is $8 a game and 80� a point. It is perfectly possible to drop $25 in a pleasant luncheon game at the Pacific Union. What, you may ask, is this thing called a point? San Francisco enthusiasts enjoy explaining dominoes to newcomers, employing as many technical phrases as possible—kickers, spinners, to wire—in a fashion that seems perfectly clear up to the time the newcomer starts to play. The situation is complicated because Dominic Armanino, after publishing Dominoes in 1959 (a bestseller in San Francisco for 15 weeks), copyrighted the name and rules of the game, which he calls five-up. Essentially, however, the San Francisco version of dominoes is a local adaptation of a gambling game played a century ago and known then as all fives or muggins. Napoleon Marache, one of the first U.S. chess authorities, included a full account of muggins in his Manual of Chess, published in 1866.