One day a few winters ago my daughter, Evie, and I grabbed a table inside the lodge at Warner Canyon Ski Area, a small, mostly local hill in south-central Oregon. It was a powder day, where the flakes fall fast and straight and make the forest sigh with that soft shushing sound.
Evie and I had spent the morning scooping up free refills off the area’s lone ski lift, the Highlander Triple, that rises about 800 vertical feet into the Warner Mountains. But now, despite epic conditions, Evie and I had business to take care of inside by a roaring fire. On the table stretched the angular arms of a vicious game of dominoes.
“Your turn,” Evie says, rummaging through the wreckage of a basket of fries. “That’s 30 points, and I’m guessing you have to draw.” Evie smiled as only a winning tween can, her long blond hair still wet from a hard, flipping fall that had precipitated the early retreat to the lodge. But now things had turned around and it was her old man who was floundering. “I love this,” she says.
Dominoes goes by many names in our house—“throw bones,” “lay some tiles,” “come whoop up on daddy”—but it wasn’t until that trip that I’d thought to toss a set of stamp-sized travel tiles into my pocket for spontaneous rounds on the go. It seemed silly at first. After all, who frets about pips and points when the mountain is full of freshies?
I do, apparently. I didn’t play games much as a kid, so this newfound fun was really an extension of a more recent tradition. It began when my friends Weylin and Jenny opened their home one frigid winter evening for neighbors to gather around their fire for Game Night. We held tense sessions of Codenames and argued about which came first, the electric guitar or the NBA, in Timeline. (The electric guitar, in 1931.) It didn’t take long for the soirees to become a thing, but only in winter, even when the pandemic closed ski areas and forced us to play dice over Zoom. But dominoes, specifically the point-scoring version called straight dominoes, became the game, prized for its simple yet addicting mix of luck, strategy, and insane comebacks.
Before long, Evie wanted in, and quickly developed into a formidable opponent. We dove into bloody sagas that went on for days, marveling at the formations the tiles made with converging arms like a subway map. We covered the floor of grandma’s house in Montana after cross country skiing and played in Tahoe after feasting on corn at Homewood.
That day in the lodge got me thinking about how games and skiing make awesome bedfellows. With either, you never truly know what you’re going to get—a powder day or a whiteout? A great hand or a terrible one? The fun comes from using what you’re dealt in the best possible way. It hasn’t snowed in weeks? Go gouge some high-G turns into a stale groomer and tell me that it wasn’t fun. With dominoes, it’s the excitement of not knowing what comes next.
In most aspects of our lives, uncertainty is a terrible feeling that can literally make us sick. Will I have a job tomorrow? Are the kids OK? Will winter ever come? And yet there is one aspect of our lives where we crave uncertainty, even seek it out, and that is when we play. Unlike most everything else we do, the behavior is the reward. “You work to get money,” says Beau Lotto, a neuroscientist with the Lab of Misfits. “But what’s the reward for skiing? Skiing.”
Kids need to play to learn, but the most successful creatures in nature are those that continue to play into adulthood, Lotto notes. Dogs. Ravens. Whales. Us. No wonder, then, that during the early days of the pandemic we spent almost $12 billion on video games alone. That’s 30 percent more than last year.
Back at the lodge, I lose the round spectacularly. I put the tiles back in their baggie and we head outside once more. The flakes are falling even harder, and the forest now sounds almost breathy. We click in and rip it up, letting each cold shot of uncertainty make a winner of us all.
Bend, Ore.-based freelance writer Tim Neville has played 1,432,908 games of dominoes since the start of the pandemic.