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— On the north side of the Tijuana River, across from the Zona Rio, stands a shopping center with a department store, a dozen or so nondescript shops, and "World Famoso" Señor Frog's nightclub. Between the nightclub and the department store, a 20-foot-wide passageway, paved with saltillos, dissects the shopping center. At a quarter to eight on a Wednesday night in February, the passage was deserted and the storefronts opening onto it were darkened, all except one, in the middle on the east side. From that room spilled light, laughter, and a repetitious clack...clack... clack.

Once at the door, a visitor saw that the laughter came from two dozen men and one woman, sitting in groups of four around small square tables. The clack clack clack was the sound of dominoes being played. This scene is repeated daily from 5:00 p.m. to midnight (sometimes later) here at the Tijuana Municipal Dominoes Association clubhouse.

Above the dozen or so square tables with blue upholstered chairs, heavy open beams span the 25- by 25-foot dominoes club. Four sliding wooden doors, cracked open to let out the thick cloud of cigarette smoke, make up the exterior wall. Nothing adorns the other three dirty white walls except for a single blown-up photo in which two women in red sequined mini-dresses present a dominoes national championship trophy to club member Marco Lozano. Despite the accomplishment, his face bears a grim expression, just as it does tonight as he sits at a table beneath the photo with his back to it. When a fellow club member suggests he speak to a visitor about dominoes, he refuses without even speaking. Never taking his eyes off the row of dominoes in front of him, he shakes his head and waves his hand in a gesture of dismissal.

But it's not Lozano the visitor has come to see. A few tables away sits a blond-haired woman, 52 years old, neatly dressed in a red turtleneck and blue skirt. Gold hoop earrings dangle from her ears as she finishes a game before looking up and greeting a visitor to the club. Laura Mápula is her name, and she's the only woman member of the club. "I'm the only woman player in the whole state," Mápula says to the delight and laughter of her table mates. "There used to be another one in Ensenada, but she moved to La Paz."

Mápula has been playing dominoes at the club for "about 20 years, but I started playing much longer ago. When I was a little girl, my father taught me to play, and I liked it very much. My husband and I started playing dominoes when we were novios. I always beat him. After we got married, then he was the one that won."

Asked whether there is a short way to explain the game's object, she answers, "El objectivo es dominar -- the objective is to dominate."

Dominating is just what Mápula did at the state championships in January. With her partner Javier Martinez, Mápula -- the only woman in the event -- placed third, the highest of any Tijuana-based player. The high placement could be due to the amount of practice time Mápula gets. In addition to playing three nights a week at the club, she plays dominoes on the job. "Both my husband and I are lawyers," explained the mother of two. "So we spend a lot of time at the courthouse. To pass the time, we play dominoes against each other."

But at the club, Mápula doesn't partner with her husband. "To play with him at the courthouse, then to come here and play with him would just be too much. Besides, I just don't like to play with him." Pausing to let the laughter around the table subside, she explains, "I've got a short temper and so does he. It's too easy to get angry when I'm playing with him. So I don't play with him anymore."

Mápula clearly isn't accustomed to talking about herself and deflected the attention to an elderly man at the table. "This is Othon Castilleja. He played dominoes with Pancho Villa."

Uproarious laughter ensued. Castilleja smiles and takes a long drag on a cigarette held in shaky fingers. The Pancho Villa line is obviously a standing joke in the club. "I'm 78," he responded when asked.

"Come on," said a man at the next table. "Your birth certificate was signed by Porfirio Diaz." The reference to the dictator/president of Mexico from 1876 to 1911 causes another round of laughter to spread through the room.

Castilleja is the senior member of the club, though he's not too far above the average age, which Mápula jokingly says is "about 32." A glance around the room suggests that her estimate is 20 years too low. There are a couple of men in their mid-30s, a couple more in their 40s. The rest look over 50.

Once another game starts at Mápula's table, all joking -- indeed, all talking -- ceases. The visitor, not a dominoes player, stands watching, but the torrid pace of play makes it hard for him to figure out how the game is played. Reading the puzzlement in the visitor's face, a club member walks up and gives a play-by-play. "Did you see Othon tap the table when it was his turn? That's because he has no fours or twos to play." Laura and her partner know that. In fact, at this point of the game each of them has a good idea what each other has. So, Laura and her partner are trying to block Othon and his partner, and they're trying to do the same thing in return.

The round ends when Mápula's team runs out of pieces, meaning they're the winners. Castilleja's team has only one piece with a value of two. "So, Laura's team only got two points that round. The game ends when one team gets to 100."

Does any money ride on the game? A mustached man at the table smiles and nods. "But we're not talking about a lot of money. We use a three-two-one system of betting. You establish the price of the game, usually one, two, or three dollars. The game is to 100. And if the rival has less than 50 at the end of the game, they pay the price twice. If they make no points at all, they pay three times. If they have more than 50, they pay it only once."

Before another round, Mápula is asked why she's the only woman player around. She ponders the answer as she scrambles the dominoes on the tabletop. "I don't know," she shrugs, "but I like it."

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