I asked Mike Sobin (right), co-founder and former League Coordinator of the Austin 42 Club, to write a commentary about the history and function of the fast growing 42 club in Austin, Texas during his tenure there. Mike now resides in Kentucky, where he and his wife opened up a community acupuncture practice. He says he is "desperately trying to spread love of 42 in the Bluegrass State." I am thrilled that he agreed to share this narrative with the 42 community.
Thanks, Mike, for putting this together. I'm sure many of your friends in Austin and other Texas 42 players will enjoy reading this, too. - PP
Commentary By Mike Sobin
Learning to Play and Starting a League
I only have Texas roots as far as my parents getting stationed at Lackland AFB and Wilford Hall in San Antonio will carry me. That happened around the 6th grade but it wasn't for another 10 years or so in 2001-2002 that I started learning the game of 42. A group of us learned from a friend who played with his family for his whole life. So I don't come to the game with the same familial-historical perspective as a lot of players, but I do believe I was part of a great swell of people who eventually learned it and felt more people needed to play the game.
For a few years we played games often at home and grabbing whatever friends were available. After a while, some of us looked around and thought, “You know, there's probably 15-20 people we know that play this game a lot, why don't we try putting together a small round robin league and give it a little competitive edge.” And so the Austin 42 Club was created.
That first league season was pretty special. We allowed things to be kind of loose and allowed teams to play matches whenever and wherever but overall encouraged players to meet on Thursdays at a watering hole to play their match or find a pickup game or two. I distinctly remember playing in our championship match, losing the first round of 3, starting the second with a 2 mark walk-down and then not winning another hand the rest of the match. It was heartbreaking and awesome.
We were still learning a lot about the game early on. So we tried out the many iterations of strategy. And, of course, only learned about 50% of them. Since we had a lot of computer folks in our group we even had a small period where we tracked data on the games. Spoiler alert: new players like 4s, 5s and 6s and some players had an annoying tendency to go nello.
The Austin 42 Club in Action
Our league initiated a couple of changes that we felt were good for a league style of play. Teams were scheduled weekly best 2-out-of-3 matches and then earned points for matches so that your standing would be more than just win-loss records. You would get points for winning a round to 7 and points for winning the match overall, so even if you lost that night you could still take away a little something for the standings. We also rewarded winning games by more than 4 marks with what we termed “spreads” and you could even earn a double spread if you won 8-0. The real wrinkle we added for our league was that you had to win a round by 2 marks. 7-6 would not cut it. It was a controversial addition and everyone seemed to feel they always played extra frames, though the game scores showed otherwise. But it made for some excellent competition. Things get real tense when your game is tied 12-12.
We played that way, in isolation, for a season or two. Occasionally a stranger would see us playing and find their way into our group's orbit as they “never got to play with anyone except at Christmas and Thanksgiving.” Then another group caught wind of us and a few of their players thought they would give our league a try. And they had a blast. The next season rolled around and all of a sudden we had 12 new friends and 15 teams or so.
From there we established the league as a non-profit social club and had a board to sort of keep things organized and communication going. We went out and had a website built that teams could enter scores and keep the rankings up to date. Things really blossomed and we all collected at Ginny's Little Longhorn on Monday nights. I think I spent literally seven years of my life playing 42 every Monday evening. Some folks played with the same partners season in and season out. Some switched it up each and every season. And we all learned a lot.
The Big Show
Finally we caught wind of the Halletsville scene and the N42PA and started playing in tournaments. And that opened us up to the other 50% of the strategy. It also changed the equation quite a bit. We'd roll into Kolache Fest or the annual tournament with 7-8 teams from our club, and I don't think people knew what to make of some of us. We were seen as this recharge for a game that just wasn't being played as much outside of College Station and family get-togethers. The club kept growing, hosting tournaments, making tables and finally got to the point where other members started taking up leadership roles and handling the running of things and it was really inspiring to see this little seed keep growing.
It had some hard times as the group grew. Finding a location for 20 people is one thing. Finding a location for 60 people is another thing altogether. So we played in honky-tonks, college campus bars, bowling alleys, restaurants. Some worked, some did not. At the very least, it created a community of people that loved playing 42 and you could find a fun game anytime you wanted.
I had to move out of Texas a few years ago and in Kentucky I've only managed to scratch up a game or three, but I keep trying every now and then. The Austin 42 Club has come to some forks in the road since I've been gone largely over style of play, but it still provides an environment to play lots of 42 and I'm proud that I got to be a part of helping to start that.
A Controversy of Style
What I finally have come to accept is that organized, competitive play is a different beast than slinging games for fun with friends and family. You're there to have a good time and learn sure, but you also want to win—money, pride, whatever. So what is acceptable strategy, in my opinion, can change a lot at a competitive table. Some may not like it because they want everyone to feel welcome and some strategies become “aggressive” but you can't fault a person or team for that in a competitive atmosphere.
I dislike the negativity that surrounds the concept of “talking with your partner about bidding and strategies before the game.” Who isn't talking about the way they play the game to their partner (and others)? It's how you learn. And your partner needs you to be in the same ballpark to beat good teams, or at least know what ballpark you are running around in today.
I learned to off the 3-2 and hold the 3-6 when 3s are trump because I talked it out with people. I learned to play the 4-3 as an indicator to my partner when I have the 4-4 (or because I don't have the 4-4 if I'm reverse indicating, my preferred method) because partners and I debated it as strategy. I learned that 31 is a push-up bid from one partner and solid help from another partner because we talked about 42 strategies before and after we were partners. And at tournaments or in leagues where you go against teams that have played thousands of hands together, they've talked about it at some point too, they probably just forgot by now that they ever had the conversation. So a couple of players that have maybe played together 20 times before a competition have to talk before hand about strategies.
I've played with some explicit strategies that I definitely don't like anymore (I've got the 5-5, I think everyone flirts with that one at some point) and I've played with broader ones that I'll probably never let go of. But I think every experienced player will admit that every bid at a table means SOMETHING. Pass is something. 30 is something. 35 something too. +1 to the previous bid also something.
I'm of a group of players that figured out dominoes largely in the competitive environment. I'm not tied to a “calmer” game as the true form of it. Why is 30 an acceptable way to indicate a helping hand but 38 is not? Tradition, that's why. I can figure out pretty quickly that your 30 or 31 means help. Your 36 means strong trump suit with a 5 off. Whatever. You can also figure out that 38 probably means “Partner, let's roll.” So now you need a strategy to counter it. There are plenty out there. These systems are not foolproof. I've set plenty of players with whatever strategy they are or aren't using and they've set me.
It's a limited universe, these 28 rocks. A bid that indicates something like doubles (not particular ones, mind you) is frustrating because there are only 7 of them in the yard and you can start making some reasonable guesses as to what that player's got. And you think, “I can't win this if they have all those. Especially the 5-5, how can you beat anyone when they have the 5-5?” And you can't often, especially if they can get it for cheap. So the fact that they have bid it so astronomically high helps me out some. They probably would have won it at 31 or 35, but 39? 2 marks? These bids are also defensive in nature. Any good team can bid 35-36 and on up if necessary. Bidding high takes away their ability to outbid good hands your team does actually have and takes away their ability to “appropriately” share information.
That's why I think tournaments should be 2-out-of-3 because you need some moment to figure out your opponents or just give me total random draw for partners (of a certain skill level).
The Learning Curve
Overall, the game comes in stages. You spend the first 100 games figuring out what is trump. The next 200 games learning how to bid. The next 500 learning what is the best domino to play in the game at each moment. And the remaining 10 million honing all that so that you can start seeing a possible bid in every hand you're dealt. Everything becomes second nature and you can play fast and slow and even-tempered and keep as many things secret as possible. You get to the point where you don't even arrange your 7 bones. They just exist in your hand the way you turned them up. Play one game where you lay a rock before you blink and the next where you agonize for 30 seconds even though you only have one play you can legally make. They need to think you're crazy, it's 42.
(Some of) my simple bidding rules:
• If you have 4 blanks, aces or deuces you better bid somewhere along the way or you're gonna be mostly bored.
• If you have help (count or doubles) your partner probably wants to know it more often than not.
• If you have a lay down but are missing the 5-5, you'd better be bidding 41 or 2 marks.