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Learn to Play 42
Learn to Play 42 - A Game of Dominos

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OVERVIEW:  The domino game 42 is similar in strategy to the card game Bridge; however, it is not as complicated. Some folks say 42 (also called Texas 42) was conceived by a lad in east Texas because his parents would not let him play cards; others say 42 originated in Georgetown (central Texas). The most widely publicized story, however, says 42 started in Garner, Texas in 1887 (see Q/A30).  The rules discussed in this document reflect the game as played by and taught to me by friends in the south Texas town of Devine.

Forty-two (42) is played by four people.  A set of double-six dominos is required. Players sitting opposite each other are partners.  The dominos are shuffled face down.  Players draw seven (7) dominos apiece at random (shuffler draws last) and conceal the dot (pip) sides from each other.  Each player "bids his/her hand" in rotation.  The highest bidder may designate a trump suit and begins play by leading a domino.  Each player, in turn, must follow the suit led (if possible); otherwise he may play any domino in his hand.  The person playing the highest domino in the suit led takes the trick and leads the next domino. (If played, the highest trump takes any trick.)  This process continues until all 28 dominos are played, the bid is made, or the high bidder is "set."  Partners work together (without "talking across the table") to make their bid or to set the opposing team.

THE PLAYERS:   Who will be partners is determined by mutual agreement or by drawing dominos.  When drawing, the dominos are shuffled and each player draws a domino.  The player who draws the highest domino will be the scorekeeper, and the next highest domino holder will be his partner.  The two lowest domino holders will be the opposition partners.  In case of tie(s), those players each draw another domino to break the tie.  Partners sit opposite each other at the table.

THE SHUFFLE:   All 28 dominos are shuffled face-down.  The scorekeeper shuffles ("shakes") the dominos to start the game.  Thereafter, the shuffle rotates to the left (clockwise) after each "hand" has been played.  (The shuffler always draws his/her dominos last.)  If multiple games are played at one sitting, and the same partners are retained, then either of the previous winning player partners shuffle to begin a new game.

BIDDING:   The player to the left of the shuffler begins the bidding.  He may bid or pass (not bid).  The bid rotates left (clockwise) to the next player until all have had an opportunity to bid.  Each bid must be higher than any preceding bid(s).  If all players pass, the dominos are reshuffled by the next player and the bidding process repeated.

The minimum bid allowed is 30.  Bids higher than 41 must be in marks.  The first bid in marks can be one or two marks.  Subsequent players may bid one mark more than previously bid.   When one or more marks are bid, the high bid partners must take (win) all seven tricks.  If they lose one trick, they are set, and the opposing team partners get the mark(s) they bid.  (Dominos with count value have no special significance when the bid is one or more marks.)

Optional bidding variations

OPENING PLAY:  Following the bidding process, the high bidder declares a trump suit (or no trumps) and starts the hand by leading a domino.  Each player, in turn (clockwise), must follow the suit led if possible.  For example, if a  6-3 is led, sixes (high end of the domino) is the suit led unless the high bidder had declared treys (threes) the trump suit.  (See TRUMPS below for clarification.)   The player who wins the trick leads the next domino.  Scoring for each hand is recorded after all seven tricks are played or the high bidder is set (doesn't make his bid).

SCORING:  Each trick is worth one point.  Dominos divisible by five (5) are worth their face values, e.g., 6-4 or 4-6 is 10 points and 3-2 or 2-3 is five points.  (The other three count-dominos are 5-5, 5-0, and 4-1.)  There are seven (7) tricks in a hand and five dominos with a total "count" value of 35 points, hence the name 42 (7+35).  

Each hand won is scored as a mark (or marks bid).  If the bidding partner(s) do not make their bid (or higher), the opposition partners get the mark(s).  The partner team who score seven marks first wins the game.  Marks are recorded on paper by spelling "ALL."  (Each letter segment is a mark.)  Scoring by points is optional.

(See author's note at bottom of page.)

TRUMPS:   Trumps are like a suit in cards.  When declared, the trump suit outranks the other domino suits.  If a player gets the bid and calls "treys" (threes) trump, then the seven dominos with three dots (pips) on one end are trumps: 3-3 (double is highest), 3-6, 3-5, 3-4, 3-2 (a five-count), 3-1, 3-0 (lowest).  Doubles may also be declared a trump suit.  When a trump is led, each player must play a trump if he has one.  High trump wins any trick.  If a non-trump domino is led, and a player cannot follow suit, he may (does not have to) play a trump if he has one.

More on trumps

NO TRUMPS:  A player who gets the bid may elect no trump ("follow me").  When "follow me" is called, each player, in turn, plays the "suit" corresponding to the high end of the domino led in each trick.  The double in each suit is high.   A player may play any domino if he cannot follow suit.  In any case, whoever wins a trick leads the next domino.

STRATEGY:   If your bid is the highest, you have the advantage of calling trumps and leading the first domino.  The object is to bid wisely, make your bid, or help your partner make his bid.  If the opposing team partners get the bid, then you and your partner try to set them.  This is done by preventing them from making their bid, if possible, by "catching" (winning) tricks with "count."  Setting your opponents is an important acquired skill. (If the bid is in marks, you can set the opponents by taking any trick.)

For example, if an opposing player leads the double-five (fours are trump), and you do not have a five, you can play a four (trump) on your turn and win the trick (if nobody else "overtrumps" you).   By winning the trick, you and your partner get 11 points (the trick plus the ten-count), or 16 points if the five/blank (5-0) is also played in the same trick (or you trumped-in with the four/ace [4-1]).   This is sufficient to set a bid greater than 31 (42-11=31) or, with the additional five-count, set any bid (42-16=26).  

When trying to make your bid, normally, you should call in the trumps (or try to find out where they are) by leading them early in the hand.  You want to put count on tricks you and your partner take.  When possible, you may want to take the lead to allow your partner to get rid of (unload) "off" dominos which would otherwise jeopardize making the bid.  In this regard, knowing what to do comes with experience and playing the odds on domino distribution.  It helps to keep track of which dominos have been played and which ones are still held.  Sometimes luck and guesswork determine the outcome of a hand.

INDICATING:  Many 42 players interpret a 30-bid to mean that the bidder has doubles and/or count dominos that could help his partner make a higher bid. In other cases, however, a 30-bid simply means that the bidder thinks 30 is the highest bid he can make.

Some players also try to indicate to their partners which doubles they're holding by what they play when they are unable to follow the suit led.  The two most common practices are [1] playing the double itself to indicate they're holding the next highest domino in that suit, or [2] playing a domino whose high end indicates they're holding the double in that suit. (When more than one double is held, players usually indicate their highest doubles first if they can.)

Whereas the latter style for indicating doubles is frowned on by many "pure 42" advocates as being unwise, it is nonetheless commonly practiced and completely legal.  Realistically, these common indicating styles cannot be legislated out of the game.  Prearranged secret indicating and bidding signals between partners, however, are considered cheating.

"False indications" can occur, sometimes with undesirable results.  Playing count or some other domino is often more prudent than indicating.  Even without indicating, a bidder normally expects some kind of help from his partner, whether it's donating count or having an important double. In any 42 game, experience and observation skills are helpful to correctly interpret bidding practices and play action on the board.

See author's note at bottom of page and Fair Play Survey.

PROTOCOL:   Players agree on the rules before beginning a game.  The shuffler draws his dominos last.  The partner of the high bidder normally gathers in the dominos at the end of each trick they take.  The opposing partner team gathers their own tricks taken and keeps them separate from the other team's.  The tricks are stored face up, off to the side of the playing surface.  When one or more marks are bid, the dominos are stacked so only the last two tricks can be viewed (dot sides).  (This makes domino tracking more dependent on players' memories.)

INDISCRETIONS:   When a player plays out of turn or reneges (fails to follow suit when able), the hand is ended and the opposition partners get the mark(s). Once a domino has been played, it cannot be retrieved (taken back). "Talking across the table" about the hand in play is strictly prohibited. (Social chitchat is okay.)  See Q&As 75, 74, 52, et al, for more.

SAMPLE HAND (with indicating):  Nancy, Steve, Will and Ella are from Austin.  They play 42 every Friday night.  Nancy shuffles, and each draws seven dominos (Nancy last).  Ella bids first.




Domino faces exposed
for demo purposes only
Bidding Poll Results         Polling Analyses:  Ella  Steve  Will  Nancy

Here's how the players could play the above hand after Nancy/Steve got the bid (aces trump, indicating demonstrated):

      D O M I N O S   P L A Y E D    POINTS

(Bid 32)
(Bid 30)
(Bid 31)
(Takes trick)
(Takes trick)
(Takes trick)
(Takes trick)
(Takes trick)
(Takes trick)
(Takes trick)
. . .
Nancy/Steve get a mark on the score pad, and Ella shuffles ("shakes") the dominos for the next hand.

Alternate sample hands with no indicating:   Proft   Roberson

GAME VARIATIONS:  Non-tournament 42 may be played with variations not sanctioned by the National 42 Players Association (N42PA). For example, my house rules allow a bid to be twice as many marks as a previous high bid in marks. The forced bid Nel-O option is also popular among social players who enjoy a little twist in the game and don't like to reshuffle every time everybody passes:

GOING LOW (Nel-O): When the last player in the bidding process (the domino shuffler) has the bid "dropped" on him (everyone before him passed), he has to bid at least 30. He also has the option of bidding one or two marks "low."  If he goes low, there are no trumps, his partner does not play (turns his dominos face-down), and he tries to take no tricks.  He begins play by leading a low domino and hoping one of the opposing players takes the trick (and the lead).  Doubles are a suit of their own.  If a double is led, then doubles have to be played by the opposition if they have any.  If he can stay out of the lead (take no tricks) for the remainder of the hand, he makes his bid.  If, however, he takes one trick, the hand is ended, and the opposition partners get what he bid.  Count-dominos have no special significance in Nel-O.

Forty-two (42) may also be played with other variations not discussed in this document, e.g., Plunge or Splash (bid four [or two] marks if four [or three] doubles held; partner calls trump and leads), Sevens, and Nel-O variations.  Three-handed 42 (Moon) and six/eight-handed 42 (84 and 88) can also be played. More information is available via the following button:

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Last Update: 14 Nov 2018Click for all pages at this site ↓

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© Paul Proft, 1997-2018

Author's note:  Follow these links for more information on indicating, the forced bid Nel-O (going low) option, and scoring by points: Q/A2 (Nel-O option), Q/A23 (indicating), and Q/A27 (scoring by points).  Ready to take a quiz?  Go to Home Page for site search and more 42 info.  - Paul Proft


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