Cigars & Dominos in Little Havana

Little Havana is a mecca for aficionados of puros (cigars) and the ancient game of dominos. It’s the land of maduros, torpedos, robustos, toros — and double-nines.

Here, a man wearing a guayabera is quite likely to sport a cigar (or two) in his shirt pocket, and as many as four cigar stores can be found on a single block.

Cigars and dominos.

Local Traditions: Cigars & Dominos

Smoking a cigar is as much a local pastime as drinking cafe cubano and playing dominos. Cigars and dominos go together. Cigar stores often have a domino table, and at domino games (but not in Domino Park, where smoking is prohibited), often at least one person is chewing on a cigar. Although cigars and dominos are especially popular among men, women partake in these pastimes as well.

New smokers are quickly schooled in the art of lighting up, savoring the tobacco’s unique taste and letting the ash grow long. Smoking a cigar often takes more than an hour, so cigar lounges are a place for conversation, meeting friends, and building business relationships.

Cigars play a role in local Afro-Caribbean spiritual traditions, too. Learn more about these traditions on my Little Havana Mystical Mysteries Tour! All of our Little Havana tours offer fascinating details about the history of cigars and cigar smoking.

Looking for “Real” Cuban Cigars?

The “regulars” at a local cigar shop/lounge–who have moved just outside to the sidewalk.

Please know that it is illegal in the U.S. to sell cigars made in Cuba. The cigars sold in our local establishments include those made in local cigar factories as well as those rolled in countries such as Nicaragua, Honduras and the Dominican Republic.

The tobacco for these cigars is NOT from Cuba, but local manufacturers will tell you that their tobacco is from Cuban seed. When cigar manufacturers and tobacco farmers left Cuba, they often smuggled tobacco seeds with them. These seeds were then cultivated with the same processes they had used back in Cuba, but in different soil. Most of the cigar rollers you will see here in Little Havana are Cuban-born, and have many years of cigar-rolling experience.

Do not underestimate the quality of our cigars! I’ve heard first-hand from visiting cigar snobs who say that certain Little Havana cigar brands they’ve tried are at least as good (if not better than) genuine Cuban cigars.

Local Cigar Manufacturers & Stores

A local cigar roller at work putting on the cap.

Each tabacalero (tobacconist) has a fascinating history to share, and each Little Havana tobacco store tempts customers with its own unique ambience and specialty. We suggest you visit a number of different places to truly understand local cigar culture.

Cigar Factories

A genuine cigar factory is a site where most if not all cigars are rolled by hand and manufactured locally. Little Havana used to have numerous factories, but now most cigars sold in Little Havana are rolled by workers in other countries. Cigar factories are great places to watch the process of cigar rolling.

Cigar Lounges/Stores

A Little Havana cigar lounge.

A popular place to smoke a cigar is a cigar lounge. These also function as stores, with walk-in humidors and often a large selection of various brands (or their own brand). Our cigar lounges offer various benefits to smokers, like comfortable sofas, rocking chairs, big-screen TVs, occasional live music, alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks (or the ability to bring your own alcohol into the shop), Cuban coffee.

Yet the #1 benefit of the cigar lounge is the conversation. In a cigar lounge, you’ll often find both locals and visitors mingling together, discussing anything from politics to relationship issues to sports. Plus, our local cigar aficionados will be very happy to show you their favorite cigars, and store employees can help you find the cigar that you may be looking to purchase for yourself or as a gift.

Many cigar stores now have one or two rollers, but this does not indicate that all cigars in the shop are rolled locally.

Cigar Cultural Spaces

What I call a cigar cultural space is a place that may sell cigars, or serve as a place to smoke cigars, but also hosts other kinds of activities on a regular basis. For instance, in some cigar shops you’ll find domino games taking place, or regular musical and cultural events. In one local shop, a rumba used to take place every month.

Smoking is dangerous to your health, so if you choose to smoke (and are of the legal age to do so), please recognize the health risks involved.

Dominos

Playing Dominoes at Domino Park from TheNewTropic on Vimeo.

In Little Havana, you usually hear a domino game before you see it. The game has its own special rhythm, just like Cuban music, animated with the voices of players. You can get a sense of this rhythm in the video above, in which I explain the game to a reporter from the Miami publication The New Tropic.

There’s the cool slap of fichas (tiles), one by one, as each player claims a spot. There’s the knock of a fist when there’s no number to be played.  The click-slide-and-shuffle of fichas before a new round: ¡¡Agua!!

Domino playing outside Domino Park.

But it’s the players themselves you’ll hear first! In Cuban Spanish and slang, they’ll be slinging comments about the game itself — or the latest beisball scores. They’ll discuss recent news, call out tramposos (cheaters), and sometimes dive into intense debates. If you understand Spanish, you’ll enjoy witnessing some of these debates, which often seem more about the fun of the “drama” of debate than about the topic at hand.

In the legendary Domino Park on Calle Ocho (officially called Maximo Gomez Park), players are often (but not exclusively) older Cuban men in traditional pressed linen guayabera shirts or simple T-shirts. But you’ll see women playing, too. Keep in mind that no gambling is allowed.

Little Havana’s Domino Park isn’t the only place you’ll find a domino game, though. Games also take place in gathering spots like cigar stores, art galleries, backyards and patios, parking lots and even sidewalks during events like Viernes Culturales. In other places you might see kids and younger adults participating, and more women, too.

If the game is played away from home, you’ll probably find a half-full Styrofoam cup of cafe cubano (a colada) sitting on a corner of the table, brought by someone who handed out tiny plastic cups and shared the coffee with other players. In private homes, the coffee is commonly served in ceramic demitasse cups.

What is Double-Nine (Cuban-Style) Dominos & How Is It Played?

Regulars from Domino Park playing in Domino Plaza.

“Bota la gorda!”

That’s the advice that Jorge, tells me (Corinna Moebius) when I sit down to play with the fellas in Little Havana’s famous Domino Park. Literally, he’s saying “throw away the fat one”: get rid of the highest numbered domino tile in your hand.

I’m proud to say that I’ve gotten pretty good at playing dominos, but I haven’t achieved the highest level by far. Jorge says the highest level is telepatía — communicating telepathically with your domino partner!

Double-nine dominos, also referred to as Cuban dominos, uses a 55-piece set and is played by four people: two sets of two partners. Double-nine dominos include nine-point tiles (fichas). Most other domino sets only go as high as six-point tiles.

Double-nine dominos are the preferred style for nearly all of Cuba (double-six is popular in parts of Eastern Cuba). Miami Cubans continue this tradition.

The game starts with one or two of the players shuffling the tiles on the table, face down (“dar agua” — to give water). Each person at the table draws his or her own ten tiles; the remaining 15 are set aside.

Players organize their tiles (their “hand”) vertically along the base of their domino holder. The classic domino table has built-in domino holder or groove on each edge, allowing each player to keep his or her “hand” upright. Any table will do as long as it’s big enough and players can protect their hand from the prying eyes of the other players.

Players then take a turn picking a ficha from the remaining 15 to determine who goes first (the person with the highest number). After players return these fichas to the extras pile, the first player starts the round by putting down his or her highest double-numbered domino (a double-nine if they have it).  Then, slap by slap, tiles to the table, the game continues as with usual domino games.

When calculating which ficha to put down, players consider which one will aid their partner, block a move by the next player, or use probability to their favor. Sometimes team members use code words or gestures to communicate with each other. Luck is always a key part of the game.

Players continue playing rounds of the game until one team reaches 100 points (sometimes 150 or 200 points). The team that wins two of the three games wins the match.

Join In!

Want to learn how to play Cuban-style dominos? If you show a genuine interest, regulars may give you a chance to join them at their table (it will help if you know Spanish), but this is not likely to happen in Domino Park. You are more likely to find an opportunity in one of our cigar stores or cultural spaces. Start your education by watching.

Although Domino Park is only open for seniors, people of all ages can participate at most of the occasional domino competitions that take place in the park.

Many types of local shops sell double-nine domino sets, from souvenir stores to dollar stores to music stores. Some places sell domino holders that are decorated by local artists.

A Word About Chess

Chess, also played in Domino Park, is another skill that elders seek to pass on to the younger generation. Read an article about two students at Riverside Elementary (in East Little Havana) who won a national chess championship. We’re very proud of them.

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