The View from the (Japanese) Bridge
The Case for Freedom
Picture the scene - 10:20pm in the lounge bar of the Kemble Brewery Inn. Over a copper-topped table in the corner, six slightly-the-worse-for-wear sad batchelor types are engaged in what seems to be a quiet social game of doms. All of a sudden, without warning voices are raised, derisive laughter sears across the bar, and doms fall to the floor - a sure sign that somebody (in all probability Beer Monster "That's Richard Actually" Smith, or Young Fogey Moore, lets be honest here) has tried to build a Japanese Bridge. Next to rearranging the doms, the Japanese Bridge problem remains the most sensitive issue on the modern game - as contraversial in its small way as Bodyline bowling in the 1932-3 Ashes series. Let us examine the bridge more closely.
First of all, dear reader, you are no doubt gagging to know what a Japanese Bridge is - what is it that can raise the tempers of mellow characters who would not normally be out of place in today's Civil Service to such a frenzied pitch?
There sometimes comes a point in the noble game, especially when playing in a restricted space (like the average pub table) where the doms have doubled back on themselves and the line approaches previously played doms (usually at a right angle. If the line is to continue, a Japanese bridge is one option - laying the new doms across the top of the previously played doms to form a quaint (or infuriating) little bridge over the old line. The traditional method of laying is one dom against one edge of the "bridged" dom, the other against the other edge, hopefully the two bridge doms meeting in the middle.
To some players, the Japanese Bridge is an abomination. To them the beauty of the game lies in its elegant right angled, two-dimensional patters and the challenge of making the most complex patterns possible without reaching a point where a line crosses itself. They argue that the bridge is a monstrosity defiling the purity of the board, a cause of confusion to the players, and worst of all - untraditional. And here we have the crux of it. But! Let us look at a sample of source materials for the history of doms and see what we get......
History (nothing to do with Michael Jackson)
In the first classic book on the art of doms The stork ascends over the painted wood by the ancient Chinese master Li Po Suk Ten, we read that many players used the number of bridges they could create as a measure of how skilful they were. He says "the neophyte should spend many hours manipulating the tiles on the board until he has built enough bridges to take him to manhood. There he will find true enlightenment and a take away after closing time." The bridge on the famous Willow Pattern is in fact a representation of such an arrangement of dominoes, and was directly lifted from an illustration from Ten's book. The painter committed suicide (appropriately enough by choking himself on a domino) after his dishonourable act was discovered. Later texts from the Middle East cite bridges "spanning the dominoes below as Allah's love and guidance spans all mankind like a rainbow". There is clearly long standing precedent for the bridge.
The practice in Europe appears to have died out in the Dark Ages. Texts from the Benedict Beuern Monastery describe a fight in a tavern caused by the insertion of a Japanese Bridge deemed unnecessary by other players. The brawl leads to drinks being spilled and the players are barred. Carl Orff suprisingly chose not to set this text in the second part of his epoch making work Carmina Burana, though he had clearly considered it - sketches exist of a setting for the male chorus, which used the counter tenor soloist (used only for the lament of the roasting swan in the work as it is now sung) as the player being beaten up. Quite right too.
The Renaissance brought with it a brief resurgence of interest in the bridge, chiefly in the Italian city states run by families wealthy enough to play the game with large stone dominoes measuring 8 feet by 4, moved by small armies of servants. The design for the bridges across the river Windrush in Bourton-on-the-Water is based upon bridges occuring in the Borgia's gardens - left over from games of that period. Sadly however, apart from some Victorian interest from a handful of prominent civil engineers in building Japanese Viaducts (see McGonagall's epic poem O bridge of Doms over the silvery Tay, commemorating the All-Scotland Open Domino Tournament disaster held on the Tay Bridge - high winds hurled doms at such high speed they became like bullets, killing many players and spectators. The whole thing was hushed up, to the extent that the bridge was deliberately weakened and an old locomotive and carriages pushed off it to make it look like a train crash caused by structural failure), the bridge seems to have all but died out since then.
The dilemma for the modern player....
Having demolished any argument that the bridge is in some way "untraditional", there is still the problem of the ethics of playing Japanese Bridges. This is of course part of the wider problem of whether or not doms should be touching and whether the angles in the game should be perfect right angles.
Looking at the game as it is played in the midland and northern heartlands, the doms hardly ever touch at all. In Wigan, for example, the main concern of local players is whether or not the opponents are "tic-tacking" - signalling to a partner the doms they hold or desire to be played. The arrangement of the doms is of secondary importance so long as the progression is readily identifiable. In the largely West Indian playing communities of Derby, Leicester and even as far across as Wolverhampton, the doms are slammed down onto the table with such force that it is impractical to expect the tiles to be touching. Indeed, to the untrained eye, it can be virtually impossible to discern which doms form the ends of the line. I therefore would argue that it is closer to the spirit of the game, both ancient and modern, to accept doms not touching, or forming 90 °angles.
There are those who, when seeing a Japanese Bridge about to be built, attempt to subvert this by taking it upon themselves to re-arrange the doms already played in order to frustrate the would-be builder. This outrageous behaviour is entirely contrary to one of the most fundamental and sacrosanct of unwritten rules - one player does not interfere with another player's dom placing. The player whose turn it is has the inalienable right to place their domino at whichever active end of the line they wish, and providing that the dom is legal, that the spots are visible to all players, and that the placing is not dangerous (i.e. too near a full pint, especially mine thank you very much) the dom rests for the duration of the hand. The only occasion on which it is reasonable to permit interference with the emerging pattern is when there is clear unused space elsewhere on the table and the doms are dangerously and confusingly congested where they are. (The ethical and moral dilemas of domino moving will be covered in depth in an article soon to be published here - Ed)
I believe that the only conclusion that a fair minded, independent person with the best interests of the game at heart can come to is this: it is entirely within the spirit of the game to allow players full freedom of expression as to the placing of their doms. In the game, the dom becomes an extension of the player's personality - player and dom become one. The Japanese Bridge is just one manifestation of such a transformation. It is a natural extension of the liberated, refreshing way the game is, and has been played elsewhere and should be welcomed, and those who play the Bridge are the inheritors of the original spirit of the beautiful game. May they wear lightly the mantle of responsibility handed down.