One for Chips


  1. An activity involving physical exertion and skill in which an individual or team competes against another or others for entertainment.


  1. A form of competitive activity or sport played according to rules.
  2. An activity that one engages in for amusement.

In parts of the far North West of England there is a long standing competitive tradition that is slowly disappearing as people pass away or retire from the fray. The history of dominoes can be traced back to 12th Century China and maybe even before, but the game as played in the UK was probably introduced in the early 18th century by the French and from the basic “chip out” game several variations soon developed.

As recently as 1976 there were, in one small area of Cumbria alone, as many as 72 teams of six players (around 700 people with reserves), split into 6 divisions, playing the variation called 5’s & 3’s competitively every Tuesday throughout the winter. It was not uncommon for country pubs, especially those in farming communities, to have four tables going on Sunday afternoons, with players staking small amounts of cash on their ability to beat others. These were the “lock in” days. Farmers would traditionally get their jobs done on a Sunday morning, eat an early roast dinner and then repair to the local hostelry to start drinking and playing just before “closing” time. A game could always be had on Friday nights, with Saturdays (reserved for wives and girlfriends) probably the only night when a determined person couldn’t drum up a four.

The sport of 5’s & 3’s requires a level of skill and an element of luck to be able to play effectively. It can be played as singles but by far the most popular version is played by opposing pairs. League teams consist of six players who play the opposition in a best of 3 format across 3 rounds on each of 3 tables, a total of 27 games. There can never be a draw.  The rules of play are quite simple but the nuances and the possibilities during any single round are deceptive in their complexity. From a standard pack of 6-6 dominoes, of which there are 28, each player draws 6 dominoes, there are over 375,000 possible combinations of hand, the fact that 4 dominos remain “sleeping” adds to the random nature of each hand. The aim of the game is to match the end numbers on each tile to score points, up to an exact total of 61, in multiples of 3 and 5. Prior to commencing play a draw is made from the pack to ascertain who plays first, each player then follows in turn, moving around the board in a clockwise direction. The maximum number of points that can be scored by the first player is 4 and this can only be done by playing the 6-6 (3×4=12), the next player, if they have the 6-3, can score 8 points (3×5=15, 5×3=15).  I do not intend to go further into the actual game play (Hurrah I hear some of you cry), the best way to find out more is to try it but I can and will answer questions if I see them posted.
The luck of the sport is in the dominoes each player draws, the skills are in playing them in the most effective manner and the understanding required to respond in the best way to both the play of one’s partner and the counter play of opponents. This combination is what makes 5’s & 3’s the great sport that it is.

The title of this article refers to the term used when the last domino of either pair is played, when any points scored are increased by “one for chips”. In a game played just this week one pair scored 8 points with their final domino, plus one for chips, which took them into the winning hole on the board. This is not a common occurrence.
The waning of popularity of this pastime is somewhat symptomatic of great changes in our society. When I first started to play I was 24 years old and many of those that played in the same league were of a similar age to me. There were a few younger players and a wide range of all ages up to people in their 70’s and 80’s. Around 80% would be male but there has always been, and still is, a proportion of females in the sport. The competition was often intense, but, as in Rugby League, once the serious business was over the “crack” would begin, with people of all ages talking, telling tales (often tall ones) and jokes and discussing politics and local issues. This often went on for an hour or two before the travelling teams left to return to their homes, either in the town or the surrounding villages.

This season there are 23 teams in 3 divisions (about 200 signed up players in total). At 64 I will be one of the youngest regular players, although many are of a similar age to me, which makes me think things will carry on for some time. It is obvious though that without young blood competitive 5’s & 3’s will become a thing of the past once my generation is gone.

There are many reasons that can be cited for the decline in this type of activity, the closure of pubs especially in rural areas, the smoking ban, the pace of “modern” life, the move away from the agrarian rural economy, the rise of social media and on line gaming have all contributed.

The real losers in this are the younger generation, socialising of all types has polarised, pubs, especially in towns are now simply drinking houses. Older people don’t frequent them for obvious reasons. Many youngsters wouldn’t be seen dead having a couple of drinks in their local village pub and they certainly wouldn’t want their peers to think they were playing “old fogies” games.

Many young people in rural communities rarely go out in the week (my local closes 2 nights a week); they have interactive games to play, Facebook, Twatter and other similar sites to amuse them and many of them, due in no small part to how they have been brought up and the messages they are exposed to actually see my generation as old fashioned and behind the times.  They have no desire, as I did at their age, to listen to and learn from those older members of their communities that have the wisdom of experience to offer.

We all know that the world has to change and that “progress” is inevitable but I do believe that with the passing of the immediate post war generation the level of change will accelerate beyond where it now is and many sedate, some would say parochial, pastimes will be lost to society and society will be all the poorer for it.

Coloniescross ©