Blind domino player relies on touch to compete at state level

Williamson County

LIBERTY HILL, Texas (KXAN) — A competitive domino player from Williamson County is climbing the ranks in Texas tournaments, despite not being able to see what his opponents are playing.

Mike Harrell first learned the domino game “42” as a child. When he picked it back up about six years ago, he had to relearn how to play, not because he forgot, but because he lost his sight in one eye at the age of 16, and in the other eye at age 28. 

Several surgeries to repair his detached retinas were ultimately unsuccessful, so he relies on touch, feeling the indentations, or “pips,” on his dominoes to know his hand.

“I use my thumbs and my fingers for my eyes, and it took me a little while,” he said. “I’m a little slower than people that can see — not a whole lot, but a little bit slower.”

Harrell, known in domino circles as “Blind” Mike, is a fixture at gatherings of players at the Liberty Hill Beer Market, where a dozen-or-so devotees of the game “42” meet every Tuesday to play and prepare for tournaments around the state.

At the Texas State Championship “42” Domino Tournament in Hallettsville earlier this month, Harrell and his partner, Gilbert Brook, placed ninth out of 126 teams, Harrell’s best finish in the tournament in his three appearances there.

“And he’s went one round deeper every year, so Mike is right in there with anybody that plays the game,” said friend and fellow player Terry Pogue. “Mike’s a very good player.”

The game “42” is a lot like the card game Spades. Partners sit across the table from one another and estimate how many tricks, or rounds, they can win with the dominoes in their hands. The number of pips on one end of the domino represents the trump for the hand — similar to the suit in spades — and the other end functions the same way as a card’s numerical value.

“It’s easy to learn how to play, but takes a lifetime to master,” Brook, Harrell’s tournament partner, said.

It’s a lot to keep track of for any player: who played what, which dominoes are still out there. Unlike sighted players, Harrell relies solely on his memory.

“God gave me the ability, I guess,” he said.

But the first time Harrell tried to play in the state tournament in Hallettsville, he said, he was told he couldn’t. “In the rules, it says you’re not supposed to touch your dominoes unless you play them,” Harrell explained.

Not long after, the Florence retiree met Pogue at a different “42” get-together and explained his predicament.

“We contacted Hallettsville and talked to them and they said, ‘Alright, we’ll give it a shot,'” Pogue said. “And since the day he started playing at Hallettsville, nobody’s had a problem with it whatsoever. It doesn’t change anything.”

Other players made small adjustments, like calling out the dominoes as they play them, but the flow of the game isn’t any different. Harrell is also allowed to ask for a verbal recap of what’s been played in any given hand, but in two hours watching at the Tuesday meetup, he didn’t ask once.

“We try to close our eyes and try to, you know, mirror what he does, and it’s amazing how fast he can play,” said Kole Kopnicky, another player who makes the trek to Liberty Hill every week.

Harrell also recently retired from the transmission shop that he owned in Florence, where he personally worked on transmissions until he left the business. “He’s an amazing man,” Candy Kyle, a Florence city council member and novice “42” player, said.

“The pride of Florence, Texas,” Kopnicky chimed in.

Harrell is preparing for the next tournament this Saturday in Seguin. He’s still learning, still working to master the game, but he’s already developed the right touch to compete with anyone.

“All I can do is play my best,” he said, “and we’ll just have to see what happens.”

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