The Art of Dominoes


A small rectangular block of wood or plastic used as a gaming object. It has a base, one or more pips, and blank or marked faces. It can be combined with other dominoes to form chains. A player plays a domino by placing it on the table edge to edge with another domino, positioning it so that the domino’s pips match the values of the other. The players continue to play dominoes in this fashion, each domino touching either end of a chain that has already been started and adding the value of the domino to the existing chain, until neither player can play any more. Dominoes are also referred to as bones, pieces, men, or cards.

Dominoes are usually stacked side by side in long lines, and when the first domino is tipped over it triggers the next domino to tip over and so on, resulting in a chain reaction with many dominoes falling simultaneously. Very complex domino art can be made by using curved lines, grids that form pictures when they fall, or 3D structures like towers and pyramids. There are also games that involve placing dominoes in a grid and then hitting them to cause them to jump to different squares of the grid.

For many people, the fun of dominoes is in creating these mind-blowing setups. Hevesh spends months perfecting each element of her creations, and she test-builds each section of the larger arrangement before putting it together. During the process, she films each section in slow motion to ensure that it works as intended.

Once she has a working model, Hevesh carefully arranges the dominoes and begins adding the smaller arrangements that will connect the sections. She makes sure that each of these works individually before moving on to the bigger, 3-D layouts. She often repeats these tests to ensure that the finished product will work as planned, and she carefully checks each piece of the installation for flaws.

The science behind these spectacular domino effects is fascinating. Stephen Morris, a physicist at the University of Toronto, says that standing a domino upright gives it potential energy based on its position. But when that domino falls, much of that potential energy is converted to kinetic energy—energy of motion—and that energy travels from the top of the first domino to the bottom of the last one, pushing it over.

This chain effect is what has given rise to the popular phrase, “domino effect,” which refers to a simple action leading to greater–sometimes catastrophic–consequences. For novelists, thinking about the way in which plot beats follow each other like dominoes can be a helpful exercise when trying to plan a story’s structure. The domino effect also reminds us of a crucial concept taught in the classic book Influence by Robert Cialdini: that if a person is persuaded to commit to an idea or goal, even in a minor way, they are more likely to honor their commitment.