The Domino Effect

Dominoes are little plastic squares with a single number or blank on each end, and they are the basis for many games of skill and chance. Stacking dominoes in long lines and then tipping them over creates impressive and even beautiful designs. When a domino is first tipped over, it transmits its energy to the next domino in line, which then tips over, and so on, until all the dominoes have fallen. This chain reaction is a key part of the popular phrase, “the domino effect,” in which one small action can lead to much larger—and oftentimes catastrophic—consequences.

Domino is a word that has a long and varied history, both as a game and an element of language. The game itself dates back to the 1300s, and the markings on a domino, known as pips, originally represented the results of throwing two six-sided dice. The term domino also has roots in both French and English. In English, it once denoted a hooded cloak worn together with a mask at carnival season or during a masquerade; the French sense probably reflects this use of the word.

In the early 1800s, a new type of domino set was invented in Italy and France, and these were soon used for positional games. In a typical game, a player in turn places a domino edge to edge against another so that the adjacent numbers match or form some specified total (e.g., twelve). The resulting chain, or line, of play then continues to increase in length.

Today, dominoes are most commonly used for positional games, but the possibilities for other types of games are endless. There are games where the players try to block their opponents, there are scoring games, and there are solitaire or trick-taking games, some of which were developed in order to circumvent religious prohibitions against playing cards.

Some of the most spectacular domino setups are created by professional domino artist Hevesh, whose YouTube channel features more than 2 million subscribers. She creates mind-blowing domino installations for movies, TV shows, and events—including an album launch for Katy Perry—and has worked on projects involving more than 300,000 dominoes. Hevesh’s largest creations take several nail-biting minutes to fall, but once the dominoes are in place, they obey the laws of physics.

When she starts a new project, Hevesh considers the purpose and theme, then brainstorms images or words that might be associated with it. Afterward, she takes out her huge collection of dominoes and begins laying them in different arrangements. She explains that she follows a kind of engineering-design process when creating her installations:

When determining the order of play, she typically turns the dominoes upside down on the table and mixes them up. She then draws a domino from the pile and begins by playing the highest-numbered one. This is a simple way to ensure that each player has the same opportunity to begin the chain reaction. If the winning hand is drawn, the winner of that hand selects the next domino to play, and so on until all the dominoes have been played.