‘Sometimes my parents call and wonder when I’m going to get a job. I guess I should be looking for one, get married, have a dog and a house.’ : The Man Who Would Be Domino King

<i> Wharton is a Los Angeles free-lance writer. </i>

Bob (Domino) Speca, at age 28, is living the life of a 16-year-old.

He becomes visibly excited discussing miniature golf and bowling. He still follows the same rock groups he listened to in junior high school. The name of Speca’s favorite band, Kansas, is tattooed on his right foot.

This is a man who holds a degree in astronomy and, to the dismay of his parents, has devoted his life to playing with dominoes.


Speca stands them side by side, tens of thousands of dominoes in long rows of intricate patterns. He knocks the first one over and watches the rest tumble in succession. “Domino-toppling,” Speca calls it.

“There is the thrill of not knowing if they are all going to fall,” he said.

When they do all fall, Speca, the self-proclaimed “Domino Wizard,” is known to exult in victory, head back, arms thrust upward.

TV, Movie Appearances

Speca and his dominoes are famous. They have appeared in a Richard Pryor movie, on the “Tonight Show” and in more television commercials than you can shake a residual check at. They command $1,700 a day, plus expenses, for appearances at shopping malls and conventions.

No one gets rich toppling dominoes; the work isn’t steady. But, after 10 years as probably the world’s only professional domino wizard, Speca is content with a life of occasional paychecks, sleeping late and goofing around.

“I just had my 10-year high school reunion and everyone was really envious of my life style,” Speca said. “They all wanted to be 16 again. That’s what I’m doing--I’m extending my childhood.”


There is a story Speca has told a thousand times. It takes place at Marple Newton High School in Broomall, Pa., just outside Philadelphia. Mr. Dobransky, a 10th-grade math teacher, was lecturing on the math induction theory. Mr. Dobransky compared the theory to a row of falling dominoes. An inspired Speca went out that afternoon and bought two boxes of dominoes. He set them up, 112 in a line, across the dining room table. And he pushed the first one over.

“Watching them fall was hypnotic, something I can’t explain,” Speca wrote in his 1979 book, “The Great Falling Domino Book.” He said recently, “It was so appealing. I guess I got carried away.”

Boxes of dominoes became crates of dominoes. Speca gave shows for interested neighbors in the basement. Local newspapers wrote stories about the domino wizard. A short time later, just before his high school graduation, Speca appeared on the “Tonight Show.”

“It was a dream come true,” he said.

Guinness Record

At that time, Speca was the world’s only known domino toppler. The Guinness Book of World Records created an entry in its 1976 edition to include Speca’s record of 11,111 (“Eleven is my lucky number,” he said.).

The Japanese and English have recently gotten into the game, spending big money to set new records. In the six years since Speca held his last record at 97,500, the mark has been pushed to 169,000.

“It costs so much money to break the record,” Speca mused. “It used to take a week to set up enough dominoes. Now it would take three months on my hands and knees. And nobody pays you for breaking the record. They pay you for commercials and shopping malls.”

Speca insists that he still holds the underwater record--2,000 bricks toppled on the bottom of a swimming pool. That record is not listed in the Guinness book. Still, Speca is not bitter about losing his place at the top. He said he sees himself as the Evel Knievel of dominoes.

‘People Remember Me’

“Even when Evel Knievel didn’t have the record, people remembered him,” Speca said. “People remember me from the ‘Tonight Show’ and from commercials, even though I don’t have the record.”

And Speca has adjusted nicely to his career as a professional domino wizard. The game has been kind to him and he hopes he can keep it going, at least a little longer.

He talks of developing a line of musical dominoes--dominoes with varying metal backs that sound different notes when toppled. He has also thought of hiring himself out to do colored-domino portraits of people.

“I’m not sure there’s a market for that,” he allows. “Maybe rich, eccentric people.”

Asked if he might someday turn to astronomy, the career for which he was trained at Pennsylvania State University, Speca thinks for a moment, rubs his chin and says probably not. For now, he will wait for the next shopping mall appearance or commercial.

“It scares you when you don’t work for months at a time,” he said. “But, if it really comes down to it, I could always get a job at McDonald’s. It’s $3.50 an hour. I could live on that.

“Sometimes my parents call and wonder when I’m going to get a job. I guess I should be looking for one, get married, have a dog and a house,” he said. “But I’m trying to stay away from the 9-to-5 thing.”

The domino wizard is living in a small, sparse Ventura apartment for the winter. He likes to come west from his home in Philadelphia every year at this time. The warm weather suits him. So do the recreational pleasures.

“There’s the biggest miniature golf course up the street,” Speca said. “There’s a castle you putt into that’s as big as this apartment. I couldn’t believe it. California does everything so grandiose.”

The bowling league meets every Monday night. Speca goes to movies and rock concerts and watches a lot of television.

“When I meet people who don’t own a TV because they say they don’t like television . . . I don’t understand,” he said. “I’ve always wondered about these people. Are they missing an aspect of life that’s important?”

New Gimmicks

And Speca is always looking to invent new domino gimmicks. He has built a number of contraptions for domino toppling--odd-looking structures on which dominoes topple uphill in spirals or leap off vaults only to start another row of dominoes falling. One construction, which Speca named the “Bahama Tom Inverted Cascade Slide for Life,” is a stepladder of levels up which dominoes fall before sending a special “Geronimo Domino” sliding down a wire into the next domino on the floor.

The early evenings are reserved for another of Speca’s hobbies. He trains for the triathlon.

The triathlon is a race in which competitors swim 2.4 miles in the ocean, towel off, grab a bicycle and ride 112 miles, hop off, change shoes and run 26.4 miles. All in one day.

Someone who spends as much time with dominoes as Speca does might not be expected to prefer such a rigorous pastime. But perhaps Bob Speca as the triathlete reveals as much of the little boy in him as does anything else.

Daily Workouts

A schoolboy athlete and swimmer at the University of Pennsylvania, Speca works out daily. He has competed in triathlons all around the world, including Hawaii’s well-known “Ironman Competition.”

Speca boasts that he is in the best shape of his life. But in the eyes there is none of the fierceness of a competitor. Speca concedes that he is not as serious about winning as are many of those he races against.

“Are you any good at jigsaw puzzles?” he blurted out suddenly.

He got up from the couch and moved toward a folding card table in the corner of the living room.

“I’m usually pretty good at them, but this one is really tough,” he said.

The puzzle lay half-finished on the table. It was a picture of animal crackers. After staring at the pieces for a moment, Speca straightened up and turned away.