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Friday, January 30, 2015

Is your game going to the dogs?

I recently received an e-mail from a frustrated player.  Her complaint?  Even though she played with experienced players, they hardly ever finished a game in under an hour.  Why?  Distraction, distraction, distraction.  She asked for advice, rules of etiquette - how much "social" and how much "playing"; how to focus the game without being an object of derision.

She was not talking about pace.  Sometimes it is clear that there is one player who just plays slowly to the detriment of the other players.  No matter how many times you tell her to play a little faster, she can't.  It is out of her control and eventually she is not invited back.  But there is a more insidious game-buster out there, and its name is distraction.

Tell me if this is familiar:

You're hot and heavy into the game, maybe you are set, you are checking to see if your tiles are out when suddenly "Tara's Theme" from Gone With The Wind starts playing loudly seemingly out of nowhere.  "That's my daughter," says player A, as she whips her cell phone out of her bra.  "Hi, honey," she says, while you wait for her to pick a tile.  "Did you make the meat loaf the way I told you?"  She then proceeds to talk for several minutes, oblivious to the other players glaring.  Eventually player B gets up to get some chocolate covered almonds.  Player C says, "Might as well go to the bathroom," and you, player D, silently fume.  By the time the game resumes no one remembers whose turn it was and your great hand has gone down the drain.

When I was in high school I was astonished to learn (bear with me, this is relevant) that there were people who studied with the radio on.  How could they?  I cannot concentrate on my Kindle if I hear the slightest bit of music leaking from someone's headphones on the subway.  People differ and, like anything else in life, if an experience is going to be shared to everyone's satisfaction, differences must be respected and boundaries set.  Much like the decision whether to play 13 tiles no hot wall or pay double when you throw double, deciding when to socialize and when to play should be a rule that is agreed upon by all.

Our weekly game normally is 10 people, and it's not as if we don't like to talk.  But over time our chatting has ceased during the game and is reserved for times when no one's concentration will be disrupted.  We chat before we start playing; when the tiles are being mixed, after a game ends.  We take a dinner break and talk to our heart's content.   We don't turn our phones off (which makes for interesting background noise) but we return calls when we are out and take care of other business. When the game is going on no one would think about discussing the Oscars or taking out pictures of the grandkids.  (Although I do admit to wanting to do this, I wait until the game is over).  It's not hard to do, but the key is getting everyone to make the effort until it becomes second nature.  I mean, after all, if you are yapping away, you are probably making terrible passes, throwing your own tiles and having no clue what people are set for.  This makes the game unchallenging for someone who really wants to play.  Did you really just pass two soaps and a 2 dot?  Why are you playing at all?

This is not to say there needs to be mahjongg police.  A few kvetches about your impossible hand or an exhortation to the joker fairy are of course exempt.  It is the irrelevant, extraneous non-mahj related chit-chat of which I speak, the kind that starts in the space between when a player picks and takes a moment to decide what to discard, the kind that throws the game off track.

So to my e-mailer, who shall remain anonymous, I feel your pain.  It is excruciating to try and play while others are busy doing other things.  You are essentially playing by yourself.  All you can do is ask them to try to refrain, and hope they have enough respect for you and for the Game of Mahjongg to do so.  Otherwise, your game has gone to the dogs, and your only option is to find another game and socialize with these ladies in another context.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Tales from the Tournament

Last Sunday I attended a tournament.  I hadn't been to one in awhile, but what better way to spend the first day of winter than sitting around playing mahjongg, especially in a well-run tournament with familiar faces.  Of course one doesn't know ahead of time how one will be feeling the day of, and last Sunday happened to be Day 7 of my pre-winter not-so-common cold.  So I had a bit of laryngitis and as a result brought along some accoutrements that would allow me to play in comfort.  These included a padded cushion, a cup holder, cough drops, tea with lemon and a small bottle of Purell.  I didn't expect anyone to have a problem with it.

Most people didn't.  There were 13 tables.  I started at 5 West and moved up two tables as west does, ending round 8 at table 6.  Round one was a bust until the fourth game when I made the NN SSS 11 111 1111 hand.  East gave me 25 points, but as I was bringing the score sheet up (West's job) I realized it was a 30 point hand.  Fortunately it was corrected, no harm done.  "Sometimes that five points makes the difference," I said, knowing that to be true.  

Then, round two, I made The Big Hand!  Not bad for a sick girl.  I got $20, 75 points and started feeling pretty good.  So I was a little cocky when I got to round three.  "Whaddya, movin' in?" said East when she got a load of my cushion and cup holder.  I was a little taken aback, but proceeded to make myself comfortable when South put her hand over her mouth and said to East in an exaggerated whisper, "I bet you that one is slow," referring to me.  Did she really think I couldn't hear her?  Well, I got up to get a cup of tea.  "Hey, we're all ready," said North.  I pretended I didn't hear.  I sat down to play, put the teacup on the cup holder, which promptly fell all over the floor.  Whoops.  Oh, well.  I managed to win two games, even after calling for a 3 dot which East, having picked before North discarded, said, "too late, I racked it."  I then picked three jokers in a row, threw out all my 3 dots and called for mahj when East threw a 6 crak.  So there.

The next few rounds were uneventful.  What's interesting about a tournament is that the sets are as varied as the personalities.  I played with the nicest set I ever saw, pistachio-colored tiles:
And then I played with a set that gave me the biggest headache - the "mazel-tov" set.  
Somehow I thought the Star of David was a joker symbol and it looked like I had 13 of them.  It just sort of threw me.  That and East asked me to wash the Purell off my hands so I wouldn't get it on her tiles.  Here I thought I was doing something nice being germ free and coughing into my elbow.

Well, the computer program was broken so a handwritten score sheet was going around.  When I looked at round 7, I was in second place!  Shut the front door!  I had 395 points but knew I was no match for the first place player - she had over 500.  I played my best, continuing my strategy of making the best hands I could and not throwing mahj.  So you see aside from the "Big Hand" all my hands are 25s or 30s, once or twice picking a 25 myself and getting ten extra.  I was set a couple of times for better hands; once a quint and once a pairs hand, but other people made it and all I could do was sigh.

The last round I played opposite the first place player.  One of the things I have learned about tournament play is players who are in the running generally do not announce it.  Maybe they "don't wanna give no kneina hura, pooh-pooh-pooh," or maybe they know that things can change in a minute.  But I knew a "Randi" was in first place and I heard someone call this woman "Randi," and I didn't think there was another "Randi" around and sure enough Randi was a consummate, quiet player, so that I only managed to make one mahj at her table.  But it was enough - enough to tie me for second/third place with another player and split the pot with her.

But wait!  After everyone had packed up and left and I was putting away all my junk, I realized something.  I don't know why I realized it then but it suddenly occurred to me - This tournament gives an extra 10 points for a singles and pairs hand.  The "big hand" is a singles and pairs hand.  
I was short changed ten points and it made the difference, as I said in round one, unaware that I was foreshadowing the events of the day.  Of course it was too late to do anything about it, and of course I have no one to blame but myself. Although East should have known to give me 85 points instead of 75, I nevertheless initialed my score as accurate, forgetting about the bonus.

There is a lesson in here somewhere and I will leave it to you to find it.  Always read the rules?  Always follow the rules?   C'est la vie?  C'est la guerre?  Or how about C'est la mahj?