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Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Holiday Week Mahjongg

A few weeks ago I was contacted by a young man who made me an enticing proposition.  No, not that kind!  Even better.  Jeffrey Orlick, Queens Qustodian, was orchestrating a food event on Christmas eve, an event for "lonely Asians and Jews" who did not celebrate Christmas.  He called it Woks and Lox, dinner for 20 and a party for 40, held at the Queens Kickshaw, a brick-wall-and-wooden-table hipster cafe in Astoria.  He had seen my name on the internet and wondered if I could talk some friends into playing mahjongg at the event in exchange for a free dinner.  Could I!

We arrived at 5 p.m. and unobtrusively set up our table.  We played through the arrival of the guests and stopped only when the wait staff served us course after course.  The chef posted the menu here:  Woks and Lox dinner menu and we will forgive her for saying that she made extra for the "little old Jewish ladies playing mahjongg".  Do we look like little old Jewish ladies?  It was all so interesting and delicious -  kasha varnishkes with ginger and scallions, red bean paste rugelach.  And it was so cute the way the waitress said var-NISHkas.  We even got gelt, which I put in my mahjongg purse for when I go pie.  Maybe I will call it going chocolate.

And, the event got a lot of press!  We were in the HuffPost!  Photos were taken by Stella Dacuma Schour! We are celebrities!  Stars!  We had so much fun we even forgot the brouhaha that went down the night before when SOMEONE forgot to write down her bet....

Well, let awkward mahjongg moments be forgot as we ring in the new year.  There are plenty of mahjongg marathons and pajama parties in our future.  The NMJL newsletter came today - the first intimation of spring and the new card.  Get your orders in now!  Don't be like SOME people who forget to order and always need to peek at your card...

I'm planning on buying a new set this year.  Do you have a favorite color combination?  Please leave a comment here or on the Facebook fan page.

This is my set now.
Pink tiles with black racks.
I'm thinking peaches and cream with wooden racks.
I'm not all that crazy about the "pushers"
Maybe clear racks?  It's an agonizing decision!


But here is wishing you all a happy mahjongg new year.  May you all be winners!


Wednesday, December 14, 2011

How to Charleston


We of a certain age know what the Charleston is, but what is the etymology as far as its relationship to mahjongg?   Does anyone know?  Does anyone care?  Here is my hypothesis:  Mahj was at the peak of its popularity in the 1920s, and the Charleston, of course, was the popular dance of the day.  If you watch people doing the dance you will see they place their right foot across the left leg and then the left leg across the right.  Sound familiar?  Of course.

Now, in theory passing sounds easy, but practice can prove otherwise.
First right  is probably the easiest, since you've put all your pairs together, looked for families, done all the right things and can easily select three orphans that you want to dump on your opponents.  You can afford to be a little reckless here, since it's anyone's guess as to what tiles are in play.
First across is a little more difficult.  At this point you will be evaluating incoming information and honing the hand.  If you don't have a definite direction, this is the time to find one, no matter how weak it may be.  Mahjongg is about decision making, being firm and precise.  A tile passed on the first across can come back to you on the second left, allowing you to draw some preliminary conclusions about the hands of others.
First left gives you the first opportunity to steal, but only do so if you are squeezed. Often times a steal will backfire, leaving you no better than you were before the pass.  Keep in mind a tile you pass on the first left can come back to you on the option.  Once you receive your first left stop and re-evaluate before passing the second left.

Second Left begins the second Charleston and is done only if no one has expressed a desire to stop the passing.  Ideally as the tiles are passed, players should state which pass is taking place.  State "Right" and then place the tiles to the right, "Across" and then "First Left."  The Second Left is differentiated by stacking one tile atop the other two like a cap or "little house".  Chatting should be kept to a minimum during passing, as it is easy to be distracted.  Keep track of where you are or there will be trouble down the road!
Must across is just as it sounds.  You must pass three tiles across.  I sometimes whimsically refer to it as the Mustard Cross since I like the sound of those two words together and it creates and interesting visual.  But cross you must. If you get back on the second left the same tiles you passed on the first across, just pass them across again.  But if you got something good on the second left you may be reluctant to make this pass.  If you do pass away a needed tile, be prepared to kiss it goodbye and make your adaptations.
What's wrong with this picture?  Answer below.

Last Right a/k/a last rites, is your last chance to get your house in order.  At this stage you should have a strong inkling of what hand you are going for, and a plan B in place in case things don't pan out.  You should not be surprised at what tiles get thrown out in the first few sets of discards, as they will have made their appearance a couple of times in the passing.  Call your bettor over before you do the option.
Option is usually a futile effort, and it is rare you will see anything new; just the same old right-side-of-the-rack debris. Let the bettor see what you got and then start your play.  

Answer to quiz:  The player is picking up her across before her second left!  This will lead to one player having too many tiles while another has too few.  Avoid squabbles and do not pass your across until you see the second left has been taken.   
Last word:  Another common cause of screwups is short walls being mistaken for passes.  Make certain that if you have a wall that ends up with three or fewer tiles that it is added to the next wall so it does not inadvertently get picked up.  If a screwup occurs before East discards, the proper remedy is to throw all the tiles in and start again, which is no fun especially if you have a decent hand.


Monday, November 28, 2011

An Abbreviated Play-by-Play



So the Atlantic City tournament has come and gone and, boo-hoo, I didn't win.  I will confess - I came in 59th out of 160, not that I am counting.  But the scores are printed in cyberspace, as Arlene said, for all to see, for eternity.  You can see it by clicking here -->  Tournament Scores

I do not feel so badly, however.  It was the tightest tournament I have ever played in.  It is obvious to me that the bar has been raised.  The top score was Gail Zuckerman with 875 points.  Yes, you read right.  That is the highest score I have ever seen for a weekend tournament and I really tip my hat to this formidable player.  Certain people seemed to be on fire while the rest of us slugged it out for 59th place.

Some things that I noticed:  People are going to mahjongg school.  Many of the players in AC did not learn from their grandmother or peeking between the bannister and watching Aunt Tillie.  No, they shelled out for lessons or signed up in their communities for a structured program, and it showed.  There were numerous wall games, extremely defensive playing and a strict adherence to the rules.  Great to see, but oh, so hard to win!  I'm starting to tell the difference between those who graduated from Linda Feinstein's Manhattan Mahjong Club and those who learned at the 92nd Street Y.  And those Hadassah girls really stole the show.  A great first time showing for the gen-Ys.


Another thing:  The scoring made a difference.  At the Mahjongg Madness tournaments, you get a minus ten if you throw in to zero or one exposure, minus 20 for two or more.  In other tournaments I've played in you are not penalized for throwing in to zero or one, but get minus 20 for two and minus 30 for three. As a rule I play a less risky game in a tournament because every point counts, but of course if there are no exposures you don't know what tiles are risky.  It's always a surprise when someone mahjes early and you are minus 10.  You would think the scores would be lower because there would be more minuses, but from the high scores you can see that's not the case.  Some players griped about this rule, but there is always a penalty for throwing mahj, even when someone has no exposures you still have to pay them double.   That's another poll question:  Should a player be penalized for throwing to no exposures?


I hope everyone had a great Thanksgiving.  My SO has taken the cat, the birds and his cigars and fled to Florida, leaving me with an empty house to fill with mahj, and I plan to.


Happy mahj!

Saturday, November 19, 2011

A Mahjongg Parable


Once upon a time there was a mah jongg playing family called the Hills; Joanne, an inner-city teacher in her early 50s; Joan, her mother, a retired human resources administrator, and Jane, her daughter, a 28-year-old unemployed Iraq war vet.  They were thrilled to be invited to play in a lower Manhattan community center with some gals they had met at a tournament; Mavis Lehman and Leona Morgan.
  "We play a $20 pie," Mavis said.  A little steeper than the Hills were used to, but it was their chance to play with the big boys, and they accepted the challenge.
"League rules?" Joanne asked.
"League rules!" said Mavis and Leona.

So they trekked downtown on a cold Sunday and took their seats at the table.
"Oh, I forgot to tell you," said Leona.  "We add a zero to the value of the card.  So a 25 cent hand is 2.50.   And if you roll a double and you win it's double.  If it's a wall game we put $1 in the kitty and the next one to win gets it all."  It was a little late to back out now, and it was a $20 pie, so the game started.

The playing was tough.  Mavis won the first game, a self-picked quint hand that paid $8 all.  Then two wall games.  Then Mavis picked mahj on a 25 cent hand, which paid $5 all plus $10 from the kitty.  Then another wall game. Then Leona won one, a 25 cent consecutive run which paid $2.50 from the Hills, $5 from Mavis plus another $5 from the kitty.  The pie looked like this:




Suddenly Mavis got up, put on her coat and said, "It was nice playing with you gals.  I've got to go now."
"What?  You can't do that!  You won almost all our money." said G.I. Jane.
"I'm quitting while I'm ahead," Mavis said.  "There's no rule against it.  Call the League if you don't like it."  Whereupon she scooped up her coin-laden mah jongg purse, put on her chinchilla wrap, got into her little Maserati Quattroporte and drove away.
Leona was shocked, and said.  "My friend, Barbara Goldman, is a trustee at the League.  I'm going to call her and see how to handle this."
"Call the President," said Joan Hill.
"It's a Sunday, but Barbara has the President's ear."
She called her friend and explain the situation, then waited on hold.  After a few minutes Barbara Goldman returned and asked to be put on speakerphone.  The girls gathered around the phone.
"Here's what you do," she said.  Now, the Hills have $1.50 apiece, right?  Each of you must take a dollar and give it to Leona."
"What?  Why should we?  She already won some and has more than she started with, said Jo Hill.
Ms. Goldman paused, then said, "......blah, blah, blah.....we can't let her fail, and you will have the opportunity to win back your money several times over, just give it time. But no more playing ten times the card. And by the way, Leona, we haven't received your contribution yet."

So the four players returned to the table.  The Hills, always law-abiding citizens, did as they were told and gave $1 each to subsidize Leona.  They played a few lackluster games, with the same 50 cents going back and forth between Leona and Joanne, after which the gals called it quits and headed back to Main Street, vowing never to return.  The final division of the pie looked like this:


Happy Mahj for those of you who can still afford to play this Thanksgiving.
We are the 99%.



Thursday, November 10, 2011

Throwing to a Third


A little dispute has popped up in my regular game. It was spurred by a letter from a reader, and it goes something like this:

We all know that if you throw someone mahjongg, you must pay them double. And the rule is clear, in fact, it is written on the back of the card:  Bettor pays or receives same as player bet on.  These are undisputed facts.   The League makes no distinction in regard to how many exposures a person has on their rack. Now, in certain tournaments if you throw a player mahjongg and they have no exposures, you are penalized 10 points.  The rationale is you do have to pay double regardless of the number of exposures.  And in these tournaments the penalty goes up as the number of exposures go up.  Other tournaments do not penalize you if you throw to no exposures or one exposure but you are penalized if you throw to two or, Heaven forfend, three.

I have always been known to play by the Rules, but, folks, throwing to three exposures is BAD, and, frankly,  you should be penalized for taking such a risk.  Even if you are set for the Big Hand, if you throw a Green to someone who has FFFF 1111 2222, other players will really resent the fact that they have to pay for your chutzpah.  But the League has set no other penalty other than paying double to the winner.  So in order to prevent a possible massacre, some of the games I play in have instituted a table rule called "paying for the table," meaning if you throw to a third (some say a second, some say "hot," but let's leave it at throwing to a third) you must pay for everyone at the table.  Some of us who are more authoritative insist the money come from your pocket and not your pie, but others think that is going too far.

Now for the dispute.  Follow me, please.
Lanie throws a Green. Alice had  FFFF 1111 2222 on her rack.  Alice yells "Mahjongg!"  Fanny and Carol say "You threw to three, Lanie.  You have to pay for the table."  Edna pipes up:  "I bet on Lanie."
Fanny and Carol say "You have to pay what Lanie pays.  It says so on the card." Edna says:  "I do not.  Lanie pays for the table and I'm part of the table."

Who is right?  It's a 25 cent hand.  If Lanie pays for the table without Edna, she pays .50 for herself, and .25 each for Fanny and Carol, for a total of $1.00.  Edna would also pay $1.00, for a total to Alice of $2.00
If Lanie pays for the table including Edna, she pays .50 for herself, .50 for Edna and .25 each for Fanny and Carol for a total of $1.50.

I wanted to include a poll in this post, but I'm not that technically adept.  I would appreciate comments, as I told the group I play in I would abide by the majority opinion of my readers.  I will put the question up on the Fans of the National Mahjongg League Facebook page, as it is easy to post a question there, so feel free to leave your feedback.

For now I am off to the Mahjongg Madness tournament in Atlantic City, where you are minus 10 if you throw to 0 or 1 exposure and minus 20 for two or more.  Putative, I know, but at least I won't have to pay for the 200 other players!

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Tournament strategy

Sunday's tournament in North Bellmore, NY was really a delight.  The turnout was greater than anticipated due to the unexpected cancellation of the fall Manhattan Mahjongg event.  Condolences to the family and please reserve my seat for the spring.

What made the tournament delightful was the pleasant atmosphere; the big, sunny room, the tasty and nutritious lunch and 16 tables of fine players.  Good job, Janice.

I made a respectable second place showing.  The first place winner, Linda Kenney, came in 100 points ahead of me, so I didn't feel so bad about the mistakes I made, as they did not cost me the win - although often it's just a matter of 10 points, and every move counts.

I came into the tournament psyched to win, and took all the steps to make it happen  I dressed in layers (tournament rooms are either too hot or too cold), brought a large iced coffee and a 100-calorie Vitamuffin - the coffee to keep me awake and the Vitamuffin to keep me from the strudel.   I brought a pillow to sit on, and since I'm East, I brought my set, table cover and bridge table corner cup holders.

This tournament was all about switching, or, as it seemed, stretching.  It often seemed that one tile was the tipping point between one hand and another.  For example:

  • 2222 46 W EEEE JJ  became EEEEJ FFFF 2222J after I picked two flowers and got rid of the other even numbers.  Two wests had already gone out so it seemed a better bet to go with the quint.
  • FFFF 55 7777 66 R morphed into FFFF 22JJ 55 7777 after three reds got exposed.
  • 998 99887 997GJ stretched out into 8899 888999 GJJG after I went dead on 8 bams and picked another joker.
The moral of this story is yes, you can win the day with pedestrian hands.  I won 11 games out of 32.  Only two were premium hands - one quint, one singles and pairs.  Five wall games.

I learned that little things make a big difference. Paying attention to the table and calling people dead gave me extra picks, sometimes resulting in a win.   Not throwing mahj boosted my score, as those games ended in wall games.  I relaxed over lunch, not too many carbs, and made some new friends and contacts.  I bought a pretty little box with a 9 crak on it, will use it for wall game money.

By the last round, however, I was tired.  My brain was working hard and I started to feel it.  I began making mistakes and even passed away tiles I needed.  The play slowed down and our table was the last one playing.  I had the identical quint, 2222J EEEEJ FFF and needed one tile to mahj, but I couldn't get it, so I only scored 10 points for a wall game that entire round.  But for 8 rounds I think I did OK and I'm looking forward to the Mahjongg Madness tournament on November 11 in Atlantic City - that one is 12 rounds over a weekend with plenty of time for recharging at the spa.  Come to think of it, my prize money is just enough for a sea salt Swedish massage...


  

Monday, October 24, 2011

Ethical mahjongg

Mobile readers:  Click here for video.
(Keep in mind a Chinese mahjongg hand is four kongs and any pair)

My mailbag this week consisted of an inquiry from Lynn P.  It dealt with a dead hand and why erroneous exposures are returned to the hand.  Then she followed up with questions regarding the obligation of a player who knows she is dead to continue to play defensively, and whether or not other players are required to call her dead.  (Yes, she is, and no, they are not)  This line of questions led me to think about how personal ethics apply in mahjongg.

Like corporate executives, politicians and sundry convicted felons, experienced players know the rules are bendable.  Oftentimes situations will come up which prove to be interesting opportunities for self-discovery. While these occurrences may not rise to the level of true ethical dilemmas, they nevertheless provoke a moral challenge that each player must answer for him or herself.  

For instance:
  • Susie has two Easts and a joker exposed.  You know she is dead but no one has declared it.  You pick an East. 
  • Rhoda has three exposures on her rack.  You know you are dead.  You pick Rhoda's mahjongg tile.  Rhoda's your best friend and she hasn't won a game in a while.
  • Tessie pushes out her wall out and you see she's playing a dragon hand.  You pick a dragon. 
  • Each time Ray takes a tile from the wall, you can see what she picks.  She's picked a tile you need.
  • A 3 bam flipped over from the middle of the wall.  You are playing 3 bams.
  • You are on the way back from the ladies' room.  Frieda has not covered her hand with her card.
  • Sheila, who doesn't see too well, has passed you a joker.
  • We see the Mahjongg Warrior in the video "accidentally" knock over the four dot, fully intending the cascading results that ensued.  Do you think that is morally ambiguous or good mahjongg strategy?
The odds are you view mahjongg as a mere frivolous pastime, unaware of the philosophical implications thereof.  A simple knocked-over tile can be just that, or it can be shaded with deeper meaning - only a true mahjongg ninja will crack the code.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Gen Y Mahjongg

There is a joke going around the internet:  The generation born before 1946 was the Silent Generation; between 1946 and 1959, the Baby Boomers. Generation X are those born between 1960 and 1979 and Generation Y between 1980 and 2009.  Why are they called Generation Y?

 
Allow me to dispel this myth.  I had occasion this past week to play mahjongg with some incredible gen Y kids.  These young people, struggling to live and work in the fractured mess we call our economy, were able to put all that aside for a family game night with mom and her visiting friend.  It was a joy to see and take part in.  

I wonder if my aunt, who taught me when I was nine, envisioned that I would play 50 years later with people who would not be born until she had passed away.  Our family mahjongg games are some of the brightest memories of my childhood, with my aunt, uncle and cousin goofing around and learning the lessons of the game; patience, planning, dealing with the unexpected - timeless values which served me throughout my life.  

I urge my readers to teach their children and grandchildren mahjongg.  We all know how much fun it is, how it helps your brain, but our mothers and grandmothers knew it pulls you through tough times and provides hours of entertainment for minimal cost.  The League has been around for 74 years - through recessions, depressions, wars and the rest; generations Alpha through Omega.

A good way to begin is to bring your set to the next family dinner.  You can do it surreptitiously - leave it in the trunk of your car or bring it in and say, "Oh, I thought I brought you new silverware...."  When the dishes are cleared simply announce, "We're all going to play mahjongg tonight.  I've already seen that movie (show, etc.)"  Come on, grandma, you can do it.  

Is your MBA son-in-law serving fries?  Teach him mahjongg.  Is your daughter spending her days in Zucotti Park calling for the execution of Alan Greenspan?  Teach her mahjongg.  Does your grandson barely acknowledge your existence because he's lost in his iPad?  Tell him that you want him to learn so he can be the first to develop an app that lets players play over Skype.  Yes!

Of course you must let them win.  Even though you may have eight jokers and your tile is thrown six times, do not declare mahjongg.  Allow them to experience the pleasure of making a hand.  They'll be hooked, you wait and see.  They may even come to tournaments with you.  And though it may take 30 years before they truly come to know the meaning of the game, you will have planted the seed, as I was inculcated and indoctrinated as a child, only to blossom into a maven later in life.    

So remember the immortal words of our Boomer friends Crosby, Stills and Nash - Teach your children well - the one they pick's the one you'll know by.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Stop Stop Stop


A near riot broke out at a recent game.  Arlene had stopped the passing and Rena was willing to option two tiles.  "What?  How could you do that!  She stopped the passing - you'll give her mahj!" was the reaction.  "Maybe I will and maybe I won't," said Rena, in words or substance.  Accusations flew.  A heated debate ensued. Should you option with someone who stops the passing?  Maybe you should and maybe you shouldn't.

Let's take a step back and think about how and why the passing gets stopped. The League states that any player may stop the passing after the first left for ANY reason. Your thumb may hurt from picking up tiles or you may have eight jokers; maybe you are set to mahj or maybe you just don't feel like giving a second left.

Typically, a player stops the passing if: 
  • She has two hands and can't decide which one to play, or
  • The second left will cause her to give away a needed tile or tiles. 
In my book, the first reason is a poor rationale to stop the passing.  Each hand is a seedling that needs nourishment and cutting off the tile supply to both is a weak decision.  Better to be ruthless now in the beginning than to have to make bigger sacrifices as the game progresses.  Some may think otherwise.

On the other hand (pun intended) not having the tiles to pass because you will destroy a strong contender is ample justtification for stopping.  Sometimes, however, you may think you have nothing to pass but in reality you do.  For instance, if winds are going around and you only need one East or West it may be likely you will get the tile back.  Or if you are playing an open hand and you have a completed pung, you can pass one of those tiles and call it when it gets thrown. (Of course, it may not get thrown, but these are the risks you take)

So, to get back to the main question - do you option with someone who has stopped the passing?  Maybe.  Do you think the person has stopped the passing because she has a great hand or because she "doesn't know what to do"?  If you listen and observe, you will know, unless she plays her tiles close to the vest and doesn't give anything away.


Sunday, September 25, 2011

Breakin' up is hard to do



Oy - those earrings!  Remember them?  Anyway....

"I'll take that flower," says Susan (not you, the other Susan).
Why, I wonder.  There's only eight tiles left.  And she's putting it out with a joker? Sure enough, Frieda picks a tile, pulls a flower out of her hand, takes the joker and says, "Mahjongg!  Thanks, Susan, I thought I'd never make it."  Grrr....  The glares are going right over Susan's head.

Girls, fellas, whatever - there comes a time when you know it's over.  The last minute exposure will not help you one bit.  You blew it, you tried to go jokerless, three four craks went out, you tried to switch but you're way behind.   Or you're doing beautifully, just got set, only to see three three dots, four five dots and three seven dots on Terry's rack and you picked a one dot.  Eeeww.....

When is the right time to break up your hand?  When does the needle go from hopeful to hopeless and you know it isn't meant to be?  You've got to look at the table and count.  You don't need to be a math genius to know that the odds of your getting a pair of soaps diminish with every tile that goes out.  And as the walls get smaller and smaller your enthusiasm for your hand starts waning and leaking all over the table.  You can easily ascertain how many picks you have left by counting the tiles in the wall by groups of four.  Twelve tiles - three picks.  Do you think you're going to get two soaps in three picks?  You might.  But it isn't likely, is it?  So are you going to give Terry mahjongg for the sake of holding on to a dream?  Are you going to call that flower, expose it with a joker and hope you'll fill in the gaping hole at the end of your hand?  In three picks?  Or four?

Yes, breakin' up is hard to do, but oftentimes you must.  A realistic assessment may counsel for a switch from offensive to defensive play.  Giving up on your own hand gives you the freedom to see the bigger picture.  Are your tiles in that puny wall, or is someone saving them?  Who?  Why?  How should I react?

Look, it's not impossible that Brad Pitt will declare his undying love for you and acknowledge his mistake in marrying Angie.  But every day that passes makes that less likely to happen.  Far be it from me to tell you to  stop imagining the possibility.  But let's be honest, here.  Two soaps in three picks?  




Monday, September 19, 2011

Major League Mahjongg


(Your name here)
North American Mah Jongg Champion!
Something is afoot in the world of mahjongg.  I just received a very fancy flyer from the American Mah Jongg Association announcing their inaugural North American championship tournament in Atlantic City on November 28 - grand prize $2500 and coverage  in "multiple media outlets".    Mahjongg Madness is having their tournament on November 11-14 also in Atlantic City.  There's also a tournament at a Wisconsin Dells resort that same weekend.   On October 30th there are three - count 'em three -tournaments in the NY metropolitan area.  If you click on the tournament schedule link to the left you'll find a bunch of great cruises are coming up in December and January.   Sounds to me like mahjongg is getting hot.  Can the mahjongg channel be far behind?

All this mahjongg activity has given me an idea.  Why not have teams, like in Major League Baseball?  Now that everyone is back from vacation and the fall mahjongg season has started, this would be a great time to organize.  We've got about twelve people on the Forest Hills team raring to go, and I bet Century Village Pembroke Pines would make formidable opponents.

Here is how it would work:  The season would begin when the new card arrives.  Each team would have a uniform, of course; colorful T-shirts, jewelry made from tiles and other identifying paraphernalia such as mahjongg motif cat's-eye glasses or sneakers sponsored by Where the Winds Blow.  The team would notify a tournament operator that four people will be attending on behalf of the team.   The players would attend and play their darnndest, after which they would have their cumulative score certified by the tournament operator.   Sometime in March before the new card comes out, a World Series will be held with the highest scoring teams playing in competitive faceoffs.  The winning team will get to take possession of the Unger Award  and declare themselves World Champions for a year.  They will also appear in a commercial for Crunch N' Munch, and one lucky team will be the subject of a Ken Burns documentary.

I personally would be thrilled to go into the field and scout for talent, or better yet, create a training camp in Florida.  I could coach or even own a team!  Maybe create a mahjongg scholarship!  Next stop Madison Square Garden!  No, wait -Mahj Arena!   So come on Cleveland Crakheads and Boca Boomer Bammers, let's roll the dice and make this happen!

Saturday, September 10, 2011

The Elixer of Running


There is an unexplained phenomenon in mahjongg and its name is Running.  If you play long enough eventually you will know how it feels to be running.  It is unmistakable; there is nothing like it.

Last week I was kvetching about my little losing streak; breadcrumbs compared to other disasters that people lived through, but annoying enough to me. I broke it last week in an unorthodox way - I siphoned off the luck of someone who was running.  Don't look at me like that!  It's bizarre but true.  Let me tell you a little story:

A few years ago at the Mahjongg Madness tournament in Cypress Creek I was playing at the same table as the front runner.  She was the very definition of running; effortlessly winning hand after hand. She had an aura, an invisible current that surrounded her.  I wanted to see if it was tangible, so I facetiously asked, "Can I touch you?"  She said yes and I touched her wrist.  Let me tell you something, luck does rub off.  The next hand I picked five jokers.  I swear.

I've had a chance to be running myself.  It feels like Tinker Bell is on my shoulder picking tiles for me or as if I were a surfer carried on a big wave.  If you ask tournament winners they use this phrase:  "I could do no wrong."  Like Lola on her third run it all comes together by itself.

So last week I was not the one running, but I could see that Elayne was.  And I broke my losing streak by betting on her four times and she won for me.  It was so obvious that we joked about writing her name ten times in a row on the betting sheet. Other people had good starts, but, really, running trumps good hands, so why even bother to look?  

Elayne didn't notice, but as I was assessing her hand on my walk around the table,  I ever-so-slightly put my hand on her shoulder.  Guess who got her mojo back?

Friday, September 2, 2011

Hurricane Mahjongg


Life has certainly been interesting since my last post. An earthquake rolled under my feet on Tuesday.  On Friday I saw panic-induced fistfights at the local gas station. Then I spent a weekend huddled in my house as 300-mile-wide hurricane barrelled up I-95.  And I went pie twice.  Did you hear that?  I went pie not once but twice.  Going pie twice, oh my God, why me????

While my priorities may be called into question, events this week made clear the de minimus control I have over things more far reaching than what to wear to work. Earthquakes and hurricanes do not stop to listen to  my puny exhortations, and, alas, neither do the tiles.  I sat and suffered for two nights watching other players win hand after hand, unable to make an exposure, much less mahjongg.  This game, like Mother Nature herself, can be frustrating, unrewarding and cruel.  Sometimes I think do I even really know how to play? 

I like to pretend that I can prepare myself for the hodgepodge of tiles I sometimes see.  No pairs.  No jokers. No hand.  Make one, I think. Oh, I got a 2 in the passing.  I'll put it here and do 2468.  Oh, now I got a 5 bam, that makes two five bams.  I'll pass away the two and do 579.  No, wait....I'll collect winds!  By then it's too late, the Charleston is over.  Sometimes I think it's best to pick a random hand, regardless of whether or not I have any tiles for it.  At least I'll be an active participant instead of a passive spectator.  Hmm.. I have nothing that goes together, but I do have a West so I'll play winds.  Any winds that come I will keep.  Aggh...someone just exposed four Easts...well, I can keep her from winning.  Too bad there is no such thing as mahjongg insurance.  But that wouldn't work if everyone took out a policy at the same time.

Well, my strategies did not help me this week, but I was lucky all I lost was $14.  I did learn some things, though.  I learned who helps who out in an emergency and who runs out of the building to save their skin.  I learned to take a rain check and not play mahjongg during a major storm, and I learned that I have as much control over the tiles as I do over anything else in life, and it is a great gift simply to have the leisure time and wherewithal to play at all.  But I think I already knew that.  And I think my friends who are digging out, drying out and waiting for the power to come back on know that too.

Happy mahj!




Sunday, August 21, 2011

Mahjongg and the Brain


Those of us who play regularly know that mahjongg is good for us.  However, it may be difficult to articulate exactly what the benefits are, especially when we are trying to explain to non-players. We think in some way playing this game may stave off the lurking shadow of Alzheimer's, but don't quite know how.

Now I am not a doctor (nor do I play one on TV) and I will state unequivocally I have no credentials or scientific background. (In fact, I failed my biology Regents) But I do consider myself an amateur sociologist with a specialty in the subculture of National Mah Jongg League mahjongg players and I have an annoying tendency of picking up an interesting train of thought and somehow managing to relate it to my favorite passtime.  This is how my brain works and I'm used to it by now.  

Recently I have been thinking about brain activity.  It started in relation to losing weight (let's not go there) but eventually, as with all things, it led to mahj.  What comeback could I give the naysayers who think I am just sitting on my butt noshing and saying "One bam"?  

Dr. Marie Savard, who is a doctor AND plays one on TV suggests that the brain can be strengthened and challenged and this will help protect against MCI - mild cognitive impairment, which increases the risk of the development of dementia and later Alzheimer's.(1)  Mahjongg provides this strength training and challenge in the following ways:
  • Sensory stimulation - We see the tiles, touch them, hear their names, taste the honey wheat low-fat pretzels that Susan brought and smell -- well, four out of five ain't bad.  This stimulates the occipital cortex, superior temporal gyrus and parietal lobe, which governs sensory integration
  • Math skills - Although mahj is not a "numbers game," per se, it does involve some math skill.  "That's 25 and I picked it myself plus it's jokerless and bet on so it's $2.00 all."  Think cerebrum
  • Short term memory and organization - From the moment we put our tiles in our hand we are exercising our frontal lobe which controls executive functions such as planning (hmm...what hand should I go for...) organizing (should I keep the twos and sevens or the twos and eights...or the sevens and eights...) attention (what did I pass her?  Did she keep it?) 
  • Learning and long term memory - The hippocampus converts short term memory into long term.  It helps us to remember the rituals of the game (right, across, left; left, across, right) and to integrate the hands so that we don't have to look at the card so much.
In short, mahjongg actively engages many areas of our brain simultaneously.  Taking risks and learning new hands deepens this level of activity so that the game stays fresh.  But wait, there's more.

We cannot overlook the emotional component of mahjongg on our mental health.  Our limbic system, which governs emotion and instinctive behaviors, comes into play when we spend time with our friends and interact socially.   But more importantly, for many of us, mahjongg gives us a purpose in life, and research has shown that this may afford protection from decline.(2)  While to some it may seem a trivial purpose (after all, it isn't like you're a Congressman or anything) it provides a connectedness to a caring community and a refuge from many of the stormy ills of life.

So the next time someone pooh-poohs your obsession, just recount for them the many ways mahjongg is of benefit to you.  And if you can't remember all of them, you'll just have to play more mahj!


(1) Video of Dr. Savard (five minutes but worth watching)
If link doesn't work, copy and paste address into browser:
 http://abcnews.go.com/video/playerIndex?id=6941450


(2) Article - Living a Purposeful Life can Stave Off Alzheimer's

Friday, August 12, 2011

Tile Handling Tips


"I'm such a klutz," said the woman next to me at the tournament as her wall collapsed when she was pushing it out.  "I'm always the last one to build my wall," said another.  A third watched in envy as East flipped her tiles onto her rack in one swift move.   Experienced players have techniques that make them appear smooth and confident at the table.  Confidence in tile-handling technique spills over into the play - she must be a great player is the message it sends.

There is no question that mahjongg has image issues.  The Chinese government banned it in the past and young Americans see it as their yenta grandma's game.  So what are we who love this game to do?  I say it's a matter of semantics.  In order for mahj to rise to hipness, we need to exalt it as though it were worthy of  Olympic stature.  One way to do this is to learn to recognize great form.  How long does it take a swimmer to perfect the butterfly stroke, or a skater a triple toe lutz?  How long does it take a player to learn to push the wall out without it breaking apart?

I've videoed tile handling techniques I've learned over the years and I've named them.  Chalk it up to whimsy, but maybe it will catch on.  (Click on the links to watch the videos)

  • "The Mason"
    • Or the bricklayer, if you prefer.  Adapted from Robert Foster's description in 1924's "Foster on Mahjongg."  Pull six tiles against the rack and then another six on top of them.  Then six more and six on top of them.  Another six and six will give you 18, so you only need two tiles on the end for efficient wall building.
  • "The Wallbreaker"
    • Taught to me by my dear Aunt Sally in 1961.  The dice are thrown.  Number of tiles are counted from the right.  Last tile counted is pressed down with right hand while next two stacks are extracted and put behind the rack, leaving a space between the first wall and the last wall.  With fingers firmly on bottom end tiles, first wall is pushed out.  Last wall is slid to center of rack.
  • "The Claw"
    • Refined by Aunt Sally's best friend Clara Goodman in 1959.  Rather than mundanely taking "1 and 3," fingers form a claw as both tiles are lifted at the same time.
  • "The Flip"
    • Originator unknown, but must have been set in motion as soon as the League issued the first card.  Mahjongg card is flat against rack but not under it.  13 (or 14 if East) tiles are laid face down on card.  Using end corners nearest you, flip tiles onto rack.  Voila.  She must be a great player!
  • The Flick
    • In Japanese mahj, players must line up their discards in front of them.  Why tell everyone what you're not playing?  Flick that tile as far as you can, as though it were a Skelly cap that had to reach the center of the board.  (For those not from the Bronx, click the link) 
  • "The Tail"
    • Invented by a klutz, to make the wall easier to push out.  As the wall to the right gets exhausted, the last two tiles of the next wall are placed behind it. Master this move before proceeding to "The Swing"
  • "The Swing"  (Three variations)  
    • Righty swing:  With the right hand, grasp the rack at the leftmost end and push the wall out with the elbow, concealing the tiles with the forearm. 
    •  Lefty swing:  Grasp the rightmost end with the left hand and push with the hand.
    • Card concealing swing:  Holding the card up to conceal the tiles, use the pinkie and ring finger of the right hand to exert pressure on the bottom tiles only when pushing the rack out.
  • "The Flourish"
    • Upon calling for mahjongg, pinch the top of the outermost tiles, exerting pressure towards the center.  (Good for biceps)  Lift your entire hand in one movement and display it on top of the rack.  Then crow like a rooster!
While these techniques won't actually improve your game or your luck, they will add to your confidence.  Your opponents will make assumptions about your experience and skill and act accordingly.  Happy mahj!







Friday, August 5, 2011

Are you dead? Can I have your joker?


Calling someone dead takes courage.  It's not enough to cock your head, screw up your nose and say "Are you dead?" or "I think you're dead."  You cannot expect an opponent to hang their head in shame and say, "Yes, I am."  No one is obligated to declare herself dead, nor should she be. 

If you look at the photograph above (sorry for the fuzzy focus) you will see four seven cracks and three greens exposed.  Is she dead?  What do you think?

To confidently make a death call you first need to know what hand is being played.  Could there be more than one possibility?  Rose has three seven cracks and three greens exposed.  Hmm...look at the card.  Only one hand it could be.  What tiles does she need?  A pair, maybe?  A pair of what?  Oh, I know.  Seven dots. Are they out?  Let me look at the table.  Ooo, there's two out.  Agh, I have one.  What should I do?  If I throw it she may mahj.  If she doesn't mahj, she's dead.  If I keep it, I can't mahj.  Aaaagghhh....  You throw the seven dot.  You've killed her.  No one says anything.  Rose frowns almost imperceptibly, but then stays poker-faced.  Myrna picks.  Myrna throws.    Rose is dead.  You know she's dead.  She knows she's dead.  Maybe Myrna and Shirley know, but they aren't acting like they know..  Wait, you think.  Is she really dead?  Yes, she is.  Maybe there's another hand?  There's no other hand.  Okay, just say it. 
 "You're dead.  Three seven dots are out."
This would be the time for Rose to admit defeat and cease playing.  If she doesn't and merely scoffs at your accusation, insisting her hand has every possibility of being a winner, then you must play till the end and if she can't prove you wrong, she must pay you $.25.

Now, about those jokers.  There is much confusion about taking jokers from a dead hand.  After all, the hand is dead, right?  Shouldn't the jokers be dead, too?  The answer is no...and the answer is yes.
If her exposures contained jokers before the hand went dead, then, yes, those jokers can be taken.
But if the exposure caused her hand to go dead then, no, they can't be taken.  In fact, the League recommends that an exposure that causes a hand to go dead should be returned to the rack so there is no confusion.    In the hand above, if there were jokers in those exposures they would still be good, because they were good at the time they were exposed.  In other words, the hand is dead, but the jokers are still alive, wiggling and shimmering and screaming "take me, take me."  A dead hand is like a body you step over on the battlefield.  The soldier is dead, but you can still take his gun and boots and move ahead to victory.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Plot and Subplot



If you've ever watched a sitcom, you may have noticed that every show has a plot and a subplot.  For example:   Ricky and Fred think doing housework is much easier than earning money.  Lucy and Ethel feel the opposite.  So the boys try doing the housework while the girls attempt to hold down a job at a candy factory.  Two things are going on here, yet they intertwine in a seamless way and in the end all gets resolved. What does this have to do with mahjongg?  Read on.

My table mates rolled their eyes as I snapped pictures of my tiles, but they're familiar with my obsession and I appreciate their patience.  The two hands above struck me with their similarity, making me realize I have a tendency to organize my hands into a plan A/plan B pattern.  Both of these hands have 10 tiles for hand A and 9 tiles for hand B.
The first hand:  F 2J22 466 888 DD 9 was ripe for calling on the 2s or the 8s but required two pairs; the flowers and the 4 dots.  Two four dots had already gone out and if another one fell, I'd be forced to switch to plan B - FFFF 2222 8888 DD, but I was ready.
The second hand:  4 55666 777 999 was the same, yet different.  I was in calling position for all possibilities here, no pairs to worry about.  But there were two 4 bams out already.  Had I picked a seven bam, I would have ditched the sixes and the four and gone with 555 777 7777 9999.  Don't you just hate throwing out three of the same tiles in a row?  But sometimes you must for the sake of the hand.  No matter which plot thickened, I would have had to do just that.
How did it get resolved?  On the first hand, I called for the two crack and threw out the nine, but then someone else mahjed. Oh, well. On the second hand, I called for the five bams then had to face "decision time".  I threw the nines, as I couldn't cover the seven bams, and when the final four bam came out I had the joker to cover it, so I mahjed on that hand.
As with plots and subplots, the resolution of one should set up the resolution of the other.  The time will come in the story of your hand when you pick a pivotal tile and you must decide which elements of plan B to merge into plan A (or vice versa) and what to discard.    This may make you feel like Lucy in the chocolate factory but don't forget, in the subplot, Ricky and Fred make a mess of the kitchen by cooking four pounds of rice instead of four cups.  In other words, no one said it would be easy, but hopefully your hand will have a happy ending.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

A Guest Post from a Tournament Newbie

A few weeks ago, Amy wrote to me and asked for pointers on attending her first tournament.  My advice was as follows:  Relax and have fun!  Most players come to a tournament for relaxed play and to meet others, not necessarily to win.  Just pick and throw like you normally do, keep up the pace, avoid talking during the game and try not to give anyone mahj (but take a risk if you feel it's worth it).  You might meet one or two tough older ladies, but a little respect will go a long way (flattery will get you everywhere).  While you're building the wall take a little time to ask people where they're from and see if they're looking for fill in players.  Maybe you can find a game.  If anyone tries to rush you, just ignore them.  The usual pace of a tournament is 4 games in 50 minutes, so just be mindful of the time.  Playing too slow is probably the most egregious thing you can do in a tournament because if you time out everyone gets a zero.  Most of the errors you will make nobody will even know about because they can't see your hand, but If you make an error that causes you to go dead, there's no need to be embarrassed because we've all done it at one time or another.  Be your friendly and sociable self and play for pleasure.  You never know, you might get lucky.


Amy had a great time at the tournament and I suggested she write a guest post letting us all know how it went.  Her account below will inspire people to go out and mingle.  FYI, the names have been changed to protect the innocent.  Thanks, Amy!

“Are you sure you know how to play?”

Rhonda sported a beehive upsweep, and wore cat’s eye glasses on a gold chain around her neck. She squinted through them at me in response to my instantly regretted question about a hand on the 2011 card. This was my first ever tournament: The Cleveland Classic Mahj Tournament, presented by The Cleveland Jewish News. 84 women assembled on a sunny Sunday in a hotel conference room. A handful of us were in our mid to late 40’s, a good number were 50-somethings, and then a whole lot more were senior ladies.

I’ve played for about 5 years and I love this game. We moved to Cleveland a year ago and I haven’t yet found a regular group. I’ve played so infrequently that I don’t  know the 2011 card very well.  So I happily signed up for this all-day tournament, with the blessing and support of my wonderful husband, who stayed home with our preschooler.

The first hand was fast, very fast. Those ladies played at warp speed, and they picked ahead, even though it was expressly stated that this is not allowed.  Before I could even rack my tile, the next player had hers in hand. I’m not at all slow but this was very irritating. Our first game was a wall game. Then, I won the second, third and fourth games.

Yes, Rhonda, I know how to play.

We played 6 rounds of four games, with an hour break for lunch,  each round with a new group. The low point came in the second round, when my table included Edith. She was 95 pounds of competitive fury, with a small pinched face and the largest diamond earrings I’ve ever seen. She rushed us through the four games, fearful that we wouldn’t get them all played in the time allowed. She took it way too seriously and was rather unkind and brusque. I mean, I want to win every hand too, but it’s supposed to be a pleasant and social game. She got me so flustered that I threw the winning tile to another player’s hand. Edith scowled at me and said, “How could you give her that, couldn’t you see what she was doing?” No, actually, I was trying so hard to keep up with the blistering pace she set that I really had no idea what hand I was doing, let alone my tablemates.

The other two players and I peeked at each other with sympathy and were glad when that round ended and we could move along to another table (with 10 minutes to spare!). I silently rejoiced that Edith won no hands, or rather, I would have if I were that kind of person.

My proudest moment came just before lunch. I won two hands, one of which was my first closed hand win ever – FF NNN EW SSS 2011. I picked my own winning tile and the hand was jokerless, so I scored 55 points. I took a picture of the hand with my cell phone to show my husband later. He kindly feigned an interest in it, pretended to listen to me babble on about it, and congratulated me on my cunning skill and good fortune.

Sadly, the tiles went cold for me after lunch. I had just one more win, the last hand of the day, with one of the Lucky Sevens. But that’s okay. I had a fun day off, and held my own among players who have been playing for half a century or more. And, two very nice women asked me to play with their group as a fill-in later this week, so I guess you could say that I’m now part of the Cleveland Mah Jongg scene.  Look out, Rhonda and Edith, because I’ll be back next year!

Monday, July 11, 2011

Shh...don't tell.

Everyone gasped when Alex threw a 9 dot.  After all, Bonnie had 7777 888 exposed.  It was late in the game and only one 9 dot was on the table.  There was only one hand she could be playing.  Why did he take the risk? She could have been set!  Inquiring minds want to know.

An observant player would not be surprised by this move.  Players will often unknowingly, and to their detriment, telegraph the status of their hand.  Rigorous self-examination is required to rid yourself of the oft-fatal "tells".   Do not expect other players to clue you in - remember, there are no friends in Mah Jongg!

Read on and see if you recognize yourself.
  • Do you:  Separate your tiles so that everyone can see that you have two of this, three of that, one of this, three of this and one of this - and three on the side to discard?  
  • Do you:  Keep your finger on the card near the hand you're playing?
  • Do you:  Play without thinking ahead so that you hesitate when a tile goes out?  
  • Do you: Moan and groan when your tiles get discarded or exposed by another player? 
  • Do you: Physically count how many you have for hand A and how many for hand B?
  • Do you: Say "Oh crud!" or worse, when you pick a tile you know someone else needs - and then you keep it?
  • Do you:  Constantly arrange and rearrange your hand, letting everyone know that your hand is slipping away?
  • Do you:  Kvetch about how many jokers you could use right about now?
All of these behaviors tell your opponents "Go ahead, throw my tile.  I'm not even close!"  Learning to control your reaction to surprising events will keep them guessing.  When Hilda throws the 7th flower, and your chances of making a pair are gone forever, does everyone have to know?   Does it help your game to slap your forehead and say, "Oh, no, I made a mistake!"  Better to set out to remedy your mistake than ask for sympathy.  While your opponents may say, "aw, boo-hoo, too bad," they are thinking, "well, she's no threat now. I can discard that 4 bam and move closer to mahj."  Do you really want everyone to know that your hand is a mess?  NO!  But - if you act as if you are one tile away from the greatest mahjongg hand on the face of the earth your opponents will act accordingly.

How do you know when someone is set?  Body language plays a big part.  When I'm set, I lean forward, intent and ready to pounce the moment I hear the name of my winning tile.  My heart beats more quickly and I am less patient with people.  Let's go, I think, throw my tile already.   But when I play in tournaments I try to curb my enthusiasm and become one of the quiet ones, emulating those players who silently go about the business of making a hand and seeing it through with control.  No matter how weak their hand may be, they give nothing away, calmly focusing on the circumstances around them and weighing their odds.

So how did Alex know that Bonnie wasn't set?   He remembered earlier in the game she called for a six dot, then said, "No, wait, I can't" and let it go.  As the play continued, he picked a six dot himself and held onto it, hoping to use it for joker bait.  He also observed that when she did pick and keep a tile, it went on the right end of her wall, making it more likely to be a nine than a six. So he felt comfortable throwing what might have seemed to have been a hot tile.

So a restrained attitude of watchful waiting, coupled with attention to little details will go a long way towards improving your game.  If nothing else, remember this:  You schmooze, you lose.
Happy mahj!

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Luck v. Skill

In his book "Foster on Mah Jong" Dr. Foster devotes an entire chapter to the relationship between luck and skill.  (I don't know if he really is a doctor, but I am making him an honorary DMJ - Doctor of Mah Jongg).  The basic principle is this:  Luck governs what is drawn from the wall; skill governs the decisions made in regard to those tiles.  He takes it a step further, however, and states:  "It has been well said that for the first five or six draws from the wall the game is all luck.  After that it is all skill."

American mah jongg in the 1920s differs from NMJL mahj in several ways: There was no Charleston, there were fewer tiles, and of course there was no card with standardized hands.  Hands were made by making a combination of pungs, kongs, and chows (a run like 123) and one pair.  Everyone scored points for their hand; each pung and kong received a value.  It was possible to score higher than the player who went "woo" (declared mahjongg).  This is closer to the classical Chinese game of mah jongg than the game we play, but certain principles pertain. The elements of luck and skill still determine a winning outcome.

We can say that luck rules when it comes to the tiles we are dealt. Safeguards are built into the way we roll dice and break the wall so that things cannot be prearranged.  Occasionally a tile will be flipped over when wall building.  It should be tucked back into a random spot in the wall.  An observant player will remember where the last 2 bam is.

I like to think of the initial 13 tiles as something of a predestiny.  (I'm not sure if that's really a word, but it fits.) We are all born into this world with the seeds of our future - some with an embarrassment of riches, others with a talent that will blossom with the proper nurturing.  When we look at our hand we can think "Oh, another crap hand, the story of my life!"  or we can see a hidden potential that with work and effort will yield a winner.  There is never a guarantee that your luck will change, but your hand certainly will.

Here is an example of  how decision making works with luck.  I was playing the singles and pairs winds hand recently and was doing rather well, I thought:

F NNEWSS 556778  (dots)

Looks good, right?  It was early in the game, no 6 dots were out.  I had opened with no jokers, a string of dots and a couple of winds. It looked like I had my work cut out for me, but I was able to put this together.  I then picked and discarded another 8 dot, and realized a few seconds later what a mistake I had made.  Why? All I needed was a flower and a 6 dot, I thought, so who needs another 8?  But in hindsight I saw:

F NNEWSS 567788
was better than:
F NNEWSS 556778
the reason being that if someone called a six dot and exposed three of them, I was out of luck in doing 556677. If I picked a six dot I would be set for a flower either way. But if I picked a 9 dot and got rid of the other five, I would have 
F NNEWSS 677889
thus I would have had breathing room on either side.  So if someone called the six dots I had an option.  If someone called the 9 dots I could still go with the sixes.  If I picked a nine I could throw away the six and if I picked a six I could throw away the nine.  If I picked a flower, well, then I would have to see if any sixes or nines had gone out and make a judgment based on what I could see on the table or surmise from exposures.

This is where skill comes into play.  It is so much more than the tiles in your hand.  We have to judge odds and probabilities and try to see the future, much as we do with all decisions in life, within the limits of available time and information.  So luck handed me an 8 dot and I carelessly overlooked an opportunity.  But, as luck would have it, neither the sixes or the nines ever got thrown and the game ended up playing to a wall.   Better luck next time!  (Or should I say better skill?)

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Ma is playing mahjongg

Summer is here and after living in my house for 17 years I decided to buy a swimming pool.  And I know exactly  what I want to do in it.  Click here to see.  In fact, I think the lady on the right is me in my prior incarnation.  Love that schmatte on her head.
Apparently mahj was very, very hot in the 1920s.   If you click here you can see how hot by the number of books that were published.  Undoubtedly, 1924 was mah jongg's banner year.  I just received my copy of the rare and out-of-print Foster on Mah Jongg.  It came embossed with the name of the prior owner - Schaler C. Hauser.  Isn't that a lovely name?  So 1920s.  Of course I immediately Googled him.  And this is what I found.   Whoa!  Here is a good question for Jeopardy:  What do  Jewish ladies in a public pool have in common with a civil engineer in Alabama?  


I'm really crazy about that table in the pool, and I'm wondering if I can find someone to make one for me.  It appears as though the racks are built right into the table, but it's hard to tell if it's floating or standing up on the bottom of the pool.  Now, I've heard of automatic mahj tables (see video below) where you don't have to touch the tiles, they just go down a hole and come up again in the formed walls.  Very expensive, but nice to have!  Robert F. Foster in his book described the ideal mahjongg table:  Something slightly higher than the ordinary card table, and he recommends taking an oilcloth (remember those?) and turning it upside down to use as a table cover. He says it "allows perfect shuffling without catching and turning the tiles over, reflects the light well, and is noiseless."  Nowadays there are special mahj table covers that will do the job - quilted fitted ones or flat sheets that sit on top of the table.  And if all else fails, you can sprinkle a little baby powder on the table (just a drop) to make the tiles slide around.  Foster spoke of tables that have racks attached, but I've never seen such a thing.  Ingenious idea, but not very portable.  Can you imagine schlepping a whole table to the clubhouse?  It's hard enough to drag a case with wheels...


Now, where was I?  Oh, yes, the pool.  Well, a new set of challenges arise for me after Memorial Day.  Swim clubs are open, making it hard to find weekend fill-ins.  Teachers with the summers off start hivernating at their pool clubs and play every day.  I can't blame them. A little mahj, a little dip, a little snack, a little mahj.  It doesn't get much better.  But maybe I can lure some folks away.  I'll post pictures of me in my private pond, no splashing kids, just a floating mahjongg table and the four of us playing (the fifth will be getting a nosh).   I won't ever leave my yard - who would?  When people call, my daughter will say...

Ma is Playing Mah Jongg...
video

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

The Rich get Richer

I played last week with my cousin at her country club.  I'm on my best behavior when I go there.  I play by their rules; throw and pick - or "t/p" as my cousin calls it and a hot wall.  There is an unlimited pie, but I was instructed to start with $10 in my purse and go from there.  ("And don't bring too much change," my cousin told me.  "I never heard the end of it last time.")  There are other, more subtle rules at the table, and fitting in with the group becomes as much a part of the game as the game itself.

In many ways I can never compete with these gals.  They dress for mahj in expensive silk twinsets and full makeup and chat about world cruises and the grandson's second year at Harvard Law.  I listened quietly as they kvetched about the deteriorating quality of the bagels ("they must get them from Costco now") and lambaste anyone who happened to be unavailable to play that day. ("Did you see that outfit?")  I just focused on playing my best and held my own.  I won a lot of games and I could see it made someone cranky.  So cranky, in fact, that she redoubled her efforts and won a couple of biggies.  Just a few, but enough to make a difference.  Because at the end of the day when I counted my winnings I found I had only won 15 cents.

I wasn't sure how that could be because I knew how many games I had won compared to the others.  I hadn't thrown mahj very much and they only double the card when a game is a double.  But then I thought about her big hands and the wall games that went into a pot and the double-double and I realized that this woman's strategy of making a few big hands paid off against my chicken hand wins.  If she, in holding out for a big hand, threw my tile, she would have to pay me .50, but if she won on a self-pick quint, she would make $2.40.  More if there was a pot.  More if she threw a double.  She took into consideration things I hadn't thought of, weighed the risks and went for it when it was worth it.  In the end she went home smiling with my money.  Isn't that always the way?  But...but...I won...didn't I?  Are there any bagels left?

ENDNOTES:
While I haven't been keeping to my posting schedule, I have made a few updates to the blog.  I've added a teacher section.  If you know anyone that wants to be listed, please e-mail me.  I've also secured the domain name:  www.mahjblog.com  so if you type that into Google it will take you directly to the posts.  I've turned on mobile device formatting, so it can be easily read on a phone.  Please feel free to comment on these changes. 

I've been busy trying to find a Friday fill-in.  One player is gone, one has been added and one plays her last game for the summer next week.  So far we have two maybe's, one can do it one Friday a month, three who can play but not at my house due to perceived smoke sensitivities, and one who has four and is looking for me to be a fifth.  Stay tuned...

One more thing.  I'm thrilled to report I have found a copy of Robert F. Foster's 1924 definitive work:  Foster on Mah Jong.  Tom Sloper has graciously reproduced an excerpt: Click here to read excerpt
Although it was written about classical Chinese mah jong, I'm sure it has applicability to today's NMJL.  I can't wait to receive it, devour it and interpret it for my readers.