When I was six and lived in the Bronx, my mom would go out on Friday nights and I would sleep at my Aunt Sally's house. Friday night was her mahjongg night, and the girls would come over (I called them Thelma, Velma and Selma) and play all night. While my uncle was asleep in the bedroom and my two cousins were asleep in their room, I would be tucked in on the living room couch listening to the click of the tiles, the eating of the Bridge Mix, and the yak-yak-yak. And yak they did, about Liz and Dick and about Mrs. Piznansky on the third floor who couldn't keep her wild Indian daughter away from the boys.
I say this because table talk is an integral part of our beloved mahj. In order to keep a game together there has to be a level of comraderie that fills the natural pauses in play. Table talk serves as a group grout - it cements the players together into a core group known as "my regular game". Other games are just fill-in games and this is so because the conversational level does not mesh with our own.
Lots of table talk can be OK in one game but not another. A player who wants a fast game will never return to a table where gossip or news exchange occurs during passing. I've noticed patterns of conversation among different levels of players. To illustrate, I will describe three games I played in recently and how verbal interaction affected the level of play. Note - I use the term "casual player" to describe someone who plays once a month or less, "experienced" as one who plays regularly and often and "new" as someone who has only played a few times.
Game 1: Three experienced, one casual, one new. There was lots of conversation during play, including a quasi-political argument that might have escalated had not two players stepped in to keep the play moving along. The new player had a very difficult time concentrating and needed an experienced player to assist. One of the experienced players got exasperated due to the start-stop nature of the play. This game was pretty lopsided in terms of skill level, made worse by the distracting nature of the conversation. Do you talk or play? Although the players all like each other and get along, the game was ultimately unsuccessful and unlikely to play again in this configuration.
Game 2: Four casual players and one experienced (me). I was invited to play with some new people who were admittedly casual players. They meet once a month for dinner and a game. I came and had a blast because they are great ladies, but the game was not that successful for me because it was too social for my taste. These gals all knew each other and had a little to drink before the game. They had great conversations during the passing and often forgot what we were up to, ended up with too many or too few tiles or pushed out the wrong wall. I was passed two soaps, two flowers, NEWS and two 2's and made the big hand in five minutes, but no one thought much of it. I felt it didn't really count, boo-hoo, even though it was the only time I've made it this year. There was a lot going on during the game that didn't have much to do with mahjongg, so although it was a lot of fun, the game itself took second seat to the wine, the food and the table talk.
Game 3: Five experienced players. There was talk but only between games and during the mixing. Some kvetching during passing, but during play all you heard were tile names. A lot of "telling" goes on when people talk during a game, and every "oy" lets other players in on how your hand is going. This game worked best for me and I hope we can all get together again, but scheduling is difficult.
So I know it's hard to find your Selma, Thelma and Velma, and things are not like they used to be 50 years ago when women stayed home with the kids, or retirees didn't have a million things to do, and the same girls could meet every week at the same time. But when you find people that are a pleasure to be with, know when to talk during a game and when not to talk during a game, and your skill level is comparable, then you know you have gotten "the big hand".