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Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Picking a Hand

Here is an e-mail I received:
I just started playing Mah-Jongg and I have a hard time deciding what
hand on the card to go for. I have looked at my odds and evens and also my suits
and then on the card hands, but can't seem to pick the right hand to go with.
I thought maybe you could tell me how you do it.
Thanks for your help! I like your rules.  
Name withheld by request

I will say that the moment you throw your initial 13 tiles onto the rack is the most crucial moment in the game.  What do you see when you look at your tiles?  What does a trained and experienced eye see that the novice eye does not?  How do you know what you're looking at?  How do you know what to play?  Why do some people take a short moment to pass to the right while others think and think and think?
Let's try to break it down.
A new player will see a hodgepodge of tiles with no relationship to each other, whereas an experienced player will know which tiles go together.  For example, a new player may see three two dots and two nine dots and think it great that they have so many dots and sets of like tiles.  The experienced player will know that one of those sets will have to go - there is no hand that holds them both.
I am convinced the key to knowing which hand to play is how well you know the current card.  I say current card because, as we all know, the relationships change.  So one year you may have winds with dragons, and the next year you don't.  Everything is about relationship and knowing what goes with what.  Last year, you were in bad shape if you had like numbers, this year you're in good shape.  So the first rule is:  Thou shalt know thy card!

Even if you know the card by heart you still will have to make decisions about what to keep and what to give away.  But what criteria should you use?  I can only list some strategies, none of which are guaranteed to produce results.  Why?  Because all players know you need to be lucky as well as skilled.  Your skill level will come into play when evaluating what hands to play, what tiles to pass, what your chances are of picking the tiles you need.  The tiles you pick are determined by luck of the draw, and this is what makes the game unpredictable.

My advice to new players is to pick a hand a stick with it.  When you first look at your tiles evaluate them in terms of the categories on the card - do you have more even-numbered tiles?  More odd?  Lots of winds?  Lots of dragons? If nothing jumps out at you right away, take a count and determine where to go from there.
If you have the same number of odds as 3,6,9's, for example, just pick one and collect those.
Within each category are levels of hands - some are easier to make than others.  It is basic knowledge that a hand you can call is easier to make than one you can't - the points value will tell you how hard a hand is.  At first select the easier, calling hands.

I have played with people who only play consecutive runs, or winds and dragons.   One player I knew consistently went with the big hand, whether she had a soap or not!  It's OK to stay within a narrow framework at first, but once you get comfortable with a hand and how it comes together, expand your repertoire.  While you will not want to keep tiles from different categories (known as playing two hands), it is not a bad idea to have plan A and plan B.  So if you stick with even-numbered tiles and want to do a calling hand, if in the passing you come across even-numbered tiles that are part of a closed hand, keep them, unless you are forced to give them away.  The more tiles you have in a particular category, the easier it is to switch from one hand in the category to another.  The card is built to accommodate these switches, that's the beauty of it.  If you go dead on 22 444 44 666 8888, you can possibly switch to 222 4444 666 8888. It may seem basic, but sticking to a category is a key strategy.

Pay attention to what you are passed.  If your neighbor passes you a 2, a 6 and an 8, it is unlikely she will be playing evens (although she might just not be playing those evens).  When you pass tiles to another player, watch if they put them in their hand.  It might give you some idea of what they are playing, so you can make adjustments accordingly.  There is a reason for everything in mahjongg, and if no one is passing winds, there is a good chance someone is collecting them.  If the 8 dot doesn't come back to you, someone kept it.  Are they using it?  Maybe, maybe not, but if it doesn't show up soon in the discards, you have a clue what others are doing.  These clues give you information about your own hand, information that should not be disregarded.  In the beginning you have limited information on which to base your hand selection, but over time all is revealed.

So there you have it.  Know the card, pick a category on the card and stick to it and pay attention to what is going on around you.  Practice and experience will broaden your familiarity with the hands, and your confidence in your judgment.  Over time you will get a feeling for what mah jongg players call "decision time," the do-or-die moment when you must make a commitment to your hand and defend it with the cool ferocity of a world-class gambler, keeping under wraps how fast your heart is beating. The rest is mazel.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Tournament Rules

Today's post is about tournaments.  I find mahjongg tournaments a fun way to spend a day.  Some people have told me that they find them too competitive, that there are a lot of "sharks" out there who scratch you with their long, fake nails while they mix the tiles and are very quick to call you dead.  Well, yes, and no.  Some people take their tournaments very seriously and they shift their playing style to accommodate it.  When you are a serious tournament player, every point counts toward your total score and so you might play a little more aggressively than in your weekly game.

But most players aren't really "in it to win it" and are friendly and sociable, not intimidating at all.  Many times I'll see someone win a tournament and I'll think, "Well, you'd never know.  She was so nice!"  You have to watch out for the quiet ones.

Tournament can be of any length, from an afternoon to a weekend to a 10-day cruise.  They are run by many different organizations - some are fundraisers and some are private word-of-mouth games in a community room or clubhouse.  But they generally follow the same rules.

The tournament is divided into rounds.  There are four games in a round.  Players are assigned seats.  The League rules say A,B,C,D but in some tournaments it's East, West, North and South.  After four games the table breaks up and the players move around the room. If you use the A,B,C, D method, A goes up one, B goes down one, C goes up two, D goes down 2.  Or with the East, West, North, South method East stays at the same table throughout the day.  North goes up one, South goes down one, and West goes up two.  So if the players start at Table 5, North goes to 6, South goes to 4, West goes to 7.  This way everyone gets to play with everyone else and friends are broken up to avoid any possible cheating.  (Yes, I said it - cheating!  Although who would want to cheat at mahjongg?)

East has a scoresheet and everyone's score is recorded at the end of a game.  The points mimic the values on the card.  25 for a 25 hand, 10 extra if it's a self-pick, a bonus for jokerless (some tournaments give 10 some 15).  At the official League tournaments you are penalized 10 points for giving someone mahjongg, regardless of whether they are exposed or not.  Not all tournaments will follow this.  Some will not penalize you for throwing in to no exposures.  But you are penalized for throwing in to 2 or more exposures.  Some penalize you 10 points some 20, some 25, some 30!  Everyone gets 10 points for a wall game.  Scores must be verified and initialed by the players.  This is very important, as people have been known to make a 10 look like a 70.  (Oh, did I say that?  Who would want to do that?)  Scores are turned in to the tournament director at the end of each round for tallying.

One very important rule that all tournaments follow:  Each game must be played in 50 minutes to an hour, tops.  That gives you about fifteen minutes a game which is how you should gauge your tournament readiness.  If you can keep up, you can bluff your way through a tournament.  The two best rules to follow are keep up, and don't give anyone else mahjongg no matter what.  Do that, and you'll be OK.

If you go to enough tournaments you start seeing the same people.  The mahjongg community is not that big, and the tournaments are great networking opportunities.  You can hook up with other players in your area or to places you go on vacation.

It is important that the tournament director lay down the ground rules at the start.  Tournament regulars know that there are little differences in how the tournaments are run.  For example, in the last year or so a rule has been implemented in some tournaments but not others - that is the rule that when you call a tile for mahjongg, when you take the tile you must put it ON your rack and not IN your rack.  If you put it IN your rack you will be called dead.  Bear in mind this is NOT an official League rule, but a rule that some tournament directors implement.  If this rule is in place, it's important to follow it.  In my regular game, we use the "on" the rack method simply because we don't want to be in the habit of getting called dead at tournaments.  But if someone who isn't a tournament player plays with us and puts it in their rack, we don't call them dead.

So I was at this tournament last Sunday.  It was one of the word-of-mouth get-togethers in a community room at an undisclosed location :-}  Serious addicts only.  It was on the smallish side, with only seven tables, but all the players were of the highest caliber.  It was brown bag lunch but everyone seems to have baked chocolate chip cookies, and I'm on Weight Watchers!  I think there were cut up vegetables on the table but they were hard to see amidst the brownies and the cheesecake.  I was playing pretty well, nothing to write home about.  I had a good first round and came in with a nice quint hand that I picked myself, which gave me a leg up.  I never threw in, so didn't get any minuses.  There were six rounds in all, three in the morning and three in the afternoon.  The second through fourth rounds were pretty average. I think I just won two or three games, but the seventh round was a charm for me, I got 105 points with a singles and pairs picked (60) two wall games (20) and a 25 point consecutive run.  So this pushed me ahead with a total of 250 for the day, and it was enough to take fourth place.  The winner had an extraordinary day, and ended up with 450 points.
Don't ask me how!  Sometimes people get really hot and just seem to win game after game.

While the tourney was fun and I would go again, I did have some problems with it.  One person had a set that was very old and faded.  It was hard to distinguish the flower from the 1 bam (even for a seasoned player) and some of the tiles were chipped and hard to see.  Another issue was the scoring was sort of loosey-goosey.  Each table followed a different protocol and many times the scores were not verified.  One table just told the players, oh, keep your own score.  It doesn't matter.  Believe me, I eyeballed her score because it did matter.  There shouldn't even be the perception of malfeasance!  The organizer of the tournament was doing it for the first time, and hopefully these things will get tightened up so that everyone can play fair and under the same rules.  I certainly couldn't complain about the refreshments!  And the people were nice to be with.

So, don't be intimidated by tournaments.  Maybe you could organize one at your clubhouse or senior center or just pull together as many people as you know play mahjongg and try it out.  You'll get hooked, I'm sure.
 I am posting the NMJL tournament rules on the blog to the left.. Or you can click here. I'm hoping it's not too hard to read.  The League will be happy to send you a copy if you like.  Enjoy!

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Thank you, Mrs. Unger - the NMJL Annual Meeting

A lot has happened in my mahjongg world since I last posted.  I went to a tournament last Sunday and came in fourth!  More about tournaments in a separate post.  This post is reserved for the Annual Meeting.

It was such a thrill to attend the League's annual meeting.  I met two friends, Shelley and Christina, in the lobby of the venerable 250 West 57th Street, where the League has had its offices for umpteen years.  We rode the elevator to the 6th floor and entered the three-room office where we were warmly welcomed by Marilyn Starr, Secretary of the League, who made sure we were bona fide members by checking our membership numbers, and then, to our surprise, we were ushered into the office of League President Ruth Unger herself!  (I was reminded of Wayne's World - I'm not worthy!  I'm not worthy!)

Mrs. Unger was SO GRACIOUS!  She said she was so pleased that we had taken the time to come for the meeting and she always enjoyed meeting members. 

The meeting was brief, and took place promptly at 9:00.  We were joined by Vice President David Unger, Ms. Starr and Adela Strano, board Secretary.  The minutes of last year's meeting were read, along with confirmation of the board of directors, who were elected last year and serve for two years.   Mrs. Unger was presented with a computerized list of 4200 proxies, all of which were signed and returned by members.  She laughed about how the proxies used to be in shopping bags and how the Secretary had to type the list manually. 

After the minutes were read and adopted, Mrs. Unger read her report.  She remarked about how the League has grown and now has over 300,000 members, and these are only the people who buy their card from the League.  It doesn't included those who purchase a card from retail outlets.  (And, BTW, you can now get a card on - but it is ALWAYS BETTER to get it from the League, either send a check or buy on their website, because then you become a bona fide member and your dues help fund the many charities that the League supports) 

After the report was read, we had a lovely chat.  Mrs. Unger said how happy she was to see so many young people playing, and men, too, we added.  She said that there are many husband and wife players and they register separately, each with their own card and online account.  The online presence of the League has grown, but they still insist on having a live person answer the telephone if a member calls.  Since this was the time of year when people are renewing their membership, the outer office was filled with boxes of envelopes from all over the country.  And I know you are dying to know, but, alas, we didn't get a "sneak peek" at the new card  :-[  But Mrs. Unger assured us we will love it.

We discussed tournaments and the possibilty for a national league championship.  Mrs. Unger said it would take an enormous amount of work to implement something like that, but that it was worthy of consideration.  Wouldn't that be great!  I asked if the League had any sort of tournament rules sheet that people could refer to if they wanted to start their own private tournament.  Yes, they do, and it is available on written request.   And I was granted permission to publish it on this blog, which I will do in my next post on tournaments.

We also discussed a very obscure mahjongg point of reference.  It seems that some fancy mahjongg sets have jokers which, instead of saying "Joker" say the names of the grandchildren of the set owner.  Well, it turns out if a player has an exposure with a joker that says "Sandra" and another player redeems that joker but then makes an exposure with a joker that says "Rupert" everyone knows she has another joker in her hand.  So make sure if you redeem Sandra, you expose Sandra the next time.

Upon leaving, we admired the display of vintage mahjongg cards and tiles, and you can see the blanket that proudly hangs on the wall of the League Office.   I took the picture with my phone, so it's not the greatest quality, but you can see that it is a quilt made from mahjongg tournament T-shirts from cruises over the years and was presented to Mrs. Unger and the League.

As stated, the meeting was brief, as everyone had to return to the work at hand.  In fact, we were only there for about a half and hour, though we could have stayed and chatted much longer.  We had planned to meet another friend, Arlene, in the lobby, but when she wasn't there at the appointed time we thought she would join us upstairs.  She hadn't come by the time we left, though, which was a disappointment.  It turns out that she had been running late and must have stepped off the elevator on 6 just as we had left.  She had her own chat with the League board, and it appears in the comments section below.

Thank you, everyone, for reading this, and I hope you've sent in your money for your card and the Internet game.  The League has been doing their great work since 1937, as you will see below, and it was an honor and a thrill to pay them a visit.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Change of Venue

Just a short note here.  The venue of the annual meeting of the National Mahjongg League has been changed to
their headquarters 250 west 57 Street NY, NY 10107.  It's still on Monday, February 7 at 9:00 a.m. sharp.