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Monday, March 28, 2011

World Premier of the 2011 card.

The new card is here.  Because of copyright issues I cannot actually show it - but that is as it should be - League rules!  However, I can give an overview, compare and contrast and create a new job title for myself - mahjongg card critic.  Move over, Leonard Maltin.

This year's production has Flowers making a spectacular comeback.  Thirteen hands have flower kongs, making a flower very valuable indeed.  Save them for the old joker squeeze play!

Only ONE hand with a pung of dragons.  And it's my favorite from the 2010 card!  Here I thought I had kissed it goodbye at the old card funeral game, but surprise, surprise, it's the only like number hand on the new card, and they even put the spaces in this time.  Lots of dragon kongs, though, which is a change from 2010.

Many old favorite hands have returned - the "bookends" with pairs in the middle, a wind hand with four flowers in the middle but, unlike 2009, it's closed.  The old standby FFFF 1111 2222 DD,  has been around for awhile now, a fallback hand for all seasons.  It appeared in the cards for 2003, 2004, 2005, 2007, 2008.  It took a break in 2009 and was back for 2010 and now 2011.  I wonder when that hand first appeared.  It must be older than I am!  During the '90s it wore a different hairstyle, FF 1111 2222 DDDD, but it's still the proverbial supporting character hand I fondly know as One-Two-Dragon. 

What's gone are those pesky double soap hands.  No more e-mails asking:  Can you call for a soap in 2010?  And no more NEWS!  Only two EWs, the rest are straight pairs, pungs and kongs (and one quint).  But we do have pairs of 1's.  Pairs of 1's in the 2011 category,  as well as in like numbers, consecutive runs, odd numbers, singles and pairs and you can also use them in one of the quints  (think 1123).   For the Big Hand you will need three pairs of 1's, which I think is harder to get than four soaps, don't you?

We've got some math hands again, so make sure you know how to add to seven.  This time the pairs are part of the problem, not the solution, and it looks like kongs of 7 will be very popular in bams, craks and dots.

So what do we know so far?  Well, try not to pass flowers or 1's.  If someone exposes three wests or three easts they are dead.  If someone exposes  four 1's, there are at least seven hands  they could be going for.  That's going to be tricky.   Four dragons - nine possible hands.  Yikes! 

The card is a quint-essential NMJL card.  It evolves and revolves in ways that we will not fully appreciate until we have played it enough to learn all the switching mechanisms, subtle cues and judgment calls that go into the card's creation.  Let us pause to thank the Ladies who Play and spend hours and hours all year long testing the new card to make sure that it is sufficiently challenging and engaging to be worthy of being called this year's card.  

It's here!

I've just been informed my card has arrived and I am still at the office!  I will return shortly to post my first impressions.  In the meantime, talk amongst yourselves. 

Monday, March 21, 2011

Time for a Change

Today is the first full day of spring, and one theme pervades games everywhere:   
This is what is running through my mind as I sit supposedly working at my unglamorous day job.  I am tempted to lift up the phone and call home:  "Did the mail come yet?  Is there anything from the League?"  And I know you are out there peering in your mailbox as well.  Now, I always thought the League sends the card en masse on March 31.  Not so, says my cousin Barbara in New Jersey.  "We'll have it by next week," she said to me last night by phone.  Oh, no, I thought, I'm having a "farewell to the card" party on the 26th!  We will eulogize our beloved 2010 card, wax nostalgic about our favorite hands - mine is the uber-utilitarian like numbers with dragons - and get to hold it in our hands and play one last time before we dump it on the pile of useless cards from years gone by.  But, if we do get the new card, we can hurriedly switch to a "welcome 2011 card" party and begin the brain-stretching process of reforming habits and crying about "Where has my favorite hand gone?"  I fully expect my favorite hand to fade into mahjongg hand oblivion, maybe to resurface in the 2030 card.  Hopefully I will be there to say, "Oh, they had that hand on the 2010 card!  I loved it!"  I should be.  I'll only be 78.

Why does the League do this to us every year?  Players of other forms of mahjongg do not go through this agony of waiting.  They eternally play the same hands, committing them to memory, the more skillful players creating complex variations of the tile sets.  Yes, there are limits and rules, but there is no Card, there is no panel of elders that sends a representative up the mountain to return with a tablet of Official Standard Hands.
If we take a sociological view, we might say that the differences in mahjongg style parallel differences in political and theological style when it comes to East and West.  We are American!  We like our rules written down.  We like to have an omnipotent body who benevolently and tirelessly works on our behalf to provide us with a code of play so that we may be ever challenged to do our best.

The new card promotes democracy - everyone is on the same level now.  New players, this is your chance!  No one will kvetch if you stop to think.  We all have to stop and think when the new card comes.  Hurry, the window will close quickly.  As soon as the card comes, put it side by side with the old one.  Check out the changes, compare and contrast, and play, play, play!  I've got my first tournament with the new card booked on April 29th, so I have a job ahead of me.

Before I close this post, I want to give a shout out to Arthur the parrot.  I played with some new friends this weekend, and I could have sworn Arthur was the fifth player.  He was in his cage behind me, but he had a bird's-eye view of my hand.  When I arranged my tiles, he would cluck and squawk, and I could swear he was giving me clues about what to play.  And when I threw a one bam he screamed  "WHAT?????????"
I should have listened to him, as I lost that game, but he sure made us all laugh.

Well, my next post will either be about the new card or about our farewell party.  I better go now and earn my salary, but first I have to call home to see if the mail came.

Monday, March 14, 2011


Lots of news this post, some of it just news and some of it NEWS!
To start, I finally figured out how to enable comments.  Unbeknownst to me, Google blogs are set to allow comments from registered users only.  I have changed it and I want to hear from all you yentas and yenta-wannabes out there.

So here is this week's tale of Mahj:

I had received an e-mail from a lovely lady inviting me to play at her house on Saturday night.  Because my Friday game did not meet as scheduled and because I had a tournament to be in shape for on Sunday, I agreed.  This was not a regularly scheduled game that I was stepping into, but a group of players who had never played together before.  The combined mahjongg experience among the five people in the room equalled approximately 150 years.  Only one person had been playing for about a year, the others had been playing for decades.  Well, let me tell you, hackles were raised!  One played hot wall, one played cold wall, one picked and threw and one threw and picked.  What were the table rules going to be????  At one point I thought it would come to blows, but we settled down, at least for that one night, and played NMJL tournament rules.  I appreciate the ladies agreeing to this, since I really didn't want to get confused at the tournament table.  We all had a great game, and oy, the food!  (But that's another post)  I'm sure we'll all be playing again as our regulars head off to their summer hideaways and the games start shifting around.

Tournament day dawned and wouldn't you know it my sinuses were acting up.  If it were just a game I would have cancelled, but I didn't want to leave Shelley and Brian, the organizers of the Manhattan Mah Jongg Tournament, without an East.  It's just not right in my book to leave a game in the lurch at the last minute.  (Another peeve of mine I will address in another post)  So I armed myself with a very large thermos of ginger tea and drove downtown with my good friend and fellow tournamentor, Arlene.  I lowered my expectations because of my condition but, guess what?  I came in second!!  My scorecard is attached for your review.
 I had a pretty unimpressive morning (the second round was four wall games in a row) and by lunchtime, after the third round, I was not all that high up in the standings.  There were 64 players and I was maybe about 27.  But after lunch I made the singles and pairs NEWS hand and a quints hand of flowers 7 and 8.  Then I threw in to another player who had two exposures.  I know I got a little reckless there.  I sometimes forget that tournament play is different from play at home.  It's important to be more defensive, and I learned the hard way that every point counts.  The minus 20 cost me first place, as the first place winner, Susan Ryhanan had 385.  Congratulations, Susan!  And Boo-Hoo to me! (not really)  But every game has a lesson hiding in there, doesn't it?

However, better even than winning if you can believe it, was what happened to me the second game of the fifth round.  I ended the Charleston with:  NNWSS4444JJ  and I had two tiles to option with.  I optioned with West and she gave me a 4 and a S.  I was set from the get-go!  And guess what the first tile was?  EAST!  When I called for mahjongg nobody believed me!  I didn't even believe me!  There's no extra points for that, it was just the regular 30 that the hand was worth, but that was the most valuable hand I ever made.  So even though I had a crashing headache I went home on cloud nine.   Thanks, Brian and Shelly for a great tournament.  And thank you, mahjongg gods and joker fairies for smiling down on me yesterday.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Table talk

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".