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Saturday, May 28, 2011

So you want to host a game?

I always love to host a mahjongg game at my house.  There's nothing to it, really.  It's always a wonderful experience when the girls come over.  We play and chat and nosh and play some more.  But wait, I'm getting ahead of myself.

First I decide when.  Friday nights work best for me, even though I work full time.  I do so envy my retired friends (and one self-proclaimed "bum") who get to lounge around all day and play whenever they want to.  That's my goal, but for now I have to be content with a sort of regular Friday night game, a tournament every month or so, some online playing when I'm not burned out from sitting at a computer all day, and an occasional weekend invitation to fill in.  So Friday it is, although Saturday night is another alternative.  It's not like I hit the clubs anymore.

Next it's "who" - Who's available?  So-and-so is in Florida.  This one goes to the country house.  That one works alternate Friday nights.  Sheila has a wedding.  Myra who just recuperated from knee surgery now  injured her wrist.  I send out an all-purpose e-mail on Tuesday, Wednesday the latest.  Then I go through the responses:  Who else is playing?  Is so-and-so playing?  She was so slow last time.  Oh, I can't play with (blank).  Can I let you know on Thursday?  Do you still have that dog?  I can't come unless someone drives me.  How late are we playing?  Don't ask me to pick anyone up.  Can you give me a lift?  Does your husband  still smoke those cigars?  I couldn't breathe last time.  Can you turn down the thermostat?  Can you turn up the thermostat?  What's the pie?  I pick ahead, is that all right?  Can I bring my friend?  She hasn't played in fifteen years, but she'll pick it up quick.

Eventually it shakes out and five people say they can make it.  I send a confirmation e-mail to all five so everyone knows who else is playing, and although no one has walked out on me yet, we don't want anyone to feel ambushed.

Ack!  It's Thursday night!  The girls (and possibly guy) are coming tomorrow after work!  I run around frantically picking up dirty socks, chewed-up dog bones and vacuuming up popcorn kernels.  Dirty ashtrays get washed.  What?  Friday morning already?  Better clean the cat box now and tell the other half the girls are coming tonight.  "But I want to watch my horror movies," he says.  I tell him to watch them upstairs.  "And no smoking."

Friday lunchtime - time to buy the nosh.  This has evolved into a highly sophisticated art form.  Factors to consider:  Who is on Weight Watchers?  Who is pretending to be on Weight Watchers?  Are the salty people coming or the chocolate people?  Was it carrot cake Arlene didn't like or banana bread?  Does Rena take decaf or regular?  Seltzer?  Diet Coke or Pepsi?  Should I bother buying fruit since hardly anyone eats it?  Well, I can have it during the week.   Rhonda will like the chocolate covered pretzels.  (Who am I kidding?  I like chocolate covered pretzels.)  God, nuts are so expensive now!  How come Trader Joe only has ten-pound bags?  What will I do with the leftovers?  Better get things the birds and squirrels will eat, I don't have any grandchildren - yet. (Are you listening my only child who is 31?)

Okay, back to work.  What?  You want me to work late?  But the girls are coming.  What's more important?  Whew, made it out by five.  An hour to get home (yes, an hour on the subway even though I only live eight miles from work).  Spread out the goodies, set up the table, count my $7 in quarters, dimes and nickles.  Five minutes left to wolf down a chicken leg for dinner.  There's the bell!  Quiet, Barky!  Down!  Down!

Everyone arrives on time.  Oh, no, Sharon bought a microwave dinner from the Zone.  I didn't clean the microwave!  Aahhhhh....oh, well, now the world knows about my subpar housekeeping.  But we play, we chat, we nosh, we play some more.  A good time is had by all.


Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Getting better

I recently received an e-mail from a 76-year-old newbie.  She wrote:
"I am not very competitive by nature but I don't want to continue to  lose either.  Any tips?  How long should it take to be comfortable?  How long before I can guess what hands others are playing?  (these people can)  How important to play defensively, that is, by not  discarding a tile you may think someone wants?  I hate it when my discarded tile gives some one Mah Jongg."

All are excellent questions that need to be asked if one wants to take their game to a more satisfying level. 
Unfortunately, I can't say definitively how long it will take to be comfortable.  As with anything else in life, results come with effort.  I am still wondering when I am going to lose those last ten pounds, but if I don't take steps to count my points, track my food and remember what I had for breakfast, I will not reach my goal.  The same with mahj.  There are steps to take improve and I will outline some of them.   

Now, there are the Ten Commandments of Mahjongg as posted by Elaine Sandberg on her blog. Although it is written tongue in cheek, following these rules will help your game.  Ms. Sandberg also offers some specific strategies and I would recommend a read-through.   Tom Sloper posts a weekly strategy column on his Sloperama site - read and learn!  I will from time to time offer specific hand-based strategy, but for now will contribute my list of do's and don'ts.  These are things I have learned over the years and they all have helped to improve my game.

  • DO - Pay attention!  Watch the table.  Know  what has gone out and what hasn't.
  • DO - Know the card!  Study it until you know it by heart.  Then you will know what goes with what, what your opponents are playing, what hand is available to switch to, when to break up your hand and when you are still in the game.
  • DO - Take risks.  Try that singles and pairs hand or push for the quint.  The worst that will happen is you will have gone down in flames, but no one need know.
  • DO - Play with people who are better than you are.  Watch carefully what they do.  Emulate them.  When you are the bettor, stand behind them and try to figure out how they think.
  • DO - Ask questions.  Play your hand and then after the game ask another player if they would have made the same decisions you did.  You may be surprised by the different perspectives.
  • DON'T - Be afraid to make a mistake.  Everyone has gone dead or given someone else mahj at one point or another.  This is how we learn.  Fear and anxiety serve no purpose but to show your opponents that you are fearful and anxious. Playing too cautiously is as detrimental as playing too recklessly. If you have followed the Do's above, you need not worry.
  • DON'T - Bring your troubles to the table.  Think about the tiles, not about the price of gas or the medical test you are having next week.  Although I wouldn't say Mahj is necessarily a relaxing game, it provides an opportunity to pull your mind out of daily life and into an atmosphere where you can succeed by winning a hand.  
  • DON'T - Talk too much.  This takes your attention away from the game.  Talk between games.  Don't get distracted by gossip or opinions about who should win Celebrity Apprentice.
  • DON'T - Make assumptions about what other people are playing.  If Lorraine has put up four 1111's don't assume she is playing FF 2011 1111 1111 unless you have other evidence to support your conclusion.  There are other hands she could be playing.  Know what they are.
  • DON'T -  Fall in love with the tiles.  Yes, you may have three soaps, but do you need them?  Will they help you to win?  Not if all your other tiles are winds, at least not this year.  Grit your teeth and pass them away one by one.  Keep one and throw it out first so nobody gets them all.  Have control over your hand.
Incorporating these guidelines will help you improve your game, much like incorporating good food choices and exercise will help me lose weight.  Which reminds me - I'm still on vacation and I'm going to miss the water aerobics class if I keep on writing.  So what are you waiting for?  Go play!


Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Game Changers

So I'm on vacation in Florida and I'm in the pool and I hear some ladies talking about their mahjongg games.
"I'm not playing on Thursday any more," says one.  "We started playing with an aggressive New Yorker and she started telling everyone what to do, so I'm out."
"Our game used to be so pleasant," said another.  "Until Doris moved and Miriam started playing.  She's so slow!  She's on probation with me.  I'm under no obligation to play with her."
"I don't know what to do," said a third.  "A lady I've been playing with for years is developing dementia.  It's so sad, but it's ruining our game."

It seems that change is in the air.  The new card has been out a month and a lot of shifting is going on.  Snowbirds are heading back north, vacationers to their summer hideaways.   New players are moving in, old players are givng up the game.  A long-time player I know told me, "I don't play any more.  I just got tired of bitchy women."
The Greek philosopher Heraclitus tells us that the only constant is change.  Managing change is crucial when playing mahjongg, because mahjongg is full of surprises.  How do you react when you need a pair of 9 dots and Bessie puts out three of them?  Do you hang your head and break up your hand, or do you immediately scan the card for another option?   When you are set and you pick a tile you know someone needs for mahjongg, do you take a chance and throw it, or moan "oh, no" and telegraph that you've picked a hot tile and you aren't taking a risk? Can you accept the inevitable when all your tiles are out and there is one pick left or do you just have to call that flower and expose it with a joker even though you have no chance at winning?   Do you let that bitchy, aggressive New Yorker get under your skin, or do you keep your cool and play to win?

A good player will know how to look ahead and anticipate changes, whether it means changing a hand or changing the game she plays in.  This means having a plan B, or even a plan C.  As play continues, options narrow, and the moment comes when the outcome is clear.  The hand is won or lost, the game breaks up or the group dynamic alters in a way that is acceptable to all. 

When I get home there will be some changes.  Some of our players are away all summer.  Some are away on weekends, some on alternate weekends.  Some play irregularly and will need some refreshing.  Some new people are available that we haven't really played with before.  The process of getting a game together is almost as interesting and exciting as the game itself.

Ta-ta and happy mahj!