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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...

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?

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:  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.