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Sunday, August 21, 2011

Mahjongg and the Brain

Those of us who play regularly know that mahjongg is good for us.  However, it may be difficult to articulate exactly what the benefits are, especially when we are trying to explain to non-players. We think in some way playing this game may stave off the lurking shadow of Alzheimer's, but don't quite know how.

Now I am not a doctor (nor do I play one on TV) and I will state unequivocally I have no credentials or scientific background. (In fact, I failed my biology Regents) But I do consider myself an amateur sociologist with a specialty in the subculture of National Mah Jongg League mahjongg players and I have an annoying tendency of picking up an interesting train of thought and somehow managing to relate it to my favorite passtime.  This is how my brain works and I'm used to it by now.  

Recently I have been thinking about brain activity.  It started in relation to losing weight (let's not go there) but eventually, as with all things, it led to mahj.  What comeback could I give the naysayers who think I am just sitting on my butt noshing and saying "One bam"?  

Dr. Marie Savard, who is a doctor AND plays one on TV suggests that the brain can be strengthened and challenged and this will help protect against MCI - mild cognitive impairment, which increases the risk of the development of dementia and later Alzheimer's.(1)  Mahjongg provides this strength training and challenge in the following ways:
  • Sensory stimulation - We see the tiles, touch them, hear their names, taste the honey wheat low-fat pretzels that Susan brought and smell -- well, four out of five ain't bad.  This stimulates the occipital cortex, superior temporal gyrus and parietal lobe, which governs sensory integration
  • Math skills - Although mahj is not a "numbers game," per se, it does involve some math skill.  "That's 25 and I picked it myself plus it's jokerless and bet on so it's $2.00 all."  Think cerebrum
  • Short term memory and organization - From the moment we put our tiles in our hand we are exercising our frontal lobe which controls executive functions such as planning (hmm...what hand should I go for...) organizing (should I keep the twos and sevens or the twos and eights...or the sevens and eights...) attention (what did I pass her?  Did she keep it?) 
  • Learning and long term memory - The hippocampus converts short term memory into long term.  It helps us to remember the rituals of the game (right, across, left; left, across, right) and to integrate the hands so that we don't have to look at the card so much.
In short, mahjongg actively engages many areas of our brain simultaneously.  Taking risks and learning new hands deepens this level of activity so that the game stays fresh.  But wait, there's more.

We cannot overlook the emotional component of mahjongg on our mental health.  Our limbic system, which governs emotion and instinctive behaviors, comes into play when we spend time with our friends and interact socially.   But more importantly, for many of us, mahjongg gives us a purpose in life, and research has shown that this may afford protection from decline.(2)  While to some it may seem a trivial purpose (after all, it isn't like you're a Congressman or anything) it provides a connectedness to a caring community and a refuge from many of the stormy ills of life.

So the next time someone pooh-poohs your obsession, just recount for them the many ways mahjongg is of benefit to you.  And if you can't remember all of them, you'll just have to play more mahj!

(1) Video of Dr. Savard (five minutes but worth watching)
If link doesn't work, copy and paste address into browser:

(2) Article - Living a Purposeful Life can Stave Off Alzheimer's

Friday, August 12, 2011

Tile Handling Tips

"I'm such a klutz," said the woman next to me at the tournament as her wall collapsed when she was pushing it out.  "I'm always the last one to build my wall," said another.  A third watched in envy as East flipped her tiles onto her rack in one swift move.   Experienced players have techniques that make them appear smooth and confident at the table.  Confidence in tile-handling technique spills over into the play - she must be a great player is the message it sends.

There is no question that mahjongg has image issues.  The Chinese government banned it in the past and young Americans see it as their yenta grandma's game.  So what are we who love this game to do?  I say it's a matter of semantics.  In order for mahj to rise to hipness, we need to exalt it as though it were worthy of  Olympic stature.  One way to do this is to learn to recognize great form.  How long does it take a swimmer to perfect the butterfly stroke, or a skater a triple toe lutz?  How long does it take a player to learn to push the wall out without it breaking apart?

I've videoed tile handling techniques I've learned over the years and I've named them.  Chalk it up to whimsy, but maybe it will catch on.  (Click on the links to watch the videos)

  • "The Mason"
    • Or the bricklayer, if you prefer.  Adapted from Robert Foster's description in 1924's "Foster on Mahjongg."  Pull six tiles against the rack and then another six on top of them.  Then six more and six on top of them.  Another six and six will give you 18, so you only need two tiles on the end for efficient wall building.
  • "The Wallbreaker"
    • Taught to me by my dear Aunt Sally in 1961.  The dice are thrown.  Number of tiles are counted from the right.  Last tile counted is pressed down with right hand while next two stacks are extracted and put behind the rack, leaving a space between the first wall and the last wall.  With fingers firmly on bottom end tiles, first wall is pushed out.  Last wall is slid to center of rack.
  • "The Claw"
    • Refined by Aunt Sally's best friend Clara Goodman in 1959.  Rather than mundanely taking "1 and 3," fingers form a claw as both tiles are lifted at the same time.
  • "The Flip"
    • Originator unknown, but must have been set in motion as soon as the League issued the first card.  Mahjongg card is flat against rack but not under it.  13 (or 14 if East) tiles are laid face down on card.  Using end corners nearest you, flip tiles onto rack.  Voila.  She must be a great player!
  • The Flick
    • In Japanese mahj, players must line up their discards in front of them.  Why tell everyone what you're not playing?  Flick that tile as far as you can, as though it were a Skelly cap that had to reach the center of the board.  (For those not from the Bronx, click the link) 
  • "The Tail"
    • Invented by a klutz, to make the wall easier to push out.  As the wall to the right gets exhausted, the last two tiles of the next wall are placed behind it. Master this move before proceeding to "The Swing"
  • "The Swing"  (Three variations)  
    • Righty swing:  With the right hand, grasp the rack at the leftmost end and push the wall out with the elbow, concealing the tiles with the forearm. 
    •  Lefty swing:  Grasp the rightmost end with the left hand and push with the hand.
    • Card concealing swing:  Holding the card up to conceal the tiles, use the pinkie and ring finger of the right hand to exert pressure on the bottom tiles only when pushing the rack out.
  • "The Flourish"
    • Upon calling for mahjongg, pinch the top of the outermost tiles, exerting pressure towards the center.  (Good for biceps)  Lift your entire hand in one movement and display it on top of the rack.  Then crow like a rooster!
While these techniques won't actually improve your game or your luck, they will add to your confidence.  Your opponents will make assumptions about your experience and skill and act accordingly.  Happy mahj!

Friday, August 5, 2011

Are you dead? Can I have your joker?

Calling someone dead takes courage.  It's not enough to cock your head, screw up your nose and say "Are you dead?" or "I think you're dead."  You cannot expect an opponent to hang their head in shame and say, "Yes, I am."  No one is obligated to declare herself dead, nor should she be. 

If you look at the photograph above (sorry for the fuzzy focus) you will see four seven cracks and three greens exposed.  Is she dead?  What do you think?

To confidently make a death call you first need to know what hand is being played.  Could there be more than one possibility?  Rose has three seven cracks and three greens exposed.  Hmm...look at the card.  Only one hand it could be.  What tiles does she need?  A pair, maybe?  A pair of what?  Oh, I know.  Seven dots. Are they out?  Let me look at the table.  Ooo, there's two out.  Agh, I have one.  What should I do?  If I throw it she may mahj.  If she doesn't mahj, she's dead.  If I keep it, I can't mahj.  Aaaagghhh....  You throw the seven dot.  You've killed her.  No one says anything.  Rose frowns almost imperceptibly, but then stays poker-faced.  Myrna picks.  Myrna throws.    Rose is dead.  You know she's dead.  She knows she's dead.  Maybe Myrna and Shirley know, but they aren't acting like they know..  Wait, you think.  Is she really dead?  Yes, she is.  Maybe there's another hand?  There's no other hand.  Okay, just say it. 
 "You're dead.  Three seven dots are out."
This would be the time for Rose to admit defeat and cease playing.  If she doesn't and merely scoffs at your accusation, insisting her hand has every possibility of being a winner, then you must play till the end and if she can't prove you wrong, she must pay you $.25.

Now, about those jokers.  There is much confusion about taking jokers from a dead hand.  After all, the hand is dead, right?  Shouldn't the jokers be dead, too?  The answer is no...and the answer is yes.
If her exposures contained jokers before the hand went dead, then, yes, those jokers can be taken.
But if the exposure caused her hand to go dead then, no, they can't be taken.  In fact, the League recommends that an exposure that causes a hand to go dead should be returned to the rack so there is no confusion.    In the hand above, if there were jokers in those exposures they would still be good, because they were good at the time they were exposed.  In other words, the hand is dead, but the jokers are still alive, wiggling and shimmering and screaming "take me, take me."  A dead hand is like a body you step over on the battlefield.  The soldier is dead, but you can still take his gun and boots and move ahead to victory.