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Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Post-hurricane Mahjongg

My house is in there somewhere

There's a song that asks, "Don't it always seem to go that you don't know what you got 'til it's gone?"  We learned this over the last few weeks after Hurricane a/k/a Superstorm Sandy.  On the Friday before the storm A., who had rebuilt her basement due to last year's hurricane, feared the worst, and the worst did come in the form of an even greater flood and the destruction of her mahjongg den!!!!!  Waaahhhhhh!

L. lost three cars and part of her house and couldn't drive to a game!!!!!!!!!!!  R. was at home with her 84-year-old dad with no heat and no power, unable to see the tiles!!!!!!!!!!  S. couldn't play because the L train wasn't running!!!!!!!!  G. couldn't come because there was no gas to be found!!!!  I had a giant tree on my house and couldn't open the front door.  Help!  Help!  I've got to get to my game!!!!

The flood waters receded and the streets cleaned up.  It will take awhile for normal life to resume for some, but, boy, are people happy to get back to playing.  Janice's fundraising tournament in Long Island had 24 tables, almost 100 people relieved to be doing something light and carefree, able to take their mind off the troubles of the day.  Our Friday night games are back in full swing, all present and accounted for.  How much better to complain about your crappy hand than your stingy insurance company.  What a relief to only have thirteen tiles to control and make into a recognizable pattern.  How wonderful to have friends to tell your story to.

The moral of the story is:  Recovery begins with mahjongg.  If you can sit down and play you're OK and things can't be that bad - it's all in the game.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Squeeze Play (Overexposed Redux)

(Cartoon credit:  Gary Larson - the Far Side)

I can recall two occasions in my mahjongg career when I fell victim to a squeeze play.  Squeeze play is a baseball term which describes a situation where a runner is on third, in scoring position; there are two outs.  The batter bunts and either the runner will score if the batter gets on base or if the batter gets tagged out the inning is over.  The pitcher must decide where to throw the ball - to home plate where the scorer can be tagged out or to first base where the batter will be thrown out.   

My mahj squeeze plays resulted from being over exposed - in one game I had no choice, but in another I did.

The first time it happened I was playing  FFFF 1111 2222 DD, the second time I was playing FF 3333 6666 9999.   In the first situation  I had four flowers, four 1s and four 2s exposed, leaving me set with one green dragon in my hand.  In the second, I had four 3s,  four 6s and four 9s exposed, leaving me with one flower in my hand.   The only difference between these two situations was that in the second game I didn't have to expose the sixes.  Before I exposed I had 1 flower, three sixes and a joker in my hand.  But I wanted a jokerless win, so I called the six and threw the joker. 

In both cases the stage was set - the hands were obvious, but had I not exposed the 6s, it would have been less obvious what I needed - a six or a flower?  If I let the six go, did it mean I was covered or did it mean I was short?

So anyway, what were the upshots?  Well, in both cases it was late in the game.  Other people had exposures out.  In game 1, a player had 1111 2222 out when I picked a flower.  There was one flower on the table.   The squeeze play was on, I had to either throw the flower or break my hand. I threw the flower and it went uncalled.  Whew.  

The second game was a tighter squeeze.  One player had 444 666 exposed and another player had 5555 6666 exposed.  I had one flower in my hand and then picked a 2 dot.  The squeeze came in the form of - do I throw the 2 dot to an obvious hand or do I throw the flower to a less obvious hand and break up my hand.  Ack!  Player 1 might have needed a 4 bam or 8 craks as well.  Player 2 may have had her flowers, she may have been going for a consecutive hand...but maybe not.  Ack!  Why did I expose those six craks??? I could have thrown the joker and been safe.  But, no!  Do I throw home or to first?  Risk taker than I am, I threw the 2 dot,  only to hear "Mahjongg" from someone other than myself.

Now, the situation could easily have been reversed and my exposures could have forced another player into a squeeze play if they had picked my flower or my green.  A more careful decision about over-exposing could have turned this "squeezee" into a "squeezer" and the "Mahjongg" might have been mine.

The moral of the story?  Be careful when you expose, especially when it leaves you with only one tile in your hand - if you pick hot, you'll be feeling that squeeze for sure.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Eeek! I'm exposed!


If you want to call a tile, you must expose - that is the price you pay.  In the little war that is a mahjongg game, exposing one's self can lead to victory on the battlefield or sudden death.  Exposures reveal your position, your strength and your weakness.  Who here hasn't faced the humiliation of having three exposures and throwing out joker after joker because the pair just wouldn't come?  Other players are too polite to laugh out loud, but inwardly they are thinking you're not getting my flower, uh-uh, no sir!

What kind of exposer are you?  Are you the reckless kind, the kind that grabs the first tile thrown to make a pung that you could have waited for?  Are you the cautious kind, the kind that says Wait! and then thinks and thinks and hems and haws, weighing all the options, making other players drum their fingers on the table and sigh?  Why do we play with her?  She takes forever to make a decision...Now I've forgotten what I'm playing...  

A good general plans ahead, lines up her ducks so that when the first soldier falls she knows another one will come out.  She has plan B in her mind.  Seven and four is eleven.  I can call the fours and the flowers.  If the seven goes out I'll switch to all fours, since I have two fours in two other suits.  Yes, I'm ready.  Go ahead, throw it!

There are two ways to look at an exposure.  One is as a necessary reveal, an exposure in the literal sense.  It leaves you open to attack.  Indeed, how many times have you exposed four five dots only to hear: five bam, five crak, three dot, soap, one dot, etc. etc.  One by one other players are discarding your tiles, eroding your hand, hoping you don't call.  But an exposure can also in itself be an attack.  An ambiguous exposure like four flowers leaves other players guessing.  You have made a definitive statement about your hand.  I know what I'm playing but I'm not really telling you anything...This kind of exposure has less of a cost than the more obvious one.  So the trick is to expose without really exposing anything.

Sometimes even the best of plans go awry - that is when a certain tomfoolery comes into play.  Here is a good rule:  When you have nothing - expose something.  Something big and scary like five dragons.
Yes, a good bluff gets results.  You will hear the sucking in of breath and see the fear in their eyes.  Aha!  She picked a flower and is afraid to throw it.  Is she...yes! she's breaking up her hand!  MWAHAHAHAHAHAH......Only you know that the rest of your hand is vintage random tile generator.  Remember, in a wall game nobody wins, but you don't lose.

The beginner will look at an exposure and then at the card.  Four seven craks.  What hand is she playing?  Could be seven plus four is eleven, could be all sevens, could be five, six, seven, could be six, seven, eight, could be, could be, could be...and then her tile goes out and she doesn't hear it.  A more experienced player looks at the table.  Four sevens.  All the one craks are out, so it can't be that.  Laura has six craks exposed so that takes care of that.  Can't be, can't be, can't be....This elimination process can whittle down the possibilities rather than bloating them.  It is a matter of reading the discards, taking attention away from your own hand, your own little problems, and seeing what is out there in the whirlpool of tiles that have had their brief moment of glory when they were thrown but are now sucked into oblivion, fallen into disuse, that is until the next game.  Try it.  When Pearl exposes four soaps, check the table.  What's out?  What's not?  What's hot?  Then draw conclusions about what she is playing.  Of course, you could be dead wrong and go down in flames when you throw what you think is an innocuous 2 crak.  After all, three are on the table.  How were you to know she would have three jokers?  Ah, mahj, you cruel game...

The ideas in this post were inspired by R.F. Foster's Foster on Mah Jongg, 1924.  He stated, in part:
Skill [in mah jongg] depends on the powers of observations, judgment and inference, tempered by the individual's courage or timidity; his optimism or fear of disaster.  Exposures are a litmus test of these traits - to which do you subscribe?

L'shanah tovah


Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Playing with a Future

The following was posted on the Fans of the National Mahjongg League Facebook page.  I thought it made a good springboard for discussion - so let's discuss.

"So why is the NMJL official website so poorly implemented? It's literally one of the most poorly developed websites I have ever used. And that online game they have (by Sigma) ... Really? I mean come on! So they "make the rules!" Does that make them think they are indispensable to the rest of the "mahjong" world and unaccountable for fostering a lackluster image to potential new players? I think not! Don't they know they bear a responsibility as stewards of the game in America? Don't get me wrong AMJA is not much better. (Please note, I am not referring to the visual design! I am talking about the features and ease of use/Information Architecture) At least they post occasional tournaments. I mean there's not even a contact form on NMJL website. Do they really expect everyone to call them with their issues? And who wants to answer THAT phone? Wow!   I'm gonna make a prediction, which may or may not come to pass: NMJL/AMJA will be a lost section of mahjong within 20-30 years if they don't move into new better use of new technology and stronger (dare I say) flare for marketing to new players. I mean, I'm a new player and I have a penchant for the more International forms of Mahjongg, but when I see the lackluster appeal the "American Flavors" hold for younger players it saddens me. I'd like to see a stronger eye towards real league-style sportsmanship and national tournaments that might reinvigorate some youthful interest in this marvelous game. Maybe I'm alone in this, but I hope not."

This post expresses many of the frustrations and desires of NMJL players, and it asks the question: What is the future of the League?  In order to answer we need to know what the League is and what it isn’t.  When I have spoken to Mrs. Unger she was adamant the mission of the League is twofold:  Create the card in such a way that will entice new players yet remain challenging for experienced players and distribute the proceeds from the sale of cards to deserving charities.  Most players don’t think about the charitable aspect of the League, and there’s nothing wrong with that.  But regardless of where you buy your card, your money goes to fulfill that mandate, and the League takes that most seriously. 

Expansion of the responsibilities of the League would take time and money, and that may diminish the charitable donations.  While I agree that there should be more tournaments and standardization of same, I do not think it would benefit the League to run them.  It is independent tournament operators who determine how best to run their event, using League rules and efforts are underway to standardize (see post on Master Points).  But this is a tough task and one the League may not be in a position to fulfill.  They do have a rule sheet that is available to all tournament operators; some follow it, some don't.  How would the League enforce this?

The online game, while sanctioned by the League, is the product of a third party.  I understand that the software is undergoing an overhaul that will include more features and will run on more platforms, but will not be playable on the iPad, tablets or phones, which is a complicated and expensive endeavor, but nothing is stopping someone from creating such an app if they thought they could profit from it.   There are other sites, such as Mah Jongg Time, which allow players to play NMJL mahjongg online.  These independent operators may not be comfortable with the League overseeing their operations.

While the League could have a more sophisticated online presence, with contact forms and Facebook pages, I do not believe they see it in their purview to manage a one-and-only official type of branding. There are many fan pages and retailers who provide this function.  I would be interested in hearing others’ opinions about whether the League name would attract new players in and of itself, or whether they think that the word is spread by all the members out there in one form or another.

I have heard, however, about rudeness on the phone, and there is no excuse for that.  It is a tiny office, and the people there work very hard and may be under stress at certain times, but perhaps an additional volunteer or two would solve this problem.  New players should be aware there are rule books available if want to play seriously and these are written by very experienced players, such as Elaine Sandberg and Tom Sloper, who also has an extensive FAQ list on his website and will answer questions, as will I.

So in my opinion, the future of the League will look much like today.  The League will depend on outside entities to attract new players, organize tournaments and sell tchotchkes.   Will the game die out?  I don’t think so.  Membership has grown enormously in the last few years and new players come on board every day.  Young people are catching on, and as baby boomers retire they are learning the cost of a card is a bargain for the hours of  pleasure the game brings. The League leaves it to us, the members, to spread the word, extol the virtues and teach new players this wonderful game.   
Again, this is my opinion.  I would like to hear from others about what they feel the future of the League is.  Do you think the game will die out?  Is the League going the way of the dinosaur?  Discuss!

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Dear Lorraine,

I'm about to return home from Florida, and didn't want to leave without saying goodbye.  I played Monday night with Carol, Fran, Sydel and Madeline and I went pie.  They are worried that the game is going to break up now that you're gone.  I hope that doesn't happen.  Madeline said she called Marty and the boys to find out what happened to your set and they screamed at her and said they trashed everything, but she didn't believe it.  I called too while I was here, but didn't get a reply.  Your set and your mother's set, I understand.  What will become of them?  

I could feel you in the room, little Buddah - talking to yourself and your tiles. I should have realized when you  stopped commenting on my posts, but too busy with my own stuff I failed to notice.  So I got a shock when I heard of your sudden death and had to adjust to the knowledge that you would not be here when I arrived.  No more lunches, no more games.

Remember when I flew in for the tournament and my flight was late and I raced from the airport to pick you up and then drove on I95 like a maniac and we made it just in time?  Or the time you showed me the baby owls' nest when we were the last ones out of the clubhouse?  I still have the insulated mahjongg lunch bag that I swapped with you for the beach tote.  Thank you so much for bringing me into your game when I didn't know anybody.  And for your steadfast support for my cockamamie writing projects, the ill-advised mahjongg murders.

When I went to bet on Monday, I saw little numbers with circles next to the names on the pad.  What's that for?  I asked the girls.   "It's something Lorraine liked to do," Madeline said.  "She liked to see how many games we played."  She misted up, and so did I.  But it sounded like something you would do.  Why would you need to know how many games you played? No reason, just curious.  So now I am going to do it too.  I'm going to start a tradition of putting the number of the game in a circle next to the person bet on.  I don't care if no one else wants to do it - I will do it and this way I can bring you into my game like you brought me into yours.

So bye, my first Florida friend.
Rest in peace.

Thursday, May 24, 2012


So the card has been out how long?  A month and a half now - and I'm still making stupid mistakes.  There are a lot of things I can blame it on; transitioning from full time to part time work, transitioning from being in a relationship to being single (anyone know any widowers?) transitioning into my golden years or my budding cataracts. But the truth is I'm not focusing.  If I were focusing I would know:
  • The hand is 11 222 11 222 3333 - It doesn't take dragons anymore!  Get it through your head!  I have to learn to stop getting excited when I see a lot of one's and two's and dragons.  Grr.....
  • It's 2012 not 2011!  I have to keep telling myself  I don't need pairs of ones to make the Big Hand.
  • The quint is any dragon not any wind.  Having four souths and four flowers means nothing!!!!!!
Today was pretty bad.  I had a great hand.  In fact, I was set, but I didn't know it.  My hand looked like this:
11 33 55 777 9JJ9.  So exciting - all I needed was a 5 bam.  But I picked a 9 bam.  And I put the 9 bam in my hand and threw out a Joker.  DOH!

Even worse, I am ashamed to say, but I will confess - I was set for a great closed hand but then went dead.  Good thing, though - the hand was 5JJ 7 999 5JJ 7 999. The last 7 bam went out and I started whining about going dead when I suddenly realized  DOH!  I pretended I saw another great hand and acted like I knew what I was doing but boy, did I feel like an idiot.

But I realized I was not alone.  I was playing in a senior center with a very nice group of ladies.  It was my first time playing with them but definitely not the last.  And all around me I was hearing things like:
"I gave away my tile"
"Oh, I'm so stupid!"
"What did I do that for?"
"I had the two one cracks but I threw them out!"
"I knew I shouldn't have thrown that!"
So I didn't feel so bad.  We are, after all, only human and mahj is only a game.  So if you play with me and you hear me muttering under my breath "That's not the hand, that's NOT the hand," you will understand it's my way of telling myself to focus and make the transition from the old card to the new - as if there weren't enough transitions going on...(oh, yes, I'm going to be a grandma!  Woo Hoo!)

How about you?  Any DOH! moments you want to confess?  We won't tell!

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Getting the Point

Rixi Markus - World Grand Master of Bridge and her team

The new card is here and it seems like everyone is suddenly taking an interest in mahj.  Everywhere I look there are tournaments, Facebook pages, groups, leagues, meetups, etc., etc.  There has been a major resurgence in the game and it is taking hold all over the country.

We all know that National Mah Jongg League mahj is not an Olympic sport, but that doesn't mean it should struggle for legitimacy.  Why is it that mahj players are looked upon as gossipy grandmas?  Why the snickers and raised eyebrows when we say we enjoy the game? Is it because most people are unaware of the level of strategy involved in playing a good game of mahj? Is it because NMJL mahj is seen as a women's game and as such it is viewed as inherently unchallenging?  Could it be that there is an aspect of devaluation by a culture that marginalizes aging women?  (Can you tell I am about to turn 60?) Bridge and Scrabble players do not face this type of scorn, and does anyone wonder why?

In an attempt to lift the game to a higher level Grand Master Gladys Grad of Mahjongg Madness is working to standardize tournaments and implement a Masters points system.  I think this is a great idea.  It encompasses all tournament play and is not proprietary to one tournament host.  Anyone who is running a tournament using National Mah Jongg League standards (13 tile game) may apply to award Master points.  The cost is minimal and it can add value to a tourney and attract more players.  Players accumulate points by playing in qualifying tournaments; points are awarded for attendance and all scores.  The higher your score the more points you earn and over time you reach a "grand dragon" level which identifies you as an experienced player.

What is the advantage of this system?  Identifying levels separate the wheat from the chaff and lends cache to a player, much like being a black belt separates the karate master from the white belt beginner.  A high ranking player could become a celebrity in her own right.  A database will be kept of rankings so you can see how you rate against other players.  

Many players are content never to go to a tournament, but in my opinion attending tournaments teaches you to better your game.  Maybe you didn't know a hand could be played in a particular way; maybe your table plays with a misunderstanding about the rules; maybe you need to be competing with people who play better than you do so that the game is more of a challenge. It could be you need someone to teach you that one little trick that will make everything fall into place.  

When I go to tournaments I confess I peek at scores. If I know someone is "up there" I play a tighter game. Playing with a highly ranked player raises the bar for me. Win, lose or draw playing against someone who knows what they are doing beats winning as the result of a careless mistake. A grand dragon should play like a grand dragon.

"Oh, but I'm not competitive," is a plaint I often hear. But 'fess up. Mahj is a competitive game. We act so sweet and ladylike while we're taking down an opponent, but even my blessed Aunt Sally, who would titter and look down at the table when she won, allowed the game to free her inner shark. "Oh, how do you like that?" she would declare in feigned startled surprise. "I have mahjongg." In her photo she holds her trophy high.

With the Master Points system everyone wins, because you get points for attending and they don't expire.  While the League is silent about tournaments and points, preferring to focus on putting out the card and donating to charitable causes, the opportunity to unify the mahj community should not be lost.  I already see groups popping up that advocate not using a card, playing 14 tiles, even making up your own hand!  Come on, People!  We are National Mah Jongg League mahjongg, which is a very specific, rules-based game.  Well-organized tournanments provde a great opportunity to meet people and sharpen your skills - why shouldn't you get credit for it?  

So I would urge all tournament hosts, including those doing fund raisers, private invitation only and clubhouse tournaments to register at  The cost is low and the benefit is high. We all benefit by playing by the same rules and being rewarded for our efforts, even if we don't win that first place pot.  So the next time you sign up for a tournament, ask if they give points and if not, why not?   

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Review of the 2012 Card

Today may be April 1, but I am not fooling when I tell you I got the card yesterday.  I placed my order as soon as I got the newsletter, and I believe, but I could be wrong, the earlier you order, sooner you get it. So to my surprise, instead of a "farewell to the card" game last night, it was a "hello" to the new card. I always order a bunch so there was enough to go around.  And now, without further adieu (or is it ado?) here is what you will find when the card gets placed into your hands:

As you know, I cannot reproduce the card here.  What I will do is compare and contrast the 2011 card and the 2012 and describe the new hands as best I can without breaking any laws.  It may be helpful to follow along with the 2011 card as you read. So, without further adieu - oh, I said that already.

The 2012 hands are very different from the 2011 hands.  Only two hands take flowers, whereas all 2011 hands took flowers.  The hand with four flowers, four two's and four soaps now requires a 12 as opposed to an 11.  One hand -  FF 2012 1111 2222  - worked very well for me last night. I won on it once and it switched over very nicely to FF 1111 2222 3333  when I went dead on the pair of 2's and had already exposed the kongs..  The "big hand" has been altered to reflect 2012 instead of 2011.

Big changes in even number hands as well.  The only hand kept from 2011 was the two and eight kongs with the pairs of four and six in the middle.  Whereas in 2011 there were two hands with matching sixes and eights, now there are four.  Again, a diminished use of flowers with only two hands taking a pair of flowers and no hand using a kong of flowers.

After a two-year absence, flowers and like numbers are back. A kong of flowers, two kongs of like numbers and a pair make this much-beloved fallback hand.  But numbers and dragons have gone to the NMJL storehouse.

The seven hands are now eleven hands, so be careful when someone exposes a kong of fives and a kong of sixes in the same suit.  It could be an 11 hand or it could be the old favorite FFFF 1111 2222 DD  (in fives and sixes) or it could be the other old favorite 111 222 3333 4444. (read three, four, five, six)
But I'm getting ahead of myself and am not up to consecutive numbers yet.

I've very happy to see that any wind any number has reverted back to any dragon any number, since I never got used to playing it that way.   Last night a table mate had FFFF JJRR 8888 (craks), and easy switch to the quint from the seven-eight or eight-nine dragon.    Like number quints have been reprised, but the consecutive run quint is now one suit instead of three.  I'm okay with that.  New addition is an odd-number quint either in one-three-five or five-seven-nine.  Don't remember ever seeing that one before.   Very creative, NMJL!

The classic hands are back but the pattern has changed.  Instead of a pair of ones and a pair of fives, it's now a pair of ones and a pair of twos.  An old favorite has been restored, but with a twist.  Warning!  The one-two, one-two dragon hand has been replaced by one-two, one-two three, only it's not two pairs and two pungs and a kong, its a pair, a pong; a pair, a pong and a kong.  I should know, since I declared mahj in error the first game on the new card.  Instead of having 55 666 55 666 7777  I called for mahj and exposed 55 66 555 666 7777.  Everyone threw in their hands and was ready to pay me when eagle-eyed Arlene said, "You're dead, Linda."  Since everyone else threw in, I had to pay her .50.  So much for my introduction to the new card!  

The "sandwich" hand, a/k/a "bookends" (pairs in the middle) is gone, but if you really liked it you can find a similar hand in winds, with a kong of winds on each end and pairs in the middle; odds for NS and evens for EW, as always.  For a closed hand three consecutive numbers with pungs of opposite dragons has been brought back.  I always call that the "Margaretann" hand since Margaretann played it so often (and usually won).

Odd numbers are very robust this year. One nice thing about this card is that it is strong in all categories and there are plenty of hands to choose from.   The hands with the dragons in the middle are gone, but are made up for by good opportunities with one's three's and fives, and five, seven and nine.  Three closed hands, but very doable.

One surviving hand in winds is the closed hand with the kong of flowers in the middle, so, again, do not expose three easts or three wests!  Three hands with kongs of winds and one solid hand with a kong of norths, easts and wests, and a pair of souths, bring back some good switching opportunities with winds.
The last hand under winds on the 2011 card remains on the 2012 card.

These hands have had a nice face lift.  One hand mimics the pattern of the hand I went dead on; i.e., 33 666 33 666 9999.  So if you see two pungs of sixes exposed, don't make an assumption!  The closed hand carries over, as does the 333 666 6666 9999, but the old favorite with two matching pungs has been recycled back in.  Welcome back!

A little twist on the wind hand - four pairs of winds and three pairs of consecutive numbers.  So remember if you play this hand it's not EW any longer, but EE WW.   The 9987 hand has returned, once again without the counterpart 33221, but I suppose as long as 2's and 1's are in the Big hand, that hand will stay off the card.  I was a little disappointed not to see my all-time favorite pairs hand,  FF 1122 1122 1122, but I suppose that one is absent for the same reason.  There is a nice selection of pairs consecutive runs, evens and odds so a little something for all categories.

So that's the overview of the new card, which is making its way into mailboxes as we speak.  How do you feel about the new hands?  Do you have pet names for hands?  Good luck everybody and have a great time on the new card!

Saturday, March 31, 2012

The New Card is Here!

The new card is here!  To my surprise, it came in my mailbox today - so keep your eyes open.  The League will be sending everyone their cards within the next week or so.  A full review will follow.
Impressions so far:  The League giveth and the League taketh away.
Flowers and like numbers are back!
The "sandwich" hand is gone!
Looks like One's and Two's are the stars of the show - but if you keep your three's you won't be sorry.

Played it tonight and for me the old card is history.  This week will be screwy for people trying to play both cards - too much of a brain scramble for me!  Stay tuned for more - I have to go back and bet!

Thursday, March 15, 2012

You better, you bettor, you bet!

Okay, you all know what's going to happen in a couple of weeks, so get your last licks in and kiss the old, tired card goodbye.  Newbies, now's your chance.  There is a window of opportunity that lasts a few weeks, when the playing field is somewhat leveled - experienced players must slow down to absorb the changed patterns of the new card.  Yes, us old hands (pun intended) will recognize some recycled favorites, but it would not be unusual for a long time player to make a mistake, such as exposing on a closed hand or putting out too few tiles.  So new players, get cracking as soon as you get the card - memorize it!  Put flash cards on your smartphone!  Have your loved ones drill you on the hands and all their variations!  Because how will you know who to bet on if you don't know what they're playing?

What follows is a primer on betting. Since betting for money is illegal in some states, I will use the word "points" instead of "cents" but whether you use chips or matches or something else, the principles are the same, and I've heard tell that some folks will take the plunge and start betting when the new card comes.

We start with four players and a bettor.  After a player is East, she becomes the bettor and the prior bettor sits in the seat East vacates.  (At one time players bet with chips which were kept stacked on the posts at the end of the rack.  A set came with five racks, and when the bettor got up, she took her rack with her.)

After the players have completed all passing (including optional) the bettor circles the table and makes a bet.  How do you know who to bet on, your ask?  As with every other facet of this lovely game, you will need to make a complicated decision in a brief time, and you must do it in silence.  Every "hmmm" or "oy" is telling, so when you do the "bettor's walk" keep your opinions to yourself.  Even saying "this is a hard bet" will influence the course of history.  And players, there is no need to "show and tell".  It's really to your disadvantage to be bet on, as you end up with less mon -- fewer points.  Be aware that an observant player can gauge the strength or weakness of a hand by how the player reacts to the bettor's gaze.

So what to look for?

  • Who's got the jokers?
  • Who's got their pairs?
  • Who's got whose tiles?
  • Who's the only one playing winds?
  • Who's been running hot?
  • Who has a great hand but doesn't see it?
  • Who has a calling hand?  A closed hand?
Sometimes a bet is easy.  A player is in position to call every pung or kong and no one else is playing their tiles.  No guarantees, of course - we've all been undone by the errant flower.  In a way, the bettor is a demigod.  You have the big picture, although you can't see everything in the wall, and you can only make a decision based on what you see in front of you.  This is where knowledge of the card comes in, because more often than not, the hand at the end is not the hand at the beginning so knowing the switching potential of a hand is important.  

Sometimes a bet is hard, and oftentimes we make a decision based on the player, not the hand.  A player with a proven track record of making a hand out of nothing is a surer bet than a cautious player who only feels comfortable with open 25 cent -- point hands.And a bet on a wall game is always an option. Bear in mind that a few good bets will make up for losses at the table, so the value of a hand being played can be a factor in your decision.

For those not used to betting, the payoffs can be confusing, so let me go through them.   Assume player A is the winner and she was playing a 25 cent -- point hand.  Do the math to get the results for higher scoring hands.

  • She picked her mahj herself and was not bet on    All players including bettor give 50.  (Total to player A = 2.00)
  • She was thrown her mahj tile and was not bet on.  All players including bettor give 25, thrower gives 50.  (Total to player A - 1.50)
  • She picked her mahj herself and was bet on.  All players give 50 to player A and 50 to bettor.  Or, alternatively, all players give 1.00 to player A and she splits it with the bettor. (Total to player A = 1.50, bettor gets 1.50)
  • She was thrown her mahj tile and was bet on.  All players give 25 to player A and 25 to bettor.  Thrower gives 50 to player A and 50 to bettor.  Or, alternatively, all players give 50 to player A and thrower gives 1.00 to player A.  Player A splits with bettor.  (Total to player A = 1.25, total to bettor 1.25)
  • If player A's hand has no jokers at the end (jokers can be taken from exposures) then all values are doubled again.  E.g. she picked her own mahj, had no jokers at end, all pay 1.00
  • If the thrower was bet on, the bettor pays whatever the thrower pays.
So bet responsibly!  Most games set a limit, called a pie.  If someone loses the total amount in the pie, they keep playing but don't have to pay anymore.  Yes, it's a handout, but tt happens to us all and it's nothing to be ashamed of.  May the 2012 card come quickly and keep your purse jingling!

Monday, February 13, 2012

The Standards of the League

Whenever anyone asks me what is the difference between Chinese mahjongg or Asian mahjongg and the type of mahjongg that I play, my first response is usually "Well, we play with a card and the others don't," or "We use jokers."  But on reflection it occurs to me that the correct response is "We play by the standards of the National Mah Jongg League," and I learned just what this means when I attended the annual meeting on February 6, 2012.

The meeting itself was without fanfare; the reading of the minutes followed by the report of the president, Ruth Unger (above right).  The membership was represented by five players, including Jerry Goldman, pictured above, who has been playing for 62 years.  Board members Marilyn Starr, Adele Strano (above left and center) and Mrs. Unger's two adoring sons, David and Larry, were also present.

The word "standard" has many meanings.  It could mean usual or customary, such as the standard layout of a business letter.  It could mean morals or ethics, as in the standards set by a parent or teacher.  And it can mean recognized excellence, as in a standard for achievement.  In speaking with Mrs. Unger, I knew I was in the presence of a woman who set the highest standards not only for herself, but for the League and its 500,000 members. In many ways she could be compared to the likes of Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg in her leadership style.  Like these celebrated CEO's, Ruth Unger has narrowed her focus and devoted her life to the mission of the organization.  For the League that is two things:  The Card and Philanthropy.  Half the year is spent developing a card that will please the members - and I learned what a balancing act that is.  It must be easy enough for new players yet challenging enough for experienced players.  The other half of the year is spent distributing the proceeds to charitable organizations; $500,000 to St. Jude's Hospital as an example.

Some may rail at the traditionalism of the League.  "Why don't they open up more hands?"  "Why don't they have more of an online presence?"  "Why don't they market themselves more?"  In my opinion the reason is that Ruth Unger is a purist, in its most complimentary usage.  It is her effort that we see when we open the new card, and her love and devotion is evident by the extraordinary growth of the membership.  500,000!  How many lives were saved by each humble $8 card purchase?

Some readers may have gleaned from prior posts that I am a very strong proponent of corporate social responsibility.  The National Mah Jongg League, with Mrs. Unger's leadership, invented it - and we love them for it..

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Year of the "Dragon"

There has been a lot of talk about soaps going around lately, but in honor of Chinese New Year I think it appropriate to bring out the story of How the Dragon Got Its Name.

We all know that mahj originated in China, and as such there are distinctive Chinese elements to the game.   But because the game has a long history and myriad variations, these elements have been adapted to suit the cultural preferences of the time and place.  So - what are dragons, really?  The information wasn't difficult to find, and the words that follow are not mine.  I found all this stuff on line and it's fascinating.

Chinese writing originated 1500-1000 BC and the earliest depictions of characters were known as Oracle Bones.  These were simplistic pictures found on turtle shells and animal bones.  According to Osamuko's mahjongg blog the Oracle Bone depictions of what we currently know as dragons were:


The symbol that we now know as "red" is a flagpole inserted into a holder.  "White" is the meat of an acorn.  The oracle bone symbol for "green" is not known.

Later depictions of these symbols became more advanced.  The flagpole has evolved into the Chinese character for "middle way" or "center" and there will sometimes be a C on it.  The "white" tile is sometimes blank, but may have a P on it (Pa in Cantonese = white).  The green tile is a character which represents a sack of coins and stands for good fortune.  It may sometimes have an F on it (Fa in Mandarin = prosperity)

In mahjongg divinity the tiles are identified as White = heaven, Green = earth, Red = Man (in the middle between heaven and earth)

In addition, the three tiles stand for something more physical and that is archery.  The red symbol is a direct hit, the blank tile is a miss and the green symbol is that of the archer drawing his bow.

The symbols also correspond to Confucian virtues; red for benevolence, green for sincerity and white for purity, or freedom from corruption.  I would speculate that the use of the word "soap" for white dragon is adapted from the idea of purity or cleanliness, but that is just my humble opinion.  And because it is sometimes depicted as a blank tile and represents a miss in archery, it is a natural go-to tile for use as a null or zero when needed.

So how did these symbols become known as dragons?  I cannot say for sure.  It says on Wikipedia that it was introduced by Joseph Babcock when he first imported the game to the West in the 1920s.  Dr. Foster in his 1923 book Foster of Mah Jongg refers to the red, green and blank tiles as Dragons but says it is not necessary to refer to them as such; merely as red, white and green.  I am thinking that Babcock wanted to spice up the tile set and make it seem more exotic and what could be more "Oriental" than the all-powerful dragon?  I may be wrong, but hey, marketing is marketing.

So here's the the year of the dragon - may you draw your bow, hit the mark and stay free from corruption.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Jokers - take them or leave them

   A major difference between Asian style mahj and American (NMJL) style mahj is that we use jokers and they don't.  When the game was imported to the U.S. in the 1920's jokers were not part of a set, and for many years flowers were used as jokers.  Check out this information from a chart posted by Tom Sloper.  It lists the card years, and the number of flowers and jokers used that year.  What would make the League go from 20 flowers in 1949 up to 24 in 1950 and back to 20 in 1958?  I will be asking Mrs. Unger that question at this year's Annual Meeting, so stay tuned.     

1937-42    8 Flowers
1943        12 Flowers
1944-45   14 Flowers
1946        16 Flowers
1947-48   18 Flowers
1949        20 Flowers
1950-55   24 Flowers
1956-57   22 Flowers
1958-60   20 Flowers
1960-62   14 Flowers/2 Jokers
1962-66   12 Flowers/4 Jokers
1966-67    8 Flowers/6 Jokers
1967-68   10 Flowers/6 Jokers
1968-71     6 Flowers 8 Jokers
1971 -       8 Flowers/8 Jokers

.This chart also explains why you will see so many flowers in an older set.  And why you might see a flower with nail polish on it to signify a joker tile.  Imagine getting a new set every year to accommodate all the changes?  Oy.

So here are the basics on jokers - from the obvious to the obscure.

  • Jokers can only be used with three or more identical tiles.  You cannot use jokers with 2011, 1223, NEWS or any pair - even if it is your mahjongg tile.
  • If someone throws a joker, it can never be called.
  • If someone puts out an exposure with a joker, you may exchange the natural tile for the joker (yes, even if you are playing a concealed hand)  But first - Pick a tile and think through your strategy.
    • Look at the table.  If your opponent has 2 three craks and a joker, do you see another three crak on the table?  If no, take the joker before someone else does.  
      • If you have the only tile available to exchange, ask the following: 
    • Does the joker open your hand for calling?  If yes, take the joker.
    • Are you playing a jokerless hand?  If yes, wait and see.  If you will be set (one away), throw the tile.  If you go dead, take the joker and open your hand.
    • If you are two tiles away you can benefit by holding the natural tile.  Calling for exposure, then exchanging the joker and claiming mahjongg will give you a self-pick win.
    • Sharon has three flowers out with a joker.  You are playing a hand that needs four flowers and you have three.  No flowers are on the table.  Take the joker before someone else does.
  • A joker is always safe to throw at the end of a game.  Pretend you didn't see it so you won't let on that you are waiting for a pair.  Oh, gosh, you had six craks out?  I thought they were eights!  
  • Do you really want to  expose with a joker at the end of the game when the fourth three bam is not on the table?  Some smart cookie is holding back the tile waiting for the joker to exchange.
  • Don't assume that five jokers guarantees your win, but do try to work your hand around them.  That's what quints are for.
Do you have any joker do's or don'ts?  Share them with us!  And please take a moment to contact your representative about the limitations of the Stop Online Piracy Act.  

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Goofus and Gallant play Mahjongg

Copyright Highlights for Children August 1962
Who doesn't remember Goofus and Gallant, the moral arbiters of the baby boom generation.  While they may be tame and almost laughable by today's standards, the comparative illustration of their behavior yields timeless lessons.  How does it apply to mahjongg, you ask?  Well.

  • Goofus agrees to play, then calls five minutes before the game and says, "I forgot I have tickets to the opera."
  • Gallant checks his calendar before accepting and says, "I'm free and I'd love to play!"
  • Goofus coughs and sneezes all over the tiles and says, "I just can't get rid of this cold!"
  • Gallant remembers to sneeze into his sleeve and uses Purell before touching the tiles. 
  • Goofus pulls out a $20 bill on a $3 pie and asks if you have change.
  • Gallant makes sure to bring nickles, dimes and quarters.
  • Goofus will contact a casual friend or stranger and expect her to find him a game.
  • Gallant will be proactive and take a class, find a community center or start a meetup group.
  • Goofus will corner a good player on a break and whisper, "Play in my game - and don't tell the others!"
  • Gallant will either invite everyone present or issue invitations privately.
  • Goofus will point and say, "Ha, ha!  You could have taken her joker!"
  • Gallant will remain silent and assume the joker was not needed.
  • Goofus will snarf down all the Crunch 'N Munch and never bring snacks or nosh.
  • Gallant, realizing the hostess is on a budget, will ask, "And what may I bring?"
  • Goofus will spread rumors and say, "What a cheater! She can't possibly win so much!"
  • Gallant will admire the achievements of a good player.
  • Goofus at the end of the game will ask, "Who's driving me home?"
  • Gallant will make appropriate arrangements in advance.
The etiquette of mahjongg is self-explanatory.  If you want to play in more games, don't be a Goofus!  You are welcome to post your Goofus moments - anonymously or otherwise.