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Sunday, November 15, 2015

Ruth Unger - 1926-2015

Mrs. Unger’s passing marks the end of an era. Her presidency spanned 51 years - my entire mahjongg life and then some.  Her imprimatur reached out from the tiny office on 57th Street and, through the three-colored card that we all know and love, entered our dining rooms, tournament halls and basements to imprint itself on our hearts.

The world has changed much, sometimes too much, and it can be overwhelming.  But when we sit down to play we know that there is something consistent, traditional and of the highest order in our lives and this is due to Mrs. Unger. Her dedication to the game, the rules and the steadfastness of her presence brought joy to the League's half million members.  Add our numbers to the countless others that have benefited from donations made by the League on our behalf.  Think about that for a bit – the amount of money generated by the sale of the card, year after year, being disseminated to a myriad of worthy causes. There are few, if any, organizations I can think of that operate in this way.  This is what Mrs. Unger presided over.

The League has recently moved to new offices.  Mahjongg is expanding, reaching contemporary audiences,  new generations and the virtual world. We do not as yet know what this change will mean for us as players, but I am sure we will stand behind the League as they learn to steer the ship without her hand.

Goodbye, Mrs. Unger. We are all
deeply appreciative of your devotion and will remain forever your fans.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Copying the Card - Don't.

There's one line on the card that never changes

One of the downsides to getting the card early is that I have to listen to the pleas of my out-of-state friend for a peek.  I get asked to take a picture of the card and text it or e-mail it to someone who is waiting by the mailbox.  After all, they've already bought their card, so what is the harm?  

When we pay our money to the League, we are buying more than a card, we are buying membership into a philanthropic organization.  The stock in trade of the League is the Official Standard Hands and Rules - a/k/a the Card.  The card is a document protected by copyright laws.  When something is protected by copyright, it means that we do not have the right to copy it.  Simple, right?

You may say - 
  • But my friend already bought her card, I'm just making one for her until she gets hers.  
  • I'm just making copies for my students so they can learn.
  • Only the members of my group can see it, and they all bought their card already.
  • I'm not selling it, so it's okay.
The top line in the center of the card has been there for at least twenty years.  It says:
This document is protected by copyright laws.  It is illegal to reproduce it.

I am not a lawyer, but you do not need to be one to know that copying the card is against the law.  So when your friend asks for a copy of the card they are asking you to commit a crime.  It may not seem like a crime, but it is.  Will you be prosecuted for it?  Probably not, but consider this:

When you copy the card and the copy you make leaves your hands, you have lost control over it.  Your friend may text it to another friend, who then prints it out and gives it to someone who makes another copy and gives it to someone else.  If you post it on your Facebook page, you are in essence making it available to the whole world - any member of your group can download it and do whatever they want with it - even sell it - and you have made that possible.

So think of what this might mean to the League, the philanthropic organization that uses the money it receives to donate to worthy charities.  Your one-time copying may escalate, causing lost sales and lost donations.  After all, why buy a card when you can just download it on Facebook?

I know this message does not apply to most readers, but there are a few who need to be reminded. Once it is done it cannot be undone - so best not to do it in the first place.  Thanks for listening.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

The 2015 Card

 Here it is!

I often bemoan the fact that I live in New York - things are so expensive, the 1% are destroying all my favorite buildings and restaurants, but there is one consolation.  I get the card early!  The card was mailed 3/25 from zip code 11801.  I received it 3/26 in zip code 11375, approximately 20 miles away.  I don't know how or why, but I am not complaining today.  So let's get down to facts!!  As you know, I cannot publish the card, but I can talk about it and let you know what to expect.  It's easier if you use your 2014 card to follow along and envision the changes.

The card, as always, has changed in subtle ways, ways that we can only learn by playing it.  Like the Metropolitan Museum of Art, there is only room for so many pieces to be exhibited - some must be warehoused and others brought out of storage on a rotating basis for us to enjoy.  So I have tried to note which are gone, which are back and which are new, in the hopes that it will whet your appetite for what is to come.

One note- The pattern this year looks consistent; pung, kong, pung, kong can be found throughout the categories and for the first hands in evens, consecutive and odds the pattern is pair, pung, kong, pung, pair.  If this doesn't make sense to you, read on.  I always look at patterns first.

This category has changed in subtle ways.  
The first wind hand is the same but 2014 is now 2015.  
The hand with pung of  2s, pung of soaps, kong of 1s and kong of 4s  is gone.  
The hand with the four soaps is the same, with the exception of 14 is now 15.  (But you expected that, didn't you?)  
The hand with two flowers, 2014 in one suit, ones in the second and fours in the third is the same except the fours are now fives. 
The closed hand with the year surrounded by dragons is changed: Now open, two flowers, kongs of dragons, year 2015.  Well done, League!  
New: A closed hand has been added; pair of flowers, pungs of 2,0,1,5 all in one suit.  Interesting!  I'm liking it already.

Hand with kong of dragons - gone.  
Returning: Kong of flowers surrounded by pungs of 4 and 6, pair of 2 and 8 - one suit.  
Kong of 2s, pair of 4s, kong of 6s with pairs of 8s - gone
Pairs of 2s and 4s, pungs of 4 and 6, kong of 8 - unchanged.  
Pung of 2s and 4s, kongs of 6s and 8s changed to pung of 2s, kong of 4s, pung of 6s, kongs of 8s.   
(Pattern in 2014 was pung, pung, kong, kong - now pung, kong, pung, kong) 
2s and 8s with dragons changed to a pair of flowers, kong of 2s, kong of 8s with kong of matching dragon in one suit or three.  
Returning:  My old favorite - pair of flowers, matching kongs of 2s and 8s with pair of 4s and 6s in the middle.  Yay!  
Closed hand changed to a pair of matching dragons on the end instead of a pair of flowers at the beginning.  It's still worth 30 but seems harder to me.

Like Numbers
Changed to pair of flowers and kongs of like numbers.  

Addition hands:
Changed to seven hands:  Kong of flowers - kong of numbers (1s, 2s or 3s), pair of numbers (6s, 5s or 4s) and a kong of sevens.  One suit or three.

Run from 2 to five is unchanged.
Run in three suits is gone. 
Returning:  Like number quint hand: 1123 with quints in pair.
Flower, any wind, any number is changed to  any wind,  any dragon,  any number with dragon being the kong. This is worth 45, while the one with flowers was worth 40.  
Numbers with dragons gone - and it doesn't look as though it shows up anywhere else.  :-(
New: four flowers with quints of any two consecutive in one suit.  I don't remember that one although I wouldn't be surprised if it wasn't new. - Value 45.   I wonder why?

Consecutive run:
Standard runs - pattern is changed to pair, pung, kong, pung, pair.
The any four consecutive numbers is unchanged.
The "sandwich" or "bookend" hand with the pairs in the middle is gone.
The run with three pairs and two like ascending kongs changed to closed hand; three pairs, and instead of like kongs, the kongs are ascending; i.e., 4444 5555 as opposed to 4444 4444.  
Four flowers, two consecutive numbers and pair of dragons is changed to pair of flowers, and kong of matching dragons.
1-2, 1-2, 3 is gone.  But wait!  
Returning:  Old favorite pair of flowers any three suits, any three consecutive numbers is back!  Yay!!  The gods have heard our plea!
Closed hand run with pungs of opposite dragons is gone. 
Returning:  Knitted hand.  Any three consecutive numbers; any two suits, kongs match and dragons match.  So if its 1, 2, 3, dragon, the 1s and 3s are kongs and they match and the 2s match the dragons.  I've never been very good with those hands.
There are no closed hands in consecutive run.

1,3,5,7,9 changed pattern to pair, pung, kong, pung, pair.
1,3,3,5 and 5,7,7,9 unchanged.
Four flowers with 1,3,5 or 5,7,9, unchanged.
Pair of flowers, kong of one, nine, dragon - unchanged.  (But moved down on the card)
The odds hands in three suits with pairs, pungs and kong, gone.
New: interesting - three suits:  pair of 1s, 3s and 5s, kong of seven in second suit and nine in third.  30 point open hand.  I'll give it a try.  (This may be returning.  If it is, I've forgotten it)
New:  (Possibly returning) Two closed hands in odds.  One in 1,3,5 and one in 5,7,9.  These hands have five pairs.  Pair of 1s, 3s in one suit, 1s, 3s, 5s in second suit and kong of 1, 3, or 5 in third suit.  Change the 1, 3, 5, to 5, 7, 9 and you have the second hand.  These looks very challenging, especially when fives are in high demand.  Well, Ms. Unger always said they had to make the card easy enough for beginners and challenging enough for the experienced.  I think they have here.

Wind hands
Old favorite kongs of N, E, W and pair of S - unchanged.
Winds and dragons - gone
Returning - kongs of N,S with two like pungs of odds or E,W with two like pungs of evens replaces the winds with numbers hand.  Of course they are open, worht 30.
New:  Two wind and flower hands:  Pair of flowers, kong of N,S, pair of E,W - similar to 2,4,6,8 hand.  Open hand, 25 points.  Also kong of flowers, single N, pair of E, pung of W, kong of S.  Closed, 30 points.  So if you see someone expose a pung of Wests - you know what to say.
Flower and dragon hand unchanged.

This section is the most changed.
369 dragon has changed to one suit, kong of 3s, kong of 9s, pung of 6s, pung of dragons.  Everything matches, unlike the knitted hand in consecutive run.
3-6-6-9 pattern has changed to pung, kong, pung, kong.
Pairs of 3,6,9 with like kongs - gone.
Pair of flowers, 3,6,9 in three suits can now be done in one suit as well.
The hand with the like pungs - gone
The closed hand with pungs of 3s and 9s with a single 6 - gone.
Returning:  Pair of 3s and 6s, pung of 3s and 6s, kong of 9s in three suits.  Matches with 2,4,6,8 hand.
New:  Pair of flowers, pairs of 3,6,9 in one suit, pungs of opposite dragons.  Open hand, 30 points, so three dragons is OK to expose this year.
New:  Closed hand:  Pairs of 3s and 6s, pairs of 3s,6s,9s, kong of 3, 6 or 9.  Matches with closed hand in odds.  But, again, five pairs.

Singles and pairs:
Wind hand the same.  Pairs of winds with like numbers.
Consecutive run changed: Now any one suit, any seven numbers.
Evens hand is now pair of flowers, pairs of 2,4,6,8 and even pair in other two suits.  Different.
Pairs hand in odds is returning to pair of flowers, pairs of 1,3,5,7,9 and pair of dragons.
Returning: My favorites!  112 11223 112233 and its counterpart with 987!  Look out!
And, of course, the "big" hand - now 2015 instead of 2014.

So there you have a cursory first look at the new card.  If I made an error in my haste, please let me know and I will correct it.  I hope it tides you over until your card comes!  Can't wait to start a game!

Monday, March 23, 2015

Playing Without a Card

There's one in every crowd

While we're waiting for the new card to come, here is some food for thought.  It's late in the year and those of us who are regular players pretty much know the card inside out.  Right?  But yet we still keep it in front of us as we play.  Why?  Do we think by now there is some hand that we may have missed? 

I went on a mahjongg cruise a few weeks ago - what a pleasure to get out of the snow!  I went with a friend who had not been to many tournaments and she drew my attention to the fact that several of the players played without a card!!  This meant little to me, as I often meet up with cardless players and it was almost March, for goodness sake, but my friend seemed intimidated.  The assumption is that someone who plays without a card is a great player.  Let's put that assumption to rest.

There are many reasons a player will play cardless.  She could have left her card at home.  More likely she has played enough times that she is confident that she knows the hands.  But oftentimes a cardless player will lean over and say "Let me look at your card for a second."  Should I refuse? After all, by playing without a card they are saying to the world that they don't need it.  Some will actually dispense with the card early in the season.  I once went to a tournament in April and saw a player without a card.  My assumption was she had a photographic memory, or else she played all day every day for a few weeks.

When the new card comes out there is a learning curve.  I wonder what techniques work best.  Rote memorization may help but we all know there is more to it.  Maybe an app with flash cards?

Even now, when the hourglass is running low, when I know I know all the hands, I will not play without the card.  I calculate that by playing every Friday night, four games an hour, at least four hours, for fifty two weeks, throwing in a few tournaments, pickup and fill in games, games where I was teaching others, rounded out, I have played at least 1000 games this year.  But I still feel the need to look at the card, to touch the card, to compare hands and let the numbers speak to me (or not).

It's also important to remember that each hand is not merely the hand that is written.  While there may be about 60 hands on the card, most hands have permutations and options in terms of suit, structure and number.  It is beyond my math capability to determine the exact number of possible hands on the card.  Maybe someone who plays without one can figure it out.

So the new card will be here soon.  And, like all of you, I am out on the steps, waiting for the mailman, disappointed to see nothing but the usual bills and circulars.  I am wondering what the League has cooked up for us and what is in the cards.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Is your game going to the dogs?

I recently received an e-mail from a frustrated player.  Her complaint?  Even though she played with experienced players, they hardly ever finished a game in under an hour.  Why?  Distraction, distraction, distraction.  She asked for advice, rules of etiquette - how much "social" and how much "playing"; how to focus the game without being an object of derision.

She was not talking about pace.  Sometimes it is clear that there is one player who just plays slowly to the detriment of the other players.  No matter how many times you tell her to play a little faster, she can't.  It is out of her control and eventually she is not invited back.  But there is a more insidious game-buster out there, and its name is distraction.

Tell me if this is familiar:

You're hot and heavy into the game, maybe you are set, you are checking to see if your tiles are out when suddenly "Tara's Theme" from Gone With The Wind starts playing loudly seemingly out of nowhere.  "That's my daughter," says player A, as she whips her cell phone out of her bra.  "Hi, honey," she says, while you wait for her to pick a tile.  "Did you make the meat loaf the way I told you?"  She then proceeds to talk for several minutes, oblivious to the other players glaring.  Eventually player B gets up to get some chocolate covered almonds.  Player C says, "Might as well go to the bathroom," and you, player D, silently fume.  By the time the game resumes no one remembers whose turn it was and your great hand has gone down the drain.

When I was in high school I was astonished to learn (bear with me, this is relevant) that there were people who studied with the radio on.  How could they?  I cannot concentrate on my Kindle if I hear the slightest bit of music leaking from someone's headphones on the subway.  People differ and, like anything else in life, if an experience is going to be shared to everyone's satisfaction, differences must be respected and boundaries set.  Much like the decision whether to play 13 tiles no hot wall or pay double when you throw double, deciding when to socialize and when to play should be a rule that is agreed upon by all.

Our weekly game normally is 10 people, and it's not as if we don't like to talk.  But over time our chatting has ceased during the game and is reserved for times when no one's concentration will be disrupted.  We chat before we start playing; when the tiles are being mixed, after a game ends.  We take a dinner break and talk to our heart's content.   We don't turn our phones off (which makes for interesting background noise) but we return calls when we are out and take care of other business. When the game is going on no one would think about discussing the Oscars or taking out pictures of the grandkids.  (Although I do admit to wanting to do this, I wait until the game is over).  It's not hard to do, but the key is getting everyone to make the effort until it becomes second nature.  I mean, after all, if you are yapping away, you are probably making terrible passes, throwing your own tiles and having no clue what people are set for.  This makes the game unchallenging for someone who really wants to play.  Did you really just pass two soaps and a 2 dot?  Why are you playing at all?

This is not to say there needs to be mahjongg police.  A few kvetches about your impossible hand or an exhortation to the joker fairy are of course exempt.  It is the irrelevant, extraneous non-mahj related chit-chat of which I speak, the kind that starts in the space between when a player picks and takes a moment to decide what to discard, the kind that throws the game off track.

So to my e-mailer, who shall remain anonymous, I feel your pain.  It is excruciating to try and play while others are busy doing other things.  You are essentially playing by yourself.  All you can do is ask them to try to refrain, and hope they have enough respect for you and for the Game of Mahjongg to do so.  Otherwise, your game has gone to the dogs, and your only option is to find another game and socialize with these ladies in another context.