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Sunday, August 16, 2020

Virtual Mahjongg


 It's been five months since the last post and, like every other aspect of life, our mahjongg world has been transformed.  We have had our comfortable rug pulled out from under us and we are all swirling in a zone of uncertainty, questioning everything about what once was certain.  But we do know one thing:  Mahjongg is not going away.  As with every other social crisis over the entire 80-plus years of the existence of the Mahjongg League, our beloved game has adapted and proved solid.  And so has our mahjongg community and all the players who will not let this game go the way of (take your pick) --->

"Oh, no, not I," says mahjongg, to quote from a popular disco hit, "I will survive," and, thanks to the virtual world, it will.

For some people, it's a giant stretch to play mahjongg online.  But, folks, if the National Mah Jongg League can go virtual....Yes!  The phones go live tomorrow, yet the office is not open.  The cards can be ordered, the game can be played, there is even an email address for card order inquries:
Your inquiries will be read and responded to.

We should all give kudos to the admins of the online sites - whether you play on the League site, Mahjongg Time, myjongg, Real Mahjongg or any other iteration of the NMJL game, these folks are doing stellar work dealing with the huge influx of new subscribers.  

Players everywhere are rising to the challenge by finding ways to adapt and experience the game in a new way.  Technology is driving innovation, as players find ways to "stay in the game," and enjoy the challenge of playing the card and connecting with each other.

While it is clear that we are all waiting for our real lives to return, some of the "new normal" may find its way into the long term - things like online tournaments, group Zoom mahjongg, family game time, Siamese and Solitaire mahjongg and social events like webinars and conferences.  Hmmm...that's an idea...a virtual mahjongg conference with speakers and panel discussions with the online admins... It's not something we would have thought of previously, but now it doesn't seem like an outlandish idea.

For myself, I have been busy.  I have tried to replicate the Bryant Park social experience on Zoom, using breakout rooms and Real Mahjongg.   We play from 7:30-9:30 Eastern time every Monday night and have been getting folks from far and wide.  For this event, you need a Facebook account to sign in to the Mahjongg at Bryant Park page to pick up the meeting ID and password, then sign in with Zoom, find a table and start playing Real Mahjongg with your new friends.  I also run a live group chat for beginners/intermediate beginners, where we work collaboratively on strategies for passing, forming a hand, making decisions, etc.  This group meets via Zoom on Fridays from 11 a.m. - 12:30 p.m. also Eastern time.  If you are interested in joining (no charge) please send me an e-mail.  Do not leave your e-mail in the comments, however, as the comments below are public.  My email can be found by clicking on my profile at the bottom of the blog.

There are so many others who are doing great things to keep the flame of our game alive; the vendors and tournament directors and Facebook page admins. authors and vloggers and everyday players who refuse to let their friends get into a slump.
They know that mahjongg has energizing and healing powers - we get it from each other and we get it from the tiles and the game itself, which can take us away from the troubled world and give us a more manageable one, at least for awhile.

What are you doing to get your mahj on?  Let us know!

Thursday, March 26, 2020

The 2020 Card

The card was mailed on time, and just in time to ease the anxiety of living on lockdown.  It was difficult to stop myself from ripping open the envelope with my bare hands, but after using the protocol recommended by the CDC, I was able to feel comfortable handling the card.   I don't want to dwell on the situation we all find ourselves in, so let's go right to the annual side-by-side comparison.  If you get out your 2019 card and follow along, we can see what has changed, and what has not.

One thing that has not changed is the categories, although there is no section for Addition hands this year - the "math" hands are woven into the Even hands (4x6=24 and 6x8=48) and the Odds (3x5=15 and 5x7=35).  Looks like algebra to me!

2020 - This category still has four hands, but of course 1s and 9s are gone, and because of the prevalence of two's, some fancy footwork had to be done.  So it really isn't about the soaps, it's all about the 2s.  Wondering what 2022 has in store! The only hand that was retained to any extent is the one with the pair of flowers, two kongs of dragons and the year in the middle.  This year, however, the hand must be made with Reds and Greens and the 2s any suit.  It could not be any other way.  The closed hand from 2019 has been totally reversed and now the 2020 is in the middle where NEWS was and the winds are where the numbers were.  But don't fret, because NEWS shows up later.  The first hand is a pair of flowers, 2020 and two kongs of twos.  Again, because of the 2's it must be in three suits.   The second hand in 2019 has been completely replaced with five (count 'em, five) flowers, a pair of twos, a pung of twos and 2020.  This will dovetail nicely with some other hands, should those soaps prove elusive.  Keep reading...

2468 - This category has been only modestly redesigned.  The first hand differs from the 2019 hand only in that it requires four flowers and one 2, instead of three flowers and two 2s.  Three hands were retained (the second, third and fifth ones on the 2019 card, although the pattern hand has changed from pung/kong/pung/kong to pung/pung/kong/kong, as it does from year to year).  The gate, my favorite hand, with the pairs in the middle, has been stretched out to make a closed hand of two flowers, with three 2s and three 8s in one suit and three 4s and three 6s in a second suit.  The category is serviceable, keeping in mind that 2s are at a premium.  There is a three-suit hand with opposite dragons that has made a comeback from prior years.

Any Like Numbers -  The first hand is retained.  The closed dragon hand is no more.  Instead there is a brand new hand which calls for a pair of flowers, two like numbers each with a matching pair of dragons; i.e. 1111 DD 1111 DD.  (two suits), open hand.  2's and soaps, maybe?  And the bottom hand is another five (count 'em, five) flower hand, followed by a pair, a pung and a kong of like numbers. if I go dead on the five-flower 2020 hand....

Quints -  Kiss the top quint in 2019 goodbye, and the bottom hand has been changed so instead of two like number quints with dragons in the middle, it's a quint of five (count 'em, five) flowers, any dragon, any number.  So this takes the place of the "any" hand as well, with dragons replacing the winds and adding one more flower.  The third hand in quints has been modified.  Instead of a pair in the middle and a pair of dragons at the end, there are two pairs in the middle, making a consecutive run; quint/pair/pair/quint.  But wait!  There's also a quint hand with 1/3/5 and 5/7/9 - the pattern being quint/kong/quint.  A like number (or is it a consecutive run) hand  gives some spice in a pair/pair/quint/quint pattern, also a new hand never before seen.  11 22 33333 33333.  Think of the consecutive run hand 11 22 33 4444 4444, only with two pairs and two quints.  Maybe it's easier, maybe it's not!

Consecutive run - 2019 had seven hands in this category; 2020 has eight.  The top three classic hands are back, with some slight pattern variations.  The three-pair hand has gone back to it's old configuration, 11 22 33 4444 5555.  A familiar hand, and the much-beloved yet most maligned hand, FFF 1111 2222 DDD, has disappeared and will probably never be seen again.  Ah, well.  There is a dragon hand, and, surprise, it's also got two kongs and two pungs, 111/2222/333/DDDD, one suit, but no flowers.  It remains to be seen whether it will be played as often.  The four-flower hand in consecutive is eliminated to be replaced by a four flower hand in the same pattern as the first hand in 2468 - kong/single/pair/pung/kong.  We get two closed hands in consecutive, maybe to make up for the lack of a concealed hand in like numbers? The first closed hand simply changes the pungs in the 2019 concealed hand from like numbers to opposite dragons.  The second concealed hand is a 1-2-1-2-3 hand, in a pung/pung/pung/pung/pair pattern.

13579 - First hand the same, different pattern, now pair/pair/pung/pung/kong. Classic 1/3/3/5 and 5/7/7/9 are back in pung/pung/kong/kong.  Sandwiches are back, both in odds (1/3/3/3/5 and 5/7/7/7/9) and winds (N/1/1/1/S and E/2/2/2/W).  A dragon hand complementary to the one in consecutive run rounds out the open hands in odds (111/3333/555/DDDD and 555/7777/999/DDDD).  Will certainly be "odd" to see a kong of sevens and a pung of nines in one suit!  And, it looks like there are no pungs of dragons on this card that can be exposed!  The closed hand from 2019 is gone, replaced by a harder-looking one; two flowers, 1/33/555 and then 5/77/999, two suits.  Better start practicing now - it's 35 cents.

Winds-Dragons - The block hand on top now has a kong/pung/pung/kong pattern.  This goes nicely with the sandwich hands, which also have kongs of Winds, no flowers, and a hand with two flowers, kongs of winds and 2020 in the middle.  And, lest you worry there's a teltale pung, there's NN EEE DDDD WWW SS.  This will be helpful if you go dead on the closed hand in 2020.  But where are the dragons in winds and dragons you say?  Well, the all-dragon hand is gone, replaced by a hand with a pair of flowers, two kongs of dragons and -- wait for it -- NEWS -- in the middle.  Yes!  It looks suspiciously like a hand in 2020, but remember the 2020 hand must be done in reds and greens only.  Sneaky!  Closed hand lovers, rejoice - the closed hand in winds makes an unprecedented third appearance in a row.

369 - This category retains three out of six hands; the 369 block, the pattern hand which switches to pung/pung/kong/kong and the "step" hand, which also switches pattern to pair/pung/pair/pung/kong.  The closed matching dragon hand now complements the dragon pattern seen in consecutives and odds, and there is a familiar three-pair hand with like kongs, 3's, 6's or 9's.  The only thing that's new-ish to the experienced player is the closed hand, 369 in the same pattern as the 135/579 closed hand, also 35 cents.

Singles and pairs:  I'll get right to the point - after much speculation the "big" hand is FF 2020 NEWS 2020, now worth 85 cents.  Four soaps make this hand extra challenging.  The first three hands are familiar:  Wind pairs with any three consecutive numbers; the run hand is two flowers, run of five numbers, two dragons, and - back by popular demand, I suppose - FF 11 22 11 22 11 22.  Making its debut is a very cool-looking even pairs hand:  FF 2468DD 2468DD, any two suits.  The 369 hand is a cha-cha:  336/33669/336699, followed by an odds hand; 11 357 99 11 357 99 in two suits.

So there you have it - the new card - while you wait for the new card.

On a personal note, writing this blog, much like the game of mahjongg, has been a means of transcending the unsettled atmosphere outside my home.  I live in Queens, which has been very hard hit, and we are all sitting tight, Zooming together and playing online.  The League office is closed, so if you haven't received your card or aren't sure if you ordered it, or want to complain about a hand, there will be no one there to take your call.  We are sheltering in place, with our family and friends, trying to stay connected in a world that doesn't make sense right now.  I hope you are all safe and remain that way so that we can get back to bickering over who gets the tile when someone has exposed.   (Hint:  The answer is now on the back of the card)

Monday, March 23, 2020

Countdown to the Card!

The countdown has begun and very soon the new card will be in the mail and headed to the hundreds of thousands of players who placed their order.  If you have not already heard, the National Mah Jongg League has closed their offices as a result of the public health crisis that our country is facing.  The League office, which is located in New York City, is considered nonessential (!) and will not re-open until at least April 1.  However, the League has advised that cards will be mailed to all those who placed orders as of March 16.

What does this mean for the members of the League?  It means we will be getting the new card on schedule - the first mailing will go out in the coming week, if it has not already, and the second mailing will go out a short time later.
Through all of the uncertainty, there is still excitement and anticipation as we await the new card!  As long as our heroic Postal employees are delivering the mail, we can still participate in our time-honored tradition of watching and waiting, albeit from six feet away.  Enter the digital age.

It falls on us to find ways to enjoy the game we love, while staying safe and protecting our neighbors. This means getting creative and using the resources that we may have shied away from not so long ago.  Let's get digital!  I, for one, am using Informed Delivery which shows me what is coming to my mailbox.  (No card today, darnit)!  And, since I am in NYC, alone in my house with my new co-workers (Nico the dog and Nelson the refugee cat who belongs to my machatunim in the hospital) I am scouring the 'net for ways not just to play, but to play with friends.

So here's what I found:
There are some sites where you can play online, and they are doing a stellar job.  Just yesterday, one of the sites had over 1500 games going - that's 6,000 people.  Here's a list of digital resources posted by Lynn Kaplan, a mahjongg teacher who runs a lovely social game at the Manchester Community Library:
Don't forget to add the National Mahjongg League's online game as well which you can download at
IMPORTANT TIP:  If you want to play the NMJL online game, you will need your MEMBER ID NUMBER.  Because the League office will be closed, you will not be able to call the League to find out what it is - so KEEP THE ENVELOPE YOUR CARD CAME IN.  YOUR MEMBER NUMBER WILL BE ON THE ADDRESS LABEL.  Do not fear - the online sites will make a very quick switch to the new hands, BUT, you can still play the 2019 card until you get the new one.

For those of you who aren't lucky enough to have a husband, kids or willing roommate(s) to play with at home, here's what we've been doing. 
Find three other players and a mutual time to play.
Register to play on the same site Make sure you each have an account with the same digital mahjongg site.
Put your phone or tablet next to your laptop -  It works best if you have a phone and a computer, so you can chat on the phone and play on the computer, but if that is not possible you can play and talk on the same device, but you won't be able to look at the video and the game screen at the same time.
Set up a live chat - this can be audio only, or audio and video.  Everyone must have the same chat program running on their phone.  Some popular programs are:  FaceTime (Apple products only), Facebook Messenger (requires Facebook account), Google Duo (requires account).  Please leave a comment if you know of any others.  (Hint:  Ask your grandkids) All four can chat together.
Log in to the agreed-upon game site: Decide who will set up the table (East) and then the others join.  Turn off the sound and call the tiles yourselves! 
Kvetch about your hand - This part is optional!  Poof - you are now a "gamer."

This is almost as much fun as being there, and it has the added bonus of meeting and playing with friends in different parts of the country.  The only downside is that only four can play.  Someone will need to find a way to set up a virtual tournament!
Any takers???????

How are you playing?


Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Keeping Track of the Charleston it right/across/left or left/across/right?

Today I received a message asking:  
"What is a good way to keep track of the Charleston?
It seems it's easy to forget which direction is next when passing. Any suggestions?"

The message was left on a post from 2011, but I thought this was a timely issue that could use a post of its own.  After all, *everybody* messes up the Charleston at some point, even the most experienced players.  It's a rare game that doesn't include at least one of the following comments:
  • Is this the first or the second?
  • Did I give you a second?
  • Can I steal on this one?
  • Why don't I have enough tiles?
  • I have to give three?
  • Is this the must across?
  • I'm waiting for my last right....etc., etc., etc.
So here are some suggestions for how to keep track, short of using an iPhone app.

1.  Keep quiet!  In my experience, the main reason why the Charleston goes south is due to distraction.  It's hard to keep track of tiles if you are busy discussing your grandson's bar mitzvah or last night's episode of "This is Us."

2.  Speak the passes as you do them. It helps to quietly state each pass by name as you place the tiles face down:  "Right, across, first left.  Second left, must across, last right." Indicate in advance if you are thinking of stopping.  Before the first left you can say, "Wait on the second" or "Hold on, I may want to stop."  After you receive your first left, if you want to stop, this is the time to announce you do not want to do the second Charleston.  Players must then proceed to the Optional pass.   Even if no one says to slow down, it is helpful to pause a moment after the first left to make sure everyone wants to do the second Charleston.  Stacking the tiles in a pyramid signifies the second left.

3.  Keep tiles away from the center of the table.  It's easy for someone to mistake a pass that is meant for someone else.   Place your rights and lefts on the corner of the table and your acrosses directly in front of the intended player in a vertical line.  Keep any leftover tiles from the wall away from the center, so they are not unintentionally passed.

4.  Neither a "rusher" nor a "lagger" be.  Some hands are "no-brainers" and you know what to pass right away.  Some hands are "what the xx#$@???" and require more contemplation.  Don't be the player who passes right then across then drums her fingers on the table while audibly sighing.  Be aware others may need more time to decide, just as you may in the next game.  It's helpful to wait until everyone has received a pass before the next pass is made.  Passing across while a second left has not been taken can lead to mistakes.  Pay attention to what others are doing and pace yourself. On the other hand, if you are the one holding things up, be aware of the traffic jams you are causing and make a decision.  Remember, "it only hurts for a minute".  If you wait too long, you may forget which pass you were up to.

All the above are suggestions and ways to keep track, but it should go without saying that you must follow the rules.  Passes must be done correctly, i.e., three tiles passed face down.  Do not pick up your tiles until you have passed.  If you want to steal, don't look

If you understand the rhythm of the Charleston, you should be able to proceed without interruption.  Practice it until it is second nature and pay attention.  It is not easy to keep track of the tiles in your hand, the tiles you are passed, the tiles you are giving away and the different directions to pass in.  But understand that if the Charleston gets messed up and one player has either too many or too few tiles, the hand is thrown in and started over.  That's right - no one can be declared "dead" in the Charleston because the game has not started yet.  So that should be your incentive to keep track, especially if you have started the game with several jokers!

Wednesday, February 5, 2020

2020 NMJL Annual Meeting

National Mah Jongg League 2020 Annual Meeting

On February 3, 2020 at 9 a.m., Larry Unger, President of the National Mah Jongg League called the meeting to order.  In attendance were Larry and David Unger, President and Vice President of the League, along with the recording secretary, treasurer, members of the Standardization Committee as well as individual members of the League.  The meeting is held on the first Monday of February and members are welcome to attend.

The meeting was held in the League conference room, as the main part of the office was filled with helpers opening envelopes containing 2020 card orders.  It was mentioned at the meeting that the League receives almost 10,000 mail orders A DAY during the card ordering season (now).   President Larry Unger verified that the 2020 card has been printed, but, alas, no sneak peeks...

The NEWS from the League is good!  Membership has increased, to approximately 338,000 members, with card sales of close to 500,000.  During the Q and A session, we were told that the discrepancy is from members who buy multiple cards.  Many members order two cards, one for their residence and one for their winter "home away from home."  Some members buy for their group or students.  Almost 25% of card sales are through Collectors - people who "collect" money for sales of over 35 cards.  The collectors receive a portion of the funds back as a donation for their designated charity - and Larry remarked on the number of local community groups receiving donations.  

Some other questions that came up:  Why don't the cards come out January 1?  Apparently, the schedule goes back to the founding days of the League in 1937.  There is a cycle of activities which corresponds to the fiscal year.  "Imagine trying to send out 350,000 cards during the (year-end) holidays," Larry asked.  Or the collectors trying to collect in the summer?  Or the Standardization committee trying to get together to play the new card while everyone is on vacation?  The system works like a well-oiled machine.  David talked about their visit to the mailing facility and what the League has to do to get the cards ready for mailing.  The membership list is scrubbed for errors and sent to the mailing facility where they are arranged by zip code for distribution.  The on-time arrival has vastly improved over the last several years, as those who order early will receive their card on or before April 1.  Remember the cutoff date is February 21!

Another question - Some people have not received a bulletin.  This may be because they are not in the League's 2019 member database, either because someone else bought their card for them or they did not purchase a card from the League, or they purchased a 2020 card.  In addition, the bulletins are of the type of mail that is not forwarded, so if a member has a new address, it's important to let the League know.  If anyone wishes, they may send a self-addressed, stamped envelope to the League and one will be mailed.

A spirited discussion was had about the making of the card - ten members of the committee play for two months getting the combination just right.  The topic arose as to whether a computer could generate the hands, and the answer was a resounding no.  While artificial intelligence may calculate combinations of pungs, kongs, pairs and singles, no computer can factor in the "wow" that comes from winning a hand.  The consensus was that it's the human connection that makes it all work.  The committee creates the card working from their knowledge and experience of the game in a way that delights beginners and seasoned players alike. 

Another tidbit from the meeting - "Mahjongg Made Easy," the League's guide to playing, has been updated again.  The updates are not rule changes, but clarifications of existing rules based on questions the League has received from members.  The 2018 book was so popular it sold out! 

It's always a pleasure to have the opportunity to schmooze with the folks that bring you such a great game and a pleasure as well to report on the meeting.  It's reassuring to know that some traditions continue in our ever-changing world, and we have a new card and a new year of playing to look forward to.

Thursday, January 2, 2020

2020 is here!

It's that time again!

The 2019 newsletter has arrived from the National Mah Jongg League, signifying the opening of the card ordering season.  To read about the proper way to order your card, click HERE.  

The most important rule is to be sure you order from the League itself, either by ordering individually at or by ordering it from a collector on behalf of a charitable organization.  This assures that you will get your card on time and you will get a bulletin, and, most importantly, your $8 or $9 order will be part of the charitable contributions made by the League.

I was very impressed this year by the diversity of charities listed in the mailbag; charities large and small.  From Habitats for Humanity to Curt's Cafe and Dress for Success, the League, through its members, helps so many.  The full list of collectors takes almost four pages of small print, and add to that the hundreds of thousands of individual card purchasers.  It's awe-inspiring that such largesse is derived from the game that keeps on giving.  This is what sets the League apart from all other variations of mahjongg, and it's a formula that has worked spectacularly well for 83 years.  It's easy to forget this when we play, but this is the heart and soul of the National Mah Jongg League, and we all make it happen.

The newsletter had a few updates worth noting.  The "You Asked Us" section states that the Committee works from August to November to test the new card, meaning the 2020 card is complete and waiting in the wings.  Once the card is complete, the collectors start taking orders, and on January 1 orders are open to the membership.  Reminder:  If you want to receive your card in the first mailing, your order must be in by February 21.  Don't be late or you will regret it!  

The Q and A selection reflects member concerns throughout the year.  Many seasoned players find the Q and A can be repetitive, but for new players, the questions are pressing and urgent.  If enough calls come in on a particular issue, it is addressed in the newsletter.  This year's questions cover the issue of two players wanting the same tile - the League has clarified that if one player has properly called and exposed their tiles, the player next in turn is too late.  Racing to put up one's exposure, however, is discouraged as being poor sportsmanship.  But if two players want the same tile; one for exposure and one for Mah Jongg, the Mah Jongg declarer gets preference even if the other player has exposed.

A slight rule change is noted.  If there is a dispute over whether a hand is dead or not, the play continues.  Whichever player was incorrect at the time of the challenge pays the other player 50 cents (previously 25 cents).

One last note:  If you want to order 2019 cards, please call the League as all website orders are for 2020.   

All right, now go back to playing.  You still have three months to mark off all the hands on the card!