Mahjong gaining popularity

Updated: 2013-05-24 15:20

By Michael Barris in New York (China Daily)

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It may have roots in China, but mahjong is the world's game.

Not long ago, a group of Chinese players on a mahjong cruise that set out from the United States set aside the Chinese rules they normally followed (there are differences, but more about that in a moment) to play the game by the US rules their mostly American fellow passengers were following.

So how did the folks from the country that gave the world this iconic four-person game of tiles perform under these extraordinary conditions?

"The same as anybody else," recalled Lois Madow, president of the American Mah-Jongg Association, the cruise host. "It's like any card game. You have an advantage if you have good card sense. But when your tiles are thrown out and you can't get them, there's nothing you can do about it."

Mahjong, named for a Chinese word that means "sparrow", is not only long removed from its Chinese roots - some estimates date it as far back as 880 AD; it has even begun to pull away from its longtime image in the US as a favorite pastime of (often elderly) Jewish women.

Just ask Madow.

"I have several Chinese people (on cruises) but they're playing American mahjong," said the 75-year-old Baltimore resident. "They learned it in the retirement homes. They live in an over-55 community. They're not old, old people. And they're learning to play a new game. they're playing the American version, even though they were schooled in the Chinese version."

Madow formed the American Mah-Jongg Association in 1999 to "promote, foster, expand, and increase" the game's popularity. She bristles at suggestions that a new group of players has "rediscovered" the pastime. "I don't think it's been rediscovered," she said. "I think it's been continuing."

Joseph Babcock, an American who worked in Shanghai and patented a simplifired version of Chinese mahjong for Americans in 1920, is credited with launching the US mahjong craze. But players often changed rules. In 1937 a group of mahjong enthusiasts - many of whom were Jewish - formed the nonprofit National Mah Jongg League to standardize the rules of the American-style game. The league also began a tradition of issuing an annual card showing which hands could be played in a given year. Today, the National Mah Jongg League claims more than 350,000 members world-wide.

The game is played with engraved tiles of various suits, such as winds and flowers. Similar to rummy, competitors - often playing for money - draw and discard tiles to assemble a winning hand.

One major development since the mid-1980s has been the advent of large-scale tournaments, held in hotels or on cruise ships. Madow's forprofit American Mah Jongg Association hosts tournaments across North America, including its signature event at the Trump Taj Mahal Casino Resort in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Participants who sign up for this year's tournament, June 2-4, can register for up to 12 hours of games over three days and stay at a 4.2 star hotel with two breakfasts and one lunch a day, for between $395 (single occupancy), and $250 (triple occupancy). Commuters pay $150.

Another must-attend event for mahjong enthusiasts is the annual December Mah Jongg Madness Caribbean cruise, a joint venture with the National Mah Jongg League. Participants can pay between $839 and $3,119 (based on double occupancy) for the privilege of earning thousands of dollars in prize money.

Many also have discovered mahjong on the Internet and in stand-alone computer games. Although mahjong offers the opportunity to participate in a social gathering, to network, and to play a fun game, for many its appeal is its unpredictability.

Madow recalls a player who entered a tournament with just three months playing experience. "I said, 'Boy, you've got nerve, to come here by yourself to play against all these ladies who have been playing so long'. She said, 'I wanted to meet new people'."

(China Daily USA 05/24/2013 page10)