Middday on a Thursday and I am in a small lounge in a condominium in Ocean City. Thirteen people sit around three small tables set up in the room, four at each table. (One player sits out each round.) Each player stares at thirteen small plastic white tiles laid out on brightly colored lucite racks. In turn each of us picks up a tile from a stacked wall of tiles, studies it, and either discards that tile or replaces one of the thirteen on our rack with the one drawn. When we drop a tile we say what it is. “Five crack,” or, “Three dot,” or, “One birdie bam.” We are all hoping to put the right tiles together to form mah jongg and win the hand.
Mah Jongg (or mahj), like one of its descendents, poker, is a game of both luck and skill. Four players draw thirteen tiles (in China thirteen is a lucky number) from a deck of 108. Players combine tiles to form particular hands. Unlike poker, however, there are more than fifty hands that can be made with a myriad combination of tiles. There are three suits numbered one through nine: bamboo or bams, circles or dots, and characters or cracks; 28 honor tiles divided into winds, representing the points on a compass, and the red, blue, and green dragons; eight flower tiles; and eight jokers. The first set of mah jongg tiles were developed (from older, more complex card games) in China around 1850 and brought to America in the early 20th century by a civil engineer named Joseph Babcock who worked for Standard Oil Company in Soochow (now Suzhou), China. He wrote the first American rule book, Rules of Mah-Jongg, which became known as the “red book.” During the roaring ’20s Mah Jongg clubs sprang up all over the United States. In 1937 a group of players met in New York City and formed the National Mah Jongg League. They standardized scoring and created the hand cards (with a red cover, an homage to Babcock) that are still used today. These are the cards we are playing with in Ocean City, necessary references to make sure we are collecting the proper tiles to make a hand.
Mah jongg has traditionally been played by women, and the Ocean City League is no exception. Most of these women are retired, though some still work part time in real estate or healthcare. There is a yoga instructor among them who has been playing only a few months (like me). One of her yoga students, a full-time resident named Sandi, became her mah jongg teacher. I’m the odd one out, the aberration in the group, one of less than a handful of men who have ever played here. Maybe that’s why, despite my only having learned how to play a few months ago, they have allowed me to join them.
My introduction to the game was through a part-time titling agent who notarized my home refinancing documents and with whom my wife and I became friends over the last year. Myrna has been playing for more than fifty years. She told me mahj was a game for old Jewish ladies. The Ocean City League may be all women, but I wouldn’t call them old. And I don’t think all of them are Jewish.
Myrna has been playing with this group for a decade, though the group has been playing for a lot longer than that. (How long no one really knows.) Most of the members of the group live here part time. They have houses in Florida, or Pennsylvania, and they come to the city for the summer, or sometimes for the winter (reverse snow-birds, they call themselves). One thing they all have in common is how much they love playing mahj.
There is very little talk while we play. All my focus and concentration is on the tiles. Play moves fast, as Myrna advised me before I came. “You have to call a tile before the next player draws or you miss it,” she said. So my primary goal was to keep play moving, to keep up with the girls. For me, there was no time for idle chit-chat.
I was on call, which meant that I needed only one tile to make a hand. My excitement was palpable, but I was trying to keep my cool. Like poker, mahj is a game played straight-faced. Sure, some players kvetch about not getting the tiles they need, or about looking for jokers. But that’s all smoke, a way to distract the other players from guessing at your hand. Because once they know what hand you have, they can play against you, holding on to tiles they think you might need.
Mah jongg is a logic puzzle in which you must fit your tiles into patterns. You must both commit to a hand and have the mental flexibility to switch gears if your plan doesn’t work. There’s a tremendous amount of luck that goes into the game. Even so, mahj is less about what tiles you draw and, to paraphase Tolkien, more about deciding what to do with the tiles that are given you.
One of the ladies dropped the tile I needed. “I’m calling that,” I blurted. Then, “Mahj!” I proudly exposed my hand. I was so excited I almost leapt ouf of my seat. I turned to the table behind me, where Myrna was playing. “I made a hand!” I told her.
She patted my arm. “Good for you,” she said, as though congratulating me for eating peas. Then she turned back to her own hand. “You’d think he won the lottery,” she joked.
I overturned my tiles and mixed them in with the 94 others on the table and took a few deep breaths. Sure I’d won a hand, but that was only one. Mahj is, after all, only a game. And like life you win some, and you lose some. I won only one hand that day, but most importantly I had fun. I learned a new game, and most importantly, met and enjoyed the company of a group of people, the Ocean City Not-Just-Ladies Mah Jongg League.
I’m looking forward to going back for more next week.