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Mad About Mah-Jongg

Like cat's-eye glasses, Capri pants and liquid eyeliner, the game of mah-jongg has cycled in and out of popularity over the decades.

Computer mah-jongg and other electronic games such as Shanghai and Szechuan solitaire, which use depictions of the Asian-themed graphic tiles, have sparked new interest in playing the old-fashioned hands-on version.

Mah-jongg is played with tiles similar to dominoes, each engraved with distinctive patterns representing a variety of suits and values.

This ancient Chinese game resembles rummy, with each player trying to assemble a hand containing a combination of three of a kind, four of a kind, and/or three tiles of the same suit in sequence, plus one pair.

Part of mah-jongg's appeal is that a beginner can quickly learn enough to enjoy a simple game. However, there are a multitude of variations and fine points that can keep the game fresh and interesting as players develop their skills and refine their strategies.

Ancient Roots

Just how long the game has existed is the subject of much debate.

Some sources claim that mah-jongg dates back to time of Confucius -- about 500 B.C. -- and that 2,000-year-old pieces have been unearthed in archaeological digs.

In China, where it is also known as "The Game of Four Winds," some version of mah-jongg has been played for at least 200 years.

By the late 19th century, the game had evolved more or less into its current form. To this day, however, regional variations exist throughout China and in other Asian countries, including Japan and Korea.

Mah-jongg was introduced in the U.S. in the early 1920s by Joseph Babcock, who had become fascinated with it while working for Standard Oil in Suzhou.

Babcock studied many ways of playing the game, then combined and streamlined the variations into a standardized set of rules, published simply as The Red Book, which is actually still in print.

Babcock also patented the game and imported the first tiles imprinted with Arabic numerals to the U.S.

After an initial surge, interest in the game lagged until the National Mah-Jongg League published its own set of rules in 1937.

The organization aims to keep the game exciting through devising dozens of new combinations of winning hands for league play each year.

A card with the new winning hands is issued annually to each of the 200,000 members the league currently claims. (The whopping $6 yearly membership dues are used to cover administration costs, with the surplus donated to charity.)

How to Play

Mah-jongg is most commonly played by four people, though it can be adapted for two, three, or five players.

The game is not difficult, but it can be complex: There are many variations, even in basics such as how the tiles are distributed, how scores are calculated and the amount of tiles used per game.

Kong of Dot

Arm yourself with a mah-jongg instruction book; alternately, rules can be downloaded, ordered from the league, or learned through a class.

A mah-jongg set typically consists of suit tiles and honor tiles, plus flower tiles, season tiles and jokers. When shopping for a new set, it's probably a good idea to get the most inclusive set available, so you'll have all the tiles necessary to try any mah-jongg variation that piques your interest.

There are three suits: bamboo, dots or circles, and characters.

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