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.

Suit tiles are numbered 1 through 9; there are four of each. Besides being numbered, each tile typically has a design unique to its suit and number.

Bamboo, usually referred to as "bam," is depicted as bamboo stalks, except for No. 1, which shows a bird, often perched on a sprig of bamboo. Dots are marked with circular patterns. Characters, a.k.a. "crack," are distinguished with Chinese calligraphy.

Honor tiles include the four winds, marked N, S, E, and W, and three dragons: red, green and white. Red and green dragons are represented by a single Chinese character in the appropriate color; the white dragon, also known as "soap," can be either a plain white tile or a plain tile with a dark border.

Rules of Engagement

Since so many versions exist, set out the rules before starting the game to ensure that all players are on the same page.

At the start, anywhere from 136 to 152 tiles are mixed thoroughly, then stacked two-tiles high into a four-sided wall.

In its most simple form, mah-jongg begins with each player drawing 13 tiles from the wall.

A turn consists of drawing a tile and discarding one, with the goal of going out first by forming a winning hand consisting of "pungs" (three of a kind), "kongs" (four of a kind), and "chows" (three tiles of the same suit in sequence), plus one pair.

The first player to use of all the tiles in his or her hand in these combinations declares mah-jongg and turns all tiles face up for scoring. The other players, too, calculate their scores.

Typically kongs have the highest value, pungs are next and chows pull in the fewest points.

Always, however, the game should flow quickly -- so consider your strategy and what to discard while awaiting your turn.

Digital and Analog

There's a strong mah-jongg presence online, including sites for people interested in meeting other local enthusiasts, tips for starting clubs, bulletin boards with extensive FAQs, even blogs and videos.

Mah-jongg devotees even attend tournaments in venues as diverse as casinos, synagogues, conference rooms and luxury cruise ships. Vacation packages are also available, which occasionally interrupt the clack of the tiles with sightseeing and shopping expeditions.

Mah-jongg sets for beginners to travelers to collectors are available online at sites such as mastersgames.com, mahjongmuseum.com and heirloomgiftbazaar.com.

Pung of Crack

Used and antique sets are sold on eBay and at garage sales and thrift stores.

Some of the older mah-jongg games imported from China are not marked with Arabic numerals -- that's not a problem with bams and dots, but some memorization of symbols would be necessary to be able to decipher cracks.

Ivory sets are rare and now illegal here, though antiques may still be found.

Many sets with bamboo-backed tiles are identified as ivory, but are actually made of bone -- the mislabeling usually results from ignorance rather than from fraud. Many old sets are crafted from Bakelite and other early synthetic materials. And the National Mah-Jongg League can match missing tiles from older sets, for about $4 to $5 per tile.

As we head into cooler weather, this is an ideal time to focus on learning more about this complex and intriguing pastime. Meeting with friends to polish your mah-jongg skills is a novel way to brighten any night.



Enjoy the Good Life? Email us with what you'd like to see in future articles.

Elzy Kolb is a freelance writer living in White Plains, N.Y. In addition to writing the monthly JazzWomen! column in Hot House magazine, her articles on the arts, travel, interior design and other topics have appeared in the New York Times, Interior Design magazine and The Stamford Advocate.

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