Long-time Retrospect readers may recall my story Bridge Over Troubled Waters about how I played bridge for many years, mostly in high school and college, and my conclusion that I was a much better bridge player when I was stoned. I ended that story with the following passage:
“Once I had my first baby, 32 years ago, I no longer had the time or the interest, and in fact never played [bridge] again. Friends who play now tell me the game is very different from how it used to be, but I haven’t been motivated enough to find out what changes have been made. The game I now play on a regular basis, every Monday afternoon, is Mah Jongg . . . but that’s another story.”
So now here’s that other story.
It all started in 2013 when my friend Helen, for reasons known only to her, decided to give my life some direction. We didn’t even know each other that well. But she knew I was retired from practicing law, had only one child (a teenager) still at home, and didn’t have any hobbies. First she invited me to join her book club. That was easy and fun. I already knew how to read, and I got to meet some interesting women who I might never have met otherwise.
Then she invited me to play mah jongg. It wasn’t in a private group, like the book club. The game was held at our synagogue, in the library, every other Monday afternoon. I said I had never played before, and she said that’s okay, the women there will teach you.
Mah jongg is a game like no other I have ever seen. It is played with tiles, not cards. There are three suits, but there are also winds, and dragons, and flowers. Most importantly, there are jokers, which are like wild cards and can be substituted for any other kind of tile, but only in a group of three or four of the same tile. There is a printed card that changes every year, that gives all the different combinations of tiles you can make to get mah jongg.
The first time I played, there was so much information to absorb, I felt like my head would explode. I remember saying This is harder than taking the Bar Exam! I probably should have read an instruction book, or at least watched a youtube video, before I went, but it never occurred to me, because I had no idea it would be so hard.
Later I did get a book, which was helpful. But only playing every other week, I would forget a lot between one time and the next. Eventually we started meeting every Monday instead of every other Monday. I guess a lot of people were having the same problem. So I have been playing every week for about five years now, except on Monday holidays (secular or religious) that cause the temple office to be closed. Attendance varies from week to week, there can be anywhere from three to fifteen women playing at tables of three or four. Many of the women grew up with mothers who played mah jongg, and that was how they learned. Some of them even have their mothers’ old sets. But my mother only played bridge. I don’t think she even had any friends who played mah jongg, because I don’t remember ever hearing of the game when I was a child.
It’s a wonderful game, and I’m now totally addicted. Like many games, it’s a combination of luck and skill. When I lose, I blame it on bad luck, and when I win, I assume it is because of my skill. So either way it’s good. I belong to a Facebook mah jongg group where people ask questions and debate strategies. I used to take pictures of my tiles every time I mahjed, but after a while there were too many, and I didn’t think anyone else would be interested in seeing them. The Featured Image though, is one of my most impressive mahjes. It is a closed hand, which means you can’t pick up any discards off the table, and it is made up entirely of pairs, which means you can’t use any jokers. So I was very excited when I made this hand!
It has been fun to see mah jongg show up in movies and TV shows recently. Maybe it was there all along, but I certainly never noticed it until I started playing the game. There was a lot of buzz about the mah jongg scene in Crazy Rich Asians, because it is a pivotal plot point in the movie and changes the relationship between the young American woman and her Chinese boyfriend’s tiger mother. I was so excited for this scene before I saw the movie, and I have to say that it went by much too fast. There is also a mah jongg game in The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel during season 2 when the family goes to the Catskills for the summer. Midge sees her mother-in law playing in the evening, and when she comes back the next morning, the game is still going on! I don’t think anyone I know is fanatical enough to play all night!
As to my friend Helen, I see her every month at our book club, but she only comes to mah jongg sporadically. After she brought me into those two activities, she tried to get me involved in two more of her hobbies, knitting and climbing. I actually tried knitting, and started on a pussy hat to wear to the Women’s March, but I kept making mistakes, dropping stitches or whatever, and I finally gave up. Helen kindly finished the hat for me, so I did get to wear it for several marches. But the climbing was an easy “no” for me. The idea of going to a special gym where they have walls that people climb all the way up to the ceiling did not sound like fun! I’m waiting to see if she has any more plans for me, but it’s been a while, so maybe she’s finished.
Note re story title: I never get the blues from playing mah jongg. It’s a song by the Atlantic Dance Orchestra from 1922.