Mah Jongg Blues by
(303 Stories)

Prompted By Games People Play

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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.


Profile photo of Suzy Suzy

Characterizations: right on!, well written


  1. Betsy Pfau says:

    Helen sounds like a great friend, having introduced you to several wonderful groups post-retirement. I know several women on the Vineyard who have gotten into mah jongg and really enjoy it. My mother never played Bridge, mah jongg or any other game, so I never had that generational example, but it seems like a great way to meet other women, keep your brain alive and have fun.

    I played Bridge in college (friends taught me) and enjoyed it. Dan was a very good player, but we drifted away from it after marriage and busy careers. A woman in the neighborhood got a group together with a teacher about 20 years ago and you are right, Suzy, bidding conventions are different and it really had changed. We found we had more fun just chatting among ourselves than trying to play Bridge, so the whole group just fizzled out. Now all those women have moved away or passed away!

    • Suzy says:

      You’re exactly right, Betsy, it’s a great way to meet other women, keep your brain alive, and have fun. And while it requires a certain amount of concentration, you can still chat or gossip while playing, so that adds another element of entertainment.

  2. Laurie Levy says:

    Suzy, I am so impressed that you actually stuck it out and learned how to play. As someone whose mother played mah jongg, I grew up hearing the clacking of the tiles and laughter of the women who sometimes played at my house. So when some of my close friends from work decided to learn mah jongg under the tutelage of another co-worker, I thought, why not. Our effort fizzled because no one wanted to concentrate enough to play the game. Our coach was frustrated by our joking around and gossiping, so we quit and decided to do lunch instead.

    • Suzy says:

      It does take concentrating in the beginning, but now we certainly do our share of joking around and gossiping while we play. And though we may not all know each other that well, most of us belong to the temple, so we have a community of people in common that we can gossip about. 🙂

  3. Marian says:

    Really fun story, Suzy, and it inspires me to learn mah jongg. My mother didn’t play (although my parents played bridge for a while), but I remember the neighbor ladies playing with gusto!

  4. Love the story, Suzy. Also really love how the Retrospect prompts trigger stories like yours that prompt memories from God knows where. Case in point re this story: remember Alan Sherman? One of his songs, to the tune of
    Camptown Ladies, was “Catskill ladies sing this song, doo dah, doo dah, sittin’ on the front porch playin’ mah jongg . . .”

  5. Love your pussy hat! Me, too…but that’s another story.

  6. John Shutkin says:

    This is a great story, Suzy, and really pulled me in. And this is particularly so since, while I used to play bridge, mah jongg is a complete “black box” to me. I know it is played with tiles rather than cards and is historically (or maybe just stereotypically) popular among Asian and Jewish women, but that is it. (Though, like Tom, I do remember the Alan Sherman song.) So I am really impressed that you have taught yourself the game and embraced it. And I loved the “good skill/bad luck” dichotomy you presented,

    For now, just one question, but a pretty basic one: what does “mah jongg” mean?

    • Suzy says:

      Thanks John. To clarify, I did NOT teach myself the game, I was taught by the other women in the group. In turn, I have taught others who joined the group later. We have varying degrees of patience, but we always encourage “newbies” to come and learn.

      And to answer your basic question, my internet research tells me that mah jongg means sparrows in Chinese. Why is the game called sparrows? No idea.

  7. Wonderful story Suzy, and good for you, I know Mah Jongg is a challenging game!

    Altho my mother played, I never did. Then a few years ago a friend gave me a few lessons. I was enthused and so one night when a neighbor invited me to fill in at her regular game I was delighted. But I was very nervous and took forever with each move which obviously annoyed the other players.

    Not surprisingly I was never asked back. Maybe I should take up knitting?

  8. Wow, Suzy, impressive research on the song title! You’ve been remarkably consistent in finding appropriate song titles for your Retro stories. Actually, when I first read this title I thought it would make a good Hoagie Carmichael tune.

    I love the line “…Helen, for reasons known only to her, decided to give my life some direction.” I think that, after leading a full-bore professional life for decades, you were probably comfortable having no direction. You’d make a good rolling stone, specifically “no direction home, a complete unknown, like a rolling stone.” (b.dylan)

    Add to that the startling discovery that you played bridge better stoned leads me to believe you probably made one helluva good hippie. That observation is, of course contradicted by the stories you tell of your activism circa 1968. But then, life is complicated.

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