by Dennis Dalman
As the ceramic tiles click and clack, four women with intense faces choose and discard the tiles on the table, trying to achieve pongs, kongs and chows and even resorting at times to stealing in order to win the game.
To an observer, it appears to be a mysterious, arcane ritual.
But to the intense players, it’s the great game of mahjong. Pongs, kongs and chows are three combinations of tiles, which resemble dominos. A pong is three identical tiles; a kong is four identical tiles and a chow is a “meld” of three tiles in a specific numerical sequence. “Stealing” in mahjong is when a player takes a discarded tile from another player.
Each Wednesday morning in Sartell, eight women gather to form two teams so they can play mahjong from 9 to 11:30 a.m. The games take place at the Senior Connection Center in the School District Services Building, and all the players are members of the Sartell Senior Connection.
Gerri Boser, the woman who started the mahjong meetings last June, had never heard of the game until friends in Arizona introduced her to it two years ago. Boser and her husband, Dennis, rent a place each winter in Florence, Ariz., a town near Mesa. Many senior citizens in Florence enjoy playing mahjong, a game that originated in China that resembles dominos but is actually much more like the game of rummy. Boser’s Arizona friends taught her how to play mahjong, but Boser admits it took her awhile to get hooked.
“It’s a real challenging game,” she said. “It requires very intense thinking. At first, I asked myself quite a few times, ‘Why am I playing this? Is this really fun?’ ”
But as she became more adept at the game and even started winning it, she decided mahjong is fun, indeed. Last June, there were just four women playing, but over time four more joined. One of the women, Sherry Grundman, had also learned the game in Arizona and helped teach it, along with Boser.
“Most of us ladies did not even know one another before playing mahjong,” Boser said. “Now we have so much fun playing, and we also have time to chit-chat. We’re gradually getting more members.”
Mahjong is a great game for senior citizens because its intensity keeps the mind very alert. So much so that in China, mahjong is used in therapy sessions for people suffering dementia or other forms of cognitive impairment. There is also evidence that playing mahjong can delay the onset of mental difficulties.
There are many worldwide variations of mahjong, each with its own rules. The kind Boser and her friends play is called “Modern American Mahjong.”
No one is sure exactly when or how mahjong began, although it is certain it originated in China. The game, which is a real brain twister, involves lots of skill, strategy, calculations and some elements of chance. The white ceramic tiles, typically 144 of them, are marked with Chinese word script, as well as designs such as stylized bamboo, flowers and dots. The tiles, faced down on the table, are scrambled up by all the players using their hands. Then, during the course of play, each player has 13 tiles in front of her, not counting some bonus tiles reserved at the side. The goal is to match up the tiles in certain combinations, which is a lot more difficult than it sounds. A winner will then say loudly, “Mahjong!”
The game is replete with strange names. Simples, for example, are numbered tiles. There are “honor” categories of “winds” and “dragons,” and there are “bam” tiles, short for “bamboo” and “eyes” (two identical tiles). The game also involves the four directions, the four seasons and four flowers (plum, chrysanthemum, orchid, bamboo).
Mahnong comes from the Mandarin Chinese word for “sparrow.” It was basically unheard of in the West, but starting in 1920 a mahjong craze began in the United States and lasted throughout that decade. One popular song of that era, sung by famed crooner Eddie Cantor, was called “Since Mah Is Playing Mahjong.” Although the craze faded somewhat, there have been diehard, dedicated mahjong players ever since. In the 1930s, the game was particularly popular among Jewish women, who are credited with inventing the American version of mahjong. Jewish players founded the National Mahjong League in 1937.
In 1949, when the Communists took over rule in China, the game was banned as yet another example of “Western capitalist decadence and corruption,” mainly because the game often involved gambling for money. In 1985, Chinese authorities made the game perfectly legal again.
In Japan, the mahjong is extremely popular, with an estimated 7.6 million avid players. Boser said the game is also growing in popularity in North America. There is an American Mahjong Association, which hosts tournaments throughout North America, and its main event is a tournament each year at the Trump Taj Mahal Casino Resort in Atlantic City, N.J.
One interesting but morbid point about mahjong is that some studies indicate the sheer concentration and intensity of the game can trigger seizures in some players, although there are only 23 reported provable cases of that in English medical studies. The Sartell players, to be sure, have not suffered any mahjong-related seizures.
Mahjong, like some other games like gambling and baseball, also seems to inspire superstitious or ritual behaviors. Some mahjong players wear only certain clothing while playing or must sit facing a certain direction. Others wear special trinkets or pieces of jewelry. And some even have an obsessive ritual of changing their underwear after a loss.
The ladies in Sartell, we must hasten to add, have reported none of the above rituals.
Anyone who would like to learn mahjong should call Boser at 320-260-4817 or just show up at the Senior Connection Center at 9 a.m. any Wednesday. Although so far, the eight players are women only, men are very welcome to join.
Dalman was born and raised in South St. Cloud, graduated from St. Cloud Tech High School, then graduated from St. Cloud State University with a degree in English (emphasis on American and British literature) and mass communications (emphasis on print journalism). He studied in London, England for a year (1980-81) where he concentrated on British literature, political science, the history of Great Britain and wrote a book-length study of the British writer V.S. Naipaul. Dalman has been a reporter and weekly columnist for more than 30 years and worked for 16 of those years for the Alexandria Echo Press.