Like so many poor, misguided Americans, I first encountered the term “Mah Jongg” in reference to a computer-generated tile-matching game. When I finally witnessed the actual game of Mah Jongg as a young child, I learned one thing very quickly: Mah Jongg was Serious Business. Grandma got very serious, people talked fast, tiles were flying all over the place, and they played for *gasp* REAL MONEY. Someone just won $1.50 in change? I’d have to clean my room and vacuum the staircase to earn that kind of money…this was a Very Serious game.
Later in life, as a teenager, I recall being over at Aunt Elaine’s and Uncle John’s house one evening, and a fierce game of Mah Jongg had developed in the basement. I was meeting my friend Paul that night, and had given him directions to the house to pick me up. When he knocked on the front door [this was before people texted instead of knocking], we might as well have been playing a $1,000-buy-in game of poker while drinking illegal moonshine.
“What’s going on?!”
“Someone go see who that is!”
“Who’s interrupting our game?!”
“Get the door – look through the window first!”
Yes. Serious Business.
Over the years, my brothers and I played a couple of games with each other and our cousins, usually at the Christmas parties. But things didn’t get serious for us until my brother Dan broke the ice and purchased his own Mah Jongg set. A few months later, I was perusing a branch of Barnes and Noble in Albany, New York, and lo and behold, there among the generic family games such as Scrabble, New York-Opoly, Scattegories, and Apples to Apples, was “MAH JONGG.” I checked the tiles, called Dan to make sure that it was a full set, and purchased my very own game. To this day I’ve never seen another Mah Jongg set in any Barnes and Noble again. However, whenever I went home from college in northern New York, Mah Jongg would always take up significant space in my backpack. My brothers and I trained rigorously in the art of this game, pouring over the National Mah Jongg League cards, accidentally calling tiles for closed hands, and realizing that the Winds-Dragons hands almost NEVER work. All of this was in preparation for the ultimate challenge: Grandma.
Playing Mah Jongg with Grandma and the “regulars” feels like stepping up to plate at Yankee Stadium with a toothpick for a baseball bat. By the time you figure out what hand you might be going for, half the tiles you need are already gone, you’ve lost track of the jokers, at least one player has half their hand out already, and often someone is already declared “dead.”
In the early summer of 2011, I stopped by the country house in the Poconos on my way up I-476 to say hello to Grandma. I was about to leave, but the Mah Jongg tiles spread out on the table in Aunt Angela’s house were simply too inviting. Like a skydiver jumping out of an airplane without a parachute, I said, ”Sure, I’ll play a couple of rounds!” One game was all it took: after calling for just one tile and laying out a pung, everyone at the table had narrowed my hand down to just two choices. I never saw the rest of the tiles for my hand, the jokers were traded out before I could even register what they were, and Aunt Angela had declared my own Grandmother dead. (True confession: I soon realized that I had called a tile for a closed hand, and was thus technically “dead” myself, but I dared not say anything out of complete fear. By the time I came to that realization, Aunt Angela had already won and Grandma had packed me a huge bag of random food for my road trip.)
As serious and ruthless as Mah Jongg can be, Grandma’s love always shines through, as she guides me, my brothers, cousins, and many friends through the strategies of Mah Jongg: 1) never space out your tiles on the rack to reveal what kind of hand you’re going for; 2) it’s ok to throw out a joker; 3)iIf you know someone else’s hand, keep all the tiles they need; and 4) of course, don’t try to settle on a hand right away; settle on a category instead. I’ve passed on these strategies, as well as the play of the whole game, to several of my friends already. I hope to teach people out here in Minnesota how to play as well. Come to think of it, I really need to renew my National Mah Jongg League membership….
Mah Jongg is as much a part of the Poconos country house as the horseshoe court and the giant pasta pot. Playing Mah Jongg on Grandma’s front porch in the Poconos is absolutely in my list of top five favorite places in the world. However, we know that it’s not just the location, or even the game; it’s the people. When we’re not agonizing over our tiles [or maybe that's just me], we share some of the best stories over Mah Jongg.
Grandma’s Mah Jongg legacy certainly rests in teaching so many people how to play. When the holidays or other occasions roll around, bring me and my brothers home, I greatly look forward to seeing two things open on the table: a bottle of wine and a Mah Jongg set. We all know how to play, and we all know that Grandma is only a phone call away, to tell me that YES, when I’m going for the last closed hand in the Singles-Pairs category [the one with the year and the NEWS], I CAN call the last tile that I need for Mah Jongg!