Posted by Elaine Sandberg
MAH JONGG—FACT AND FICTION
Mah Jongg or Mah Jong—any way you spell it or pronounce it, with the emphasis on the Mah or the Jongg, it’s still the same exciting, challenging and fun game. Over the years of its growth and popularity in America, some of the history of Mah Jongg has been shrouded in fiction. So let’s get the facts straight.
Fiction: Mah Jongg is an ancient Chinese game.
Fact: Mah Jongg is a creation of the late 19th Century.
True the game originated in China, but not in the days of Confucius (even though the Mah Jongg League claims it is) It evolved gradually from card games and tile games played over much time to about the late 1800s—between the 1850s to the 1880s or 90s. The earliest known reference in writing to Mah Jongg was about 1880s and the earliest known mahj set was documented about the same time.
Fiction: Mah Jongg is a woman’s game.
Fact: Mah Jongg is played by women and men.
True it is played today mostly by women, but originally Mah Jongg was a man’s game. In China it was played exclusively by men—mostly by royalty and highly placed government and palatial officials. Peasant classes were forbidden to play it, not that they had the leisure to play it anyway. It was believed to be a game that required thinking and intelligence and that if the lower classes played it, they would learn how to think—a threat to their political positions. As for women, the role of women in the Chinese culture was certainly not one that would ever allow them to play the “Game of a Thousand Intelligences”, Mah Jongg, let alone any game.
But as the government democratized in 1911 with the election of Dr. Sun Yat Sen as President, the game rapidly became the province of the “people”, and the door was opened to women. Because each game is scored, the higher the point value of the hand, the more money it’s worth, the game became one of gambling for potentially hundreds of Chinese dollars. After WWI, both men and women played Mah Jongg in China, especially in the emerging middle class, which could afford the high stakes of Mah Jongg.
When it was introduced to the US by Joseph Babcock in 1920, an American who was employed by Standard Oil in China, predominately, men played it. But soon it was embraced by women. By the 1930s, every department store worth its salt had counters filled with Mah Jongg sets in every price range and of every description. It was the first thing you saw when you walked into the store.
By 1937, with the creation of the National Mah Jongg League, the predominance of players was women. Men had long since abandoned it, given that the discord about how to score hands had become increasingly volatile and vicious.
Today, there is an increasingly number of men in my classes and men’s Mahj groups are springing up.
Fiction: Mah Jongg is an old lady’s game.
Fact: Mah Jongg is played by women and men of all ages.
Today, Baby Boomers are flooding my classes. Young moms are taking classes with other young moms. Working Singles and couples are creating Mahj groups with their friends and are learning and playing together. Today, there is no stigma attached to the game as an ”old lady’s game”. The renaissance in Mah Jongg is effecting every strata of society and every age from teens on up. My 12 yr. old grandson fills in if we are short a player. And more men are discovering the game to be just as challenging and interesting as when Chinese men ruled the game.
Fiction: Mah Jongg is a “Jewish” game.
Fact: There is no such thing as “Jewish Mah Jongg”. The game is called American Mah Jongg.
There are no “Jewish rules”. I do not know where this stereotype came from, but it is just that—a stereotype. Yes, many Jewish women play it but so do many women (and men) from every other ethnic and religious group.
So I hope I’ve dispelled some of the mythology surrounding Mah Jongg and have added to the pleasure and fun of the game.
Til next time…
MAY THE TILES BE WITH YOU!
8.8.11 at 11:27 am |
7.31.11 at 11:30 pm |
7.25.11 at 1:38 am |
7.17.11 at 11:54 pm |
7.11.11 at 1:15 am |
6.27.11 at 12:13 am |
August 22, 2010 | 2:47 pm
Posted by Elaine Sandberg
EXPOSURES TELL ALL!!!
Don’t Be a Tale-Teller.
A vital part of defensive playing is for you to determine what hands are being played by the others from their exposures so you can determine what are “safe” tiles to discard. This is admittedly, not always easy, especially when there is only one Exposure made by another player. There are probably lots of hands that fit the one Exposure, especially if the Exposure is for example, a Kong of Flowers. There are 11 hands that require a Kong of Flowers.
When you make two Exposures you are revealing the hand almost for sure. 2 odd numbers, even numbers, Consecutive numbers, matching Dragons, opposite Dragons, one or two Suits, these are clues that will surely tell your opponents the one or two possible hands you are playing. Once the other players figure out your hand, the chances of them discarding your Mah Jongg tile are almost zero. And the chances of you declaring Mah Jongg, at best, are diminished.
That’s why you must be judicious about when and what you expose. And why I strongly suggest to expose only when you must!—- when you have no other option but to call the tile you need and expose.
Many players grab the first tile discarded that completes the Pung or Kong, especially in the early stages of the game. “What if I don’t see the tile again?” is the reason I hear for exposing early. But the chances of your seeing it again are greater if you let the first tile go, uncalled. Mostly, it’s assumed to be a safe tile and it will probably be discarded again by another player. And of course there’s always the option of picking the tile yourself or picking a Joker to complete your combination. In the course of playing and teaching these many years I have seen it happen over and over, saving the player from the need to expose and give away vital information.
This is particularly true if your Pung or Kong is made up using Jokers. For example, you have a 6Crak and a Joker towards a Pung. When the first 6Crak is discarded, WAIT until the third 6Crak is discarded. Then call and your Joker is secure from being taken by another player. But there is a caveat here. If you call before all the 6Craks are out, there is the possibility of you picking the last 6Crak and exchanging it for your own Joker.
If you have 3 natural tiles toward a Kong, no matter how early in the game, you must call for the fourth. And when the game is closer to the end, calling and exposing becomes more reasonable.
Exposing is fun—but like many fun things, there’s a price you pay. And the price is that you are giving information about your hand to your opponents. So keep track of how many of your needed tiles are out, how many are left and when you MUST—call and expose.
‘Til next time…
MAY THE TILES BE WITH YOU!!
August 15, 2010 | 2:30 pm
Posted by Elaine Sandberg
Mostly Benign but Watch Out!
When Mah Jongg was introduced from China to the US in the ‘20s, the game was basically a simplified version of Chinese Mah Jongg. Different regions of China had different versions —Northern Chinese vs. Southern Chinese vs. Hong Kong. In the ‘20s and ‘30s Mah Jongg was a fad and like many fads, it spiraled out of control because as the game grew in popularity it also grew in the number of “experts”. There were innumerable books written (all by “expert” men,) about how to play Mah Jongg—all different, reflecting the conflicting rules of Chinese Mah Jongg. There were different scoring methods (Mah Jongg hands used to be scored, but the same hands would be worth more or less, depending on the “expert”), and arguments arose when they sat down to play about which method was acceptable. Alas, playing Mah Jongg couldn’t have been much fun and it is speculated that the lack of harmony is one of the reasons men stopped playing the game (which they did around the late ‘20s) even as the women persisted.
Enter the ladies of the National Mah Jongg League, who brought stability, simplicity and standardization to the game. The League introduced the card, the Charleston (so called to mimic the dance-craze of the era), did away with scoring and proscribed the rules of Mah Jongg. They have persisted, with a few changes, since 1937, when the National Mah Jongg League was created. Now everyone, everywhere plays by the same rules. With no arguments. Well, almost…
One of the areas of contention is “Table” rules.. rules made up that vary from the “official” rules of the League.
The “hot Wall” is not mentioned by the NMJL. When you play “hot Wall”, if the discarder of the Mah Jongg tile is thrown while picking from the hot Wall, it results in a penalty to the discarder of paying the winner four times the value required. Some play if a double is rolled on the dice, everyone pays double the amount required to the winner, but the discarder of the Mah Jongg tile pays four times the amount.
The rationale for the hot Wall or “doubles” is to make the game more exciting and challenging because the penalties for discarding the Mah Jongg tile are more severe and the players need to be more circumspect and wary of discarding a Mah Jongg tile. Even so, financial insolvency is not a usual consequence of a mistake in American Mah Jongg.
There are rules about the Wall—using the last two in each Wall as a “tail” placed in the middle of the table, placing a Joker, face up, at the end of East’s Wall. The Charleston’s “mush” allows players an additional exchange of tiles after the final Courtesy.
Most table rules are benign. But there is one that is open to some serious cheating. Who would cheat at Mah Jongg?? Don’t be fooled—there are people who are obsessed with winning and they do cheat.
This one is easy. East does not roll the dice to break the Wall and the game starts by picking tiles from the Wall, as built. The reasoning behind this table rule is that rolling the dice, breaking the Wall, etc. is a bother. But if East is one of these obsessive players, it’s not difficult to make sure Jokers are part of the first four tiles he/she picks from the Wall. It’s been done. While the mixing of tiles from a previous game is going on and players are chatting, the East player can easily palm a couple of Jokers and be sure to position them to his/her advantage. This is one table rule I definitely oppose and will not play in a game if the Wall isn’t broken by a roll of the dice.
There is no doubt some table rules make the game more challenging. Others don’t seem to provide any great excitement. There are many more. But for a “purist”, like me, I’ll stick to the REAL rules.
Whichever way you play,
MAY THE TILES BE WITH YOU…..
August 8, 2010 | 11:03 am
Posted by Elaine Sandberg
A JUDGMENT CALL
GO JOKERLESS OR NOT?
The other day I was playing in a game and after the one of the hands was over, one of the players confessed that she was faced with a dilemma. A somewhat robust discussion followed about what she should or should not have done.
Here’s the story. We’ll call the player Madge. Madge was “waiting” for Mahj—-she needed one tile for a Pair. Her hand had only one Joker which she used for a Pung. She had made no Exposures. The game was about 2/3 over and one of the tiles she needed for the Pair was already out and one tile toward the Pung was out. Then another player discards the second of the tiles needed for the Pung. Technically, the Pung in Madge’s hand was complete. So the question was, Should she call for the tile to complete the Pung, make it “natural” to try for a Jokerless hand and discard the Joker?
There were those who said Yes, of course she should have called the tile. She had a good possibility of declaring a Jokerless Mahj—a consummation devoutly to be wished. If she didn’t call for the tile to make the Pung a “natural”, the possibility of her picking the tile for the Pung would be zero, because now two of the tiles were out. She couldn’t Mahj with a Jokerless hand. If she did call for the tile, the Exposure might not “tell all” and even if it did, she still could have picked the Mah Jongg tile herself.
That argument is a valid one. A Jokerless hand is worth double (if your group plays for money) and if she Self-Picked the Mah Jongg tile she could collect four times the amount the hand called for from everyone. So there was the financial aspect of the game at stake, as well.
I, on the other hand said “Wait a minute. Her discarded Joker would be a big clue that she was waiting for a tile to complete a Pair.” But since she had no other Exposures, it would be difficult to determine her hand. But not impossible. We were all experienced players knew the card thoroughly. Her Exposure would have given away a huge amount of information about what Pair she needed. It narrowed the search down and from the discards she had made during the game (a most important factor) and a quick perusal of the discards out, it would not have been too difficult to determine her Mahj tile. But even if we could not have reached a definitive conclusion, the discards other players would now make, become very judicious. And Madge’s own discards would be more carefully scrutinized.
If Madge didn’t make the Exposure, the possibility of someone discarding her Mahj tile was much greater since there was no information about the hand she was playing. And because one of the tiles she needed for the Pair was already out, the chances of it being discarded again was also greater.
Actually, Madge did not expose and she did win—-on a discard, but not Jokerless.
‘Til next time,
MAY THE TILES BE WITH YOU..
August 1, 2010 | 7:30 pm
Posted by Elaine Sandberg
THE JOKER PHENOMENON
“A Joker! A Joker! My Kingdom for a Joker! If I only had a Joker,”—- a plea we have all made and heard. You probably wouldn’t give your “kingdom” for a Joker, but Jokers are pretty powerful tiles to acquire and can be the critical tile you need for a win. I’ve heard it said so many times, “You must have Jokers to win”. But that really isn’t the complete story, because there are winners of Jokerless hands. True, it’s not a usual phenomenon, but I’ve made them as a player and even several of my beginning students have made them. When and if you do win with a Jokerless hand, they are doubly exciting and doubly enriching.
But just acquiring Jokers does not insure a win. There are many times, no matter how many Jokers you have, you don’t win. It’s also that it’s not necessarily the quantity you have but how you use those you have.
Let’s take an example of a hand that opens up with two Jokers, not an unusual situation. Many times Jokers are placed at the end of the rack with other “unwanted” tiles, as if they are an “after-thought”. There are players (and some teachers) who never count their Jokers as part of the beginning Section or hand. I never can understand that thinking. Jokers can be any tile and as such they can “create” and strengthen a hand.
When you first look for a hand, let’s say you can only find four tiles that match a hand. Jokers can add to that anemic hand to give you five or six tiles and six out of the 14 you need for Mah Jongg is a perfectly good start to the Charleston.
One of the things I teach my students is to “spread the wealth”. What I mean by that is when you have two or more Jokers, distribute them to the combinations that need them. For example, you have two Jokers, two tiles towards a Kong and one tile toward a Pung. Don’t use both Jokers to complete the Kong but use one Joker to boost the Kong and one to boost the Pung. Both combinations are now set to be callable.
And what if a Joker is discarded during the game? Again, not a usual phenomenon, but it does happen. It’s a big clue that the player is close to Mahj—probably looking for a tile to complete a Pair. And an alarm to be extra cautious about your discards.
Exchanging a tile for a Joker from an Exposure is often a happy experience, both for the Exchanger and in many cases, the Exposee, because the exchange you made could well give the Exposee a Jokerless hand. You can’t see the rest of the hand so you really don’t know.
And sometimes the exchange does nothing for your own hand because you are waiting for a tile to complete a Pair and the Joker is of no value.
I think of all the tiles in the Mah Jongg set, the Joker is the most revered. But don’t get carried away. Jokers are “helpers”, not the end-all and be-all.
Still, having helpers is a consummation devoutly to be wished.
‘Til the next time..
MAY THE TILES (AND HELPERS) BE WITH YOU…..