Mahjong always fascinated me when I was a kid. I would see ladies in the park and the community center playing with the smooth flower and bamboo printed tiles and the quick way they would speak in code to each other through a game.
“Six dot. Eight bam. Three crak.”
I heard this familiar code being exchanged in the basement of Horizon Books last Thursday, and I knew that this would be my chance to see some of the mystery of Mahjong unfold.
“It’s called the Charleston,” Carol LeGray said. “Because it’s like dancing three to the left, three to the right.”
Carol has been playing Mahjong in the lower level of Horizon Books for 13 years now. There are no rules to who can come play, you just have to know how to play.
“There’s a class down at NMC that will teach you how,” Cindy Timmer told me. “You should go learn and come back to play!”
The ladies group up into a few tables to play a game. On this particular day there are only 9 ladies playing.
“You should have been here last week,” Carol said. “There were 17 of us.”
Ideally, a game of Mahjong is played with a group of four but the ladies make do with what they have, playing three and sometimes two player games. A game lasts about 15 to 20 minutes, “depending on how much we talk,” Cindy said.
The women will not stay in the same group for the couple hours that they play. Every two or three games the dealer, also called the East wind, will rotate tables so the women can socialize more. From the East wind, the players take turns in a counterclockwise pattern. The women socialize through some of the game, until the table heats up.
“You can always tell when it’s getting serious,” Cindy said. “A table will get really quiet.”
During this counterclockwise rotation, the women playing will pick up three of their tiles and pass them to their neighbor on the left, then the player across from them, and finally to the player on their right, this is the Charleston. The Charleston is only played in American Mahjong, which is also distinctive in that it uses a joker tile.
Mahjong is much more complicated and detailed than this overview, but the point of the game is to make one of the hands that is in the National Mahjong League Card, which changes every year.
“The rules don’t change but the cards do,” Said Kay Steed, who has been playing with the group for 12 years. “So, each of these patterns means something. You win by having one of these hands.”
Although the ladies take the game seriously and play to win, they’re also there as friends. Friendly discussions float between the ladies, things like the pleasant surprise of discovering that a dress has pockets, and where to find the most reasonably priced place to get a manicure done.
“Of course it’s fun to play, but the friendships are really something special,” Cindy said.
The women will go out of their way to do nice things for each other. For Carol’s 80th birthday she was surprised at a lunch thrown by her Mahjong friends.
“I just had my 80th birthday and I was supposed to be going to lunch with Cindy and Kay and one other girl who plays with us, they were gonna take me to lunch for my birthday, you know, and Kay had said, ‘do you want anybody else to come?’ and I said, ‘no that’s fine.’ Well, I get there and there were 20 people in there. Almost everyone who plays was there. We’ve become very close over the years. Girlfriends.”
The women support each other through all kinds of circumstances that life throws at them, not just the happy occasions like birthdays.
“I lost my husband last fall and everyone just rallies around you and makes you feel so cared for and supported,” Carol said.
Although the group is very close, they are always accepting and encouraging new members, and with the support and friendship that the group provides who wouldn’t want to hang with these ladies?
“Mahjong is a lot like life,” Cindy said. “You’ve gotta work with what you’re given.”
I found myself feeling inspired and hopeful at the end of my time observing the Mahjong games, and what I suspected to be true is; Mahjong is magic.