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Game of Sparrows

By Jackie R. Broach
Coastal Observer

Whether there are two players or a roomful, it’s hard to mistake the sound of a good game of Mah Jongg.

The clatter and click as tiles are tossed out in rapid succession while players try to assemble a winning hand sounds something like falling dominos, yet seems also melodic.

The accompanying declarations – “two-Dot,” “nine-Bam,” “Flower,” “four-Crak,” “take” – seem to the uninitiated like a strange secret code, but the excitement and laughter of the players make it clear they’re enjoying themselves as they wait for the tiles they need to claim victory.

Those are all things players don’t get with the computer matching game by the same name.

“It’s an interesting thing because people say, ‘oh, I play that online,’ but other than the fact that the computer solitaire version uses the same kind of tiles, they’re nothing alike,” said Pat Thompson, a Rose Run resident. She has played Mah Jongg since 1998 and competed in Mah Jongg tournaments for nearly as long.

She also teaches a course at the Waccamaw Higher Education Center on how to play the game by National Mah Jongg League rules. The current session, which started this month, is full.

“Up in the Northeast, it has a lot of popularity,” Thompson said. As residents from that part of the U.S. have moved south to enjoy their retirement, they brought their love for the game with them, she added.

Several Mah Jongg groups have cropped up in Georgetown and Horry counties. A group Thompson plays with at an Horry County senior center is open to new members, but it’s intended for more experienced players who are well versed in league rules. Another is set up for residents at the Tradition Club.

A group that meets Mondays and Thursdays at Precious Blood of Christ Catholic Church welcomes players of all experience levels (they don’t have to be affiliated with the church), and the regulars say they are happy to teach newcomers how to play.

Just don’t expect to pick it up in a day or two.

“Mah Jongg is a challenge,” said Linda Caswell, a River Club resident who regularly plays with the group at the church. Players have to be mindful of their own tiles, trying to create a winning hand, while paying close attention to the other players, trying to anticipate what tiles they’re looking for and avoid tossing those tiles out.

“We play very defensively,” said Theresa Vercellotti, a Tradition Club resident.

Thompson learned to play over 10 days while on vacation with friends. One was a tournament player and taught the others. They would play every morning for about two hours. As she learned, Thompson said she picked one hand a day and memorized all the possible ways to assemble that hand.

Most people can learn the game enough to be tournament-ready within a year if they play at least once a week, she said.

Mah Jongg originated in China and takes it’s name from that clattering sound so unique to the tiles. The name loosely translates to “clattering sparrows,” as the sound has been compared to the sound of sparrows squabbling over food.

According to the league, the game dates back to the time of Confucius and was originally played solely by the ruling classes. Another version known as Ma Cheuck, or “the game of the sparrows,” was introduced for all classes and “met with instant popularity,” according to the league.

There are now several versions of the game, but all fall under one of two broader categories: American Mah Jongg and Chinese Mah Jongg.

The American version uses more tiles, including Jokers, and starts with a passing of unwanted tiles from one player to another. It also uses a Card of Standard Hands, changed and released annually by the league.

Some players complain that just when they’ve gotten used to one set of hands, the card changes and they have to start all over, but “that keeps it from getting boring,” Thompson said. By the time the new cards come out in late March or early April, she’s eager for the new challenge.

There’s a definite social aspect to Mah Jongg. As the play got going during one of last week’s gatherings at Precious Blood of Christ, players gathered around tables talked about families, friends and neighbors, restaurants and current events as they readied their tiles on racks. As the game started, their delight in trying to foil each other’s efforts for a win was clear.

Caswell said she enjoys the company and fellowship, but she and her friends at the table said they also like the solitary aspect of the play and not being reliant on the skills of a partner to win as is the case with games such as bridge.

Mah Jongg is better compared with the game of gin rummy.

“It’s a challenge,” Vercellotti said. “It makes you think. It keeps your mind sharp ... It’s strategy and you’ve got to play to win.”

Mah Jongg continues to grow in popularity as new players take an interest in learning the game and competing in competitions. It’s popularity is clear just from the sheer number of groups and even cruises set up for players, Thompson said. But she was still surprised by the number of people who signed up to take her course.

She offered to teach a course after hearing the institute was looking for an instructor for a Mah Jongg class.

Most of her students are brand new to the game and took an interest in learning it after hearing others talk about it and the Mah Jongg tournaments that take place nationwide.

There’s a tournament coming up in Wilmington, but Thompson said she prefers the bigger ones. She tied for sixth place out of 176 players at a tournament in Atlantic City in November. She will compete in Las Vegas in March.

The prizes aren’t as big as in poker tournaments, but a first place winner can take home a few thousand dollars along with bragging rights.

There are also plans to institute a masters points ranking system this year similar to the one used in bridge.

“It’s a prestige thing,” Thompson said. And it should make the game even more interesting for the serious players.

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