Mah Jongg, a Chinese tile game, has become the weekly obsession of a group of twelve Paducah women.
Brenda Anderson and Judy Green spend several months each winter in Florida. It was there they began playing Mah Jongg. When they came home to Paducah however they had no local players to join them. So in August 2011, they began teaching friends the tile-based Chinese game so they could play throughout the year. The game requires tables of four although a group of three can play if needed.
Judy says Mah Jongg “is challenging because it’s simple, yet really complex. I’ve enjoyed teaching friends to play because I really like the game and I enjoy the socialization part of it.” The twelve women use group texting each week to figure out who is available for two tables. They have been known to drive to Murray so that Tanya Spaulding, who recently opened a Dunkin’ Donuts franchise there, could play. “Tanya is trying to run a business, but she still desperately wants to play, so we took the game to her!” Leslie Bassi explained.
They have not only driven to Murray, they have had sleepovers at the lake and taken vacations together just to play the game. On their regular Thursdays, they have been known to start at 1 p.m. and finish at 9 p.m. – eating their meals on side tables or on their laps. One of the women added, “I forgot to pick up my husband one week because we were having so much fun!” On one of their Florida vacations Judy says “we played all afternoon and evening and then got up the next morning and started playing again!”
So what is it about this game that so attracts these women?
“Mah Jongg uses all of your senses,” Jamie Barnes thinks. She explains that “it’s the clicking of the tiles while you are playing, the using of your brain, the eating and drinking, the socializing with your friends, the laughter, and then there is the tactile moving the beautiful tiles around. It’s not a quiet game like bridge.” As each player discards, she yells out the tile discarded like ‘Five Bamboo’ or ‘Green Dragon’.
“It’s an individualistic game. You don’t play partners,” Robin Grubbs adds. “Yes, that’s what’s so great about it,” Jamie says. “You don’t feel like you are letting your partner down if you don’t win!”
The game is played with a set of 136 colorful tiles that are based on Chinese characters and symbols like bamboo, which is an important Chinese symbol of strength, and flowers, which symbolize the seasons and fertility. Part of the fascination with Mah Jongg resides in these beautiful, bright tiles. Despite the legend that the game dates back to Confucius, it really began in the 1800s and came to the U.S. in 1920. Mah Jongg is played today in China as not only a high stakes gambling game, but also as a traditional family activity in many homes. Loosely translated the name means “clattering sparrows,” which refers to the clicking sound of the tiles when they are shuffled and mixed. If you understand the card game gin rummy, then you have a head start understanding Mah Jongg. The object of the game is to be the first to assemble combinations of these tiles into specific patterns that make up a hand. You assemble these combinations by picking and discarding tiles. When you get the right combination you yell “Mah Jongg!” That’s the game. But of course it’s not that simple.
Flora Smith states, “I love it because it changes all the time. And part of the strategy is to keep other people from winning through your discards.” Julie McFarland adds, “It’s relaxing and it allows us to focus on something completely unrelated to everyday concerns!”
Mary Ann Wright sums up the essence of the group’s Mah Jongg obsession when she says, “Mah Jongg is a fun, really challenging game that takes a while to learn. It is a great way to spend time with your friends and to make new friends.”
It’s Thursday. Let the games begin. “Eight Bamb. Nine dot. Five Crak. Flower. South Wind. Mah Jongg!’