Wellesley learns mahjong

By James Kinneen
Hometown Weekly Reporter

On Thursday afternoon, the Tolles-Parsons Center held a teaching event dedicated to learning the American version of the game mahjong, before the beginner crowd was replaced by a more serious, veteran group of players.

Mahjong is a difficult game to learn, though some card players have noted its similarity to gin rummy. Essentially, players are given domino-looking tiles of different numbers and suites, as well as a card that shows the various hands that would result in a victory. While the other players’ tiles are a mystery to their fellow competitors, everyone goes around getting rid of some of their pieces and trying to pick up others until someone wins.

A mahjong student asks a question about possible moves.  Photos by James Kinneen

A mahjong student asks a question about possible moves. Photos by James Kinneen

While that may sound like poker, the mahjong card is what makes the game so different. While anyone who had a basic cable subscription in the mid-2000’s can tell you the various hands of poker, in mahjong, the card of victorious patterns changes. One person learning the game joked that this makes mahjong the perfect game for old people, since everything’s in front of them and they don’t have to memorize anything.

One of the volunteer teachers, a woman named Sue, who describe mahjong as “a game of thinking, a game of skill and a game of luck,” noted that the game is difficult enough to learn that the course is a few weeks long. “This was a teaching event,” she explained. “We’re teaching beginners how to play mahjong. This is a four-week course. We have twelve students right now; the second half of the crowd is those of us that frequently play mahjong.”

Watching a game between the advanced players showed how daunting the game could seem to beginners without a course to rely on. For example, the tiles are covered in Chinese writing and there are joker, flower and dragon tiles. When players discard a tile, they announce its suit (dots, bamboo or cracks).

This sounds like an impenetrable thing to figure out, but the teachers were kind enough to explain that if you could read the card and figure out the different colors and meanings on it, the game isn’t as difficult as may seem to the uninitiated.

Nothing is more annoying than being the friend who doesn’t know how to play a game and pestering a group of veteran players to explain what’s going on while they’re trying to play. Luckily, in the case of mahjong (and pool, as a sign on the Tolles Parsons Center bulletin board read), the COA has a group of people willing to help you out. And while mahjong is often played for money, the teachers made it very clear they don’t do that inside the senior center.

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