Moment of Joy

The Many Pleasures of Mah Jongg

I loved to play with friends. Then, due to Covid, we couldn't. But a surprise visit brought a wonderful new opportunity.

By Kay Kipling September 10, 2020

A winning game is a thrill.

About 10 years ago, when a friend suggested that several of us learn how to play mah jongg (or mahjong, depending on your spelling preference), I said OK, but mostly just out of curiosity. “This won’t become a way of life for me,” I told her.

Now, after years of regular get-togethers with an ever-changing, ever-expanding group of player-friends, I can’t imagine doing without it. In normal times, pre-pandemic, a good part of the fun of playing was, naturally, catching up with each other’s lives as we dealt out the tiles before each game, or during the pauses when one of us needed time to consider how to rearrange her hand. We were not so much into competition as camaraderie, although it was fun to take home a dollar or two in coins if you were lucky enough to win.

But since late February, our group hasn’t been able to play in person due to Covid. I miss all the women a lot (emailing or texting just isn’t the same thing), but I also began to miss the game itself.

If you’re not familiar with mah jongg, it has historic Chinese roots, but it also became very popular in America beginning in the 1920s, especially among women. There are seemingly endless variations on the game, which is played much like any draw-and-discard card game, as you try to establish rummy-like runs of numbers or related sets to make one of the designated hands featured on a card, updated yearly, printed and sold by the National Mah Jongg League, Inc. (“Copyrighted, all rights reserved, reproduction without prior approval is unlawful.” We’ve had a laugh or two at the thought of the mah jongg police, composed of strict-librarian-stereotype older women, descending upon us in outrage if we violated that law.)

But mahj (as we fondly call it) isn’t a game for one player.  When I became stranded at home, my beloved set of tiles sat idle. Some of our group have found solace playing an online version, but so far I haven’t tried that. The paraphernalia of the physical set—the tactile nature of the beautiful tiles, with their calligraphic versions of wind, dragon and flower imagery; the sound of them clacking together on the table; the racks upon which they sit; the ceremonial unfolding of the card and the assembling of a possible winning hand—all mattered too much to me.

So it was a moment of joy when, earlier this summer, my daughter and her partner were unexpectedly able to pay a long visit due to temporary work layoffs up North, and, over the course of their stay, I casually mentioned it might be fun to teach them how to play mah jongg. To my surprise and delight, they, and my adult son, who lives in the area, were all onboard with the idea. And so began a lovely long stretch of nearly nightly games of mahj.

It felt so special to introduce them all to the game I’d come to love, and for the three of them to discover their own attraction to the pretty tiles, the (at first) intricate rules, and the diabolical nature of planning one hand, only to be steered by fortune to another, and often being thwarted in the end by outcomes you couldn’t foresee. (There’s a life metaphor in that.) My son now calls it my addiction, but there are far worse things to be addicted to.

Our visitors have returned to their Northern home, but I like to think we could all be playing mah jongg together again sometime soon, and for years to come. As I was writing this, I texted my daughter to let her know what I was doing, and she casually revealed that they had just ordered a mah jongg set of their own online. Perfect. I can’t wait to see it.


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