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Learning to Play Mahjong

Games my Mother Played and Why I don’t Play Games

By Laurie Levy, October 11, 2018

It is the sounds that are etched in my memory. Tiles clacking on the table. Calls of “one bam” and “two crack.” Laughter. My mother played mahjong with her friends when I was young. By the time I was old enough to learn the game, she had moved on to bridge. All of her games were a mystery to me.

My mother had what she called card sense, and I have none. When a group of friends with whom I had worked for many years decided to learn to play mahjong, at first, I resisted. Because of my childhood associations to it, the game was not cool. Watching the women play in Crazy Rich Asians changed my mind and inspired me to try. That and the fact that it would be a way to stay connected to my friends as we retired one by one.

I was the fifth, the alternate, in the game. I sat next to Maggie, who had also grown up in Detroit. I knew that her aunt was somehow acquainted with my mother, but imagine my shock when Maggie revealed she had recently learned that our late mothers had once been in a mahjong group. Now I felt strangely connected to those tiles and eager to learn. It felt right, like part of the circle of life.

Team Motown did very well on the first hand. We actually won. This was kind of fun and not as hard as I expected. Tiles piled up in the center of the table. We pushed out our walls. The game ended with everyone in good spirits, so we decided to play one more. I changed partners and we continued to joke around until it became clear that we were engaged in a very unsatisfying game in which no one could make a hand. We were all losers. Much less fun.

My mother was an awesome game player. She had a math brain, was smarter than she ever admitted, and became a very good bridge player. She abandoned mahjong for bridge because it was more challenging and something she could play with my father. She loved a game in which she really had to focus, think, and keep track of other people’s hands. She also seemed to have an abundance of time to devote to honing her skills, entering bridge tournaments with my father, and meeting her woman friends for mahjong and later for bridge games.

The main memory I have of my parents’ bridge games with their friends was arguing. My parents took the game quite seriously and my father hated to lose. Thus, he often berated my mother for making what he thought was an error. My bedroom was right next to the living room where they set up the card table, so when they hosted bridge games, I got no sleep until the party was over.

Now I remember why I never wanted to learn the games my mother played. Aside from the amount of time required to master the rules enough to play decently, they seemed far too serious to me. I lacked the free time, but more importantly, I am unable to take any game seriously and refuse to mix my relaxation with concentration. I also don’t really care if I win as long as someone does. A game in which no one wins makes no sense to me.

I’ll settle for a board game like Monopoly, in which luck matters as much as strategy, any time. In fact, I love playing games like Trouble, Uno, crazy eights, gin rummy, and even Chutes and Ladders with my grandkids. I don’t mind a bit if somehow, they always manage to win. For me, games are for fun and interacting.

Perhaps now that I have more time, I will grow to love mahjong. If nothing else, playing connects me with memories of my mother and with friends I don’t see as often now that we are no longer working together. Now is the stage of my life to make time for friendships and allow myself to relax, right?

There is one game my mother loved that I know would be as addictive for me as it was for her. I love solitaire for the same reasons I enjoy most games – it’s easy, fun, and eventually I will play out and win. I could play it on my phone, but I don’t. If someone would want to play double and laugh with me, I’m in. So far, none of my grandkids think it’s cool, and my friends with time to play online are into Words with Friends. I guess I could learn that one, but for now, it’s back to figuring out what those clacking tiles of my childhood were all about.


by Laurie Levy
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