I’m embarrassed to say I’ve been learning mahjong for about a year and a half. I’m embarrassed because it sounds like after about 18 months of playing that I might actually be quite good instead of the decidedly questionable standard I actually am.
My lovely friend CR who organised our first ever mahjong session didn’t need to persuade me to join: I loved the idea of learning an esoteric game, full of tiles that clacked noisily together engraved with exotic characters and shapes that meant nothing to me. It’s played here to such an extent that it’s almost a national sport..a kind of Chinese equivalent to bridge.
That, I think, was the biggest lure, plus the chance to get together with a bunch of girlfriends on a weekday evening which is always fun.
After a year of playing every other week with my angmoh friends, (from one week to the next I always manage to forget what I learnt from the week before) I decided to send myself to MJ bootcamp.
I have just come out the other side of this intensive training, last week having managed to play every single day, or evening, for eight consecutive days. Aside from the frequency and the group of people I played with (my Singaporean friends who have grown up not necessarily playing mahjong, but having been exposed to it) there was one other thing we changed: we played for money.
And damn, does it make a difference. The amount of chat was quartered (a bit sad, we now have to condense juicy gossip to pre-game or post-game; apparently once we get better and faster we’ll be able to multitask), my memory drastically improved and everyone tried really quite hard to win.
Check out my rather fabulous hand, below, at GC’s house last week. (Non players who are interested, you have to win with 13 tiles, basically consisting of four melds and a pair. A meld can be a triplet, a sequence or 4-of-a-kind).
It meant that over the massive four hour session when we got through all four winds – a first for me – I was only a rather respectable $5 down (we only play a 20cent game thank God). Ok I’m still yet to haul the winning pot home, but that’s a detail…
The other petrifying thing about my MJ boot camp was that it’s played with proper Chinese tiles. There wasn’t an angmoh mahjong tile in sight (which cheat by having all the numbers/letters written in the corner of each tile). I have had to properly learn my Chinese numbers now, as well as all four winds.
My not-very-definitive cheats guide to memorising the characters for the winds, which may be helpful for any non-Chinese speakers who are learning, is as follows (mahjong, being an eastern game, is eastern orientated. Winds do not run north, south, east, west as you might expect, instead they are confusingly ordered east, south, west, north).
Tong (East) – Ok I just remember this one as it has an arrow as always kicks off the game, no magic formula.
Nan (South) – Nan on the otherhand….you remember that the character for nan is slightly open at the bottom, as an old nan (English slang for grandmother) walks with her legs open. You remember it means south because when you become a grandmother, everything heads, um, south. (*Groan* something to look forward to!)
Xi (West; pronounced ‘see’) – the character for west is closed at the bottom, it’s like a boat at sea (see) on the West coast. Clever huh?
Bei (North) – looks different from all the others, so just remember it.
If you really want to learn or just brush up your play, there is a brilliant iPhone app called Mahjong HD for both experienced players or novices like me. What’s more, it plays Singapore Mahjong, as opposed to the Hong Kong version.
Now at least when someone says penghu to me, I no longer ask ‘Peng who?’