Enter Color, a student who told me he and his girlfriend found a mahjong shop near our school, and would we like to play? My first thought was “for money?” but luckily no, just for fun.
Ryan, Sarah (another foreign teacher) and I went to the mahjong place (with Color and his girlfriend Asha) which was more like a community center with ping-pong tables and kids running around yelling. They had small special mahjong rooms outfitted with an amazing table (more on that later), a/c, chairs and side tables to lay down your stuff. They also provided green tea and an endless supply of hot water.
Mahjong is a totally foreign slightly complex game, yet once you get the hang of it, it is a lot like gin rummy. Each mahjong tile is part of a suit, and your goal is to collect runs or matches. The first person to match all their tiles, with at least one double, is the winner. There are plenty of small details though, and rules of the game that we were totally unfamiliar with. Luckily Asha was able to fill us in on the details and acted as our teacher running between the three of us, helping us out at every hand.
She actually had an uncanny knack to remember everyone’s tiles, without hovering over our shoulder, and after she answered our questions, we would look to her for guidance. She’s been playing ever since she was little so she instantly knows the best strategy. During one turn I picked up a tile and I wasn’t sure if I should keep it or not. I looked over at her, standing against the wall, and she just wagged her finger and shook her head like a mafia boss giving orders while barely moving. The girl is serious about her mahjong! It cracked us all up.
We played Hangzhou rules (the version Asha’s family plays) and as you grabbed tiles to make matches you got to yell out peng which means to bump or crush, or chi, which means eat, depending on which tiles you wanted.
We ended up playing for a long time, using cards as money, and I may as well admit that Ryan was the overall winner. Sarah didn’t do so bad herself but I won a measly 2 games with Color coming in last at only one win.
The game was really fun, but the best part was the table. Color had told me beforehand that it shuffled the tiles automatically, but when we got the the room, I didn’t see how. It was just a normal, felt colored green table with an automatic dice shuffler in the middle. (Yes, like the Trouble pop-o-matic bubble, only without the bubble cause it’s all electrical nowadays.) Then he pressed a secret button on the center dice roller thing, and the whole thing lifted, revealing the inner workings of the table. You push all the tiles into this mysterious hole, and press the button again, lowering the center circle back down. As the table shuffles and resets the old tiles, a fresh batch of fully shuffled, ordered and bottom side down tiles pops up in front of each person. Amazing!
We couldn’t stop playing with the table all night long, and tossing the tiles down the center was one of the best parts of the game. We also spent a long time scheming other ways to use the table. Shove crackers in the middle and cookies pop up? Pour water down the middle and have glasses of coke pop up? Maybe something with adorable kittens? Really the possibilities are endless.
I know you want to see this amazing table for yourself, so here is a short (very, very short) video. We had just pushed all the tiles down the middle and Asha is just about the press the magic button. (Again sorry for those in China, this is Youtube video.)
The video was taken well into the evening, and we had probably reset the table 30 times at that point, so you can see our enthusiasm was undiminished. (The guy that comes in at the end had hot water for our tea. We had quite a few unwanted visitors who kept popping into our room to stare at the foreigners, but eventually Color just locked the door and we were left alone.)
We are going to play again with Color and Asha in a couple of weeks. And this time the mahjong master, Asha, will play herself and won’t be there to help us. Us teachers said that we are going to go by ourselves and practice, but what with finals and grading and all, I doubt the three of us will have time. So I’m fully expecting to get my ass kicked.
It is a great game, and way more fun then the mahjong computer games. Have you played mahjong before? What did you think?