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Tile guile: Mahjong, senior center form cross-cultural bond in Arbutus

Two tables of mahjong players are engaged on a recent Wednesday at the Arbutus Senior Center.
Two tables of mahjong players are engaged on a recent Wednesday at the Arbutus Senior Center. (Nate Pesce/Baltimore Sun Media Group)

Nina Phillips knew about the game of mahjong and had some curiosity about it, but hadn’t started playing. Then, Phillips saw the movie “Driving Miss Daisy,” which featured a regular game of mahjong between the title character and some friends.

That piqued Phillips’ interest even more, and she decided it was time to learn. About 18 years ago, her nephew gave Phillips the set of 144 domino-like tiles needed to play. Phillips thought she was ready to go, but it took about eight years to find someone to teach her what to do.

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Eventually, Phillips found a family that taught games, and she received three mahjong lessons and was off and running. One day about six years ago, Phillips was playing gin at the Arbutus Senior Center, and the subject of mahjong came up. There were three people who knew how to play and soon afterward a game was organized. Now, there’s a group that competes there every Wednesday.

A small group plays regularly in the 9-year-old building in a room with five tables that resembles a classroom. On a Wednesday in late August, nine players showed up.

The game is played four at a time, with the ninth player joining later as a substitute.

They’ll play from 10 a.m. until about noon and then break for lunch. After that, the players return to the tables and keep going, sometimes until 3 p.m.

“It’s a lot of fun, and it’s challenging,” Phillips said. “It just depends upon what you get in the tiles, and you have to have a lot of strategy. You’ve got to learn strategy.”

Learning sometimes involves teaching. “We [will] teach,” Phillips said. “If other people come into the senior center who want to learn to play, we teach them.”

It’s not easy

The rummy-like game of mahjong can be tough to learn. The National Mah Jongg League’s website said there is disagreement on how the game started, but most believe it originated in China (Was it a game for Chinese royalty? Was it invented by a Chinese general to keep his troops engaged? Did it surface just 150 years ago as an alternative to card games?).

Whatever the origin, at the beginning of the 20th century, a man named Joseph Babcock helped popularize mahjong in America.

To play, the 144 tiles are divided into Suits, Honours and Bonus tiles. Each of these tiles are subdivided. The game starts with throwing dice to pick a dealer, who then shuffles the tiles, with each player getting 13.

The objective is to come up with Melds (three identical tiles), Kongs (four of the same tiles) and Chows (a set of three tiles in sequence). The winner is the player with the most points after all the players have dealt once.

The strategy-heavy nature of the game seems to keep many of the players hooked into returning again and again.

Playing at the first table, Judy Lombardi, president of the Arbutus Senior Center Council Corp. and a center volunteer, loves the competition.

“I find it’s a challenge, and it keeps my mind active,” she said. “Also, communicating with the other people is [fun]. I enjoy their company.”

Pat Shiflett, another at the table, has been playing the game for just a few months and is enamored. She shows up every week and wouldn’t miss a session. In fact, she said she’s often the first one at the table.

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“I’m really new at it compared to everyone else,” she said. “It gets addictive. It’s the nuances as you go along. The things they’ve learned through experience is what I’m trying to learn. I was looking for something to do to stimulate the brain, and I think this does it.”

Marlene Langdon, the third at the first table, wears a bracelet on her wrist composed of mahjong tiles. That speaks to her feeling for the game she learned in a way different from most.

About 15 years ago, Langdon was visiting her son and went to the Chinese Cultural Center in Tucson, Arizona. She was invited to sit and participate in a game.

“I learned it from the Chinese; what more can you ask?” she said. “I try to come every week. I wouldn’t miss it. The camaraderie and just playing are fun.”

The fourth player at the first table, Tia Reuwer, arrived later to fill in.

The second table had Mike Farrell (no, not the actor), Joan McCann, Naomi Ward and Warren Young. Farrell, who is retired after a long career with the federal government, said he did not want to just stay home and watch television.

He also plays pinochle at the senior center but learned mahjong from Phillips about three or four years ago and enjoys its intricacies. While mahjong is played mostly by women, but advocates are trying to get more men involved.

“I’m 73 years of age and play with a woman that’s old enough to be my mother," Farrell said, referring to Ward. "She’s winning; she’s in first place.”

Ward, who turns 97 in December, comes to the Arbutus Senior Center a few days a week to play various games, including mahjong.

A former registered nurse who had to retire after a serious back injury, Ward remains quite competitive and, she said of mahjong, “I just like it a lot.”

McCann expressed sentiments similar to the others about how challenging the game is, but she also loves the camaraderie.

“I started coming here a year after they opened,” McCann said. “We’re all friends. It’s just very nice.”

Young’s schedule will make it tougher for him to come in the future, but he’s been showing up for the fellowship. He’s been playing mahjong for two months, learning the specifics of the game — and enjoying it.

“All of it is a game of chance,” Young said. “Some people go to go out, and some people go for the points. Go for the points and your chances of winning are less. Your strategy is how you want to save things.”

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