Tom Sloper's Column
- Published on Thursday, 16 April 2009 13:45
- Written by Tom Sloper
Is the American Mahjong (and Mah-Jongg) Guru. While working for software company Activision, he designed the software games Shanghai: Dynasty and Shanghai: Second Dynasty (now both discontinued), which in the late nineteen-nineties for many people offered the first occasion to play mahjong on the computer. Currently, he is an independent designer and producer of computer and video games. He is considered an expert on mahjong, on which he writes a weekly column in his website Sloperama.
Spiciness in the Mahjong Smorgasbord
Before I had spent all my money traveling around the world to play mahjong, I had the opportunity to experience many of mahjong's varied flavors. So I thought you might be interested in a culinary review. And what I've learned is... that everybody thinks that everybody else's way of playing mahjong tastes odd. But to me, what those "oddities" amount to is delicious spice in the inviting smorgasbord that is mahjong.
Just this past week, I had a lunch meeting with a TV writer from the UK who lives and works in nearby Hollywood. His girlfriend was with him, and in the course of introductions it turned out that she too is a mahjong player. I asked which variant. She replied, "Filipino." I shot back, "So you win on a hand of 17 tiles, not 14, and everything is a flower." She agreed readily with this characterization. It was an oversimplification, of course. Essentially, in Filipino mahjong you make a rummy hand with the suit tiles only. All the flowers and honor tiles are treated as flowers--exposed instantly and used as bonus scoring tiles.
Last month I was invited to Mumbai, India, to speak to a ladies' mahjong group there. In the process, I learned how Indian ladies play mahjong. In the Indian versions, offshoots of the British/Western game, each of the four rounds is played by different rules. Each player contributes to a kitty to start each hand. One round includes an optional move called "buying a discard." In this move you can add a chip to the kitty and take the current discard into the hand, without requiring an exposure. In the Special Hands round there's a feature called the "passport," a grouping made of 5 or 6 honor tiles that qualify the hand for going mahjong. And they have not only knitted pungs and chows but even knitted pairs.
The Indian variants remind me most of the Wright-Patterson game--another variant designed by and appealing to female players almost exclusively. While the wives of Indian army officers have special hands like "Eastern Command" and "Hitler's Blunder," the wives of American air force officers have their own special hands like "Lindbergh," "Civil War," "Moon Landing," "Chop Suey," "Chow Mein," and "Sukiyaki."
Consider Japanese mahjong (designed by males, with a mostly-male player base), with its red fives and its dora tile, which increase the amount one can win... or lose. And there's the optional wareme rule, too, which even further increases the reward and the danger for a winner (or loser) sitting by the broken wall. And just this morning I learned of a Japanese site that lists numerous local yaku, like "Windows 95," "Windows 98," and "Honda."
Consider also Vietnamese mahjong, which in one variation gives the player 24 or 25 different jokers, plus not only the 8 flowers but also 8 kings and queens. Talk about spicy!
Even the official Chinese contest rules (MCR) has its oddities. It has borrowed table practices from Japan and put them together with regional patterns from all across China.
And consider what's probably the oddest variant of them all: American mahjong. For many years I played weekly--I was the only man playing with the ladies (yes, it was fun). The experience informed my first book, The Red Dragon & The West Wind. I'll never forget the comment about American mahjong from Sune Korreman, the great Danish player, after he read the book: "It scares me." The first time I described the American game on the mahjong newsgroup, more than one person declared that it was "not mahjong." Possibly the first variant designed by women and for women (the National Mah Jongg League was founded in 1937), it's one of the few mahjong games that does not recognize chows. The only hands a player is permitted to make are those listed on "the card" (the NMJL issues a new card every year). Players live for the issuance of the new card every April 1st. By October, they're already bored of the "old" card. Players spice things up by creating their own table rules, and then later, further spiciness is injected due to the fact that they've forgotten that their table rules are not the actual official rules.
It's interesting to see how some variants have evolved to suit the tastes of female players vs. male players. The chefs of regional variants are sometimes female, sometimes male, and some variants are suited to players of both genders. An analysis of male vs. female mahjong variants would be very interesting. Perhaps another time.
I love all of mahjong's regional differences and oddities. Who wants to eat the same dish every day? Some variations are like exotic spices. Sometimes you encounter a foodstuff that doesn't smack you in the face with peppery heat or sugary sweetness and instead you discover that it has a subtleness of flavor that offers a pleasant and surprising depth.
Indian mahjong is like an Indian buffet--if you aren't crazy about the rules of the current round, just wait a few minutes. The next round is spiced a totally different way. Playing Indian mahjong requires an extraordinary amount of mental flexibility and agility. In a similar vein, the American game would probably surprise you--I find it the most challenging and difficult of all the variants I've played. I have to drop the food simile now, because I don't mean to imply that the American game doesn't taste good. It does. And I love the Olympic-style spirit and conviviality you experience at an MCR event.
But my current favorite is Japanese riichi. And not just because I spent time living in Japan, and have been to Japan 17 times. Most of the time I spent in Japan, I wasn't yet a player of mahjong. Once I'd learned to play, and experienced different variants, I came to see the Japanese game as a thrilling rollercoaster ride because of all the extreme heights and depths it can take you to. I lost a lot of money during my "tuition" phase. All of last year, I played mahjong only one time for money. It was the Japanese game, and I'm pleased to report that I won $220. But the possibility is there to lose a lot more, and like I said, I spent my money traveling around the world, so I don't get to play Japanese very often these days. Guess I'd better write another book!
How delicious they all taste.