COPENHAGEN - Ten years ago the European Mahjong Association (EMA) was born, and what a rollicking decade it was. What began as a pairing of the Danish and Dutch minds of Anders Labich and Martin Rep has blossomed into a nineteen nation co-op spearheading international tournamanets around the globe. As the EMA surpasses this 10 year milestone, Mahjong News talks with the sitting president Tina Christensen about its founding, its present, and what its future may hold.
MN: The EMA was founded in 2005. What inspired its creation?
Tina: In 2002 the first world-class mahjong competition took place in Tokyo. It was a collaboration between China and Japan... Anders Labich, then president of Mahjong Denmark, and Martin Rep from the Netherlands where both in Japan attending the event, Rep as a player. They were inspired to consider organizing a first European mahjong championship.
MN: It sounds like before the EMA, there were smaller mahjong clubs already around. Tell us about some of these clubs and how they were at the time?
Tina: Mahjong Denmark was founded in 2000 and from 2001 onwards had focused on riichi style mahjong. The German Liga was established in 2002, focusing on classical Chinese style mahjong. The Dutch Bond was formed in 2004, but several well-established local clubs existed already with organized tournaments, and as far as I know with a focus on two rule sets: riichi and a Dutch style rule set that I don’t know much about. Italy had several well-established clubs, which I believe focused on classical Chinese style mahjong, but I don’t know their history well. I believe the Austrian organization was established in 2005 as were the French and the Hungarian, inspired by the OEMC and the upcoming founding of EMA.
MN: What was the creative process that finally brought the EMA to life?
Tina: The initiative came from Denmark and the Netherlands. I was charged with the job. Based on contacts from internet discussion forums, mainly rec.games.mahjong and from Martin Rep’s contacts through his site mahjongnews.com a general assembly was called during the first Open European Mahjong Championship in Nijmegen in 2005. The founding members were Austria, Denmark, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy and the Netherlands. The French organization was established that same year inspired by the initiative. Others, like the Italian federation, were long established with hundreds of members.
“What unified everyone were two things: first of all the prospect of the OEMC being the first of many such tournaments and secondly people were brought together by the new rule set (created in 1998 and, I believe, first seen in an English edition in 2001), today known as MCR, Mahjong Competion Rules. So instead of long discussions on whether Chinese style, local adopted styles, Hong Kong rules or riichi rules should be the dominant rule set in Europe (or the world), everyone met on new rule set.
“China succeeded with its stated goal of promoting mahjong around the world when, in 1998, it established a unifying rule-set now known as the Chinese offiicial Mahjong Competition Rules (MCR).
“Together with Uwe Martens from Germany I drafted the statutes for EMA in preparation for the first general assembly. Uwe was EMA president for the first four years, and instrumental in its success.
MN: Did the EMA face any obstacles to getting itself together?
Tina: There weren’t any real obstacles. The main thing was finding contacts and clubs in various countries. In 2004-2005 the internet was not the resource it is today ;-) though it was still very much the internet that made it possible to find people and to promote the idea.
MN: Were there any factors that made things easier for the EMA to come together?
Tina: There was a great enthusiasm ahead of the first OEMC, and the reports from the first world class event in 2002 was a great inspiration. Also there was a new unifying rule set: MCR. The web site mahjongnews.com was a well-known site for mahjong issues, and a great platform for promoting these activities.
MN: Where there any extra boosts the EMA may have recieved which helped to put it into place?
Tina: The publication of the MCR rule book in 2006. Every participant in OEMC 2007 in Copenhagen received a copy. Having the rules written down in reasonable clear English (Tom Sloper from the USA did a huge job in revising the language) is an essential basis for competitions and for outreach.
“The World Mahjong Championships and Forum in China in 2007 and 2012. Rules discussions, referee seminars and competition play on a very high level is a huge inspiration and boosts the playing level of all who participate.
“The activities of Reachmahjong.com which have successfully promoted riichi mahjong to the English-speaking world.
“The activities of Mahjongnews.com have been essential throughout in promoting mahjong and mahjong tournaments.
MN: Since its creation, what trials or troubles plagued the EMA, and how has the EMA addressed those issues?
Tina: Discussions about details of the ranking calculations and the quota decisions ahead of the big international tournaments have been the biggest issues. These were eventually successfully addressed by small committees established by the General Assembly.
MN: Are there challenges that still persist that the EMA would like to overcome?
Tina: The main challenge is that EMA is all based on voluntary contributions of a quite small number of enthusiasts. For all of us, often local issues in our own clubs, like organizing tournaments, tend to take up a lot of the available spare time, leaving little time for the overarching issues in EMA.
MN: What have been some of the greatest accomplishments of the EMA in its first ten years?
Tina: The growing number of member countries, from the original 7 to the 19 countries that are part of EMA today.
The growing number of tournaments as evidenced on the EMA web site. The ranking lists for both MCR and riichi. The establishment of EMA riichi rules, kick-starting EMA riichi tournaments and regular European Riichi Championships. The education and certification of referees.
MN: The EMA was instrumental in seeing the World Riichi Championship come together, ostensibly an event bigger than the EMA itself. What role does the EMA see for itself in furthering mahjong beyond the boarders of Europe in future?
Tina: Countries under the auspices of EMA will continue to organize such world events at intervals, like also the WMC in Netherlands in 2010.
“EMA publishes rules translated to several European languages, some of which are helpful worldwide, and much more could be done by EMA to promote these.
“EMA has since the beginning maintained its championships as “open”, meaning a small quota has been reserved for non-EMA countries in the big events. Most such places are taken by Japan and China, but a few seats are also reserved for “the rest of the world”. The idea is that representatives from other countries could come to network and to be inspired in promoting mahjong back home. US representation at several European events could be mentioned as good examples. Playing and discussing strategy with Asian players is essential in raising the European level of play. It’s not easy (due to the necessary intercontinental travelling) for players from outside Europe to come to EMA events, but maintaining the possibility is important.
“EMA continues to see itself as a success and a good example of mahjong promotion, hoping to be an inspiration for players in all countries on all continents in setting up tournaments, club nights and outreach.
“EMA will continue to be a partner in international organizations like World Mahjong Organization and the newly esablished World Riichi Championship Committee, ensuring future events and promoting clear rule sets.
MN: Does the EMA have ambitions to promote more world-wide events?
Tina: EMA made a bid for the WMC in 2015, but it seems the Chinese WMO chairman is currently checking out Korea as the site for the 2015 event. I know that other countries would like to organize big international events, and I am sure we will se such events in the future.
With the establishment of a series of MCR world events, the WMC’s (World Mahjong Championship), and the launch of the series of World Riichi Championships, I do not foresee EMA promoting further world-class events, except possibly for online events.
MN: Does the EMA see a role for itself to help foster mahjong in other continents, like the Americas, or Australia?
Tina: EMA is happy to give advice, to promote events also on other continents and to network, and to invite players to our tournaments. EMA publication of rule booklets in Spanish and French as well as English is hopefully helpful across the world.
MN: What goals does the EMA have for itself in the future? Where does the EMA see itself in 2025?
Tina: In the immediate future: The revision of rule details in both riichi and MCR are ongoing. Pending also are discussions about tournament regulations. Public relations and outreach should be improved. In the longer perspective EMA continues to see itself as an important partner in the international world of mahjong. We will be watching closely the efforts to professionalise international riichi. Due to the gambling legislation in several European countries, there are some challenges in going down such a road, but we are confident a good balance can be found that can bring much more attention and sponsors to the game of mahjong which could trigger many possibilities and interesting developments.
“EMA will be working further on education and certification of referees and would like to expand activities that raise the skill level of players, such as strategy seminars.”