Novices take on mah-jongg vets 'Game of the sparrow': Western Maryland College students who studied the ancient Chinese game of mah-jongg challenge senior citizens to a tournament.

January 29, 1996|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

The true test of skill came Tuesday, when college students met senior citizens in a mah-jongg tournament.

The Western Maryland College students were fairly new to the ancient Chinese "game of the sparrow," a bird the Chinese revere as the most intelligent. They had studied the intricacies of the tiles during a monthlong January term.

Players at Reisterstown Senior Center are veterans who have played every week for about two years. And, they play outside the center, too.

"Sixteen of us play at Charlestown Fridays," said Nancy Ward, who has played for years and taught the game to many. "Come over and join us sometime."

Ms. Ward found the novices to be good competitors.

"I only won one game out of four, and no one won the others," she said. "That speaks well of the competition."

Experience mattered little in the tournament. Cameron Chesnik, a 19-year-old sophomore, amassed 590 points, 200 more than the closest competitor and 300 more than Ms. Ward.

"He is killing us," Ruth Higgs, an avid player at the senior center, said after the fourth game in a set of 10. "He is a great competitor."

"It is challenging and addictive," Mr. Chesnik said.

So addictive that he has bought his own set and plans to teach his parents to play, so he never lacks competition.

Susan Milstein has been teaching the two-credit course for four years and usually sees the same reaction. She has been playing since she was a teen-ager. Ms. Milstein says that to the best of her knowledge, Western Maryland is the only college in the country that offers mah-jongg for credit toward graduation.

Word of mouth has made the mah-jongg course the most popular winter class, and the 20 spots fill quickly. But, it is much more than game-playing.

"It is cross-cultural study," said Ms. Milstein, professor of economics and business at the Westminster college. "It gets them to think, study options and make decisions."

The trick is to watch what tiles are played and intuit what sequence opponents are building, Mr. Chesnik said.

Would he play against his teacher?

"I could play, but the question is could I win?" he said.

She rarely plays her students, said Ms. Milstein, who has memorized the winning sequences, which change each year.

"A skillful player can see from the tiles on the table what games others are playing," she said.

She easily assessed what games were taking place in the room and who probably would win.

Her students delve into Chinese culture, learn the role mah-jongg plays in Asian society and often meet others who knows the game's allure first hand. Yi Zhang, a Shanghai native and WMC junior, met with the class last week.

A mah-jongg player since childhood, Ms. Zhang observed "wonderful, well-organized" games in the class. The game appeals to all ages and backgrounds, she said. In China, the mah-jongg set is always at hand in the home and goes on all family outings.

At the start of the course, the students received an instruction book and learned to deal the tiles. Ms. Milstein added more rules each day but "really you learn by playing."

"It can be really relaxing, especially if they are not betting away their tuition," she said.

Of course, the students play for points, not coins.

"It is not complicated once you get the hang of it," said junior Karen Thompson. "Of course, I don't win too often."

Junior Lori Fleischmann likes the variety.

"It's not Go Fish; you have to think," she said. "Even if you play the same hand twice in a row, it won't be the same game."

Eventually, the players learn strategies, like "it's better to break up your own hand than to give another mah-jongg," said Ms. Milstein. A hard lesson to learn, when each player wants to win so much, she said.

The students have gained enough skills to continue to play. Many are teaching dorm mates, and games are lasting into the night.

"This will be a new game for me to teach my family the next time I see them," said Dina Awad, a sophomore from Palestine.

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