Competition, camaraderie

Mah-jongg: Thousands in the Baltimore area and many more around the country are devoted players of the `very addictive' Chinese game.

July 03, 2002|By Sandy Alexander | Sandy Alexander,SUN STAFF

The tiles make a pleasant clicking sound as the women take their turns around the mah-jongg table.

The women slip into the lingo: "Nine bam," says Barbara Katzen, laying down a tile. "North," sighs Debbie Suls, adding hers to the pile. And they tease one another: "Oooooh, that's good," exclaims Dolores Weinberger, looking at a tile. "We're happy for you," says Lois Madow sarcastically.

Then Katzen says the most important word of all: "Mahj." She has won the round.

The five women who are gathered at Madow's Pikesville condominium this night -- the other player is Dannie Barron of Owings Mills -- are among thousands in the Baltimore area and hundreds of thousands nationwide who are drawn by a mix of competition and camaraderie to keep the Chinese game of mah-jongg as popular as ever.

"It becomes very addictive," says Suls, 51, who works in admissions and student affairs at the University of Maryland Dental School. The game, she adds, is "90 percent luck, 10 percent skill," because so much rides on picking the right tiles.

"It's exciting without being so mind-boggling [that] you can't chat," says Madow, 67.

In mah-jongg, tiles are marked with numbers and suits (dots, craks and bams, plus several numberless dragons and winds and, in American versions, flowers and jokers), not unlike playing cards. Players pick and discard tiles to be the first to make appropriate combinations and call "mahj" or "mah-jongg." A fifth player may be part of the game by guessing who will win.

Different hands are worth different amounts of money. Some play for a few dollars while others play for chips or points.

Mah-jongg was brought to the United States from Shanghai about 1920, and the rules simplified by importer Joseph Park Babcock before it reached this country. But during the 1920s, other men went to Asia, learned the rules and returned to write books with their own interpretations.

In 1937, a group of mah-jongg players met in New York to standardize the rules. The National Mah Jongg League decided that everyone should use a standard set of hands, but that the hands should change each year for variety. The association sells a card every year listing the hands.

Today, 22 varieties played are throughout the world, according to Tom Sloper, a California game designer who writes and lectures about mah-jongg. He estimates that about 300,000 people play American-style mah-jongg, a game that caught on among Jewish women and often is associated with them.

Sloper believes that about 65 percent of people playing American-style mah-jongg are Jewish, and about 99 percent are women, unlike with other varieties.

Madow, who learned to play 45 years ago from a neighbor, is trying to shake up the mah-jongg world. She started the American Mah-Jongg Association in 1997. Based in Pikesville, where she owns a consignment clothing store, the association sells its own card of winning mah-jongg hands to "break the monopoly and the monotony" of having only one card published by the league in New York. Since January, she has sold 2,000 copies of the latest card to players throughout the country.

Madow also sells mah-jongg merchandise, organizes tournaments (including on a cruise and at a mah-jongg camp in the West Virginia woods) and publishes a newsletter. She is not the first person to publish a renegade card, but, Sloper says, "her organization has hung in there longer than most."

Besides the challenge and entertainment, many women are drawn to mah-jongg by the people around the table. They bond while spending hours tossing tiles and sharing stories in coffee shops, restaurants, community centers and homes.

Weinberger was 28 with two young children and a husband who traveled as an office-furniture salesman when she moved to the Baltimore area in 1964. When she arrived from Queens, N.Y., she "didn't know anybody," she recalls. But she knew how to play mah-jongg.

Soon she got involved with several groups who loved to wile away the hours around the mah-jongg table. "We did anything to get away from the children," she says, sometimes starting at 8 p.m. and playing until 2 a.m.

"Once you got into a mah-jongg group, you met a whole realm of people," says Weinberger, 66, who plays three times a week and competes in tournaments.

"The younger generation seems to be a little more busy than we were," she says, but she and other players report seeing more younger women playing mah-jongg, particularly at tournaments.

Lois Madow's daughter-in-law, Anne Madow, plays with women who once were part of a group that discussed parental issues. After a few years, they felt they had covered all the topics, and one woman offered to teach them to play mah-jongg.

"It was a night we could get away from the babies," says Anne Madow, 43, a stay-at-home parent. "It is a nice outlet to get away from home ... a time to feel like you are a grownup."

Like many women who play mah-jongg, Dannie Barron learned from her mother, who played with other women in the basement of their home in Pimlico, sometimes until 1 a.m.

"I remember setting it up for her," Barron says. "It was so neat to see all those tiles."

"I remember the candy," Lois Madow chimes in, recalling the games her mother played when Lois was a child.

"Oh, I could hardly wait until she opened up the candy," says Barron, 57, an administrative assistant for Richstone Custom Homes. Later, she says, "It was exciting for me because when I really started playing ... as a young adult in my 20s, I played with my mother and her friends.

"I felt I had really reached adulthood."

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