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Mahjong players square off during Westgate championship event

Sally I. Nyberg of Las Vegas has been playing mahjong for 74 years. She’s 88 now, and learned the game as a kid sitting in on her mother’s mahjong sessions with friends.

“When they paused or when they had to go to the bathroom, I’d play for them,” Nyberg recalls. “If one of them couldn’t come for some reason, I played for them.”

All that practice came in handy for Nyberg, who finished third and won $1,000 in the three-day Mah Jongg World Championship that ended Sunday at Westgate Las Vegas. Most of the nearly 100 competitors hoping to win the $5,000 grand prize earned their way into the championship by winning local tournaments, although a few paid a fee to participate. (The champion was Arlene Waite, from Florida.)

While many may be familiar with those solitairelike computer games in which you match up similar pieces to remove them from a board, that’s not mahjong, at least in the classical sense of the tile-based game believed to date from China during the 1800s, according to Fern Oliphant, CEO of Destination Mah Jongg, the event’s organizer.

Classical mahjong is more akin to rummy. Players draw and discard tiles that feature, instead of rummy’s hearts, diamonds, clubs and spades, Chinese-inspired images to create specific series of tiles, drawing the tiles they need and discarding the tiles they don’t, ideally without giving competitors tiles that they need.

An Americanized version of mahjong became popular during the early 20th century and that’s still the version most Americans know. And while the game still is commonly, and not unjustifiably, associated with women, Oliphant says she sees “a lot more people learning it and people from different countries. We get people in their 30s and 40s up to their 70s and 80s.”

The game is experiencing a resurgence in the United States, she adds. The National Mah Jongg League estimates that there are about a half-million players in the U.S., although that number doesn’t take into account recreational players who don’t play in leagues or competitions.

Sheryl Perry, president of Destination Maj Jongg who also teaches the game, says mahjong’s basics aren’t difficult to learn, particularly for people who are familiar with rummy-type games, although it takes time to master.

“I think the game transcends generations,” says Bonnie Berard, a competitor from Beaumont, Texas. “My kids like it, and my grandson learned his number facts on cracks, beams and dots. That’s the three suits. And winds and dragons.”

She laughs. “How can you not love a game with winds and dragons?”

Berard has been playing for 25 years and earned a spot in the championship by winning two local tournaments. It probably doesn’t hurt her chances that Berard describes herself as a numbers person who just retired from a career as an algebra teacher.

“I know. Right?” she says. “I used to teach a mahjong elective at my school and the kids loved it. It helps them with patterns and with names and matching. It’s just awesome.”

Gail Keilty of Sarasota, Florida, began playing as a kid after watching her mother play with a church group.

“The only thing I knew about mahjong was, on mahjong night, there were good snacks,” she says. Then, Keilty was asked to fill in for a player who dropped out of the group and she has been playing ever since.

“It’s a very competitive game, with a lot of skill and luck,” she says. “Mostly luck.”

During play, the Westgate ballroom became like a library, with players speaking in hushed tones. The loudest sounds were from the hand-mixing of tiles in the center of tables and the occasional muttered exclamation.

“God bless you,” a woman says, presumably after picking up a needed discard.

“Oh, come on,” another woman says, exasperated about, well, something.

The games, and the players, moved briskly, with no-nonsense speed. Still, competitive natures and that $5,000 grand prize aside, there’s a friendly sort of vibe, too.

The players and event staff are “good people, really, really nice. We’re all here to have fun,” says Donna Raymond of Fort Myers, Florida.

 

Mark Gottesman of Houston is one of only a handful of men participating in the championships. Wife Debbie says she and Mark have been married for 42 years and have been playing mahjong for exactly that long.

“I knew that, in China, a lot of men played it, and I knew women for generations have played it,” Mark says. “But it’s not an all-women’s game.”

Mark suspects that anybody who enjoys card games would enjoy mahjong, and Debbie notes that all of their children and their children’s spouses and their grandchildren play.

“We have a table set up in our house,” Debbie says. “If we have four people, we’ve got a game.”

Read more from John Przybys at reviewjournal.com. Contact him at jprzybys@reviewjournal.com and follow @JJPrzybys on Twitter.

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