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Lessons From Mahjong

Recently, my mother-in-law tried to teach me how to play Mahjong.

I’ve wanted to learn how to play for a decade, but everyone that I know says it’s awful to try to teach someone new. Besides, my friends who play already have established games, league nights, regular players.

I get it.

But privately, I fancied myself a quick study who would be able to pick up the game easily. I mean, I’m good at games. I love games. Plus, I’m insanely competitive. As my friend Michael will attest, I’m practically blood-thirsty. (Do you know I have beat him at Chess and Scrabble and Bananagrams! It’s true.)

I think this is why I have such a thing about grammar. A competitive perfectionist, I simply had to master it. I also think it is why I become irate every time the rules for MLA citation change. Dammit, I think to myself, I have already mastered this game; I’ve already won! Now I have to go and learn the rules again? Really? But I do. I kick grammar’s ass the same way I beat that punk Pac Man and his wimpy friend Donkey Kong.

Anyway, my mother-in-law showed amazing patience that Sunday afternoon because it didn’t take an Oxford scholar to realize that I was going to suck at Mahjong. Or, rather, that Mahjong was going to kick my ass.

No wonder the Chinese are so smart! That game of tiles and cards and numbers and patterns and dragons and jokers is really freakin’ complicated. Hell, even doling out the tiles is complicated. I will not even try to explain the double-stacking of the tiles or the elaborate way that one is supposed to push out the tiles, or the highly ritualized criss-crossing of tiles across the board as one decides what to keep and what to toss. I’m sure you get the idea that there is very little about Mahjong that was intuitive for this neophyte.

Trying to learn Mahjong reminded me of being back in calculus or trigonometry. Something in my brain wouldn’t click: a little place inside me that kept pushing back, resisting. Even though I desperately wanted to learn, it was very hard. The little ivory tiles have secret code names: “bams” and “cracks,” “dots” and “winds,” “birds” and “dragons.” And while I loved the ritual of setting up and the symbolism of the names and the pretty patterns carved into the ivory, the mental game itself was absolutely grueling.

It was a humbling experience.

I am pretty sure my mother-in-law thinks I’m really stupid. She is probably worried about her son. I mean, we have made it to 15 years, but now she has to be worried.

That said, this was a really important exercise for me.

It has been a while since I have tried to learn something truly new. Oh, I am forever adding things to my little bag of tricks, but this was outside my comfort zone. This was not another word game.

It is important for me to remember that Sunday Mahjong lesson because I am certain that some students experience that same overwhelming feeling of frustration as they sit in my Composition classes every other day for fifteen weeks. After all, it is a required class. Each student has to take it and pass it as part of their distribution requirements. So I had to ask myself, What if Mahjong were a required class? How would I manage? How would I feel on the day-to-day? What kind of support would I need from my teacher? Because there is no doubt in my mind that I would need a lot of extra help to pass Mahjong-101.

Obviously, I teach English because I love language – to dissect grammar, to read critically, for symbolism and irony, to revel in the particularly wonderful turn of a phrase, and because I love to write. But it is also interesting and rather easy for me. Obviously, not everyone has the same zeal for the subject. And that’s okay. I just have to remember that for some students, reading literature and writing essays is…well, like Mahjong for me: really challenging. Which is not to say it cannot be done. I will conquer this game. Eventually.  I will just have to work harder to understand what others seem to pick up with much less mind-bending pain.

Recently, a few foolish kind-souls offered to have me join them in a game of Mahjong. I politely declined. I am not ready for prime time. Not yet, anyway. Right now, I am slow. Even my father-in-law said I am ridiculously slow. It’s true.

I recently read somewhere that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become expert at something. (I don’t know where I read this, but I fear it may have been a golf magazine.)  I believe there is a naturalness that can come with practice –  when people finally get to that level of play where they don’t really have to think any more. They can just do. It happens in sports, in writing, in music, even in games. There comes a tipping point where, suddenly, a person just “gets it.”

One day, I will become one with the Mahjong tiles.

I will see 1111 222 3333 FF, and decode its meaning with ease, the way I know with certainty in which context to use “their,” “there” and “they’re” or when to use a semi-colon. Someday, it will be completely obvious.

Until then, it is my understanding that my 10 year-old niece can kick my ass.

26 thoughts on “Lessons From Mahjong

  1. Grandma Muriel would be so proud that you are learning Mah Jong. She was fantastic. She always came home with lots of coins. I always had money for school. I bet you will shine in no time. Practice. Practice and more practice is the secret. Good Luck on your new game.

  2. Wait, did you just call me foolish? But on the other hand, you must think I’m a freakin’ genius! I can read that hand you quoted as easily as you can read your own name.

    So, I can understand not wanting to play with seasoned veterans for fear of slowing down the game or even for appearing slow-minded. But how exactly do you think you’ll rack up those 10,000 hours required to become an expert if you don’t play? 😉

    1. (*meekly*) I soooooo want to play with you. But I am really, painfully slow. I’m like the Forrest Gump of Mah Jong. Wait, maybe that’s my in!

      If you let me come, I can bring the “box of chocolates.” 😉

    1. I’m sorry, Melissa, but those games are to 4-player mah jongg like computer solitaire is to a game of bridge. The only similarity is that they use the same tiles. But these are just matching games. Real mah jongg involves dealing out tiles, trading tiles with other players in an intricate pattern, then picking and discarding tiles in turn, trying to collect the appropriate tiles to make your hand match one of hundreds of hands on the current year’s mah jongg card (yes, the hands change every year!) All this while trying to ensure that you don’t throw a tile that any of the other three players need for their own hands. (Don’t worry, Renee, nobody can worry about playing defensively for the first year!)

  3. First of all, I believe the 10,000 hour thing may have been referenced in Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers. (He has also written a book called Tipping Point – it may have been in that one).

    Secondly, thank you for this post. I am a math teacher, and I need to be reminded that Geometry is for some of my students like Mah Jong is for you. A new language, new symbols, new procedures to follow. In other words, a difficult challenge.

    1. Exactly my point, Mrs. H.

      It’s good to be reminded once in a while that what comes to some of us easily is not necessarily intuitive for everyone.

      ‘Specially good for teachers to remember, methinks. 😉

      Just so you know, I loved Geometry. It felt like art class.

  4. I have played mah jongg for decades. Learning the names of the tiles is the easy part. Here is one suggestion for practice: Borrow a card – even an outdated one will do for this – and a mah jongg set. Randomly pick 13 tiles and try to play by yourself. Decide on which hand most resembles the 13 tiles you have on your rack. Then pick a tile from the scattered ones you have placed face down on the table and throw away one you don’t want. Keep it separate from the others so you don’t pick it up again. Continue on; you are taking all the turns. This may help you learn how to put a hand together. Good luck.

    1. Dear Marlene:

      Believe it or not, this is exactly what I have been doing: practicing putting together a hand. I’m just trying to get used to the different tiles and – as you said – trying to decode the cards so they look less like secret codes. Awesome tip. 😉

  5. Dear Sylvan Learning Center,

    You’ve been helping people in the learning game for over thirty years but unfortunately I cannot condone your practices any longer. So many students have benefit from your knowledgeable staff in the areas of math, reading and writing. If it’s on the SATs or ACTs then you’ll go out of your way to prepare your customers for excellence. You are all about educating the masses in the traditional classes but when one small voice cries out for help in something other than the conventional, you pretend not to hear.

    My friend has a slight learning disability when it comes to mahjong. Even though over a billion people have mastered it, she still struggles to attain a passing grade. It must be taken into account that these same people that have mastered the game have also mastered the mystical chopstick and have also transformed the game of table tennis into a physical sport. Confucius say: “Ignorance is the night of the mind, but a night without moon or star.” All Renee wants is for someone to show her the light and yet you turn a blind eye towards her “disability”. 你感到羞耻 Sylvan Learning Center, 你感到羞耻! (Shame on you Sylvan learning center, shame on you!)


    Jeffrey Tuck

    P.S. I hope that you are somehow related to Sylvania television sets because I just threw my “Mahjong for Dummies” book threw it!!!

      1. Oh, bloody hell!! How do I fix it? Crap, crap, crap…I meant the other “threw”.

        All that research spent on the age of Sylvan Learning Center, the courses offered by SLC, not to mention the translation of “shame on you” from English to Chinese,…wasted! Dag nab it!!! I use to have a special guide that someone made up about “they’re vs their, its vs it’s, threw vs through” but alas, my computer crashed, and I have lost it forever.

        Maybe she’ll think that I did it on purpose to make a point. Ya, that’s exactly what I did.

        For Faith’s eyes only-I didn’t really do it on purpose, but don’t tell Renee. lol

      1. Look at you two. Totally in cahoots against me!

        And, Faith, you are right. I did have a moment where that “threw” absolutely took my breath away.

        Or was it my ‘breathe’?

        No, it was definitely my breath. 😉

  6. I played the computer version of mahjong when that was hot. I’m pretty sure it’s not the real thing.
    I know you’re super competitive. That’s okay and all, but you wouldn’t have a prayer against me in Bananagrams Mrs. Wordsmith. Sorry, but I’ve already defeated you in my mind just like every other person who’s tried. But thanks for playing 😉

    1. Do not joke around with me on this, Fryber Clay.

      You know I hold you dear, but that’s Dr. Wordsmith-Bananagrams. (Please do not forget my hyphen.) And are you throwing down some kind of cyber-game gauntlet? Are we going to have to Skype to settle this?

      I don’t even think that’s possible.

      That said, I’m sure we could figure something out – you know to prove my uber-excellence. 😉 For now, you can defeat me in your mind. In. Your. Mind.

  7. It is from Outliers, but I don’t think the stat originated with Gladwell. And that natural tendency, I call it “muscle memory.”

    As for me, I dislike strategy games. I am a competitive perfectionist too (do we all love grammar?), but I also love to chat and be a goofball. That’s why I stick to games like Taboo and Balderdash (and even Scrabble).


    1. I love all games, and I would totally take out in Taboo, Bladerdash and Pictionary. Hands down. And this is because I am without a doubt the biggest goofball around.

      As far as Scrabble goes, well, it depends on the tiles. I mean, if you hog all the S’s, I’m doomed. 😉

  8. 10,000 hours of golf? Perish the thought. On the other hand, 10,000 hours of Bananagrams?

    (okay, actually, I’ve never heard of that game but it has to be more interesting than golf.)

    Good for you for trying something new. I tend to only like to do things that come easily to me – which means I don’t do much and relatively nothing new.

    I love games, but I am intentionally NOT competitive so I don’t have to be disappointed when I lose.

    Therefore, I guess I could play mah jong with your ten-year-old niece. Just not for 10,000 miles.

    (And p.s. can we all agree to stop changing the MLA? Thanks.)

    1. I love everything you have said here. Obviously, we would be best friends. You would let me win at stupid games; please understand this is a quality I appreciate in a friend.

      Plus, we clearly both think golf is stupid, and we want them to stop changing the M.L.A.

      But they have to change it one more time and let people start underlining titles again. (Using italics isn’t always an option and – for the love of Pete – sometimes people still write in longhand.) I know, I know. There is a little asterisk that states teachers can determine their own preference on this one. But the concept of “teacher’s preference” is incredibly confusing to students who crave firm rules when it comes to grammar.

      Also, and if it is okay with you, I vote to allow the use of the plural, non-gender specific pronoun “they” in conjunction with singular subjects, when appropriate.

      For example, indefinite pronouns like “anyone” or “everybody” always present a problem in agreement. They don’t need antecedents, and their number is unclear to many people. We are supposed to try to train students to remember that they are SINGULAR. We are supposed to teach them the following correct construction:

      Anyone coming to the party should bring his costume.

      Well that just sucks. We are supposed to have them pick a singular, gender specific pronoun. Awkward. Or use “his or her.” Double awkward!

      Can’t we just do what they do on the news and on the reality shows and say: “Anyone coming to the party should bring their costume.”

      Yes, its frickin’ wrong, but all the cool kids are doing it, so can’t we just agree that we’re doing it, too?

      I’m sure you feel my pain as a collective pain. 😉

      (I think I am copying and pasting this comment and using it for a future post.) 😉

  9. I had my granddaughter playing dominoes at 4 years old (there are many variations). Of course I let her win and praised her and when I won I would pretend to gloat a bit. Adults must instill that competition thing – make em cry in humiliation- the American way of crushing anything in our path. Do you know what she said? “It does not matter who wins because we are having fun.” Good God ! What kind of socialistic communist trash are they teaching kids these days? They are making kids patsy-watsy with this subterfuge. Next they will be telling kids that guns and knives and bazookas and tanks and hand grenades are improper toys for early teens. I am astonished. Next it will be matches and arson.

    1. I never let my child win. I am the meanest mom. Ever. 😉

      Also I can make a mean “bomb” out of vinegar and a few other choice kitchen ingredients.

      And, just so you know, one day I plan to crush my niece like a bug at this stinkin’ game.

  10. Do you still play Mah Jong? I have been learning to play for the last 2 months. My friends have been playing for over 3 years. They are great teachers and very patient.
    They tell me over and over that I am doing very good considering I have only been playing for a short while. Then why do I sometimes wonder how I even made it out of school.
    If I could just remember all of those combinations on that card. I think they like getting all of my coins!

    1. I’m terrible. But I do like to play. It just isn’t a game that’s coming easily for me. Seriously, I still say “crack” when I mean “bam” — and I forget that those things are called “soap.” It’s a whole new language. And I’m still ridiculously slow. The last time I played with a larger group, my friend Faith punched me in the arm if I took longer than one minute to make a move. I had a bruise the next day. 🙂

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