Mad for Mah-Jongg

The ancient Chinese tile game sees renewed popularity in the East Bay.


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Toby Salk has turned her love for the game into a career teaching mah-jongg to Bay Area enthusiasts.

Courtesy of Toby Salk

Four middle-aged women at a table sit quietly focused on a rack of 13 elegantly depicted Chinese tiles. Their hummus and crudités sit untouched, their tea grows cold, and their finger sandwiches get stale. They sit entranced, Zenlike, while time slips by.

The colorful tiles they stare at represent suits (bams, dots, craks), winds and dragons, and jokers, and each woman is deeply concentrating on how to make one of the 50 hands on the sanctioned card—a challenging goal.

Suddenly, there’s action: click, clack, click, clack, 5 bam, 2 dot, 6 crak … call!

For the uninitiated, it may sound like gibberish. But it is a mantra for these friends and fellow mah-jongg players everywhere, from Shanghai and New York to Manila and Alameda, where a resurgence of the ancient Chinese tile game is in full throttle.

“The game is back in a big way,” said Toby Salk, a native New Yorker who has turned her fondness for the vaguely rummy-like pastime into a profession and teaches mah-jongg to Bay Area enthusiasts. She has instructed thousands and maintains a steady stream of new students.

Previously associated with little old ladies of Jewish or Chinese heritage, at least in its American iteration, mah-jongg is a game of skill—and luck—that draws a much wider audience of students and players and fills a meaningful societal niche. Current American-style mah-jongg tables are likely to be filled with hipsters in hoodies, yoga moms in Lululemon togs, college students in shorts and flip-flops, and grandparents in sensible shoes.

Meanwhile, there are well-attended mah-jongg tournaments clicking and clacking all over the country, and a vintage mah-jongg set that once sold for $40 commands $400. Facebook sites and popular mah-jongg websites have a staggering number of followers, the National Mah-Jongg League has more than 300,000 registered players, and the collectors and teachers associations, Salk said, “are thriving like never before.”

Courtesy of Toby Salk

​Mah-jongg, with the help of game manufacturer Parker Brothers, made its entrance into the United States in the 1920s but gained a second phase of popularity in the 1950s during the post-war era. “Women were home and craved community with their neighbors and wanted something to do to call their own,” Salk said. “Then came a surge of older retired women playing who were also looking for community and entertainment. Soon after, it became an inherited tradition with younger people doing what their mothers did. But now there are no generational or ethnic stereotypes as to what the typical mah-jongg enthusiast looks like.”

 Why the boom? Playing requires strategy, and some scientific research has suggested that playing mah-jongg enhances cognition and provides a brain-strengthening boost. Playing also demands strict concentration, and so thinking about anything else—worries, to-do lists, anxieties, for instance—is difficult. Players can find respite from their technology-saturated world, relieving their over-taxed brains. Some players think of mah-jongg as therapy and derive a sense of pride, community, and tranquility from it.

“When I play mah-jongg, I feel present,” said Emeryville resident Leila Mohit.

Players also like the social aspect of belonging to a regular mah-jongg foursome, which lets them use the game as a means of keeping up with friendships and maintaining community connections. 

“At the thought of learning mah-jongg, I wondered, ‘Am I too old? Am I smart enough? Can I keep up? Will I embarrass myself in front of my friends?’ ” said Alamedan Nancy Lewis. “What a relief to get the hang of it, and what a thrill when I called my first ‘mah-jongg.’ Now, I’m totally hooked on the game.”

 “Ninety-nine percent of people can learn mah-jongg,” agreed Salk. She teaches basic and advanced levels at places that have included the San Francisco Metropolitan Club, the San Francisco Town & Country Club, the Oakland Hills Tennis Club, and The Presidio’s Officer’s Club. “It is very rare that I meet a student of any age that doesn’t eventually get it. And don’t forget, luck is half the secret.”

“One of the most exciting things about being a mah-jongg instructor is that I know that I’m giving each person who learns the game a new world, a new language that they can have all the days of their life,” said Salk, who has played and loved mah-jongg for more than 40 years.

As to whether the game is friendly or fierce, that depends on how players choose to play it.

 

Published online on Nov. 17, 2016 at 8:00 a.m.

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