I Can’t Play Mahj

Through a series of happy circumstances, I own six vintage mah-jongg sets and a handful of old National Mah-Jongg League’s Official Hands and Rules cards. An antique cigar tin on my coffee table is chock-full of sublime butterscotch mahj tiles. I have written many articles about the subject and played a role in the CJN’s first mahj tournament last summer.


But don’t invite me to your weekly mahj game.


I can’t play.


Oh, sure, I can tell the difference between one dot and two bam. Mahj tiles representing the four winds don’t ruffle me, and I don’t get fired up over a red dragon. However, for the life of me, I just can’t seem to “get craking.”


Typically, I eschew clutter and collectables, but I began acquiring old mahj sets six years ago due to the remorse I felt after selling my late mother-in-law Tillie Fine’s set for $2 at a garage sale.


To assuage my seller’s regret, I placed a classified ad in the CJN saying, “I want to buy your grandma’s mahj sets,” and I received a robust response from readers.


I bought over a dozen sets that could have been ringers for my mother-in-law’s and met some fabulous grandmas along the way. I learned about special mahj luncheon menus, the “real” way to play the game, and even about lazy sons-in-law.


Once I had the sets, and a set of memories to go with each, I enjoyed opening the brown or black faux-leather boxes and looking at the tiles. I was fascinated by their Chinese symbols and the slight differences from set to set.


I have promised myself I will “get my tiles on”.  I need to learn how to pick a hand, make the right passes, and how to change my hand in mid-game – all while laying off the nearby bowl of M&Ms.


Although I don’t expect to become a mahj maven, I do expect to learn to properly play the game.




– Arlene Fine

(reprinted from Cleveland Jewish News)