Don't Ask About My Mahjong Addiction
Updated: Dec 6, 2022
Seriously, this game is suffering
For many of us in the West, if we're familiar with mahjong, it's either as: a) The game the elderly play in retirement homes, or b) That one tile matching game everyone had in their old computer's game library. Maybe you'd recognize it from one of the big scenes in Crazy Rich Asians (2018). If you are familiar with it, then perhaps you're a fellow unfortunate soul who became addicted to this game... willing to suffer over and over again for the small dopamine pay-off that comes from winning a huge hand.
But for everyone else, before I get into that any further, let me catch you up on the game first.
Photo by Mike Haupt
The Game of Sparrows
The exact origins of mahjong aren't certain, but historians seem to generally agree mah-jongg (which literally translates to sparrows) was created in the mid-1800's in China somewhere near Shanghai, before exploding in popularity across the country. In the 1920s, American tourists and entrepreneurs brought the game back stateside, and now more than 100 years later, there are more than twenty variations of the game played around the world.
Each variation, of course, has it's own rules and special mechanics. But the gambling game, at its core, is very similar to Gin Rummy: Each turn players draw and discard tiles until they collect enough sequences or sets of tiles in their hand to win. There are around 144 tiles, depending on the variation you play, which consist of three suits numbered 1-9, and special tiles such as wind directions, seasons and dragons.
Before we go too much further and I worry my mom, I should clarify that while this is a gambling game, I only play online or with my local club - where money isn't on the line (thank goodness.) In fact, for anyone interested in finding a local club, they're all over the country, and the game has gotten so popular you can find an app for just about any variation of the game. I play Riichi Mahjong, the Japanese variant of the game, and apps like Mahjong Soul, Riichi City and Sega MJ all have English versions here in the U.S.
But unless you love the taste of bitter defeat, TURN BACK NOW!
Photo by Ness Fu
Why do I play this stupid game?
When I moved to Rochester in 2018, I began frequenting a local anime store to play a particular trading card game (definitely check out Hammergirl Anime if you ever find yourself Upstate). Every weekend, the back of the store would be filled with the noise of clacking tiles and the jeers and laughter of individuals playing this unfamiliar game. They just always looked like they were having so much fun, and it wasn't long before I got roped into the madness. They were all so nice and welcoming, only now do I see they just needed another... victim... to share in the suffering.
Today, I don't even play that TCG anymore. But you can still find me at Hammergirl Anime every Saturday playing mahjong until dinner time. Not that it's enough. I also play in the online American Riichi Mahjong League, and this year I started traveling the country to participate in tournaments. I've spread the game at my local tea bar, and now even my video game friends are playing mahjong with me instead of, you know... actual video games. This game is like a disease: I got sick, and now I'm getting others sick too.
Of course, if you haven't caught on by now, this is all very tongue-in-cheek. I wouldn't be traveling across the country to play if I didn't enjoy it. I love the game, and have a lot of fun when I'm not shaking my fist at the sky and screaming to the clouds. But like any gambling game, you're just chasing dragons (though in this case, quite literally).
The game seems simple enough: you just draw until your hand looks pretty, and you win. But the more you learn, the more complicated it becomes. And at the end of the day, it's more about luck than anything else. Of course, there's plenty of strategy involved. You can study and theorize and train yourself to play like a computer, but if you don't get the tiles you need to win, it doesn't matter. And this unforgiving game loves to punish even the most statistically correct plays. In fact, even professional players in Japan only win about 30% of their games.
But that rush? That feeling when you're just one tile away from winning and your heart starts to race, or that feeling when you do draw the tile you need. The feeling when a really big hand takes you from last place to first... oh, I'm actually a degenerate, aren't I?
A not-so-flattering photo from my time at the Riichi Nomi Open in NYC this summer, where more than 100 people competed
Birds and Dragons
Can I be really cliché? I think what I honestly love about this game most is the community. I found a group that welcomed me when I was all alone here in Rochester. At each tournament, I see familiar faces and also make new friends every time. Thanks to the ARML, online competitors are now real-life friends, and while it's strange my Discord group opts to play mahjong with our thousand-dollar PC rigs, really, I'm thankful for that too.
It's been a particularly frustrating few weeks for me when it's come to mahjong, so I'm writing this, in part, to remind myself why I play this stupid game. Thanks to all the amazing people I've come to meet, all that suffering?
And I think any fellow degenerates out there would agree.
Until next time, thanks for reading!