My first experience with Ma Jong
When I visited my brother and his family over the holidays last December, my niece (aged 4) and I were laying on the floor when she bolted up and dragged over a wooden gamebox with a checkerboard on top. Inside were pieces to various games including checkers, chess, backgammon dice, poker chips, and a deck of playing cards. We proceeded to play a game of high stakes chesskersgammon. The rules are quite simple though they change at my niece's whim. For example, when I thought I had her king in check, she trumped my bishop with an eight-of-spades, two blue poker chips, and proceeded to haul my bishop (and my pride) away, off the board and into the pink plastic medicine cabinet of "Dr. Barbie." Whereon my nephew loaded the bishop as well as the other prisoners (a scrabble letter "Q" and the hat from Monopoly) onto a Tonka truck and carted them off for interrogation. Yet when I tried to use the same eight-of-spades and two blue poker chips to capture her queen, she rolled the dice and it came up six, so of course her queen was safe and I would have to give the rest of my poker chips to her or else my knight would be captured and put to work as a plough-horse.
The reason I am telling you this is because I discovered that this game with my niece was the perfect training ground for my first experience with the ancient game of Ma-Jong. I was invited to a party at the home of a former professor of Yoshihiro's and many of his former labmates were there. After dinner, the Ma-Jong sets came out and they asked if I wanted to learn to play. I said I did and of course the first step is to watch the first few rounds. Let me describe to you as best I can the experience. Ma-Jong is played with small rectangular tiles (Names?). First, I was told that there were basically four sets of tiles numbered 1 through 10. Only of course the numbering is Chinese and so I had tospebd time to learn some of the characters. Then there were extra "sets" of special chinese Kanji characters which represented various things like the four seasons, the four directions, the four tops (I don't remember them all but you get the idea).
So the four players sit cross-legged or Japanese style (as far as I can tell this involves crushing your knees to the point were they lose any functional benefit for the rest of the evening) one on each side of a square table which is low to the ground. The players toss all of the tiles into the center of the table and mix all the tiles up creating a din louder than any I have yet heard in Japan. In fact it occurred to me that perhaps one of the great appeals to the Japanese for this game is the socially acceptable loud noise which gets made before each round.
Then it appears that there is a race to gather these tiles in two neat little rows near the edge of the table. Each player then thrusts the rows toward the center and skillfully raises the back row onto the front row creating one row of double stacked tiles. Then each person takes turns selecting tiles and arranging them in front of them. So far this is not so different than poker. Shuffle and draw. Each person draws one tile. looks at it and discards one tile. Now it looks kind of like Gin or Rummy.
But then it got confusing. Suddenly one guy calls out "leech!" to the general disgruntlement of the other three. Apparently they didn't like being called leeches and who can blame them. I thought it was a bit rude myself. The leech caller picks up a little white stick from a box next to the table and places it on the table in no particular place near as I could tell. And I swear he had the same gleam in his eye as my niece did when she carted my bishop off to the inquisition. Anyway, the next guy exclaims "pond!" and lays down two of his tiles face up and reaches over the table to pick up another tile from another player's "discarded" pile. He seemed happy. Maybe his pond had no leeches, I don't know. Then the next guy also claimed "leech!" and things were certainly getting tense. I think. Then all hell broke loose as the first guy who called leech slapped all his tiles onto the table face up. All four players started throwing various numbers of the little sticks across the table to one another. Some had red dots and some had black dots. I started looking around for Dr. Barbie's medicine cabinet but it was nowhere to be found. There was general discussion amongst the players and I was completely baffled. Finally Yoshihiro looked at me and asked if I understood. I asked him what was happening and he pointed at one of the players and said "he won."
I spent the remainder of the evening learning proper Japanese syntax from a four year old Japanese girl. My niece would have been proud. Of her....