If you don’t know a bam from a crak, or a wind from a dot, the Friends of the West Roxbury Library have a program for you. The Friends are sponsoring four Saturday morning sessions of lessons in American-style Mah-Jongg, the popular tile game that was brought to America from China at the start of the 20th century. It begins today (Nov. 3), and continues on Nov. 10 and 17, and Dec. 1.
Friends board member and West Roxbury resident Jan Crosby, a longtime player of the game, started the group three years ago. Crosby, along with two other West Roxbury folks – Ellen Levy and Paula Barta – will be teaching the basics of the game to beginners, as well as people who haven’t played for a while, and need a refresher course.
Crosby offered a brief history of the game.
“Originally in China it was only a game for the nobility. The common person wasn’t allowed to play it,” she said. “When it came over here, around 1910, the language barrier made for complexities in explaining intricacies of the rules. So different people played in different ways ... until the mid-1930s, when a group of women formed the American Mah-Jongg Society, and they codified the game.”
It’s certainly a game with lots of rules, and plenty twists and turns as it’s played. Asked to explain, in layman’s terms, how the game is won, Crosby took a deep breath, then said, “Every year a new Mah-Jongg card comes out, and it has different sets. You get dealt 13 tiles, and the first person to have their hand match one of the combinations of sets on the card is the winner. It could be four norths, three pairs of like odd numbers, and four souths. Or it might be two flowers, two twos/two threes of one suit. There are all different combinations. The card combinations can be consecutive numbers, 2 to 5, or 6 to 9; 1-3-5-7 combinations, 2-4-6-8 combinations; winds and dragons combinations. Every year there are similar categories, but they mix it up.”
She took another deep breath, and added, “At first it’s complicated. People have to be patient with themselves. That’s the most important thing. That and to give yourself time for the combinations to kind of click.”
The Chinese term Mah-Jongg translates to “little sparrows.” As Crosby explained it, “When you put the tiles on the table, then mix them up by everybody putting their hands on them and shuffling them around, the sound that’s made is supposed to be reminiscent of the sound of birds’ wings.”
Crosby noted that in the past, after the four weeks of lessons, groups have formed and taken off on their own. And though there won’t be any gambling during the library lessons, some Mah-Jongg games are played for small stakes.
“It’s a game of courtesy,” she said. “Everything is very polite. There’s a lot to learn.”
“American Mah-Jongg for All” runs on four Saturdays mornings (Nov. 3, 10, 17, and Dec. 1) at the West Roxbury Branch Library, from 11-12:30. There’s a one-time $7 materials fee. For information, call Jan at 617-699-1668 or Paula at 617-469-3324. You do not have to attend all of the sessions to participate.