Game of skill and luck can be habit-forming
Mah Jongg players tend to describe the game as addictive. Many locals spend hours — and quarters — each week playing this game, imported from China. Its addicts claim increased mental acuity, social networking and community outreach.
Mah Jongg was brought to the United States from China in the 1920s. A game similar to rummy, players discard and pick up tiles instead of cards. On each tile are Chinese symbols: dots, bams, cracks, flowers, dragons, jokers and winds. Players consult the official Mah Jongg card, issued every year by the National Mah Jongg League, for suits they can replicate. Each suit has a monetary value (50 cents or so) and the first of four players to replicate a suit wins.
It’s a game of skill and luck, and it can be amicable or competitive, depending on who’s playing. For islander Angela Crummett and her group, the game is very friendly.
“We play for fun. We’re not cutthroat, but there are some that are,” Crummett said. “We would like everyone to win a hand.”
Mah Jongg is much more than a game to Crummett, she said. She considers it group therapy.
“It gives me the chance to get away from the world for a while.”
She and her group play one or two times a week for four hours during lunchtime.
Like Crummett, many, though not all Mah Jongg enthusiasts, are retired women. And, many of them have learned to play through Galveston’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, or OLLI. Here, Antoinette Swinnea teaches “An Introduction to Mah Jongg” and “Strategies of Mah Jongg Play.” In seven years at OLLI, she has taught hundreds of people to play.
The introductory course’s descriptions reveal yet another benefit of playing: keeping a sharp mind. It states: “This game requiring skill, strategy, intelligence, calculation and luck engages both hippocampi of the brain. Other research shows that cognitive activities such as Mah Jongg contribute to healthy aging.”
Swinnea concedes Mah Jongg isn’t the easiest game to learn. The end result, however, is worth it, she said.
“Learning the game can be challenging,” she said. “We all enjoy the challenge. Winning at Mah Jongg requires total focus on the game. It is an opportunity to leave all your worries behind.”
With these therapeutic, social and cognitive benefits, the attraction to Mah Jongg is obvious. And, there’s this:
“We’re too old to go to the beach,” said April Beall, while taking a break between hands.
But becoming Bridge weary also may have something to do with Mah Jongg’s rising popularity.
“We were bridged out,” said Peggy Boening, during a recent match.
Unlike Bridge, Mah Jongg does not require partners.
“You’re not hurting someone else’s game when you play,” Boening said.
Galveston is a Mah Jongg friendly area. In addition to private homes, matches take place in local restaurants, the Artillery Club, the Galveston Country Club and Board Game Island, just off The Strand downtown. Players also can book Mah Jongg friendly cruises to keep their skills honed while traveling.
For Galveston area players, philanthropy also is a component of the game. Each year, hundreds of area players converge on the Galveston Country Club to raise funds for the island’s Ronald McDonald House.
Mah Jongg may be one addiction that doesn’t require an intervention.