Back to the past-Mahjong

Mahjong is a 2,000-year-old Chinese game. The game is taught at the Malibu Senior Center.

The ancient game of Mahjong brings a cross-section of people together.

Heidi Manteuffel/Special to The Malibu Times

The Internet, aside from providing instant access to a plethora of information available in an instant, has also become a way for people on opposite sides of the world to connect by playing games such as checkers, dominoes, backgammon and even bridge.

However, as Mahjong master teacher Jan Ancker can attest, more people seem to be coming back to playing the real games, looking for the sense of immediate community. More specifically for Ancker, some have come to learn the game of Mahjong.

Ancker, who teaches Mahjong at the Malibu Senior Center in Malibu, in Westlake and to a group of Red Hatters in Santa Barbara, said she finds the ancient game to be quickly increasing in its popularity as of late.

Mahjong not only creates a sense of community, but also, by its very nature, it is an inclusive game, Ancker said.

“The interesting thing to me is the cross-section of people that play the game. It brings people of all ages, all walks of life together to have a good time.”

However, the 2,000-year-old game, which was said to have originated in China in the court of King Wu where a secluded, beautiful woman kept herself from boredom by creating the game, was originally exclusive to the royal class until 500 A.D., when the penalty of decapitation was lifted for commoners playing. The lifted ban allowed for the spread of Mahjong to countries around the world, including England and Australia, and later was brought by Joseph P. Babcock to the United States in 1920.

After retiring from 10 years of substitute and full-time teaching, Ancker has found herself once again in the role of teacher, for the National Mahjong League.

Ancker was first introduced to Mahjong during her high school years from her mother’s avid interest in antique shopping. After purchasing a Mahjong set, her mother became curious as to how to play the game and taught Ancker and her three sisters the Chinese version. Soon, this whimsical purchase quickly became a staple in their family pastimes, reuniting the family during holiday visits and vacation.

The setup of Mahjong is fairly straightforward. The game is played primarily with four players seated around a table. Winning or “going Mahjong” requires collecting four sequences or sets of three tiles each as well as a pair (making 14 tiles). Like card games, Mahjong uses suits, but has only three with tiles ranking one to nine, and there are four identical tiles corresponding to each tile in a suit. Each person has 13 tiles as they draw and discard tiles, and the winner ends the game with 14.

Each player sits in a designated position, Northwind, Southwind, etc.

If a fifth person is present, he or she will take the Eastwind seat, but sit out the first hand. The person sitting out can observe all hands, and then place a bet on which they think will win. If he or she guesses right, both the player and observer are considered winners.

Ancker said the game begins by building the Great Wall of China with the tiles. Thirteen tiles are dealt to each person, and the player sitting in the position of Eastwind is in charge of that hand. Like rummy, tiles are drawn and discarded until one player has a winning combination.

The American version of Mahjong uses 152 tiles and has eight jokers, which the Chinese version has excluded. The tiles of Mahjong, Ancker explained, include symbols such as dragons, winds and flowers. Ancker said the hands collected are much like rummy, so part of the strategy is to discern what your opponents may be collecting.

Ancker said she finds the game more relaxing than bridge for many reasons. “With bridge, you have to have four people. If you don’t, it doesn’t work. You don’t have this pressure with Mahjong.” Ancker also said that there aren’t as many rules, and yet it is complex enough to hold your attention.

An aspect that keeps the Mahjong interesting is the fact that it can be played for money—one penny a point. Most hands are worth 25 points, and no player is allowed to lose much more than $5.

Also, one card from the game is changed in every April 1. Ancker said she believes this helps keep advanced players on a more level playing field. With the addition of the new card, the game tends to slow down while each player gets familiar with the new hands listed on the card. The National Mahjong League in New York chooses the new card annually.

Most Mahjong sets cost more than $100. The more authentic ones are made out of bone and bamboo, but many players remain comfortable using plastic tiles.

Ancker added, “Gathering around the Mahjong table is relaxing and fun. Some players stay together for years and years and see their children grow, marry and experience grandchildren. Soon it will be time to teach those grandchildren how to play.”

Ancker’s next class of Mahjong will take place Aug. 14 and Aug. 21. More information on the game of Mahjong can be obtained by visiting the Malibu Senior Center at 23815 Stuart Ranch Rd. or by calling 310.456.2489.