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Behind the Card: The National Mah Jongg League and the making of the Card

By: Ellie Gettinger, Education Director

Each year hundreds of thousands of people wait expectantly starting in late March. Any day now they will receive the new Mah Jongg Card from the National Mah Jongg League. This year over 350,000 ordered their card and waited to see what hands they would be playing this year. When you think about games, just think that every year the people who play mah jongg with the National Mah Jongg League rules have to figure out a new set of winning hands each year.

I visited the headquarters of the National Mah Jongg League, which recently relocated across the street from Macy’s in New York to discover how the card is made. I met with brothers David and Larry Unger who run the League. They took over for their mother Ruth, who died in November 2015. She was involved with the organization for over 50 years and saw the growth of the League and the expansion of the game. The League was developed in 1937 by a group of Jewish women who wanted to ensure that they were all playing the same game with the same rules and the same winning hands. The group developed a card with winning hands and they played with it. As they traveled, they took the card with them and the women they interacted with in The Catskills or Miami adopted the card too and took it back home with them. Within a couple of years, the card was a viral with women all over the country utilizing the card and rules set forth by the National Mah Jongg League.

But how does this mysterious card get put together? That was the big question that I had for the Unger Brothers when I met with them. They described for me an awesome process led by volunteers that has been going on for almost 80 years. Starting in August, a group of women come together with their thoughts on what the new card should be. This group has over 500 years of combined mah jongg experience. They play out variations and tweak the winning hands until November when they finalize the card for the coming year.

Once the card comes out, National Mah Jongg League volunteers answer phone calls about the card, helping people understand all of the new intricacies. It’s an amazing volunteer-led process that reaches a multitude of people and connects friends each year. In addition, the proceeds from the card benefit charities. This was always one of the aims of the National Mah Jongg League, to provide a built in fundraiser to support causes that impact the people who play Mahj; the organization has supported the Alzheimer’s Association, the American Heart Association and many others (you can find a partial list here). I left the offices inspired by the collective work of this organization and their commitment to their product.