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

Archive for July, 2016

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.

Mahj and Me

Have Yourself a Merry Little Mah Jongg
by Anneliese Dickman

Anneliese Dickman's family plays mah jongg at Christmas

Anneliese Dickman’s family plays mah jongg at Christmas

This may sound funny coming from a board member of the Jewish Museum Milwaukee, but to me, Mah Jongg goes hand-in-hand with Christmas. On my Christian side of the family, Christmas evening is for cocktails and Mahj around the tree. We have collected several beautiful vintage sets over the years, more than enough to have three or four tables going at once. Men, women, and teen kids all play, with winners earning bragging rights and the option to rotate to a new table.

To my Jewish family and friends, it is always a surprise to learn that this gentile girl from the foothills of Colorado plays Mah Jongg, because many Jewish players don’t know about the military’s version of the game. Both my father and grandfather had been officers in the Air Force; my mother and grandmother started playing Mahj with the other wives in their officers’ wives’ clubs. The game was so widespread among military wives in the 1930s that the wives from the Army Air Corps field in Ohio, now known as Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, decided to write down the rules of play in order to “allow players to transfer from base to post to port and still play the same game.”

The Wright-Patterson book is the rulebook that my family uses, although we don’t always use the most recent edition. We prefer an older version of the book with our favorite special hands (over 100!), such as Piano Keys and Razzle Dazzle. We love to reminisce as we play—the funny names of each hand trigger memories from years past. Like the time Uncle Bill misunderstood the rules and had Mah Jongged without declaring it…and then got mad when it didn’t count. Or, the first time my pre-teen cousin Kelsey played. Her extremely competitive nature kept her usually-very-active body glued to her chair for hours until she finally declared “Mah Jongg!” Followed shortly thereafter with an exasperated, “Finally! Now I can quit playing this crazy game!” We’re pretty sure it was also Kelsey who once played with a pair of underwear on her head, trying to change her luck after drawing too many unhelpful tiles.

When I went off to college, I was delighted to find a roommate who also played Mah Jongg, but was confused when she showed me a solitaire game on her computer that bore almost no resemblance to the “real” game. I felt vindicated when a grad student from China understood my confusion and invited me to his apartment to play Mah Jongg with his family.

As it turned out, I didn’t play “real” Mah Jongg, either. Not only did the tiles in the Chinese set not have Arabic numerals, making them nearly impossible for me to decipher, there was no rulebook and no list of hands! Without a list of hands to study, the gameplay happened much faster. In fact, the game was so fast-paced, the Chinese players didn’t even take the time to look at each tile as it was drawn, they merely rubbed their thumb across each tile’s face and decided immediately whether to keep it or discard it.

Needless to say, I learned my lesson—“real” Mah Jongg is in the eye of the beholder. I find it fascinating that so many cultures and subcultures can claim versions of the game as their own, and I’m eager to learn more about Mah Jongg’s Jewish history and traditions. I’ll be taking beginner Mah Jongg lessons at the Museum this summer. I can’t wait to learn the deal with the Joker tiles. (Isn’t that cheating?) And I heard a rumor that Flowers are used in some hands. (What? They aren’t just good luck tiles that allow a second draw?) This Christmas, I might even introduce some new traditions to my family’s yuletide Mahj game.