Home Culture The History of Mah Jongg + Where to Play Locally

The History of Mah Jongg + Where to Play Locally

by Sarah Griesbach
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Older players may take up Mah Jongg guided by pleasant memories of the clack-clack sound made when their grandmothers played games in smoke-filled living rooms. Increasingly, younger players, who have no history with the complex game of tiles, luck, and concentration, are racking their tiles too. Mah Jongg is definitely having a moment, as teachers of the game can attest. American Mah Jongg has experienced a resurgence in popularity in recent years with new interest among a broader audience. New Jersey regional Mah Jongg instructor Lois Cantwell sees that demographic shift up close as she’s asked to teach new groups how to play. The widespread love the game is getting has kept her busy running among groups to teach new players the basic strategies to win. Read on to learn all about the history and the current local landscape of American Mah Jongg, as well as where to play it in Hoboken.

game mahjong hoboken new jersey

Photo Credit: Anel Laurens

Two Traditions, Two Ways to Play

The first thing new Mah Jongg players learn is that American Mah Jongg differs significantly from the traditional Chinese version of Mah Jongg. The American version uses a card with specific hands and National Mah Jongg League scoring rules. Each player must purchase a Mah Jongg card of winning hands annually to participate in games. The Chinese version has a complex set of rules and a scoring system that is consistent and does not require adopting new scoring criteria each year. The traditional game is played with a set of 144 tiles based on Chinese characters and symbols, while American sets add special joker tiles to the mix.

mahjong game new jersey

Photo Credit: Anel Laurens

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Mah Jongg was developed in China in the 19th century where it was originally called Máquè, meaning sparrow, due to the clacking sound made by the tiles during shuffling. The traditional form of the game is played widely throughout China, Japan, South Korea, and Southeast Asia. There are variations of the game within this traditional format: Cantonese style is regarded as the easiest for beginners, while Taiwanese style is more complicated. The traditional game gained popularity within Chinese-American communities in the 1920s, particularly in San Francisco and New York.

Zap Fitness

The game of American Mah Jongg was born in 1923 when Joseph Park Babcock, a representative of Standard Oil in Shanghai, included a publication of new, simpler rules in sets that he imported into the US. Those rules morphed further toward a unique game variant when, in 1935, a group of Jewish women met in New York City and formed the National Mah Jongg League and published its first volume of “Official American Rules.” Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, American Mah Jongg was largely spread through Jewish women’s networks, becoming associated with leisure activities in vacation spots like the Catskills. In 1951, Dorothy Meyerson, one of the founders of the League, even hosted a television program to explain the game and boost its popularity.

Why Mah Jongg?

Hoboken resident and club organizer Anel Laurens found herself teaching about two dozen beginner learners when she organized her first American Mah Jongg event at Play! Hoboken. She was a new player herself at the time and was pretty overwhelmed by the turnout. Anel attributes her interest and that of the people of all ages and backgrounds who continued to show up for regular games at Symposia Bookstore to the desire to come together in a community with people you might not meet otherwise and just have casual fun.

symposia bookstore hoboken new jersey mahjong

Photo Credit: Anel Laurens

Pandemic isolation likely played a role in the game’s recent resurgence. Lois Cantwell’s classes didn’t always sell out fast like they do now. “When I was a kid, it was the Jewish women of my grandmother’s generation who played. Now, it seems to be an all-ages activity, pulling in people from many different backgrounds.” She thinks the sudden popularity may be a backlash against online activities — you need to show up for Mah Jongg games. Players visit for a couple of hours, snack, drink, chat, laugh, and, if lucky, win.

How to Play

A typical game requires four players though three-player variations are possible. Only one member of the group needs a Mah Jongg set. American Mah Jongg and Chinese Mah Jongg sets are not interchangeable. American Mah Jongg players need to each have a copy of the same year’s rules and hand card to play together. Even experienced players run into questions about what to do if play gets complicated. The National League provides a dedicated hotline with experts ready to resolve those sticky issues.

game mahjong tournament new jersey

Photo Credit: Anel Laurens

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Most of the online gaming apps that have Mah Jongg in their titles are actually versions of concentration or tile matching. So, you shouldn’t rely on those for instruction. There are apps available to practice a real game online. Two that Lois recommends are Myjongg.net and RealMahjongg.com. But the best way to learn the game is with other people. Opportunities to learn are abundant at the moment. Tiles are clack-clacking all around New Jersey, as new groups form in libraries, community centers, game cafes, and at brunch tables. Meetup groups exist for players of Chinese Mah Jongg and American Mah Jongg, as do clubs and tournaments. Super players might even enter weekend travel tournaments with ticketed entry and cash prizes.

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