Hands fly to pick up and toss away tiles until someone relieves the growing anticipation with a triumphant shout.
This ancient Chinese game captivated Americans in the 1920s and ’30s and became a staple among Jewish women in the ’40s and ’50s. Today, its popularity is surging.
Move over, bridge and shuffleboard.
Mah-jongg tournaments, clubs, cruises and Web sites are carving a large place among leisure activities, especially in Florida.
In the game, played in groups of four or five, players collect 14 Scrabblelike tiles to form combinations called craks, bams or dots.
“It’s something that gets into your blood. It cures all ails, and it takes away all depression. I really have to be sick, sick, sick not to go to a mah-jongg game,” says Isabel Gutentag of Fort Myers, Fla.
Gutentag, 69, learned the game as a child by watching her mother’s group play. Game nights were times of female solidarity, food, laughter and solace.
“It was a night out for them from the kids,” says Sari Rutt.
Rutt, who runs tournaments for the Jewish Federation of Lee and Charlotte Counties in Florida, plays four nights a week with three different groups, and also plays over the Internet with partners across the country.
Modern play remains strikingly similar to the parlor Ingatbola88 games of the early 20th century, when Jewish women in particular used the game as an inexpensive way to gather. Mah-jongg brought social opportunities to women confined to apartment buildings or neighborhoods by lack of money, transportation or anti-Semitism.
The women took turns meeting in each others’ homes weekly. They chatted, nurtured one another through hard times and showed off fancy desserts. Children dared not eat the cake or candy put out for the mah-jongg ladies, says Gutentag, but many a child learned the game by watching and sitting in for the hostess as she served her guests.
The game was played exclusively by Chinese upper classes until the 1800s. As the last Chinese dynasty faded, it became popular as a gambling game in China and later in casinos across Europe.
While many players still consider mah-jongg a wagering game, the stakes are usually quite low — from $5 to $15 for an afternoon of play. Plenty of people play without betting, however. Organized games and tournaments can cost $5 to $25.
Joining the National Mah-Jongg League, which offers access to online games, cruises and tournaments, costs $5 to $7 a year. The nonprofit league donates its proceeds to charity. Costs for the game itself ranges from $25 to $200 or more. Some players pick up inexpensive plastic sets and tote them in shopping bags. Others have ornate bamboo or ivory sets with special cases, some passed down from mother to daughter.
There is a healthy cottage industry of people offering big tournaments in Las Vegas, Chicago and other travel destinations, and a broad line of mah-jongg gifts is available.
American military personnel and their wives stationed in Asia and Europe and wealthy American businessmen living abroad picked up the parlor version of the game and brought it home. It soared in popularity in the 1920s.
In 1923, $1.5 million worth of mah-jongg sets were imported by the United States. Then, American companies began producing the games. Today, mah-jongg is credited with rescuing Milton Bradley Co. from bankruptcy.
Each year, the National Mah-Jongg League in New York issues a card with about 50 different winning tile combinations.
“The game changes yearly because the card changes,” Gutentag says. “That’s what keeps it interesting.”
The National Mah-Jongg League, which was founded in New York in 1937, now has 200,000 members. In comparison, the American Contract Bridge League has about 150,000 members.
“There’s been a new surge in the interest of the game for at least the last five or six years,” said Ruth Unger, president of the mah-jongg league.
Unger thinks part of the attraction is that the game continues to offer friendship as well as entertainment. A player might lose a husband through death or divorce, raise children and send them off into the world, but the mah-jongg group stays together.
“There is no other game that creates the bonds among the four and five players. They are their extended family. They are the one constant thing in their lives,” Unger says.