Good Life

It’s anyone’s game: Local mah jongg leagues adopt China’s formerly aristocratic tile game

Ann Shepherd looks at a tile as she plays a game of Mah Jongg.
Ann Shepherd looks at a tile as she plays a game of Mah Jongg. CDT photo

“Mah jongg!” Ann Shepherd screamed as she raised her arms. She smiled uncontrollably, celebrating her win.

It’s Monday afternoon and 12 people have taken their places in the back of the Wegmans café on Colonnade Boulevard to play mah jongg, a tile game of Chinese origin for four players with the goal of building a winning combination of tiles.

The players, who range in age from 60 to 90, were in high spirits on a recent Monday because it was the last time they would use this year’s mah jogng card.

“I liked this year’s card but it did not like me,” said Selma Harris, one of the players. “I really don’t have luck with it. I would have to go on welfare if my salary depended on it.”

For the past 78 years the National Mah Jongg League has come out with a new card on April 1. It costs $9 and is composed of 60 different winning tile combinations, which serve as guidelines for players.

Originating in China, Mah Jongg is played with 144 tiles that are printed with Chinese characters and symbols. Each player gets 13 tiles and takes turns drawing and throwing out tiles, as well as taking tiles other players have tossed out. They continue until they complete one of the legal hands, using the mah jongg card of the year as a guide. A winning player shouts “mah jongg!”

The 12 at Wegmans talked about when they were to get their new cards from league headquarters in New York City. One had gotten the card and others sneaked a peek.

“Even if we get the card early we can’t play with it, but we sure can start to memorize it,” said Carol Gouty.

“Yeah, those little mah jongg gremlins may be watching,” joked Angie Bottinop, a 90-year-old who never misses a Monday game.

Bittinop joined the group seven years ago after moving to State College from Stuart, Fla., with her daughter.

Every Monday at 1 p.m. for the past nine years the group of 12 to 20 sits four or five to a table to play. Most met at a mah jongg class put on by the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Penn State, known as OLLI. It’s a nonprofit, membership organization that offers classes, trips and social activities for residents 50 and older. The class is taught by Barbara Marder.

Those who didn’t learn to play in the class joined by calling Shepherd, who has her phone number listed in the Centre Daily Times so anyone who wants can join in.

At Wegmans, the group took breaks for food or to catch up with the others about their weekend, their grandchildren or any other exciting news they had to share.

Wegmans manager Jimmy Bellis has become popular with the group over the years. He came over to greet them and ask how they were doing.

“Jimmy is the best,” said Shepherd. “He helped us throw Angie’s 90th birthday party this year and even had a cake prepared for her.”

The only male player, Jim Swartzell, joked to another man passing his table, “I have it made with all these women surrounding me, don’t I?”

The games were filled with friendly competition and even an occasional helping hand with a needed tile.

“I’m going to give you a couple of good tiles, but I really shouldn’t,” Bottinop told Shepherd.

“If you want a ride home today you’ll give me the tiles,” Shepherd replied.

Shepherd, a blond, energetic mah jongg enthusiast who describes herself as someone with no filter, expanded her playing time by joining with four friends from OLLI and another from the Monday game to also play on Fridays.

Shepherd said she started playing mah jongg 49 years ago when she and her husband, Bob, married and moved to Skokie, Ill. They lived in a neighborhood in which all the women played.

She and her Friday game friends — Mary Grunthaner, Molly Heller, Nancy Jacobson, Louise Hess and Bottinop — move vacations, family reunions and other commitments so they can attend every Friday game, with few or no exceptions.

Heller, the only one of the six who is not retired, is an accountant who makes sure that she has time off on Fridays to play.

Gruthaner babysits her grandson during the week while her daughter is at work but also makes sure she plays on Fridays, even if it means having her husband, who owns a landscaping business, babysit the child.

The six friends switch off weekly hosting the game at their homes. Bets are made, interruptions are not allowed and it’s every woman for herself. Luckily, the most one can lose is $3 because each winning combination on the card ranges from 25 to 50 cents.

After seven years of playing together, a lasting friendship exists.

“We can say anything,” Shepherd said about the group. “We don’t only share the good. We can also share the bad. This is much more than just a game for us.”