Can you start off by telling us who you are, where you’re located, and how you currently are playing Mahjong?
I'm Jim Villone, 58 years old, living in the Rochester New York area. gay, married to a wonderful man for over 20 years and retired from a career in laboratory medicine. I play Mahjong at least once a week at one of our local community centers and also play online.
Can you share your personal journey with Mahjong? How did you become interested in the game, and what drew you to it?
I love games that require strategy and planning. I had heard of Mahjong from my husband. He is Jewish and has fond memories of his mother and her girlfriends gathering regularly to play Mahjong and kibitz. He wasn't taught how to play and only had a basic understanding of the tiles and the card. From his description, Mahjong sounded like a combination of rummy, poker, dominoes and a cult. I say that jokingly, but from the passion of some Mahjong aficionados it's not far off.
I should interject here that my mother and her father and uncles died from Alzheimer's disease. Another aspect of playing Mahjong is a deep engagement of the conscious brain. In my efforts to (hopefully) avoid or at least forestall that terrible illness I look for opportunities to learn new things and challenge my brain to keep working.
Several of my LGBT friends had retired some years prior to me, and had taken Mahjong lessons in one of the local community centers and were playing regularly. They had kindly offered to teach me and my husband and I quickly learned that this was THE game for me. It's a challenging game with a card that changes annually, enough randomness to allow just about anything to happen, and great opportunities to strategize and plan. I love being able to pivot from an intended hand to a backup hand or to effect a wall-game. And I enjoy watching the discards and trying to analyze what the other players are doing.
First, I would like to express my heartfelt condolences for the loss of your family members. Alzheimer’s is a devastating illness, and I can understand how it has motivated you to actively seek ways to challenge your brain and learn new things. Do you look for ways to incorporate learning new strategies and techniques into your Mahjong practice to continue challenging your brain? If so, can you please tell us about it?
Thanks for your kind words. The loss is difficult enough without the looming anxiety that one could be next. Mahjong is only one aspect of exercising my brain. Teaching it is another aspect because teaching uses different “processors” than playing. I also spend 15 to 30 minutes daily learning another language to exercise the gray-matter in a different way. Regarding Mahjong, I’m not sure there are any NEW strategies, but I really pay attention when players talk about their strategies or beliefs. Even new players can bring up insights that I hadn’t thought of.
Mahjong has traditionally been associated with women in many cultures. How do you feel about breaking these gender norms and participating in the game?
First I should say that I don't want to take away from women-only spaces. It is extremely valuable for all people to have opportunities to connect and create meaningful relationships with people like themselves. Having said that, I firmly believe that there should be no barriers or biases in community-based events. Our local community groups have a vast range of programs from meditation to woodworking to basketball, games of skill and health-based activities, and I don't believe that any of them should be labeled as "men only" or "women only" activities. I know women who build houses and I know men who crochet. Regardless of our race, gender or sexual identity we all deserve the opportunity to learn and grow and expand our skills.
As a man attending the community-based weekly Mahjong sessions I have faced a bit of initial shock and surprise from the regular women in my local group, but once the tiles are on the table and we've played a few rounds they seem to be more comfortable.
The gay "aspect" has been a little more off-putting and both my husband and I have faced a few ignorant comments, and unfortunately that comes with the territory. The local Mahjong community group was pretty homogeneous before the LGBT people started playing. Prior to that the majority of the group were women, 70+ and Jewish. My LGBT friends and I aren't there to create conflict - we're simply there to play Mahjong, and eventually the other members either consciously or subconsciously recognize that.
Can you tell us more about the Mahjong community you’re part of?
In my county, most of the municipalities have community programs that are open to everyone. The local Mahjong community groups tend to be white women, older than 50, and primarily Jewish. From what I've observed, that's not too different from most Mahjong groups.
How do you feel Mahjong can be more inclusive and welcoming for players from diverse backgrounds?
My first thought on this subject is that community groups and other spaces where Mahjong is played regularly need to specifically state in their advertising that ALL are welcome. This is especially important when advertising a tournament. As a man I would be hesitant to sign up for a tournament organized by the "sisterhood" groups of the local synagogues.
Secondly, those people who regularly play Mahjong should be willing to teach others. The game itself would rapidly disappear if it was only played by the "elderly." The baby-boomer generation is declining and it's time to share this game with younger players.
Third, and probably the easiest to do - Mahjong players need to talk about the game with non-players. And don't assume that they won't be interested because they don't fit the "profile" of the standard player. I hesitate to use the word "evangelize," but people can't play what they don't know. Tell your coworkers, your family and friends. More players means more opportunities to play!
I appreciate your perspective on advocating inclusivity, educating others, and raising awareness about Mahjong. Do you prioritize engaging with fellow players and building connections while playing Mahjong, or is your primary focus on the game itself?
It depends on the other players. Some are very strict about focusing on the game or keeping the chatter to a minimum. Others are very friendly. Since my primary objective at community-based Mahjong is to PLAY the game, I try to “read the table.” I’m a rather chatty person but when it comes to Mahjong, if the chatter is going to distract my opponents and lower their ability to play a good game, I’m happy to be quiet. If the opponents are playing at their best, with no distractions, I know I’ll have better competition.
Are there different variations or styles of Mahjong that you prefer playing? What are the key differences between these variations, and do they require different strategies or approaches?
I’m a strict NMJL American Mah Jongg player. It wouldn’t surprise people who know me that I take a dim view of “house rules.” I would like to learn the Japanese and Chinese styles if I could find a teacher or a group locally.
Since you’re a strict NMJL player, what are your thoughts on this years card?
I am not in love with this year’s card, but I appreciate the addition hands. I feel fortunate that I began playing with the 2022 card which in my opinion was much more “beginner-friendly.” Looking also at the values on the 2023 card, it’s my opinion that some of the more difficult hands are undervalued.
One other thing I would like to mention about the “card” and the NMJL “league” is that I feel the game and its rules need a few tweaks. This year’s card has caused a fair amount of confusion. There’s a lack of consistency in denoting “any consecutive numbers” – probably due to lack of space. Also, there are some inconsistencies in the rules that the “league” has failed to address completely and these problems have led to some rather aggressive tactics at the Mahjong table. Additionally, the “league” has made several modifications to the rules but they haven’t updated their “rule-book” since 2020 and they appear are to have the most recent rules published on their own website. These situations have led to innumerable discussions and complaints in the social-media sites dedicated to Mahjong.
Are there any memorable or exciting moments you can share from your Mahjong playing experiences?
I’ve only been playing for about 14 months. My best experience so far (besides winning a few Singles and Pairs hands) is teaching others to play. It gave me a deeper appreciation for the complexity of the game and also a deeper appreciation for the efforts of my teachers!
I love that one of your favorite memories with playing Mahjong comes from teaching others! Could you share a specific experience of teaching someone that stands out to you?
Nothing immediately leaps to mind. But I love seeing the look of understanding when a beginner finally comprehends some of the fine-points of the game. And of course a student’s first independent Mahjong is super-gratifying.
What advice would you give to someone who is interested in learning Mahjong or wants to take their gameplay to the next level?
Mahjong has a steep learning curve.
First – learn the rules, and play enough Mahjong that you understand the finer points of the rules. Buy or borrow a copy of the official NMJL rules and study them.
Second – Spend a lot of time studying the card. Understand how the specified hands are related to each other so that you can more easily pivot from one hand to another as the game progresses.
Third – buy or borrow a Mahjong set and practice by yourself. You can simulate the Charleston and you can randomly pick up 13 tiles and plan how to turn them into a winning hand.
Fourth – PLAY PLAY PLAY! Find or create a group of all skill-levels and play as much as possible. Experience is the best teacher. And if you can’t play with a group, you can at least practice with the online sites. It’s not quite the same, but at least you’ll be engaging the Mahjong parts of your brain.
Thank you Jim for telling us your story!