The climax of last summer’s hit movie Crazy Rich Asians featured a tense exchange between two characters over a round of the Chinese tile game of mahjong. Mahjong games here in Chicago, though—at least those organized by Debbie Turner—are more congenial and less intense.
Many of the players are beginners, and it’s another language they are learning as they move the tiles across the table. They call out their tiles—shortening “bamboo” to “bams” and “characters” to “cracks”—and name the directional winds, or dragons.
“It sounds good. It’s nice when they clack together,” Turner says. “There’s something satisfying about playing with tiles.”
When Turner, now 46, came to Chicago in 2011, she had a difficult time finding a group to play mahjong with, especially the type of mahjong she learned in Mexico City, which was a hybrid variation of Chinese and other versions. She was at first reluctant to learn the American style, which differs from Chinese mahjong in that players have to commit to a certain sequence early in the game and there can be fewer options to switch. She was also turned off by the cards from the National Mah Jongg League outlining the plays.
Turner did find other women to teach her, though, and she had her moment when everything fell into sync. She realized that if the game had been explained in another way, she might have grasped it better, and it gave her the inspiration to teach.
Since then, she has been organizing games through the website Meetup. When she first began looking at the site, she found there were few people willing to teach newcomers.
“There’s all these Meetups for intermediates [but] no beginners,” Turner says. “I thought, well, this is a perfect chance.”
This past January, Turner started a new meetup for novice mahjong players meeting at both the Renaissance Court at the Chicago Cultural Center and the WeWork location on West Illinois Street; it attracted players from all over the city. (The game in the Cultural Center also attracted spectators, but the group had to leave in March due to complaints about the noise of the tiles.)
Turner was shocked by how many people were interested in learning mahjong.
“When I started, I really just wanted everybody to know this game,” she says. “I knew it was out there, but people didn’t know about it. Well, let me teach you.”
Novice player Anne Winship is now in Turner’s second stage of learning, which focuses on strategies. During the first strategy lesson, Winship says, the players would just draw the tiles to figure out what hands could be played without actually playing through a game.
“We kept saying, ‘Let’s play a game,'” says Winship, a board game enthusiast. “There’s a turning point where your brain will get that challenge, but I’m not sure if I’m there yet.”
Sandra Beaty, a retired clinical psychologist, wanted to learn mahjong not only as a social activity but also in part, she jokes, to feed a stereotype.
“I’m an old woman so I wanted to do something where I could sit for a while and use my brain,” Beaty says.
The Meetup group now has 84 members. Turner’s pupils are mostly retired women, but she has recently gotten more interest from women and even a few men in their 30s and 40s. Mahjong has not always been a game for retirement-aged people, though.
The origins of mahjong in the United States are rooted in Jewish-American culture, according to the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York, which ran an exhibit about the game in 2010. Joseph P. Babcock is credited with popularizing it in America in the 1920s after learning to play in China while working for Standard Oil as an engineer.
The National Mah Jongg League was founded in 1937 when a group of players, mostly Jewish women, met in New York to standardize the American way of playing and the rules. The league now formats a new playing card each year for purchase, and donates the proceeds to various charities across the country.
Just in time for the release of the 2019 American mahjong cards (they’re scheduled to ship this week and Turner has made peace with them), Turner is organizing new sessions for beginners and playing times at WeWork and the Ambassador Public House in Greektown.
One of Turner’s intentions when she organized the gatherings was to have people teaching different variations of mahjong. While this hasn’t happened yet, she is still hopeful.
“I want everyone to see this game,” she says. “I think it’s time for it to come out.” v