The centuries old Chinese game of Mah-Jong (also known as ‘Sparrows’ or the ‘Game of the 4 Winds’) is a game where chance plays a major part and is therefore ideal for gambling – apparently heavily amongst the Chinese. You cannot help but be intrigued by the game when you see the 144 brightly decorated tiles with exotic designs of flowers, bamboos, circles, dragons, and the four winds; the last two, along with bonus tiles I am told, influencing the scoring.
Normally a game is played with four players, but three is possible, and each lines up his tiles to form a wall that helps avoid cheating and keeps ‘Devils’ from entering the game! The shuffling of these tiles is known as the ‘Twittering of the Sparrows’. There is a lot of symbolism for instance the 1 of circles symbolises a wheel, the 1 of bamboo often symbolises a rice bird, sparrow, or a peacock and sometimes a bamboo shoot. Dragons and peacocks feature on the tiles and are the traditional guardians of fortune and happiness. There can be a ‘Dreamer’ too, an advisor who can sit with a player.
Terry Sims has been leading the group since it was formed many years ago and at least three of the original members still belong to the group. Terry became leader not just for his knowledge of the game but mainly because his name happened to be at the top of the list of those interested in forming a group. He says it is not a difficult job as the group meets in various members’ homes and a ‘sort of rota’ has developed. The host provides refreshments and I’m told chocolate biscuits are a favourite – especially of the leader.
The group has 10 members and with their current arrangements cannot take any more but Terry and other group members are willing to teach others to play and if there is a need, help set up a second group. Maybe there could be interaction between the two groups. The current group use all their own equipment. Terry says it is difficult to explain the game without actually playing it but it is akin to the card game Rummy but this card game lacks the depth and complexity of Mah-Jong. It is a game that requires concentration but naturally, as is usual amongst friends, there is always friendly banter and comment. Each game takes approximately 20-minutes; the players move round and about 8 games are played during the afternoon. They don’t gamble but at each session score points and produce a session winner.
Neil Gretton wrote a lovely article about the group, ‘In Praise of Mah-Jong on Friday Afternoon’ (magazine July 2014), and ever since reading that I have wanted to visit this group, which II did recently. When I arrived all those playing were deep in concentration. An odd comment could sometimes be heard and at the end of a game there was some discussion on the finer points of the game. Terry added up and recorded the scores and the overall winner for that day was Bev Abbott, one of the newer members.