Mah-jongg's New Generation of Tile-Philes

By Rachel Beckman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 9, 2008

Click. Clack. "Two bam!" Click. Clack. "Did you hear about Nancy? She's getting [whisper] a divorce." Click. Clack. "Mah-jongg!"

The sounds of mah-jongg -- tiles hitting the table, neighborhood gossip, peculiar lingo -- are unmistakable. In the past, mah-jongg aficionados were also easy to identify. Stereotypically, two types of people played the game: Jewish and Chinese grandmothers.

The game is still rooted in those cultures, but slowly and quietly, mah-jongg players are diversifying.

"It's every age, sexuality, religion. We have an Episcopal priest who comes," says Jean Graubart, 58, who coordinates the twice-weekly games at the D.C. Jewish Community Center.

Graubart says the open games on Tuesdays and Fridays are "extraordinarily tolerant" of new players, but she encourages true beginners to take a class. The center offers mah-jongg classes sporadically, including one that starts Tuesday. In December, the center will host its first mah-jongg tournament, with timed games, refreshments and prizes.

Mah-jongg is played with a set of 152 tiles, which used to be made out of ivory or bamboo but are now usually plastic. The tiles are engraved with colorful numbers, pictures and Chinese characters. The game, which the National Mah Jongg League says originated in China around 500 B.C., resembles gin rummy in that the goal is to collect the right combination of tiles to create a winning hand.

At its heart, mah-jongg is a social game. As with poker, there are formal classes and tournaments, but it thrives among friends in living rooms.

David Horowitz, 43, coordinates a mah-jongg group that has been meeting since January. His friends gather every first and third Saturday night for dinner and a game (or four). Everybody takes a turn hosting.

"I like the renegade aspect of it," he says. "Everyone gets together for poker. This is different."

On a recent Saturday night, the group met in Sara Friedman's Takoma Park apartment. Friedman fed her four guests a big dinner of pasta, beef, stuffed peppers and fruit salad before anyone touched a tile, and she kept the wine flowing.

Friedman, who with Horowitz made up the Jewish contingent of the mah-jongg party, remembers her mother playing with girlfriends when Friedman was growing up in New York City. When her mother died, one of the few things Friedman kept was her mother's set of tiles.

Horowitz, who wore a black T-shirt with pictures of three mah-jongg tiles on it, has played for three years. He first joined a group through Bet Mishpachah, a D.C. congregation for gay and lesbian Jews. That group grew out of a Capital Pride parade float on which congregants dressed in drag as mothers and aunts playing mah-jongg. Horowitz left that mah-jongg group a year and a half later "due to excessive competitiveness," he says.

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