Layne Alkis is 11 years old, but she's learning a game that has brought women together for centuries. From the time she was old enough to understand a "bam" from a "crack," Layne has watched her mother, Joyce Alkis, of Potomac, play mah-jongg with some of her closest friends, fondly known as the "maj ladies."
Every Wednesday night for the past eight years, with a few lapses, a group of women--Marla Senter, 39; Sue Ader, 42; Tracey Charapp, 36 and Alkis, 38, all of the Potomac and Gaithersburg area--have met to exchange stories, swap events of the week, nosh a little and play mah-jongg.
The location of the game floats from house to house, giving the children of the maj ladies the opportunity to observe their mothers in action. It also has given three of the women the opportunity to pass down a tradition to their daughters. The boys, said one player, aren't really interested in the game, but they know that on maj night, there are always goodies in the house.
The women are creating a memory for their children, as their mothers did for them.
"I can remember the clicking of the tiles," said Senter, referring to the placing of the mah-jongg tiles on the kitchen table. "I also remember the ladies calling out the [names of the] tiles. It is something I will always cherish."
Senter's mother, Laurel Cohen, lives in Ocean City, Md., part of the year and spends winters in Florida, and whenever they see each other, it's mah-jongg until they drop. In fact, to celebrate her daughter's upcoming 40th birthday, Cohen is treating Senter to a mah-jongg cruise.
Whether she's playing with her mother or with her friends, Senter said the sense of camaraderie gives her a warm feeling. "It's really something special," she said.
Senter, an instructional assistant for special needs students at Stonemill Elementary School in North Potomac, has two sons, neither of whom has expressed a desire to learn to play the game. "But," she said, "I'll have granddaughters some day."
Around for centuries, there is a theory that mah-jongg was created from various Chinese games during the Sung Dynasty (960-1279 A.D.). Over the years, the playing pieces have changed from cards to ivory tiles, each with an image etched into it. Today, those images take the form of flowers, bams (figures that look like bamboo), dots and cracks (images that appear to be cracked). In all, there are 144 tiles that may be exchanged throughout the game in the hope of creating a winning hand. Hands can be various combinations of flowers, dots, cracks and bams. The winning mah-jongg hand has 14 tiles.
The popularity of mah-jongg is growing steadily. According to the National Mah-Jongg League, there are at least 200,000 regular players of the game nationwide, with the highest concentration of players in New York City.
"There is a growing trend towards younger players," said Norman Santana, a representative of the organization. "People in their early twenties are starting to learn the game."
For the "maj ladies," who are a mix of stay-at-home moms and women who work outside the home, their passion for the game has taken them to tournaments in Atlantic City and elsewhere. They haven't all been winners, but the excitement keeps drawing them to the competitions.
Alkis, a stay-at-home mom, has been teaching her daughter Layne the intricacies of the game for the last few years. It is a time, she said, to forge a stronger bond with her daughter.
Layne, a student at Robert Frost Middle School in Rockville, was the first to raise the issue with her mother. "I really enjoy it," she said. "I asked my mom to teach me. I wanted to learn."
Although she's never won a game against other girls who are also learning, Layne said she enjoys the opportunity to practice the game's strategy. "When I get older, I'd like to play maj like my mom and get a group of friends together to play."
Similarly, Ader, a real estate agent in Potomac, is teaching her daughter Carrie, 11, to play. Charapp, a communications executive, has younger daughters. Hallie, 6, and Reyna, 2, already have learned the names of the tiles and how to set them out on the table before the players arrive.
Because the game requires four players, the maj ladies have an extra player every week to ensure there will be a game. Sharon Bass and Dori Nussbaum, both of Potomac, play regularly with the group.
"Besides being a social time, this game passes on a culture," Alkis said. "We have formed friendships."
CAPTION: Wednesday night is mah-jongg night for the "maj ladies." From left, Tracey Charapp, Joyce Alkis, Marla Senter and Sue Ader meet once a week to play. Above, mah-jongg tiles scattered across the tabletop. Above right, one player holds her pieces.
CAPTION: "I can remember the clicking of the tiles," says mah-jongg player Marla Senter, of her childhood memories of the game. "It is something I will always cherish."