the writing and photography of Neil Kramer

The Eye of the Mah-Jongg

There are some who dream and some who do. I am a dreamer. There are so many things I would like to do, but fear prevents me from taking the first step. But there is one member of my family who is a true champion, a real Rocky Balboa. Despite being an underdog, this person is not afraid of facing the toughest, most steely-eyed competitors in her field. Yes, for three full days, my mother has taken off from work so she can do battle in a Mah-Jongg Tournament at the Trump Taj Mahal Casino in Atlantic City. How this ancient Chinese game became popular with Jewish women of the last generation is a long story, and you can read some of the history of Mah-Jongg on Wikipedia.

Although my mother plays in her weekly “dollar” game in her apartment building, this is her first sanctioned tournament. When her friend invited her, I would never expect my mother to say yes. But something has changed in my mother since my father’s death and her trip to Spain. She has surprised us again. She joined the American Mah-Jongg Association and paid the $150 entrance fee. Now, if my mother “plays her tiles” right, she can win thousands of dollars.

The competition is three days, for at least three hours each day. There are dozens of tables set up, and after a certain amount of games, there is a rotation to different tables. The champion is the one who wins the most games. According to my mother, most of the women at the tournament are Jewish women over 55. Mah-Jongg is also popular in the Asian community, but supposedly, their tournaments have slightly different rules. I was disappointed to hear this. I was so looking forward to a Jewish-Chinese showdown.

My mother promised to call me up several times a day, so I could “live blog” about the big tournament. For some reason, ESPN isn’t covering it yet (although the Discovery Channel is doing some taping tomorrow for some documentary). Is Celebrity Mah-Jongg the next big thing?

Day 1 Highlights —

My mother and her friend, Shirley, took the early morning bus to Atlantic City from Penn Station. My mother said most of the bus was filled with “lowlifes and gamblers” who travel to Atlantic City for the day. During the trip, my mother and Shirley talked about whatever the usually talk about, when they noticed “some gambler in a pea-coat” moving away from them. My mother said “a guy who smelled of cheap liquor” also moved to the back of the bus. After my mother asked what was going on, a third gambler explained that the “regulars” usually sleep on the morning bus and their “loud yakking” was keeping them up. My mother apologized to the drunks and gamblers, and everyone went back to sleep.

My mother made it to casino. She described the Taj Mahal as “large and unfriendly, but they gave us a free buffet, so I guess it is OK.”

As for the first day of the tournament, my mother played at tables 39, 40, 41, and 42 — and didn’t win any games today. Shirley won one game. My mother said that the women played too fast for her, so she felt rushed. I think my mother is being intimidated by those tough-as-nails Jewish women from Long Island, like a NBA rookie in a room of Kobe Bryants.

Tonight, my mother was going to the buffet with Shirley and some of the other women. As my mother’s “coach,” I strongly rejected this idea. I suggested that she stay in her room and watch videotapes of today’s games, so she can strategize for tomorrow. My mother just laughed at me. Would Rocky Balboa do that to his coach’s face?

Are there any athletes out there who can offer my mother some proven techniques so she can better focus tomorrow on WINNING IT ALL?

A Year Ago on Citizen of the Month: Who is Really the Sexiest Man Alive?


  1. Linda Freedman

    I love the click of the tiles. I’ll ask my mom.

  2. Mr. Fabulous

    She needs to intimidate. Glare a lot. Throw a lot of shade. Maybe punch one of the blue hairs out, the biggest one, just to get the others in line.

    Oh wait, I’m thinking about prison.

  3. better safe than sorry

    i’ve never even heard of this game but i do wish your mother well in her tournament.
    and a free buffet, woohoo!
    sounds like she’s going to have a great time.

  4. kristen

    I’ve always wanted to learn to play. See? My inner Jewish 55 year old woman is just thriving to come out!

  5. V-Grrrl

    Your mom rocks my world. What chutzpah! And when you quote her, I hear my own mother’s voice–an Italian chick from Long Island who would also describe people as “lowlifes and gamblers” reeking of “cheap liquor.”

    She would have added, “What are you looking at, standing there with your bare face hanging out?”

  6. Bre

    Perhaps you need to call her just before her next game and give her one of those uplifting locker-room speeches to boost her confidence?

  7. Alissa

    A Jewish-Chinese showdown – ha!

  8. sarah

    Ha. I might just be over 55, hearing wise, as I couldnt understand anything said on the ‘clip’. So I still don’t know what Mah-Jongg is, and when I was in AC last week, I just stood there and watched. No clue how they do it.

    So more power to your mom, and may she bring you some riches. You’re her coach, you get a cut right?

  9. Two Roads

    Neil, Sarah has a great idea – mah jong coach! That way you can still earn a few bucks and keep your “blodge” ad-free.


    Do you play Mah-Jongg?

  11. orieyenta

    I was so looking forward to a Jewish-Chinese showdown.

    Me too!

    (Oh wait, that’s an every day occurance in my life.)

    Send your Mom down here to learn. I learned how to play from both the Jewish and the Chinese sides…makes for quite an interesting game.

    I wonder if they’d let me in the tournament? (Would I be put with the Jewish women or the Chinese women?)

  12. psychomom

    A hooded sweatshirt and sunglasses work for the pro gamblers. Slide tackling works in soccer. Maybe she can combine the two. GO MOM!

  13. Serena

    “I was so looking forward to a Jewish-Chinese showdown.”

    Oh you. Haha.

  14. othurme

    Tell her not to puke from nerves until sits down at the table and then to do it in her purse (prepared ahead time and lined with plastic), then smile at her competitors and announce “I just can’t get enough of that buffet! Who’s ready for some bones?!”

    It will completely throw off everyone else’s game.

  15. M.A.

    I want a T-shirt that says, Kramer’s Mah Jong School.

    I love mah jong. So very much.

  16. Blitz Krieg

    I think she needs to go with a visor, sunglasses and some kind of fake sponsored t-shirt or polo. It’s all about intimidation. Maybe something like http://WWW.MANDARINMAHJONG.NET

  17. Nance

    You can’t teach desire, Neil. Take it from a veteran high school teacher. And there it is.

  18. rdl

    I love it!!

  19. Michelle

    I had no idea that Mah-Jongg was big in the Jewish community. Thought it was just us little Asian people who liked moving around ivory tiles.

    I practice for my weekend family tournaments.

    Hope your Mom gets a pong streak. -=o)

  20. Neil

    Michelle, I think it is sad that the Jews and Chinese play segregated games. Can’t we at least do something like arrange some big meet between the two groups, so every year there can be “bragging rights” in the NY area.

  21. Violet

    In my town, whole Chinese restaurants have changed hands overnight, over games of mah jong.

  22. Rhea

    Your mom is cool. I noted that after my father died, my mother, too, did new and ‘daring’ stuff. It’s like they’re suddenly liberated, even if their relationship with their spouses was a decent one.

  23. Neil

    By the way, my mother did not win, but she ended up in the middle of the pack, whioh is pretty good for a first tournament, so I am proud of her!

  24. Barbara

    OY VEY, OY VEY, OY VEY!! OK, Do I qualify as a Mah teacher now? I had to laugh with so many of what was written…especially “standing with your bare face”..OMG, how often did I hear my own mother use this phase? Maybe they are the same woman?
    OK, mahjongg…attitude!! YOUR mama, needs to be tough, sit back in her chair with confidence, never let then see you sweat, don’t flinch as your tiles are hitting the table and your opponants are making you “DEAD”..change your hand (if you can) and if all else fails…complain a LOT…I’ve seen it happen time after time. Complaining seems to win for many…so use the OY VEY phase and kvetch and maybe this will help you.
    Happy Mahjong..and may the tiles (AND LUCK) be with you

  25. Mary Porretta

    I have just begun to play Mah-Jongg and love it. Are there any tournaments in Atlantic City that I can take part in at this beginning stage? Please contact me. Thank you, Mary Porretta

  26. Joyce

    where can I find the video that describes how this game became the game of jewish women? Is it archived somewhere.

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