Season's Gaming

Season's Gaming
"Maajh, Ladies"

Lara Crigger | 19 Dec 2006 11:01
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It was only after I lost seven straight hands of mahjong to my silent, smirking grandmother that I learned that this competitive streak was hereditary. The truth was I'd never even stood a chance.

My grandmother is a champion mahjong player of some local renown. Every month, she hones her skills against unsuspecting raisin-women at the local Jewish Community Center (or JCC), memorizing the card of Standard Hands and testing out strategies for intelligent discards. Last year, she placed third in the mahjong tournament at the JCC Senior Olympics (the kind where bridge and canasta are listed as full-contact sports). That wily old broad beat out dozens of track-suited biddies - even a few Chinese gals - to score $50 and a bronze medal, which she displays with pride above her sewing machine.

Among her family, whom she engages far more often, my grandmother is a notoriously difficult opponent (my cousin Devon calls her "the end boss"). She plays mahjong as if it were war, sparing no quarter for youth, illness or closeness of blood relation. She crushes a 7-year-old as easily as a 70-year-old, never sweating, never stopping. Every holiday, from Yom Kippur to Hanukkah, she holds court at a rickety card table with her ivory mahjong set, schooling us all in the art of defeat.

I think it took me more than 15 years to beat my grandmother at mahjong. I can't say for sure, because I don't remember the first time I won against her. I know it must have happened, because I have won (occasionally) against her in the past. But the original event occurred with so little ceremony and lasting sense of triumph that I've long since forgotten it. Maybe it's her fault. Maybe she's so good that whenever she loses, she has the power to instantaneously erase her opponents' memories; to convince them they didn't actually win, that it was just a blip in the space-time continuum.

The secret to my grandmother's talent, of course, is that she is always playing mahjong, even when she isn't. I see the doodles of Chinese characters adorning shopping lists. I've noticed the books on mahjong strategy that used to, but no longer, appear in her library book basket. I've even heard her mumble "East" in her sleep. I can recognize obsession when I see it. But more than that, mahjong carries into other aspects of her life. I even know why her stories make no sense. She Charlestons with words, thinking several discards ahead before she speaks, which confuses anyone who converses with logic or a consistent timeline. But not me. I know her secret. She doesn't ramble; she speaks in Maajh.

That first impression of mahjong I had was incorrect. This game was not designed for me. It was custom-crafted for her.

Aside from that first game, I have few concrete recollections of playing against my grandmother, just vague impressions circling like the stories she tells: meandering, bleeding into one another, with no beginning or end. But every game feels the same. The hands change, the tiles differ, and yet she and I return again and again, rebuilding the wall, throwing out East, Charlestoning again and again.

Maybe one day I'll be as good as she is, and someone will feel about me the same way as I do about her. (Probably not. She's too damn good to brook comparison.)

But I know that once you know how to read her, she's an open book. My grandmother rarely speaks when she plays, but she does laugh as she peers at her tiles, tapping the ledger once, twice, before calling out in a smoky voice, "Maajh."

Lara Crigger is a freelance science, tech and gaming journalist whose previous work for The Escapist includes "Playing Through The Pain" and "How To Be A Guitar Hero." Her email is lcrigger[at]gmail[dot]com.

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