My grandmother is a quiet woman, often overshadowed by boisterous children and a husband who cracks fart jokes as if they were sonnets. When she does talk, she converses like one unaccustomed to speech: Her stories have no endings, or, for that matter, beginnings. Instead, she releases a tide of words that rambles through logic and grammar with little concrete connection, something like an e.e. cummings poem or a transcript of someone flipping TV channels. But her laughter is clear and unmistakable: a sudden, frequent surge of belly-shaking, eye-crinkling mirth. Once you hear it, you'll never forget it.
Don't be fooled, though. Her blithe, unassuming nature is a careful distraction, concealing deep wiliness and cunning. You can't pull one over on her before she'd pull five over on you.
Nowhere is this more evident than when she plays mahjong.
Named after sparrows, mahjong (or "maajh" to many American players) is the Chinese equivalent of gin rummy, except it's played with tiles instead of paper cards. You draw and discard tiles in an attempt to arrange a suitable 14-card hand, which usually includes at least one three- or four-card straight, three or four of a kind, and one pair. There are three numbered suits - dots, bams and craks - as well three dragon suits and four winds; rounding off the set are 16 "flower" tiles and a variable number of jokers. Unlike the freeform Chinese version, the American version usually includes a card of Standard Hands to which all winning mahjong hands must be compared; if your hand isn't on the card, it isn't valid. Additionally, every American game starts with a "Charleston," or the passing of three unwanted tiles from one player to another in a shuffle around the table.
How Jewish women in particular intercepted a Chinese game from the 1800s is still something of a mystery, even according to most official histories of the sport. But the game is one to which all Jewish women, devout or no, will eventually be drawn; it's like some inevitable phase of the life cycle: birth, bat mitzvah, mahjong, menopause, death. My mother plays, just as her mother before her, and her mother's mother, and so on. Indeed, even before there was mahjong, there was mahjong in our blood, and I suspect that while Moses futzed with stone tablets and mountaintops, Zipporah lounged in a tent with her sisters and aunts, peering at a row of tiles before pausing, smirking, tapping the ledger once, then twice and drawling in a smoky voice, "Maajh, ladies."
But my grandmother could put ol' Zippy to shame. I first played maajh against my grandmother when I was 7, and I still remember the day when she broke out her wooden box with the ornate carvings on the sides. As she opened the set for my aunts and me, I looked upon the shimmering ivory tiles and lusted with an unfamiliar, instinctual greed. Instantly, I knew that this game was my game, that it had always been my game. It had been designed with me, and only me, in mind, that all toys and religion and human history - indeed, all evolution, even the dinosaurs - had been intelligently designed so that one day, I would encounter and play this perfect game and make the universe complete.
On the surface, this reaction shouldn't have been surprising. When I play board games, I appear incredibly competitive, even blinded by my own aggression; I'm the kind of person who trash talks Scrabble opponents and body-checks bridge partners. I become a woman possessed, speaking in over-the-top smack-talk tongues and swearing, spitting and scheming my way through the game. I do it mostly for fun, of course; I only cheat when I know I'll get caught, and I only talk trash when I'm about to lose.
But staring at those ivory tiles, I knew something was different about mahjong; something important that I'd never felt before. Suddenly, I didn't want to joke around - I wanted to win. And I didn't just want to be victorious - I wanted to crush my opponents like a 16th century conquistador, with smallpox blankets and lightning-god guns. That little Pandora's Box had conjured within me genuine competitiveness, and to my surprise, I was hooked.