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.
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.