American Mah-Jongg in Mattapoisett

Bam, crack, flower…these strange words and many others can be heard on a regular basis at the Mattapoisett Council on Aging’s Social and Wellness Center in Center School on Barstow Street where the game of Mah-Jongg is played every Wednesday at 1:30 pm.  Usually, at least two tables, with 8-10 players come together in the comfortable, brightly lit game room at the COA.

Regulars include Bob Kelley, Susanne Medeiros, Nancy Fleming and Bernice Fastoso who welcome novices to sit alongside and watch the game while players explain the various moves, skipped turns, dealing techniques and symbols and language surrounding the tiles’ characters.

It was Ms. Fastoso and Ms. Medeiros’ idea, as members of the Friends of the Elderly of Mattapoisett, Inc., to bring the game to the COA in November.

“We meet in Acushnet on Mondays and also play in one anothers’ homes…we thought it would be a good idea to introduce others to the game here (in Mattapoisett) and started playing here on Wednesdays,” said Ms. Medeiros.  Everyone is welcome to come and learn how to play.  “Beginners are welcome,” said Ms. Fleming.

Ms. Fastoso, a very skilled player, suggests the book Beginners Guide to American Mah-Jongg as a great way to learn more about the game and read up on the various rules. The game is played with 136 white tiles with characters and symbols, similar to suits in card games.  Each player receives 13 tiles which they draw upon and discard with the goal of matching up the tiles to represent a winning string of 14 tiles listed on a fold out sheet of paper sitting in front of them.  The 14th tile is acquired in picking up and discarding during the game.

According to Ms. Fastoso, a new card is issued each year, in April, by the American Mah-Jongg Association and costs $7.  The card lists the acceptable combinations of tiles which make a winning hand.  Players use the same card for a year and can play with it anywhere in the U.S., and online.  The first player to complete one of the winning hands listed on the card wins.  American Mah-Jongg differs from other versions, including the original, from China, which has been in existence for centuries.

Mah-Jongg, also spelled Mah-Jongg is normally, but not always, played by four players sitting at a card table.  The basics of the game are similar to the card game gin rummy, with Mah-Jongg being played with tiles, instead of cards.  The game involves both skill and luck in the draw of tiles.  Jokers are wild and can be substituted for tiles a player is seeking to round out their hand.  The characters can be white, green or red, which also match up by color and by suit.

When asked about gambling on the outcome of the game, which is popular in Asia, Ms. Fastoso said that when she plays with friends in Florida, they’ll bet $3 on a game.

“That’s a high stakes game,” joked Ms. Fastoso, “once you lose your $3, there are no more losses for the day.”

For Ms. Fastoso, the hardest part of the game is choosing which hand, on the card, to shoot for. “If you pick the wrong one…it’s like getting into the wrong line at the grocery store,” said Ms. Fastoso.

Visitor Peggy Cooper, a Mattapoisett native, said she dropped into the center for Mah-Jongg about three weeks ago.  “Bernie has been a lifesaver and I’ve learned so much already…the game, at first, is hard to learn, but you catch on quickly…I’m sticking with it,” said Ms. Cooper.

An informational hand out, prepared by Ms. Fastoso is given to each person who comes to the COA to learn about the game.  “It’s fun and keeps your mind going, “ said Ms. Fleming, “our goal is to have four or five tables of Mah Jongg going on at once…we have two tables now and some beginners watching and learning, so we want to encourage anyone who is interested to stop by and learn this fascinating game.”

By Joan Hartnett-Barry

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