How You Play the Game

My mom is 87. For many years, playing bridge with her friends has been one of her chief social activities. But during the past couple of years, it’s started to get to be more of a struggle to get a game together. Too many of the regular players are either sick or (worse) inconveniently dead.

There’s a regular mah jongg game at the local senior center. I suggested to her that she might be interested in trying that. She’s never played mah jongg, but I figured, hey, it’s a rummy-type game, and she’s played plenty of rummy. What could be hard about learning mah jongg?

Surprise! This group plays American mah jongg. That’s bad news if you’re over 85, because the rules change every year. Literally. Each spring a group on the East Coast releases a “card” containing a new set of winning hands, and those are the hands you have to try for this year, until the next card comes out. What you learned last year is useless. Having to find new patterns on a new card is vaguely reminiscent of bingo, which may not be a coincidence, as the demographic is similar.

I’m sure this is all great fun if you’re into it, but it strikes me as asking a lot to expect someone to learn that much pattern recognition while also learning a set of rituals having to do with discarding, claiming discards, paying the winner, and so forth. Asian mah jongg is more stable — more like rummy. But beneath that broad umbrella there are a dozen or more variants, each with its own scoring systems, some with slightly different sets of tiles, and so forth.

It’s interesting — mildly inspiring, even — that humans come up with so many ways to play games. But there’s also something to be said for uniformity and predictability, especially as you get older.

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