Sarah Wright stares at the row of 13 tiles in front of her. Each is etched with Chinese characters and numbers. With brow furrowed, she eyes her opponents’ rows. On her turn, Wright draws a tile, grins triumphantly, and places it on the table. “That’s the one I needed!” she exclaims, completing her set to win the traditional Asian mahjong game.
Wright participates in a club called “Mah-Jawng.” Founded by board-game aficionado Taylor Heffernan, Mah-Jawng brings one of the world’s most popular games to West Philadelphia.
As a kid, Heffernan learned an American mahjong version from his grandmother. But he knew there was a more complex version played in Asia. One day, he determined to learn the authentic form.
“I went out on my lunch break in Chinatown and bought a set,” Heffernan recalls. “But the tiles were marked with only Chinese characters, so I had to write the corresponding numbers on them with a Sharpie to make the learning process a little smoother.”
To round up co-players—four is most common—Heffernan took the tiles to friends in Delaware. “My friends and I puttered our way through. . . . We really fell in love with the game,” says Heffernan.
Mahjong became popular in China during the Qing dynasty of the early 1700s. The objective is to collect four “melds,” or sets, and one pair from a collection of tiles. There are regional styles of mahjong—Hong Kong, Japanese riichi, Chinese, to name a few—but the differences are subtle.
The game gained popularity in the United States briefly around 1920. Indiana native Joseph Park Babcock devised a simpler version for Westerners. Game giants Milton Bradley and Parker Brothers got in on the action, but the fad faded at the onset of the Great Depression.
Heffernan sought other players online. He eventually found a few who were willing to meet on a regular basis, including Vinnie Emilianowicz.
Emilianowicz had taught himself Hong Kong-style mahjong when he was a kid. Before joining the Philly club, he regularly traveled to New York to play.
This March, the Mah-Jawng club attended their first tournament, the Rochester Riichi Open in upstate New York. One of their members won. The rest got a taste of competitive play.
“We were terrible,” Emilianowicz says. “But we were encouraged.”
Emilianowicz now focuses on teaching newbies the basics. He’s passionate about expanding the game’s popularity. “The more players we get in the U.S., the more the game can gain a footing, and the U.S. can have a real presence in the world’s market for mahjong.”