Wall Street Journal Article on Mah Jongg

Copyright The Wall Street Journal, by Chana R. Schonenberger, Monday 8th September 1997.

Internet Wins New Mah-Jongg Followers
Mah-Jongg isn't just for grandmothers anymore.

The ancient and sometimes rowdy Chinese game, long popular in the U.S. with elderly women, is back in vogue. It's finding a new and wider following among the young and techno-savvy, many of whom discover the game on the Internet.

The net now hosts a mah-jongg news group and a real-time mah-jongg server that lets fans anywhere in the world form a game. Several stand-alone computer games, featuring vibrant graphics and unique tile patterns, have also caught on world-wide.

Berrie and Elaine Bloem, computer programmers in Edinburgh, Scotland, say sales of their program, "Berrie Bloem's Mah Jongg - The REAL Game!", which can be downloaded from the Internet, are "bouyant". They plan to begin selling a boxed CD-ROM version in retail stores soon.

Such software allows beginners to practice without slowing down more skilled players, who exchange tiles with lightening speed. And the computer is never too busy for a game. "It's hard to get four people together, unless you're all retired," says Julian Fitch, owner of Nine Dragons Software, a San Franciso company that produces the computer game Hong Kong Mahjongg. "And it's intimidating to learn from speedy professionals who yell at you and win all your money".

Hong Kong Mahjongg, like the other software versions, uses Asian rules. But this December, Santa Monica based Activision Inc., a computer games company, plans to release a mah-jongg game that incorporates American rules as well. Called "Shanghai-Dynasty", it will retail for $49.95. "Finally, the marketplace looks ready for it", says Tom Sloper, senior producer for Shanghai-Dynasty.

New CD-ROM version of Mah Jongg

Mah-jongg mavens offer differing explanations for the game's newfound popularity. Nine Dragon's Mr. Fitch speculates that it could be connected to surging immigration from Asia, and the growing numbers of non-Asians who are marrying Asian American mah-jongg players.

Carolisa Pomerantz of Hollywood, Calif., who describes herself as middle-aged, had all the usual preconceptions about mah-jongg. But last year, when she joined the Mah-Jongg Network, a 300 member Los Angeles group that helps devotees locate other players, she realized she was mistaken.

The two-year-old network's membership includes professional women - and some men - of many ethnicities who play after work and on weekends. At times, the group even serves as a place to network for jobs. "There are a couple of girls looking for work, and resumes were passed around," says Ms. Pomerantz, who works for Sony Pictures.

The four-person game of tiles, played for centuries in Asia, has been popular in the U.S. since the 1920s. Movies like "The Joy Luck Club" and "Driving Miss Daisy", which featured mah-jongg games, helped raise the game's visibility with a younger generation. Today, the non-profit based rulemaking organization for American-style Mah Jongg, claims 200,000 members world-wide.

Named for a Chinese word that means "sparrow", mah-jongg is a game of skill played with engraved tiles of various suits, such as winds and flowers. Often playing for money, competitors try to assemble a winning hand by collecting tiles to form certain patterns. Games are often boisterous, with players challenging one another's moves.

Players in Japan, Vietnam, and other Asian countries have their own local rule variations. So do members of the U.S. military, who follow "Wright-Patterson Rules", named for the Ohio Air Force base; the U.S. Navy has its own unique rules.

As more young people take up mah-jongg, an industry catering to the needs and whims of serious players has emerged. Mah-jongg buffs can buy T-shirts, bracelets made of antique ivory mah-jongg tiles, and even tile sets embossed with their name in glittery purple lettering.

Every December, more than 300 hard-core fans pay more than $1,000 to sail on the week-long "Mah Jongg Madness" Caribbean cruise, where games last late into the night and champions can rake in thousands of dollars in prize money.

In the 12 years since the Mah-Jongg Madness division of Speciality Cruises International teamed up with the National Mah Jongg League to run the cruise, the trip's clientele has changed. "I have seen a tremendous change in demographics - it really has become more eclectic," says Larry Krams, a lifelong mah-jongg enthusiast who runs Sarasota, Fla.-based Speciality Cruises with his wife, Dorothy.

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