The shuffling and clicking of tiles – a colorful assortment of rectangles covered in Oriental pictographs – filled the social hall at Congregation Etz Chaim late last month. It was a noisy yet comforting sound, and all part of the 3rd-annual Etz Chaim Mah Jongg Tournament.

About 60 people from across Atlanta took part in Etz  Chaim's 3rd Annual Mah Jongg Tournament recently. Proceeds benefit the synagogue's pre-school program. PHOTO / Gary Feinberg

About 60 people from across Atlanta took part in Etz Chaim’s 3rd Annual Mah Jongg Tournament recently. Proceeds benefit the synagogue’s pre-school program. PHOTO / Gary Feinberg

“We draw people from across Atlanta, all ages,” said Sherrie Epstein, one of the tourney’s co-chairs. It turns out the hugely successful program is a fun and entertaining way to raise funds for Etz Chaim’s preschool program.

For those how have been in a coma the last 100 years or living under a rock, mah jongg is a game of chance and skill similar to gin rummy. Each of four players is dealt either 13 or 16 pictographic tiles of different suits; the players then take turns drawing and discarding tiles, with a goal of making four or five combinations of tiles, or “melds,” and one pair, or “head.” Got that?

It’s also been called “the game of a hundred intelligences,” “the gift of heaven,” and, in an era of doubt during World War II, “the new yellow peril.” The game was introduced in the United States around 1920 by the American businessman Joseph P. Babcock, who had lived in China and was fascinated with the exotic world that mah jongg represented.

The rest is mostly history. Millions of people – many of them Jewish – continue to be fascinated with the game.

“I learned how to play from my mother,” said tournament participant Candy Frank. “I play for the social aspect; it’s just fun to be with friends.”

Apparently, it’s really fun. She’s been playing for nearly 40 years.

Judy Dressler, who’s been playing since she was 15, concurs. She says she just “loves” the game and, like Frank, “thinks it’s a great way to get together” with the ladies.

But don’t tell that to Ray Knapp, one of two men taking part in the Jan. 27 tourney. He’s been playing for four years and, like the women, enjoys the opportunity to spend time with others who enjoy the game. There’s just one problem.

“They’re pretty good,” he said of the competition, “and they generally beat me.”