Virus isolation has us doing strange and hopefully productive things like baking bread, making pickles, and cleaning baseboards. Conversely, our routines were put on hold or disrupted. Outdoors golfing continued, but around the table mahjong games folded This was too much of a stretch in removing the “ancient” social ties that filled clubhouses, condos and country clubs, often around homemade delicacies or, in the case of Martha Jo Katz, elaborate floral table settings and lunches that preceded the game.
“My two regular games (nine and six years running) basically stayed intact online. While I am happy to have the virtual option, I sorely miss the camaraderie and can’t wait to get back to the old format.”
Online mahjong uses the same card – the official standard rules and hands – and is available 24/7.
If you can’t sleep, log on at 3 a.m. and play with strangers in Hawaii or a computer posing as three others. Users can log on to realmahjong.com, among the most popular sites, for $5.99 a month (unlimited play) and individual scores (which are meaningless as far as I can tell) are tabulated. Jews have clung to the game signing on with code names such as Bubbie, Chai, Mazelmom, and Jdate (Looking for a mate?) light up the board.
With online mahjong, there is no set of tiles and racks.
Technical challenges are comical. Imagine four senior gals trying to coordinate a conference call while entering a computer website. Adding insult, oftentimes, someone clicks the wrong “something” and gets booted out of the game and the computer takes over. Then there’s the chat box on the screen, yet a third mode of communication, “What happened?” “Plug me back in?” “My Wi-Fi went off. Help!” Most common in the chat box is “I never get jokers! Is this rigged?” Katz said her group started using WhatsApp, but went to audio for better reception.
New player Robyn Spizman Gerson said, “I was not motivated in the past to take the time to learn. Because of the pandemic, I found myself staying put at home and willing to learn. My ‘birthday gals’ group was fortunate; Ava, a friend, offered to teach us. My mother played with her ‘Wednesday Girls’ for over 50 years, and now I’m totally hooked. The four of us have learned how to play, and we have a “set” game. It’s fun and challenging. Our weekly game is pure joy, and Ava stays on by conference call, helping us sort it all out.”
Lori Simon recalled, “Growing up with a mom who played mahjong weekly, I did not see this type of social gathering in my future. I am not a ‘game player.’ While quarantining I received an email from a girlfriend offering to teach virtually with three close friends. I was not sure whether to accept. I had no true desire to learn, but eventually I decided to give it a try. I have the time!
It’s two months later, and I have become my mother. I am a mahjong player! I practice daily online and play once a week online with my girlfriends. I enjoy thinking and strategizing. Mostly, I appreciate the time spent with friends, even if it’s all virtual.”
As women often form complex social strata, the question looms: “Post-pandemic, will I stay with my virtual group, or return to the traditional table with my old group, or some combination?” One anonymous player said that politics became so hostile in her previous game, she formed a virtual game with like-minded thinkers. “It’s sort of a haven and relief.”
I have been able to connect with two cousins, one in Missouri and the other in Florida reminisce and tell family stories over the game. The former, Susie Weiss, plays five times a week and has a whopping 50,000 points. “If Burt wants to watch TV, I go online and play mahjong.” The latter cousin, Ellen Fleisher, said, “This has been wonderful in that we never before kept in touch so regularly. I even have a game with my Colorado friends from my iPad in Del Ray.”
Janet Kupshik, who had a regular Sunday game through Ahavath Achim Synagogue, has retained that group and added more to it. “Playing online is the next best thing to playing in person. We visit through FaceTime and catch up while keeping up our mahjong skills.”
Whatever the future brings, far be it for Jews to relinquish ties to a game that began in 500 B.C.E., emigrated from China to the New York neighborhoods, and appeared on the 1924 cover of The Saturday Evening Post.