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story.lead_photo.caption Pat Wojciehowski, left, makes a play as Nancy Epple concentrates on her sequence of tiles Tuesday Sept. 17, 2019, as they compete in a game of mahjong at West Point Senior Center in Jefferson City. This was the third game Wojciehowski has organized since establishing an official mahjong club in August. Photo by Sally Ince / News Tribune.

Sitting at a small, square table toward the middle of the room, Betty Hymes' eyes sparkle like the light dusting of shimmer on her cheekbones as she eyes the colorful green, red and white tiles on the table.

Her fingers are nimble as she rearranges tiles on her acrylic pusher, and her expression shifts to excitement when her tiles strike a special sequence, noted by the color-coded card in front of her.

She's not very good at poker faces, but the 71-year-old is full of life.

Hymes is not the only one, either. It may be midday on a Tuesday, but the West Point Senior Center is bustling with youthful energy as women clack tiles on the tables and chatter among themselves. Suddenly, one voice calls out above the others.

"Mahjong!"

The cheers and clapping erupting throughout the room to everyone's enjoyment are relatively new — a rule Pat Wojciehowski made up just moments earlier. But that's expected. The club itself is merely a month old.

It's just the third time the Mahjong Club is meeting Sept. 17. The first organizational meeting was held Aug. 27. The amount of interest in mahjong was shocking, said Wojciehowski, one of the original organizers of the club. Hymes was afraid it'd just be a handful, barely enough to play a full four-person mahjong round. But to their surprise, the tables are, yet again, full at 10 past 1 p.m.

Wojciehowski said the first day was exciting.

"We didn't know how many people would come, and then, like Betty (Hymes) said, we were afraid, but a whole bunch of people showed up," she said. "We all broke up. Some of them were beginners, some of them high level, and we all just cooperated so everybody could play. And that was the neatest thing that happened."

Nancy Epple, sitting to Wojciehowski's left, gestures to a table near them.

"There are some expert players sitting beside us," she says.

At the table sits Helen Wilken, one of club's eldest members, who concentrates on her tiles intently. Also at the table is Rhonda Faris, Becky Kennedy and Barbara Barnard. Faris says she's been playing mahjong for 16 years.

The National Mah Jongg League Inc. is only in its 82nd year, and some of the players in the room have been playing for a significant chunk of that time. Hymes herself has played for more than 10 years — eight in Kansas City and three years since moving to Jefferson City, despite the lack of an official club until now.

Her vast knowledge of the game allows her to teach any newcomers, and as she neatly lines tiles and counts out three of 13 unwanted tiles for the first passing, referred to as "Charlestons," she reiterates rules and tricks she's memorized over the years: the wall swings to the left, plays to the right; never pass the five bamboo (bam); and goodness gracious, know your card!

Modern-American-style mahjong can, and will, be confusing at first sight. The game runs along quickly, with tiles being discarded and picked up, dragons, winds and jokers making an appearance, unknown terms being called out. It's so extensive Wojciehowski has a 20-page rule book on hand for anyone who may need it — and that's just for one version.

Mahjong's origins, cultural aspect

There's several versions of mahjong, or maajh as it's also called, but they tend to fall under two broad categories: American and Chinese.

The National Mah Jongg League states the rummy-like game originated in China, but it's exact origins are "shrouded in story and myth." One claim, that it was invented by a Chinese general to "amuse his troops during long months of battle," is familiar to how mahjong circulated within the United States military.

The Wright-Patterson rules, introduced by military families stationed on bases internationally, come printed in a small green pamphlet. Hymes says the consistency of Wright-Patterson allows military and their families from different parts of the world to play together. She recalls first learning Wright-Patterson and being completely thrown when seeing the Modern-American version.

"I did not know how to play (American mahjong)," she says. "I had never played it, and I'm just going, 'Oh my gosh, this is so weird.'"

She suspects some of the women learning mahjong may soon want to learn to play Wright-Patterson, too, and then they can "decide which one they really like the best."

Most recently, mahjong made a quiet, yet symbolic, appearance in the 2018 movie "Crazy Rich Asians," which Wojciehowski mentions during their game as a brief pop culture connection. The film's popularity left viewers not familiar with the cultural aspect of mahjong asking questions about the pivotal showdown between Rachel, played by Constance Wu, and Eleanor, played by Michelle Yeoh. Vox, Vice, CBS and other various news outlets picked up on and explained the game's significance, giving mahjong its 15 minutes of fame.

Building community through challenge

While the scene in "Crazy Rich Asians" solely focused on winner and loser, Hymes and Wojciehowski say the local mahjong club was primarily created to have fun, meet people with the same interests and deter driving nearly 40 minutes to Columbia just to play mahjong.

"We could get people to come here to play," Hymes says. "Why would we drive over there?"

She added, "I want to play at a place where people come laugh and have fun and not being so serious like, 'Well, I wanna win this to the point where I want to concentrate and not be friendly to people.' We don't have to win. We just play for fun."

Wojciehowski agreed, saying the group "just wanted to learn" and reach new people in the community.

So far, it's worked. Through Wojciehowski, Epple has met a handful of new faces including Pat Miller, who says she's made the Tuesday Mahjong Club a part of her weekly routine. Having the chance to play with a variety of women has led to new friendships and new insight on how some play.

"You learn people play it a lot of different ways," Wojciehowski says, referring to offensive and defensive strategy, detailed in their 20-page rule book. "We know Betty (Hymes) is competitive no matter what, and she won't let you get away with anything."

Mahjong also presents new challenges. Each year, the official card is scrapped and made new with fresh sequences of "hands," which complete a mahjong. The left side of the card sequences use tiles which make up the year, i.e. 2s, 0s, 1s and 9s for 2019.

The constant changing of the cards, and the various versions, can prove challenging, but it's an aspect of mahjong many of the members appreciate. Faris says it took her a little longer than most to get the hang of the game.

"I'm embarrassed to say it! I played with some really sharp ladies that had the card memorized," she says as she sets up her tiles, still immersed in the game. "You know, if they go off and leave their card, they wouldn't even need it to play with you. They played so fast that I just threw something down cause I didn't want to slow the game down. So, it seemed like it took me forever to learn."

Unlike "mindless games," Faris says mahjong forces the player to concentrate.

"When you're playing mahjong, you have to think about what's been played," she says. "When somebody puts something up on the rack, it's defensive playing to figure out what they need to play mahjong, and then you make sure you don't lay that down. Even if you're playing only for a quarter, you still don't want to be out of the money."

A game play renaissance

For some areas around the country, like downtown Chicago, mahjong is seemingly experiencing a renaissance. Tournaments are held across the United States and internationally. There's even a mahjong world championship.

Hymes recalls how, years ago in Kansas City, a group of about 15 women got together to play mahjong. But eventually, the group whittled away to four members as others lost interest. Now, the Jefferson City club sees a regular 20 or so members at each meeting, and Wojciehowski believes it still hasn't reached its full potential.

She credits the renewed interest to the same generation that, in Hymes' experience, abandoned it before.

"I think our generation is thinking, 'Well, we need some more challenges,' and they're finding out that this is a challenge, and this helps," said the 70-year-old Wojciehowski. "One lady who came said the reason she came was because she wanted to find out a new game, and she wanted one that challenged her. She was going to retire soon, and she didn't want to just be at home doing nothing. She wanted a challenge. And I thought, 'What a great thing, that we can challenge people to play.'"

Hymes says she'd like to see even older folks come to play, "even if they're 85 or 90."

The challenge, they all seemingly agree, keeps you young.

Want to join fun?

The Mahjong Club meets at 1 p.m. Tuesday at the West Point Senior Center at 2701 W. Main St.

Members of all ages are welcome to attend, and the club does not currently charge dues.

National Mah Jongg League cards sell for $8 on their official website, and proceeds go to benefit a variety of charities and nonprofits.

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