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NY Times Article, February 13, 2009

URBAN STUDIES
The Enduring Clicks of an Ancient Game
Reproduced (with permission) from http://www.nytimes.com/2009/02/15/nyregion/thecity/15jong.html?_r=2&ref=thecity


Marilynn K. Yee/The New York Times

Some members of the Manhattan Mah Jongg Club have played for half a century; others are novices.

By ELAINE SCHATTNER
Published: February 13, 2009

THE women of the Manhattan Mah Jongg Club know when to quiet down. When chatter about weekends and grandchildren threatens to drown out calls of cracks, bams and dots, Linda Feinstein, the group’s leader, puts a lifeguard whistle to her lips.

“Now, ladies,” she warned in her firm voice. “I don’t want to have to use this.”

Ms. Feinstein, a 59-year-old Upper East resident with cropped red hair and matching fingernails, has been orchestrating lunch and play for participants in this ancient Chinese game of luck, strategy and cunning for nearly four years. A polio survivor, she zips around in a motorized wheelchair dangling a license plate that reads “Mahjongg.”

Her passion for the game stems from watching women play on the porch of a neighbor’s Coney Island bungalow on summer evenings in the 1950s. At the East River Cafe, on First Avenue and 61st Street, where about 80 women meet every Monday, she fielded questions from beginners and resolved squabbles among intermediate competitors.

Mah-jongg is serious business here. After lunch, participants, on occasion this reporter, spend hours vying over 25-cent and 35-cent hands, with the winner receiving the hand’s value from each of the other players.

The roster draws from nearly 300 regulars, mostly from Manhattan. Some competitors have played for more than half a century; others are novices; nearly all are Jewish. Many took up the game after finding old sets belonging to mothers or grandmothers.

JoAnn Sokoloff, a retired schoolteacher, recalled her mother’s weekly Tuesday night game in East Flatbush, Brooklyn. When the game was held in her mother’s apartment, she said, “you’d know there’d be chocolate nonpareils, and cake.”

Legend has it that mah-jongg was invented in Confucius’s time, but more likely it emerged south of Shanghai in the 19th century. The American mah-jongg craze dates to the 1920s, when New York department stores sold bone and ivory tile sets in fancy boxes. By 1937, the National Mah Jongg League had been formed in New York. In its Western version, the game involves four players who trade and pick tiles until one can complete a hand of 14 characters and call “Mah-jongg!”

On a recent Monday, a woman with graying hair and big jewelry quietly nibbled M&M’s as she studied her hand. After a pause, she placed a tile in the table’s center and declared: “Red.”

The play ensued briskly. “Two dot,” called the woman to her right.

“Flower,” said the next.

“East.”

“Nine dot.”

“Soap.”

“Call.”

“Oy vey.”

“Is it hot in here, or is it me?”

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