BELFAST, Maine — The walls of a Belfast building rang Thursday afternoon with laughter punctuated by the click of plastic tiles as a group of women played an old game that has brought them new joy: mah-jongg.
The four-person table game of chance and skill has ancient roots, but the modern version was developed in China sometime in the mid-19th century. It was brought to the U.S. in the 1920s, where it quickly became a national craze.
Beginning this summer, as many as a dozen people have been gathering at least once a week at a community space in downtown Belfast to learn and play the game. The players said it has been a bright spot in their weeks where they can socialize and meet new people — something that’s been more difficult in a time when many activities have been curtailed because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“I do think mah-jongg is having a moment,” said Trudy Miller of Northport, the instigator of the current Belfast mah-jongg craze and a longtime player. “I haven’t played continuously. But I always missed it when I didn’t play it, because it’s such a great game, and it’s supposed to be good for your mind.”
Mah-jongg is similar to gin rummy, with players dealt a hand of tiles rather than cards. They take turns drawing and discarding the tiles, with the object of the game to make specific sets of tiles and be the first to shout “mah-jongg.”
The tiles are engraved with Chinese characters and divided into suits. It is often a gambling game that’s played for money.
An American businessman named Joseph Babcock, who had lived in Shanghai, is credited with introducing the western world to mah-jongg after World War I. He gave English names to the tiles and wrote simplified rules so an American audience would be better able to understand and enjoy it, which they did in large numbers. The game was so popular that in the 1920s, the owner of Abercrombie & Fitch, then an upscale sporting goods company, sent representatives to China to search for as many mah-jongg sets as possible.
But the craze was over by the end of the decade. Some believe mah-jongg was usurped by the advent of crossword puzzles. Others attributed its decline to the rising appeal of contract bridge, or the way that mah-jongg playing groups made up ever more convoluted rules that eventually turned off players.
Not everyone stopped playing mah-jongg, however. One group — Jewish women — is credited with keeping the game alive in the U.S. In 1937, a group of Jewish women formed the National Mah Jongg League, which today has 350,000 members and is still of paramount importance to the game.
Miller, 75, first played mah-jongg with a group of young mothers in Pennsylvania in 1973.
“Playing mah-jongg was the best part of the week,” she said. “You got to leave the house, play with the tiles, see young mothers, get away from our kids and husbands, eat cake. It was a big deal.”
She has carried that love of mah-jongg with her all her life, and earlier this year, was longing to meet some fellow players in the Belfast area. So she posted on a community Facebook page that she was searching for some people to play with her.
“I got a number of responses saying, ‘I don’t know how to play, but I’d like to learn,’” Miller said.
She hadn’t imagined running a mah-jongg clinic, but was amenable to the idea. Fortunately, she had a good place for the players to meet: Social Capital, a community gathering place she and her husband own on Spring Street in Belfast. She offered to teach them, and they came. So far, all the players have been women, many of whom are of a certain age.
“I’m very surprised that so many people showed up, and stuck with it,” Miller said. “It gets very noisy, and it’s not an easy game to learn.”
But it’s been fun, said Karna Olsson, 79, of Belfast. She first learned about mah-jongg as a 23-year-old Peace Corps volunteer in the Philippines, when she heard the constant tile clicking while walking down the streets and yearned to one day play the game herself. It’s been worth the wait, she said.
“One of the reasons why this is so good to me is mental health,” she said. “Just getting out and being with other people and laughing. It’s so good.”
Another player, 67-year-old Jennie Connor of Belfast, said that the games filled a need for her.
“When I saw her advertisement, I was in the middle of feeling sorry for myself because my family doesn’t like to play games, and I do,” Connor said. “My husband is so pleased that I don’t mope around now. I have an outlet.”