Game Night with the Girls

Mahjong was having a resurgence and so was I

"Mahjong?" my 24-year-old daughter asked incredulously. "That's what old ladies play!"

She saw me as a writing professor who could solve grammar questions without the use of Google. I'd never be the senior citizens she'd observed when we visited my mother in Florida. The community room—table after table filled with mixing, clacking tiles and shuffling cards—was as foreign to my daughter as life before smartphones.

I didn't want to turn into an old lady at the card table. But I'd always liked games, and played Scrabble against opponents who abided by tournament rules, eschewing looking up potential words in the dictionary. I still held onto a pinnacle moment placing the word "eschewing," spanning two triple word scores with a score in the triple digits.

"This is not mahjong for bored retirees," I explained to my daughter. Our foursome: two advertising creative directors, a lawyer and me.

"Are you going to wear mahjong jewelry?" she asked playfully. She was fascinated and amused by the costume jewelry relics of my mother's, stashed away in my closet. "That French poodle pin with the rhinestones seems perfect."

RELATED: Raising My Mother

That's when I confessed my secret mahjong history. Growing up in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, I spent summers in the Deauville Cabana Club, a chic name that didn't match this urban middle-class pool club. In its heyday, it was a collage of lounge chairs framing a sizeable L-shaped pool, where teenagers swan dived off the high board like Olympic hopefuls. First-generation middle-class families felt luxurious washing off the day's Coppertone and chlorine in a tiny cabana shower.

Topless men and wives in skirted swimsuits were separated, as if in an Orthodox temple, in a mosaic of bridge tables. The guys played gin rummy for a nickel a point. I loved observing Grandma Regina's canasta games, nibbling on bridge mix as if they were pricy truffles, admiring the ladies concentrating on their melds.

The fathers came only on weekends, while mothers trotted their kids daily to the concrete beach club that didn't have a real beach. This segment of society didn't know from—and couldn't afford—sleep-away camp.

RELATED: Now, Voyager

My friends and I were awkward preteens who unabashedly gyrated during afternoon dances on a terrace above the Snack Bar. Eventually, we grew bored, borrowed a mahjong set and became addicted.

"How cute!" every grandma remarked, passing us during their own game breaks to eat homemade lunches in Tupperware containers in their cabanas. "They even have their own mahjong cards!"

One bam. Two crack. Flowers, dragons, winds. Mahjong! We'd dump our tiles face down into the center of the table, jointly mix the ivory rectangles with vigor and begin a new game. Too young to play for money, we didn't want to be cute; we yearned to be very grown up.

RELATED: My Mother's China


Today, mahjong can be played online. Developed in China in the Qing Dynasty, mahjong is similar to gin rummy. The National mahjong league has 500,000 members. The game allegedly keeps the mind sharp and might delay memory loss. There was even a Chinese-American diplomat, a passionate player who worked at the U.N., who lived to 111.

I was not some housewife idling away her time, yet I was nervous when I arrived at our hostess's apartment. "I haven't played in ages," I apologized to Linda, spreading salmon salad on a bagel. Dot arrived, a friend since their kids were in preschool. Unable to find a fourth, Dot had put out a call in a Facebook group. Nancy arrived, a complete stranger with a bottle of wine. We all merged into a seamless perimeter around a dining room table.

My eyes glazed over when I saw all the different tile configurations. How could I take all this into my overloaded mind, when lately I couldn't remember where I'd left my keys or glasses?

"It'll come back quickly," Linda promised, suggesting we play open hands to start. She explained the legendary mahjong card. Each player had to "commit" to a "hand" from dozens of options of pairs, triples and quintuplets in three suits, flanked by dragons, flowers and winds in four directions.

I kept picking up jokers.

"Aren't you lucky!" my coach enthused.

I was merely struggling to keep all the categories straight. Nothing was coming back to me, as if I'd never been a master of this ancient game. I took pride in the academic information I'd acquired over the years, confidently explaining concepts each semester to a new group of puzzled students. Yet I hadn't tried to learn anything new in a while.

I dabbled in Spanish last year, preparing for a trip to Seville, but grew frustrated with my brief online instruction. Sometimes a French phrase jumped in by mistake, the foreign language I'd tried to learn first. It reminded me of my Prussian grandmother in her 90s, when she stopped speaking English and talked to us only in Polish.

I was no longer that teenager who absorbed information like a sponge.

I was used to standing in front of a college class, regarded as an expert rather than a neophyte. I felt embarrassed, slowing down the game for my newly acquainted mahjong opponents. We switched seats for game 2. Dot, my new mentor, left me on my own, driven to win than to teach. I felt flustered, barely keeping up.

"Mahjong!" Dot proudly exclaimed.

I tried not to act like the humiliated loser I was.

"Great fun!" "Let's do it again sometime," Dot and Nancy called as they left. I feared "sometime" would not include me. Why hadn't I challenged them to Scrabble? And why did I have to feel so competitive, when I'd amassed my share of professional and personal accomplishments in other arenas?

"It'll come back quickly," Linda promised.

Would it? I'd been lazy lately, not pushing my brain cells into new territory. I hated feeling so clueless.

I ordered a mahjong card online. Here I was, long past SATs, cramming for finals or defending my master's thesis. The longer I examined the mahjong card, the more it made sense. I loved the patterns, the colors, the mathematical thinking required to predict which hand you could win through skill and luck. I watched a YouTube video featuring a co-ed group of Chinese players.

Two weeks later, an email arrived from "my group," along with a Doodle poll requesting possibilities for our next get-together. Humbled by my stint of not being the best at something, I felt ready to move up the mahjong ladder. All across the country, the game of mahjong was having a resurgence, and so was I.

Tags: friendship