Janesville50.5°

Mah jong league to host play day at The Gathering Place

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NEIL W. JOHNSON
October 21, 2011
— It's so gosh darn popular in Asia.

And as it turns out, it's popular in Milton too.


Spell it mah jong, mahjong or mah-jongg. For a group of about a dozen enthusiasts at The Gathering Place in Milton, the ancient Chinese strategy game of tiles and dice is all about fun.


A mah jong league has been going strong at the senior activity center every Wednesday afternoon since 2008.


Players at The Gathering Place look to share their passion for the game of skill and luck at a mah jong open play day Wednesday, Oct. 26.


The Gathering Place is probably the only senior center in the area with a mah jong league, said Paula Schutt, the center's director. She said the center hopes that an open play day will draw out mah jong enthusiasts from all over Rock County.


"It's just a fun, almost addictive game. We're hoping this event gets more people involved," Schutt said.


Fun, maybe, but mah jong also is intense and cerebral. Players at The Gathering Place were so focused during league play Wednesday that they barely noticed crews rumbling around the center's grounds on a huge paving machine.


The only annoyance was a Gazette reporter who didn't understand the game.


So many colored playing tiles.


So many rules.


"See? These tiles are craks. And those are dots. And the joker is like the wild card. It goes with anything," said league member Xiem Au of Milton.


To which the Gazette reporter said: "Whuh?"


"You're not going to understand any of this just by watching," said league member Jan McGuire of Janesville.


McGuire and other players at the Gathering Place play modern American mah jong, a contemporary version of the game that originated in the 1930s with a set of rules now governed by the National Mah Jongg League.


Players compete by matching tiles in hands, using combinations listed on a special scorecard issued annually by the national league.


The playing tiles are numbered and organized in suits, which are marked with ornate inscriptions, including flowers, dragons and Chinese characters.


Part of a player's hand is hidden on a wood plank called a "slider" with tiles facing them. Game play is scored and works like a combination of dominoes, the card game rummy and the board game Battleship. Players try to complete their hand by drawing and discarding tiles.


With experienced players, games last about 20 minutes.


For Joyce Ruthe of Milton, mah jong is more fun than crossword puzzles. Ruthe is a newcomer to the mah jong crew at The Gathering Place. She has played a few months, but she is already hooked. She said the game gives her brain a workout.


"I love it because it is a learning experience and a new challenge every time you play. You play against yourself as much as you play against other people," Ruthe said.


The mah jong play day next week is for people with experience playing the game, although The Gathering Place hosts teaching sessions for the game every Wednesday, said Leigh Kuelz, the center's program coordinator.


MAH JONG PLAY DAY
What: The Gathering Place in Milton is hosting an open play day for modern American mah jong. The event will be scored and include door prizes, snacks and a grand prize for the day's high scorer. Cost is $5.
When: 1 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 26.
Where: The Gathering Place, 715 Campus St., Milton.
Details: The event is open to all experienced and avid mah jong players throughout Rock County. The Gathering Place hosts a mah jong league and lessons every Wednesday at 1 p.m. To sign up for the play day or for more information on how to join the league, call the Gathering Place at (608) 868-3500.
What's mah jong? Mah jong is an ancient Chinese game of strategy and chance in which players compete against each other to earn a high score by matching sets of numbered tiles. For more information on the American version of the game, visit nationalmahjonggleague.org.

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