Sarah Wright stared at the row of 13 mahjong tiles in front of her, each etched with Chinese characters and numbers. Her brow furrowed in concentration as she eyed her opponents’ rows. When it was her turn, Wright drew a tile from the “wall” — two rows of mahjong tiles stacked facedown on top of each other. Grinning triumphantly, she placed it faceup on the table.
“That’s the one I needed!” Wright said, displaying her tiles so everyone could see that she had completed her final set and won the game. Everyone else showed their hands.
“I was so close!” one of her opponents groaned good-naturedly. The players began to shuffle the tiles, which clicked softly against each other, so they could start another game.
Wright, a business development specialist, was at an introductory mahjong class at Thirsty Dice, a board-game cafe in Spring Garden. She had decided to attend after seeing a Facebook post advertising the event, hosted by the Philly Riichi Mahjong Club (occasionally stylized as “Mah-jawng,” in true Philly fashion).
The club — which largely plays riichi, the Japanese style of mahjong — began a little over a year ago at Pasqually’s Pizza, Beer & Wine, a bottle shop in West Philadelphia. It was the brainchild of Taylor Heffernan, a board-game aficionado.
As a kid, Heffernan learned how to play the rummy-esque American version of mahjong from his grandmother, but he said he always knew that there was a more complex version played in Asia. It wasn’t until he watched Crazy Rich Asians — which reaches its emotional crest during a tense game of mahjong — that he decided to learn how to play a more authentic form.
“I went out on my lunch break in Chinatown and bought a set,” Heffernan said. “But the tiles were marked with only Chinese characters, so I had to write the corresponding numbers on them with a Sharpie to make the learning process a little smoother.”
To round up co-players — four is most common — Heffernan took the tiles to friends in Delaware who were also big board-game fans. They sat down to figure it out together.
“My friends and I puttered our way through some games of the Japanese kind, mostly doing it wrong, but realizing that there was a game there to learn,” Heffernan said. “The rest is history. We really fell in love with the game. It has a lot of aspects that we like in other games. There’s a lot of randomness, but also a lot of strategy.”
Mahjong became popular during the Qing dynasty in China in the early 1700s. The objective is to collect four “melds,” or sets, and one pair from a set number of tiles. Rules dictate how to deal the tiles, how a piece is drawn, the kinds of melds allowed, and how a player can steal a tile from an opponent. There are regional styles of mahjong — Hong Kong, riichi, Chinese, to name a few — but the differences are subtle. (The American version of the game is more commonly spelled “mah-jongg.")
The game traveled west in the early 20th century and enjoyed a flash in the pan around 1920, when Joseph Park Babcock, an Indiana native who had learned the game while in China, created rules for a simpler, streamlined version that was easier for Westerners to play. Abercrombie & Fitch started importing mahjong sets and by some accounts sold 40,000 sets over a decade. Milton Bradley and Parker Brothers got in on the action, too, but the fad had significantly simmered down by the Great Depression. While there are several active national mahjong organizations in the U.S. today, none holds an American-style national tournament.
A few months after Heffernan mastered riichi mahjong, he went to Pasqually’s and asked if he and his friends could play there.
“Mahjong needs to be played on square tables and I noticed that Pasqually’s had a bunch of those,” Heffernan said. “I didn’t really have a mahjong club at the time, so it was more like, ‘If I show up with my friends and some mahjong tiles and buy some pizza and beer, can we play mahjong? And the owners were like, ‘Sure, I guess.’”
Heffernan posted on Philadelphia’s subreddit looking for other players. He eventually found four to five fellow players who were willing to meet up on a regular basis, including Vinnie Emilianowicz, a business analyst from West Chester.
Emilianowicz had taught himself Hong Kong-style mahjong using a set a relative gave him when he was a kid. Before joining the Philly club, he regularly traveled to New York to play with fellow mahjong lovers.
“When I first started going to the Philly club, I could tell that these were some folks who really wanted to make this work,” Emilianowicz said. “Taylor had the spirit and the drive to get a club like this off the ground. I always thought of it as a niche game, and I was wowed by how many people started to show up.”
This March, the club attended their first tournament, the Rochester Riichi Open in upstate New York. One of their club members wound up winning, and the rest got a taste of what it was like to play competitively.
“We were terrible at the Rochester tournament. But we were encouraged," Emilianowicz said. “We wanted to be as good as those people we had run into. So our time together has been about honest growth and honest correction. You can be nice and still tell someone they could’ve done something better.”
The club’s efforts to become sharper competitors have yielded results: Heffernan was invited to another tournament in Los Angeles, and Emilianowicz plans to check out an invite-only riichi boot camp in Japan later this year.
But on a recent Wednesday, Emilianowicz was more focused on teaching newbies the basics than helping his fellow club members up their game. He’s passionate about expanding the game’s popularity.
“It’s like a puzzle,” he said. “The more players we get in the U.S., the more the game can gain a footing and the U.S. can have a real presence in the world’s market for mahjong.”
One of the attendees was Danny Senh, a manager at Comcast. Like Wright, he had seen the event on Facebook and decided to check it out with his girlfriend, who had never played mahjong before and wanted to learn.
Senh learned Hong Kong-style mahjong when he was 10 years old from his mom’s side of the family. While the adults worked, he practiced at home with his cousins.
“What probably draws me to the game the most is that it reminds me of all the times I used to play with my family growing up,” Senh said.
At the next table, Wright was making memories of her own, setting up tiles for another game, chatting and laughing with her fellow players.