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Ancient Chinese game of Mah Jongg gains fans here

STORY BY PIETER VANBENNEKOM (Week of January 5, 2023)

While it’s not likely to overtake duplicate bridge as this area’s most popular table game anytime soon, the ancient Chinese game of Mah Jongg – in its American version – is showing signs of making a strong post-pandemic resurgence in Vero.

One of the big Mah Jongg games here is held on Monday afternoon at the Elks Club, and attendance – while reckoned in the dozens compared to considerably larger numbers for tournaments at the Vero Beach Bridge Center  – is now back to more than 50 percent of pre-pandemic levels.

Perhaps it is a sign of the times that the Vero Beach Bridge Center, which has seen attendance seriously decline in the pandemic, has offered the Mah Jongg players some of the unused space in its huge building, a former bowling alley across from Crestlawn Cemetery, but they have declined.

“The bridge ladies and the Mah Jongg ladies just don’t get along very well,” explains Lorraine Bell, who learned the original Chinese version in London while her husband was stationed there for a Swiss bank. Bell is so into the game that her car has a vanity license plate that spells MAJ-ONG.

“We are loud, with all the clicking of the tiles, the laughing and the excitement when we win a few quarters, and the bridge people need quiet to concentrate,” Bell says. “So when there are Mah Jongg and bridge games going on in the same room, it’s not a happy situation. We get shushed all the time.”

But the shushing doesn’t seem to be dampening the enthusiasm of Mah Jongg players, and Melody Gabriel, 80, who runs the game at the Elks Club, recently decided Vero Beach was ready to host a one-day charity tournament to raise funds for veterans’ housing and set Feb. 16 as the date.

The game committee decided to limit entries to 80 people.

“After two days,” Gabriel says, “registrations had already hit the limit, so we decided to raise it to 90, and then we raised it again and, in the end, we wound up with 120 people.” More than 90 local businesses have donated door prizes and awards for winners. Entries aren’t cheap – at $55 per person, they’re considerably more than the $40 that bridge tournaments now charge for an all-day double session.

Mah Jongg has literally snowballed in our community, says Gabriel, who once was president of the Vero Beach Bridge Club and still loves that game, but has become too busy teaching Mah Jongg. The presence of retired people with time on their hands explains a lot about the popularity of Mah Jongg here.

Many of the country clubs and clubhouses at gated communities now run Mah Jongg games, and tournaments like the one planned for the Elks Club have also proliferated.

Other local charity tournaments are in the works for the Quail Valley River Club on Jan. 9 for a half-day and at the St. Sebastian Catholic church on Jan. 25 for a full day. An inter-club league, called MJLOV is also starting up in 2023 with half-day events planned at John’s Island, the Orchid Island Golf and Beach Club, The Moorings and Quail Valley, with Bent Pine and the Vero Beach Country Club to follow later, says Bell.

Getting started in Mah Jongg seems easy enough. The Vero Beach Book Center sells sets of tiles, other accessories and how-to books, and the Indian River County Intergenerational Center runs easy games at 10 a.m. on Tuesdays and 1 p.m. on Thursdays with a modest $2 entry fee. With the supplies, you can get as fancy as you want. There’s even a $1,200 electronic tile-dealing machine, one of which is in existence in Vero Beach.

Mah Jongg has attracted mostly women, although a few ladies have dragged their husbands along. “Perhaps it gives the women something to do that’s competitive but very social while their husbands are out playing golf,” Gabriel says.

Bell has a slightly different explanation or the gender gap. “We play the American game for small stakes, quarters that the ladies bring in their Mah Jongg purses. The most people can lose in a game is maybe about $3 so no one gets hurt. The ladies seem to like that and even the small winnings create a lot of excitement.

“But I’ve played at big Mah Jongg parlors in China and other places in Asia, where mostly men gamble for big stakes,” Bell says. “I’ve even been thrown out of some of those parlors by the bouncers because women weren’t allowed. Maybe the men draw up their noses at a small-stakes game like ours – not enough of a thrill in it for them.”

Mah Jongg is often compared to bridge, and Gabriel is in a unique position to make the comparison since she’s been at the top of the game on the local scene in both worlds.

“Mah Jongg is probably a little more social and a little less competitive than bridge,” Gabriel says. “You don’t need a partner, and the great advantage is that once you’ve taken your first couple of lessons, you pretty much know how to play. The third and fourth lessons are about strategy and defense. In bridge, even after they learn the basics in eight lessons, new players are sometimes intimidated by the veterans who have perfected their game for years and know a million bidding conventions. To get really good at bridge takes much longer.”

People who have played card games before seem to learn Mah Jongg more quickly, and the mathematical minds also catch on faster, Gabriel says.

Despite the cultural comparisons with bridge, Mah Jongg probably bears more resemblance to gin rummy as far as the actual rules of the game. It’s often described as a “rummy-like tile game.” While playing the game requires skill and strategy, there’s also some luck involved.

The game first came over from China in the 19th century, and the name comes from a Chinese word for “sparrow,” since the clicking of the tiles resembles the sound of chattering sparrows. The altered American version now played across the United States with 8 jokers started in the Roaring ’20s. It became popular with Jewish women in New York and South Florida in the ’50s, but has since broken out into all sectors of society.

The game is played with a set of 144 tiles based on Chinese characters such as Bamboos, Dots, Flowers, Winds and Dragons. A roll of the dice starts the game and each of 4 players at a table begins with 13 tiles (the dealer has 14). The players take turns drawing and discarding tiles until they can complete a set, a pair or a special combination. Although the classic version requires four people at a table, there are also variations for three or two players and even a solitaire version has been invented for computer play.

A national Mah Jongg league, based in New York City, sets the rules for the game and on April 1 each year, issues a new “Card” from which players can choose their starting hands. Cheating has been known to occur with nifty sleights of hand, but Gabriel says she’s never heard of anyone trying to cheat in Vero Beach.

Gabriel has played Mah Jongg for 22 years, but started teaching the game in Vero Beach 12 years ago “at someone’s kitchen table.” One of the women she taught belonged to Quail Valley, which led to an invitation to teach at Quail, and Gabriel now regularly teaches classes of 20 or more people around town, including at the Vero Beach Country Club and for a while at The Moorings.

“Over the years, I must have taught between 700 and 800 people to play Mah Jongg in Vero Beach,” Gabriel says, “and I believe many of them are still playing.

For more information about the Inter-Club Mah Jongg League, call 772-205-8443. To play online, visit For lessons, contact