Yesterday while rummaging around in the storeroom on the second floor of the house in Lianga, I came upon a small, flat wooden box complete with a lid attached to it with broken hinges. It was stained with water spots and the patina of great age. I immediately knew what was inside and as I opened it, a flood of memories came rushing out.
Four people, one square table and some 136 to 144 bone, ivory or plastic tiles with engraved symbols and you have the ingredients of one of the most fascinating, bewildering yet extremely addicting and engrossing games every invented. I should know because I grew up in a world familiar with the clickety-clack of mahjong tiles and until now I remain fascinated by the allure of this ancient Chinese game.
I first learned to play it when I was in high school when my siblings and I would gather round the old dining table in the house in Lianga during summer vacations and pretend to gamble using an ancient tile set that belonged to my paternal grandfather that decades later would end up in the family storeroom. We all eventually managed to catch on to doing the real thing and soon were spending hours first just playing for the fun of it then later on for loose change.
But it was my Lola Emang Yutangco, a spry spitfire of a lady widowed by my paternal grandmother's brother, whose addiction to the game made mahjong a regular part of our regular family get togethers. She was a stern taskmaster and teacher who insisted that we treat the game seriously, to play briskly and with style and finesse. To make sure we do all that, she was not above to making short, sharp rebukes to an erring, dillydallying player or kicking that offending player's shins painfully from underneath the table.
Under her tutelage, my brothers, sisters and I became reasonably proficient mahjong players although none of us really graduated into the high stakes gambling level, a fact our parents doubtlessly were endlessly thankful for. My father did play the game very well and was a formidable opponent when playing for money. But when his children all got into college, he quit cold turkey his occasional night out at the mahjong tables, a difficult sacrifice I can now truly appreciate knowing the addicting allure of this game where winning arguably involves skill combined with plenty of luck.
How much of it is really luck and how much is really card or "tile" sense and skill?
Years of playing the game has taught me that there are cases where you can play badly yet still manage to win when all the breaks and tiles all seem to fall miraculously your way. Or you could still lose miserably even when you seem to be on a roll and have all your tiles set up for the big win and then suddenly Lady Luck turns her back on you and the winning tiles turn coy and snub you.
Personally I believe that Lola Emang had it right when she spoke to me once years ago about what she had learned after a lifetime of playing the game. This was before a series of strokes sapped her first of her strength then eventually snapped her tenacious hold on life and robbed her of the chance to continue to play what she considered a game akin to living life.
"Mahjong is like life," she said. "When you start the game you are dealt your tiles face down. You don't know what they are or how they will play out. You may win big or lose big in the end but what matters is how you play with what you've got. In the end it is not about winning or losing but simply playing the game the best way you can. It is not just about winning. It is also about style and aplomb and the ability to play well even when the odd are against you."
The she would revert to form and snap out, "But play briskly and with no hesitation. Constant delaying and second guessing makes for a poor game. And life is too short for wasting time with poor games...... or poor players."