It’s noon on Friday, and for Elizabeth Susskind, of Pacifica, that means it’s time to play the Chinese tile game mahjong at Senior Coastsiders in Half Moon Bay.
“I have a part-time job, and I told them I am never available on Fridays,” said Susskind.
Sandy Kelly, of El Granada, is also a regular. Senior Coastsiders hosts a group that plays Western mahjong, but Kelly prefers the traditional Chinese version.
“I feel like I’m learning the actual game and learning the rules,” said Kelly. “It’s been nice for me to play with Elizabeth because when you’re not at her level you have to learn faster. It’s helped me get a lot better.”
Susskind, whose father traveled with the British navy, started playing when she was 4 years old. “It was very common growing up that English families, especially English families who were in the (armed) forces, would have mahjong,” she said. “I used to play with my cousins, and it was just something I came up with.”
Kelly started learning the game in 2019 after seeing a post for a mahjong group on Nextdoor, the social media platform. Senior Coastsiders has offered Chinese mahjong for more than five years.
“We try to offer classes that are good for both the body and the mind, and so we’re always trying to focus on wellness in various ways,” said Hope Atmore, program manager at Senior Coastsiders. “Having games that stimulate the brain and also allow for social engagement is really important.”
Before the pandemic, Chinese mahjong events brought out 16 players, enough to fill up four tables. The group is still recovering from the interruption, said Susskind and Kelly. Last Friday, they sat at a single table, adapting the game for two players.
Mahjong is sometimes compared to rummy because players gather tiles in the same suit, of which there are three: bamboos, characters and circles. The tiles in each suit are numbered 1 through 9. There are also wind tiles, dragon tiles and bonus tiles with gardens or seasons. The goal of the game is to get a mahjong, which consists of 14 tiles that form four sets and one pair. Susskind and Kelly patiently explained all this plus more, but the rules got complex even before it was time to add up the scores from the first round. Susskind reached for a scoring guide to make the calculation easier. Scores determine the payout.
“It’s actually a gambling game,” said Susskind, as Kelly reached into a zippered pouch filled with poker chips and handed her partner a blue chip worth $1,000 in theory, though no actual money changes hands at these games.
Susskind explained mahjong is more skill than luck. “There’s a strategy in whether you decide to go for one suit or whether you just try to get as many pairs as you can,” she said. “There are some set hands, which score very highly, but basically you are gambling against what all the other people have in their hand.”
Between each round, Susskind and Kelly shuffled the tiles, which made a light clicking sound reminiscent of twittering birds. “Mahjong” translates as “sparrows.”
The Chinese mahjong group at Senior Coastsiders meets from noon to 2:30 p.m. every Friday as well as from 1 to 3 p.m. on the second and fourth Wednesdays of each month.
Newcomers are welcome. Partway through a third round, a woman approached the table to watch Susskind and Kelly play.
“We can always teach you anytime,” said Susskind.
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