By Hiroko Sato
PEPPERELL -- East meets west in Pepperell when Judy Clark and her friends scramble 152 plastic mahjong tiles across a round table inside the Senior Center's cafeteria.
The picture of a dragon on some of the 1-inch-by-1.5-inch tiles reminds her of Old World China. The kanji characters on some other tiles have the aura of the Confucius era, too.
"There is sort of a mystery behind it," Clark said of mahjong, a traditional Chinese game that she had longed to master since she was 10.
After having learned how to play it recently, the challenge of winning the game has also become part of the fascination.
"There is supposed to be a strategy," Clark, a school library worker, said, staring at the tiles lining up in front of her. "I'm trying to figure it out."
For Peter Nordberg, the little string-bound book on mahjong that he keeps by his hands while playing with Clark and others is a go-to-source for the strategies. The 77-year-old retired computer programmer also keeps a notebook nearby to jot down things to remember.
Mahjong isn't just fun, Clark said. It makes you think and keeps your memory sharp.
After all, the power of the mind has a lot to do with your mahjong skills, Clark's playmate, Nancy Fox said.
"I would like to know how ancient Chinese played because it's a study of concentration," said Fox, a retired Shawsheen Regional Technical High School special-education teacher. "You have
It's been six weeks since the Pepperell Senior Center began its mahjong program, and it's already been a big hit. The program doesn't involve any instructors, it's more of a gathering of people who like mahjong or are interested in learning the game. The group that the center formed at the request of Fox now has enough many players to meet twice a week.
"From what I'm hearing, this is what people are wanting to do right now," Senior Center Director Marcia Zaniboni, said of mahjong.
Mahjong, which literally means chattering sparrows in Chinese, is an internationally popular game that originated in China. Mahjong as it is played today only dates back to the turn of the 20th century if not the mid-19th century, according to several online sites. But some experts claim that the game that eventually developed into mahjong goes as far back as 500 B.C.
Americans have also long enjoyed the game, according to Lois Madow, president of American Mah-Jongg Association, which is based in Baltimore, Md. Madow, who is in her 70s, has been a mahjong enthusiast for the past 50 years. Her mother had also played since she was a girl. And the New York-based National Mah Jongg Association, of which Madow used to be part, has been around since 1937.
Recently, mahjong has grown into a staple activity at many senior centers across the country. The Billerica Senior Center offers a mahjong session every Friday and so does Nashua Senior Center in Nashua, N.H., on Tuesdays. And gatherings of mahjong players at such public places are making the game more visible to those who aren't familiar with it, Madow said.
In mahjong, four players compete to be the first one to complete one of the combinations of tiles -- which are called "hands" -- that are listed on mahjong cards. The National Mah Jongg League issues a card with a new set of hands every April while the American Mah-Jongg Association publishes its own every January, according to Madow.
Mahjong has also been popular among online game players. Betsy Glow of Pepperell joined the senior center's mahjong group four weeks ago, thinking that she only needed to match one tile with another just like she would in online mahjong. She sat down with her playmates to find out the game involved 152 tiles.
"I was shocked," Glow, an 83-year-old retired nurse, said.
For now, Glow is counting on her playmate, Barbara Kukas, who has 50 years of experience playing mahjong, to show her which hands to pursue. But even Kukas couldn't help Glow on a recent Wednesday as three of the four tiles that Glow needs to complete a hand were already thrown out by other players, meaning they are considered "dead" and cannot be picked up by someone else.
"Do you need a tissue?" Kukas asked Glow, who was faking a cry because the game went bust for her.
"They make me cry a lot," Glow said jokingly of her playmates.
Kukas, a 69-tear-old retired Textron worker, said she began playing mahjong in the 1960s as a way to get together with her friends.
"I'm a gamer," Kukas said. "Like any game, you can get hooked."
And for some of those who gather at senior center, mahjong seems a more fashionable choice than bingo. Clark, who only recently learned the game, plans to come back week after week.
"I love it," Clark said of mahjong.