Playing Mah Jong with the Sharks


by Charles Rotmil

Mah Jong Tiles by Charles Rotmil

In his book Homo Ludens Johan Huizinga traces the history of man-at-play. Egyptians built pyramids, not as homes, but as tombs for the dead, filled with their possessions, even games, for the afterlife. The Greeks changed all that bringing in official games to play, “real” games like the Olympics, often played in the nude, in huge stadiums, running from city to city, inventing the marathon. Now, we have professional football. Man-at-play. 


I love games. Played them all my life. The first game I ever played was hide-and-seek. Once my older brother and a friend put on white sheets at night and scared the hell out of me acting as ghosts. When I was five years old living in Strasbourg, I saw animals at play. Look at cats, even dogs, and how they tease each other. 

Card games

I played whist, which is a bit like bridge but without the bidding. To this day I am fascinated by playing cards and I buy them whenever I see them, such as a deck I bought from the Magritte Museum in Brussels. The backs showed his painting of a pipe and said underneath: Ceci n’est pas une pipe. This is not a pipe. Most recently, I bought a deck of Tarot cards from the House of Fournier, a beautiful rendering of the very old Marseille deck. 

I like doing tricks with cards, some sleight of hand, baffling people by the act of having them point to cards that I name, and then show back to them. Tarot cards came later. Not to play, unless laying out an Arcana, a pattern like a cross, is a sort of game about life and death. The Tarot is considered a book of life and can tell about one’s past, present and future. Like astrology. I love the visual aspects of Tarot. You can use a guide to read Tarot, but it is best to use your own intuition.

I prefer the old classic Marseille deck and the deck Napoleon used. In the Dark Ages, it was primal stuff. Like astronomy. Of course, now it does not make sense, unless one believes in the metaphysical world and that the position of Mars or Venus has an effect on us. Yet there is something to be said for chance. Carl Jung believed in a collective unconscious, which we could tap into with a roll of the dice. John Cage, the composer, used dice to compose notes. He claimed that Mozart did the same. Jung used the I Ching, the book of changes — another game of sorts which analyzes the present and the future.  

I am a skeptic but sometimes things happen that seem incredible. The night John F. Kennedy was shot in Dallas, a friend of mine, who lived on Avenue C and 14th Street, threw coins to find a hexagram. There is a version with yarrow stalks grown near where Confucius is buried. Well, we could not find those in New York, so we used the three coins system. Three tails is ying, a broken line, and three heads is yang, a solid line. The line starts at the bottom and works up to six lines. By doing these numbers, three times we came up with a hexagram from one to 64. That night we got hexagram 36: Darkening of the light, earth over fire. The Interpretations read: “He penetrates the left side of his belly. Injure him on his left thigh”, where Governor Connolly was injured. Also “During the hunt down south”, which was where Kennedy had just traveled. And finally “Their great leader is captured. Then he plunged into the depth of the earth.” We freaked out. I am a skeptic through and through, but that really baffled me. Of course, my friend was a true believer and he was not surprised reading these actual lines from the ancient text. 


When I was hiding with a family in a chateau in Nederrockerzeel, in Flemish Belgium, during World War II, the family I hid with, the Luyckx, knew someone who had married the chateau owner. Mr. Wittman, the owner, agreed to allow me to move in with them, even though he knew I was Jewish and hiding there. He was willing to take a risk. Mr. Wittman recently was posthumously awarded the Yad Vashem Medal of Honor as one of the “Righteous Amongst the Nations”, i.e., those who took chances and risked their lives to hide Jews. I wandered around the chateau with another boy from the Luyckx family I was hiding with, named Jean. We would get scared when we passed armored mannequins standing in the halls as if they were alive and ready to strike. We peeked into a huge room, the kind that appears in dreams, filled with numerous arm chairs and small tables and a huge fireplace. At the very far end, four people, the Luyckx and the Wittmans, were playing a game at a table. We saw the Chinese ivory tiles laid out on the table. It was mah-jong. They were dressed elegantly and sipping liqueurs. I always thought it was an elegant game, not the kind that is played nowadays in Miami with Jewish ladies kvetching about everything or in Maine, where I live now, played by older women out for blood. 

I never really understood mah-jong. Recently I took a course at a local Jewish community center. I am not sure why Jewish women love the game so much. In time, I began to understand the tiles, with their Chinese characters or symbols, but I am still slow in figuring out what to aim for. I own a Chinese set. Many Americans have a version with jokers and numbers visible on the tile so you do not have to interpret the Chinese characters. A dumbed-down version. Once a year you have to get a card from the Mah-Jong League, which lays out the combinations that are allowed for that particular year. It is like playing gin rummy or poker: obtain a run of cards in a sequence. If your seven tiles are lined up, it is mah-jong and you win the round. 

I do not like the strictures of the American rules. The goal to make it simpler but it just keeps you restrained. After the course at the Jewish Center, I went to a place that featured games held for small bets of 25 cents per game every afternoon. The first time I played I was soon asked to sit on the side after a couple of rounds and just watch. I was way too slow for them. In other words, I was kicked out. To me it was like a chess game and I needed time to figure out what to go for. I told someone about my banishment and she said to me: “Oh!, you mean playing mah-jong with the sharks!”


The Japanese game Go is another favorite of mine. It is almost like Zen. You play with black and white stones that you lay down on a board with 19×19 lines on the intersection. All pieces have the same value. Once down, they stay put. If you surround pieces or many pieces, an army, you capture them and take them off the board like prisoners. The player with the most pieces and the most territory, or space, wins the game, even if only by one stone or one intersection. All pieces have the same value, but it is in the way that you use them, sometimes in groups, that determines whether you win or lose. In a sense the stones are like samurai. I learned the basic moves yet I play by instinct. I do not have the patience to study the game in books. 

In Go, you start by winning the four corners one at a time, and eventually they influence each other. Much like modern warfare, you have multiple wars. In Go, like chess, you get a ranking, in this case from one to nine. One, Go Dan, is the highest and black always plays first. It is a handicapped game so that no matter what, you lose or win within 10 points. For each point you get a stone and you try to remain as close in score to the other player as possible. It is amazing how this always works out. In chess, there is no handicap, just a rating determined by how many games you win or lose against other rated players. In Go, played at its best, you get nine stones and they are placed in all the best places, the four corners and all the sides.


Poker is another story. Knowing the odds of getting the right card is key. Bluffing is the next best thing: letting people think you have the high hand even though you have a losing hand. Or if you have a winning hand make others think you have nothing. Hence the poker face. Playing at the office, I once had a seven of spades in my hand. Beforehand it was decided that having this card alone would win the game. I asked out loud if the seven wins it all. And they said yes. I thanked them all. And they did not know what to think. Am I that naive, or am I bluffing?

I won that hand after heavy betting, at first quarters and then dollars and before you knew it there was a pot of a hundred dollars, high stakes for an office game. After I won, they were hip to my bluffing. We played after work at someone’s apartment and ordered pizzas and we stayed up until dawn. I ended up twenty dollars ahead, exhausted, from pizzas, beer, and cigarettes. It showed me what it must be like to live in Las Vegas and earn your rent each week through gambling. I could not do it.

That said, my father gambled, so I have to be careful. Gambling can be contagious and addictive. I realize that even when I play small poker games. My father used to take us to horse races. Most of the time he would lose and you could not talk to him. Once my brother confronted him and my father hit him and threw us both out of the apartment. 

Computer Games

I am not into computer games, the kind that are hypnotic and you cannot stop playing. Truth be told, I do play cards games, like solitaire, on the computer. I get hooked for hours and it relaxes me. When my son Adam was a year old, I used to put him on my knees and we would sit in front of a computer and play Zork. There were no visual effects then, it was all text based. Zork takes place in an underground world and your task is to find things and collect them and put them in a vault until you had them all. A thief would appear, that was the catch, and he would steal what you had and disappear. Yet things were not hopeless because the idea was to catch the thief at the end and kill him and retake everything. Some objects had special functions that you had to figure out. For example, if you found a brick, what do you do? It turns out, if thrown, it becomes a bomb and comes in handy when the thief appears out of nowhere. 

Playing Zork there was a bonding between my son and the game, even at that young age we would work things out together and to this day, he is thirty four now, we talk about Zork. Another game we played was Mad Marble. I had rigged up a huge television, a gift from someone, to my hi-fi system. An early version of television surround sound. With a remote control, my son and I had to balance marbles along a tenuous ramp all the way to the bottom. If they fell off along the way, you lost the round. Another important bonding experience. 


After World War II, I was reunited with Jewish communities, who during the war were concerned that the hidden children would disappear: first in the death camps, and then by means of Catholic conversion. I ended up in a group home in Schaarbeek, outside of Brussels, when I turned twelve. Everyone was older than I, and before I knew it, I was reading Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment and playing chess, which my brother taught me. I have been playing ever since. Today, I play chess online on under the username jeblague, which means, “I’m joking”, in French. I play an average of about thirty games at once, but you can only make one move at a time and you have up to ten days to make each move, thus a game can last months. Unlike chess, in mah-jong, you must think and move fast. Eventually in playing chess online, you get a rating, but not an official one, like from The United State Chess Federation (USCF), the official American chess organization, although I also play the occasional tournament with USCF for an official rating.

Chess is a mystifying game. The aim, as I understand it, is to first control the four central squares. So all openings seek such control. There are books on openings and whatever you do there is a name for it, usually by the first grandmaster who tried that variation or line of play. 

I also play a computer program called Fritz, which I cannot beat. I was told many times that you learn best when you play a stronger player. You need to win against stronger players in order to advance in skill level. I love chess and sometimes it is amazing how intricate it gets, full of beautiful combinations.

That said, I do not like checkers. In my opinion, the first person to play usually wins. Still there are major tournaments in checkers and major world champs. In chess, the current world champion is Magus Carlsen, a young Scandinavian man that no one can beat. In his last tournament held in India, I watched all the games live and got up at three in the morning to follow the moves. All the games were very close, played with no new concepts, yet Carlsen prevailed when the other player blundered.

 A great book to read is Chess Story (also known as The Royal Game) by the Viennese writer, Stefan Zweig. It is about a man who was imprisoned who, one day on his way to court, saw a book in a raincoat pocket and grabbed it. The book turned out to be about the hundred best chess games of the century. He took it back to his cell and started to play each game using bread crumbs on his checkered blanket. Eventually he knew all the moves by heart. When he is released, he becomes obsessed with chess, but cannot play it in real time because he has no patience to wait for the opponent to move. A fascinating book.

I feel chess keeps my brain active and grows new cells. I play at tournaments and once I played a child of eight, a girl who was so intent on the game, she complained to the person in charge that I was distracting her when I took photographs of her playing. I managed to take a photo of her mad at me. She easily beat me. Of course, her brain was new and hardly used.  

Our chess club is very small, maybe ten members, and now it meets in the bowels of a hospital, on the second level basement, in a room usually used to teach doctors about special procedures. In the evening when we meet, we have to go through the rear entrance, the emergency entrance actually, and walk through long desolate corridors all the way to the front and then take an elevator down two levels. I hate going there now.  

Just the other night I was feeling deeply depressed by world news: Isis killing Christians who do not want to convert to Islam (shades of the Inquisition when converting Jews); Robin Williams committing suicide; Israel and Palestine at constant war with the innocent getting killed; a young black youth shot by an over-zealous white policeman in Ferguson; the Paris massacre of Hebdo cartoonists. The list goes on and on. I thought a night of chess would bring me out of the abyss. I walked down those long corridors into the room and no one was there. It was early, so I asked the janitor to unlock the door. Finally one chess player showed up and we played a game, a good game, which I lost. Then from next door another player came over. We did not know about this other room. I ended playing a game with someone there I never met before. A good game too, close right to the end, which again I lost. 

Yet after that game I decided to go home. I was still depressed and swore I would never go there again. I do not mind the Sunday meetings in a bagel shop, in the sunlight, with offers of food, but these hospital rooms are depressing indeed. You do not play to win. You play for a good experience and usually it is.

I used to play chess in Washington Square sometimes to two o’clock in the morning. The cubist/dada artist Marcel Duchamp used to play there. Duchamp was also a chess lover and incorporated chess into his paintings. For centuries chess has fascinated artists and philosophers, as an example of the human condition and of warfare. Go is more modern, displaying many fronts at once. Once at a Japanese business club in New York City, I played Go with an advanced player. A huge hole on the board appeared as he had surrounded a hundred men and removed them. “Snow,” he said. Man-at-play continues, both in times of war and times of peace.

Written by Charles Rotmil and published by RealityStudio on 11 April 2015.

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