By Tom Sloper

Sunday, July 6, 2003

Column #92

American (2003 NMJL card). Today's column is loosely based on an incident posted on my website's Q&A bulletin board yesterday (Saturday, July 5). The names have been changed to protect the innocent!

Fiona, the fifth player, had an overall view of the game. And oh boy, what she saw!

The game was past the halfway point - into the last long wall. Each player was getting close to mah-jongg. Sophia had just picked a tile that Esther needed, and Wesley had a duplicate of that tile. Esther had a tile needed by both Nora and Wesley. Nora had Sophia's maj tile. A group groan had gone up on the previous turn when Sophia had discarded a joker, and everyone could see by the discards that someone was playing winds (it could only be either Sophia or Wesley).

Something was going to happen, and soon!

Sophia had to discard. She felt that she had little choice in the matter, being just one away from mah-jongg. She discarded the 7C she'd just picked.

Esther called it. "I'll take that." She made a kong, with one joker, putting it up beside the 5B pung she'd exposed previously.

Wesley was holding a 7C as well, and it was with great interest that he observed this occurrence. He saw instantly that he could use the exposed joker, and since Esther had made a kong, nobody else could possibly redeem the joker except himself. Secure in this knowledge, he looked at his hand and realized that his final winning tile, then, would be 8D. So he practically jumped when Esther announced the name of her discard.

"Eight Dot."

Nora spoke: "Call!" She reached for the tile, but...

Thinking rapidly, Wesley spoke up sharply: "Mah-Jongg!" Taking great care to follow the steps so as not to err, he first took the 8D discarded by Esther, put it atop his rack, adding his one 8D and two jokers. Then he took the 7C from the sloping front of his rack and exchanged it with Esther's fresh exposure. Finally, he put up the rest of his tiles.

"It's the first hand in Like Numbers," he announced. "Fifty for Esther..." and as he pointed at Nora and Sophia in turn: "Twenty-five, twenty-five."

"Hold on, that isn't right," Nora objected. "You couldn't call it for mah-jongg, since you had to exchange a joker first. That was my tile, not yours."

Sophia agreed. "You shouldn't have said mah-jongg. You should have called the tile. After exchanging the joker, you could say maj. But since Nora called before you, it's her tile."

Esther added her two cents: "This is so confusing! It doesn't matter who calls first!"

Sophia tried to explain, but the moment was highly charged, and her voice was perhaps a little more strident-sounding than it needed to be. "That's not what I meant! I mean since she's before him, she should've gotten it." She gestured counterclockwise from Esther through Nora to Wesley as she said this.

Esther turned to Fiona. "What do you think?"

Fiona actually owned a copy of the official rulebook, so she knew the rules. She put up both hands and said, "I'm not allowed to say."

The discussion went on like this for quite some time. Hardly anybody's voice was calm. Sophia and Nora were opposed to Wesley's action, but Esther was on his side. Fiona staunchly refused to speak, so a compromise was struck. Sophia, Esther, and Nora agreed to pay Wesley twenty-five - nobody would pay him double.

Only once this decision was reached would Fiona say anything. "I bet on Wesley. So pay me too." She showed the betting pad to prove it. "Oh, and by the way, if you'd let Nora have the tile instead of Wesley, she'd have thrown Sophia's maj tile."

The game almost broke up at that point, but a semblance of calm was eventually restored. A snack break, with much chocolate involved, helped.

How would you have resolved the situation? The ultimate arbiters of American mah-jongg are the officials of the National Mah Jongg League in New York. You can telephone, but the NMJL prefers to get questions by "snail mail," with a self-addressed stamped envelope. So of course by the time you get an answer, the situation has already been handled, one way or another, by those involved. This column has already gone well beyond its self-imposed standard Sunday length, so I may as well reiterate my frequently-given advice: Every table should have a copy of the official rulebook. Buy one from the NMJL. And read FAQ 9 for some general guidelines about how to deal with conflicts like this one.

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Copyright 2003 Tom Sloper. All rights reserved.