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Las Vegas Mah Jongg Madness 2012

In March 2012 it was my pleasure and privilege to attend Mah Jongg Madness' Las Vegas tournament at Harrah's as a guest of the director, Gladys Grad. I met a number of fun players, sellers, and tournament organizers.

Mah Jongg Madness was founded by Larry and Dorothy Krams. I met Larry and Dorothy in 1998 at their tournament in Las Vegas, at the Orleans. They were very nice folks, and welcomed me graciously. They've both since passed away, but Gladys keeps their memory alive at her tournaments. She also keeps alive their tradition of niceness. It's a pleasure to attend one of her tournaments, because of her and hubby Phil's good humor and welcoming ways. And one of the rules of her tournaments is that mean players are not allowed. She announced at the beginning of the tournament that if anyone encounters a mean player, to report the incident and the mean person's name.

And that's just one of her good rules. As I noted to a bulletin board correspondent recently (see "What is the most accepted source of rules for NMJL play?" from Jane D, February 28, 2012), the National Mah Jongg League's rules were primarily written for home games. Since the League hasn't codified tournament rules, tournament organizers set their own. Gladys sees a need for official/uniform tournament rules, and she is hard at work gathering support of prominent tournament organizers in establishing Mah Jongg Master Points™. She asked me my opinion*, and she carefully wrote down my reply: something along the lines of, "Other countries have ranking systems, but American mah-jongg doesn't. It needs one. - Tom Sloper."
* My opinion, it turned out, holds some sway with Gladys. She surprised me by introducing me to the entire tournament assemblage as "the second most important person in [American] mah-jongg after Ruth Unger." Such high praise I was not expecting! notes that Gladys is "recognized as the most knowledgeable and experienced 'Mah Jongg Grand Master' in America," and with the many years she's been organizing tournaments and cruises, this is a deserved title. She has a name for the rules she uses at her tournaments, but for the fun of it (and for the alliteration of it), I'll just call them "Gladys' Gospels" herein. I'm not listing everything - just the noteworthy highlights.

Gladys' Gospels

The sets are all the same type (with the same 1B, dragon, and flower designs) to avoid player confusion.
NMJL card must be on the table. Some hardcore players "show off" by playing without a card, and it is seen as an intimidation tactic.
Rude or abusive behavior (as mentioned above). First occurrence gets a polite warning; second occurrence results in banishment.
Misnamed discard. A rather strict rule that says that the named tile must be discarded in place of the misnamed tile (provided that the namer has the named tile in her hand). I didn't witness it applied; the couple times it happened at my table, the namer simply named the tile properly. Of course, if a misnamed discard is wanted for mah-jongg, the hand is over, and the discarder gave it.
Rule of Simultaneous Occurrence (aka "Precedence of Claims," or "Concurrency"). I hadn't heard this one before, but I like it very much, as discussed on the bulletin board (see "It didn't click," from Lynn P, March 13-14, 2012). When a claim for a discard occurs simultaneously with the racking or discarding of the subsequent tile, the picker has to put her tile back on the wall, and the caller gets the live discard. (Benefit of the doubt goes to the claimant.)
Racking a taken discard. I always caution my students not to pick the discard up, then bring it to the sloping front of the rack before exposing tiles atop the rack. I warn that in some tournaments you'll be called dead. Gladys made a distinction between doing this for an exposure or for mah-jongg; racking a taken tile for exposure would be grounds for death, but racking a taken tile for mah-jongg is not (not as of March, 2012, anyway).
Ten Commandments of Mah Jongg. These are not so much rules as they are a cute wall placard or T-shirt design. Rather than reprint them all here (they may be copyrighted, for all I know), I refer the reader to Google. I found them in Larry Krams' gallery on a Picasa web album.

A Rule Controversy
An apocryphal "rule" kept circulating among the players. The first time I heard it mentioned, somebody at my table asked me about it in a way that didn't make it clear to me what was going on. Apparently some players have been taught that when picking a tile from the wall, the tile must be racked. Gladys, as well as Judi and Bill Nachenberg, and I all agree that the important thing is not that you rack the tile, but that you take the time to bring it back to your side of your rack. The point is not to shut off the possibility of another player calling the live discard but rather to give other players a fair amount of time to call the live discard.
It's the old bugaboo, pick'n'rack, again. Because the live discard is live until you rack or discard, many people think it's necessary to hurry up and rack -- and some teachers are apparently spreading that misconception as if it was an official rule.
In this regard, Bill Nachenberg told me of a player who would quickly reach, flip the wall tile right there by the wall (without bringing it back behind her rack), and quickly discard if she didn't want to keep it. This is clearly an aggressive move that doesn't give other players time to call the previous player's discard.
As part of her announcements to the gathered assemblage, Gladys quoted, "The practice to pick and rack a tile makes it extremely difficult for anyone to claim the previous discard. It is ungracious and aggressive." Gladys said Ruth Unger was the source, and yes, Ruth did print that, but Ruth attributed it to me (from The Red Dragon & The West Wind), in the 2008 NMJL bulletin.
In any case, it's most certainly not true that it's a rule that a player "must rack" the taken tile. She is permitted to simply look at it and then discard it, without racking. The key to being fair to the other players is to pause a beat before reaching. It doesn't add so much time as to make the game go slowly.


At risk of overlooking someone important, I met some notable people at the tournament (besides Gladys and Phil and their team of hard-working folks including Gil Linderman): Faye Scher (Where The Winds Blow), Judi and Bill Nachenberg (Mah Jongg Fun L.A.), Roberta and Steve Last (Travel Wizard), Vicky Vera (Versatile Machinery), Kimberly Powell (Marvelous Mah Jongg), Slava Novozhenya (MahjongTime), Janet Woodall (The Art of Mah Jongg), Judy Blumenthal (E-Z View Racks), and Cheri Neiman (Mah Jongg at the Kalahari). Folks were selling their mah-jongg merchandise, and I was no exception. Before the tournament, I'd ordered 20 copies of my book from Harper Collins, and I sold every single one. (Yay!) Autographed, of course.
One player I met was from San Francisco. She told me she'd heard me on the radio the previous week. And it's true, I had been on the radio. I was taking photos of the hooplah surrounding GDC (the annual Game Developers Conference) and all the TV trucks, when a reporter from KGO radio stuck a microphone in my face and asked me, "What do you think of the new iPad?" I was clearly an iPhone user (that's what I was using to take my photos), so I said, "Well, I have an iPhone, and I have a laptop. I don't really know what I need a tablet computer for." And I instantly regretted it (figuring somebody I knew in the game industry would hear it and I'd be tagged as behind the times) - and a couple hours later, Blackberry gave me a Playbook tablet computer! But I digress. I was talking about Mah Jongg Madness people...
Here's me with the Mah Jongg Grand Master herself, Gladys Grad.
This tournament was the first chance I'd had to meet Faye Scher in person. She runs Where The Wind Blows (a Maj Exchange sponsor).
This is Tony and Julie Rizzutto. I autographed their book.
(Photo courtesy the Rizzuttos)
Sorry this one is blurry; this is the only photo I got that includes Kimberly Powell of Marvelous Mah Jongg. That's her on the left, then me and Gladys, then Slava Novozhenya of MahjongTime.
Here's an un-blurry shot of Slava and me. Last time I saw Slava was at Chengdu or maybe Copenhagen.
(Photo courtesy Tony and Julie Rizzutto)
Blurry photos are better than no photos, that's what I always say (not). But this is the only shot I got of Vicky Vera with her versatile mah-jongg dealing machine.
This is me with Alice. She's recently moved to Las Vegas and is looking for players. She wore a tag pinned to her lapel to that effect. During our game together, I looked at that pin and thought, "if that was pinned to my lapel I would so prick myself on it..." Well, wouldn't you know, I was later helping pick up stuff off the floor and I pricked my finger -- it was her note and pin.
If you live in Las Vegas and need a player, go ask Alice. I think she'll know. When logic and proportion have fallen sloppy dead, and the white knight is talking backwards and the Red Queen's "Off with her head!" (Sorry; I couldn't resist.)
Here's Bill Nachenberg of Mah Jongg Fun L.A. - us guys gotta stick together! He shared some information with me about getting Shanghai: Second Dynasty working in Windows 7 (basically: I bought the wrong version of Windows 7).
All the tiles in use at the tournament were from the same basic style of set, but sometimes tiles from one set made their way into another set, and they weren't an exact match. I was struck by this dragon kong I made. What's up with number three -- must be a male.

In The Male Minority
As is usual with American mah-jongg tournaments, the vast majority of the players were female. Of around 400 players, I counted just 7 or maybe 8 male players. Because there were so many women, the men's room was taken over by women. Funny story: one time I went in there and there was a line of women. I actually just got in line with them, and took a stall. As I was heading to the sinks to wash my hands, somebody in the line saw my name tag and said, "Tom Sloper? You're my hero!" I said, "Why, because I braved a crowd of women in the men's room?" She said, "No, I love your website!"
After that one time, I decided to find another men's room instead (whenever the near one was occupied by females).
I chose to play this tournament "in costume." I wore my baseball cap that says "dragon" in Chinese on it (given me by Tamaki Abe when the Japan Mah-Jongg Players Association "friendship tour" came to L.A. - see and my vest from the 2005 Beijing CMCF (see
As I arrived at my table for a new round, one woman looked at me and said, "What on earth are you all got up for, wearing a Chinese hat and a Chinese vest, are you supposed to be some kind of... Oh my god, you're Tom Sloper."

I had no idea my name had become so well known in American mah-jongg circles. I should probably get out more.

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