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January 11, 2012

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Mahjong boasts fans overseas

MAHJONG, the famous game played with clinking tiles, is a recent instance of Chinese culture or soft power spreading around the world and one lively community in Denmark is hooked on the "game of a thousand intelligences." Yang Jingzhong and Devapriyo Das report.

The rattle of plastic tiles and relaxed conversation fills the air in a community center hall in eastern Copenhagen, where a group of Danes are playing mahjong, a traditional Chinese board game.

In Denmark, whose population is crazy about football, handball and cycling, mahjong's intellectual challenge and exoticism have raised its profile in recent years.

"The beauty of the tiles inspired me to start playing. They are quite exotic to a European person," says Tina Christensen, chairman of Mahjong Denmark (MD), a national association for Danish mahjong players.

"Later, I became fascinated by the many variants in the game. When you get a new hand of tiles, you have a new mystery to solve, and that is very fascinating," she adds.

Christensen, a researcher at the Danish Meteorological Institute, the country's weather forecasting bureau, founded the mahjong association in 2000 to play the game in an organized and regular way.

The association started with a handful of members meeting to play at a cafe and today has around 50 full members, who meet every Thursday evening in the community center.

Its monthly introductory courses have nurtured a new generation of mahjong fans in this country, many of whom play outside of the association.

Traditionally, mahjong is thought of as a game played only by Chinese people, who sit around mahjong tables set up in quiet side corners.

So it is something of a shock to find blue-eyed, blond-haired players of the game who have Danish language names for the various mahjong tiles.

Mind game

In fact, Mahjong Denmark's members include ethnic Danes, Chinese, East Asian residents and other expatriates living in Denmark. All of them share a fascination for the game's intellectual and social character.

"I enjoy a game like mahjong, where you have to calculate your moves, both because of the multiple combinations and because every 10 minutes you get a new hand, which forces you to make new decisions," says MD member Henrik Leth, a software specialist for a mobile telecommunications company.

Christensen agrees, calling mahjong "the game of a thousand intelligences. Whenever you sit down at the mahjong table, it is a new game. You have to use your head."

MD members also find the game a great way to meet new people and unwind after a long day at work.

"There is a strong social aspect which makes it nice to play like this. It is not just about playing but also about socializing," says Morten Andersen, a student of computer science, who believes online games cannot compare with mahjong.

Sheila Seah Hansen, a Singaporean expatriate who learned mahjong from her Chinese mother, pointed to yet another advantage.

"For me, as a foreigner, it is a way of getting to know the Danes better by playing an Asian game," she says, explaining why she was attracted to Mahjong Denmark.

Many of the members discovered mahjong at university, while others heard about it at Danish board game conferences or through family and friends who have visited China.

Mahjong Denmark is now an established sports organization and is part of the European Mahjong Association (EMA), which Christensen helped to found; she is also the president.

The first EMA European championship was held in 2005 in the Netherlands, which is widely considered as the pioneer of European Mahjong culture.

The EMA helped boost popular awareness of the game in other European countries and Mahjong Denmark itself hosted the European Championship in Mahjong in Copenhagen in 2007.

In the same year, Christensen and nine of her colleagues participated in the Mahjong World Championships in southwestern China's Sichuan Province, where France and Denmark were runners-up to the overall title, which was won by China.

The World Mahjong Organization, which organizes the World Championship, has decided to hold the event every two years as of 2010. It hopes to incorporate an educational forum, exhibition, and tourism activities into the third championships, to promote Mahjong as a healthy cultural pastime all over the world.

A four-player game, Mahjong is played with a set of 144 tiles or cards, bearing ornate images or Chinese characters. Players receive a "hand" of tiles, with 16 hands needed for a full game, the hands being reshuffled around every 10 minutes.

There is no obligatory rule set for the game, but classical Chinese, official Chinese and Japanese Richii rules are among those promoted by Mahjong Denmark.

The goal is to collect a winning combination of tiles while determining how close one's opponent is to winning. However, the art lies in making use of advantages to win, and minimizing losses when faced with a setback.

"In Denmark we are known for discussing things," Christensen says, reflecting on the Danish approach to the game.

"So after a hand is finished, we might put down the tiles and ask each other what we would have done, which tiles we would discard, and which ones we would aim for," she adds.

A beginner could learn the basic rules in a few hours, but it could take a lifetime to master the game. Yet, there is an element of luck involved, which makes a game's outcome unforeseeable. "A worse player than you can win, if they get a very good hand to start with," Leth says.

Mahjong Denmark has a ranking system that scores player's theoretical skills, practical skills, points achieved and tactics to calculate their overall results.

Apart from getting a local or national ranking in competitions hosted four to five times annually in either Copenhagen or Aarhus, two biggest cities in Denmark, players can also attain higher European ranking by participating in international competitions.

Points are tallied over many months, making the quest for glory an unhurried affair. But competitiveness is also an important facet of the game here.

Indeed, Danish mahjong players took first runner up in the individual and second runner-up positions in the team events at the European Mahjong Championships in Italy in August 2011. That places Denmark third in the European team rankings and gives it four out of 10 spots in the European top 10 individual rankings.

Ultimately, it is the thrill of intellectual challenge that keeps Denmark's mahjong players up late into the evening, sipping green tea and musing over their next move.

"I feel I can keep learning something about and from the game, even after I have been playing it for 10 years. I do not think that applies to other games," Andersen says.


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