Masters of Mahjong director, Jamie Grant, continues work on anticipated documentary.

GlassesProfilePicJamie Grant (36) is a director, producer, and photographer. He is also founder of Farpoint Productions, an independent production house based in Oxfordshire, UK.

This week I interviewed Grant, Director and Producer of Masters of Mahjong, a documentary chronicling mahjong and its spread throughout the world outside of China. Grant and his crew has been following and interviewing players around the world, did extensive filming at the 2017 World Riichi Championship in Las Vegas, and continues to produce what he aims to make “the definitive mahjong film for our time.”

Masters of Mahjong has now released a cut of some of the footage gathered from WRC 2017! While planning, filming, and production continues, Grant has taken the time to offer us a significant look into his background, goals, and the state of this anticipated documentary.


So you started you started a lot of your career, or your interests, in doing video game content?
Well, I was actually working in video production before I worked in video games, but if I’ve ever had a career in my life it would be a video game career. I lived in Japan for some time after university which allowed me to really gain a professional level of Japanese, you know, a fluent level and able to work with Japanese companies. And since then whenever I’ve needed work or wanted to move around into different fields I’ve found it easy to gravitate towards Japanese companies because I’m very familiar with the culture and the style of business.

But after I worked in Japan for about three or four years I came back to the south of England and worked in London in video production, and that was making factual television and documentaries for mainly cable and satellite channels. A lot of niche content; a lot of stuff about minorities and sort of underprivileged groups, and it gave me a great window into how you put together a piece of video content. But unfortunately that company didn’t really last in the long term and the owners got out of business when they could. Which was a good decision and I was, you know, young enough to be able to bounce back, which is when I went to Nintendo in Germany. I spent a little bit of time as a translator there but then soon became localization producer and I was working on…I was actually in the Pokémon division which is easily the hardest division there in my opinion. Other people may disagree but it’s…a behemoth, it’s a monster, it’s…you know, there’s so many companies, so many developers, a lot of offices, strange working hours, really, really hard schedules. It’s got a little bit of everything, but it was mainly a project management/producer kind of role and that’s where I really got to grips with big teams, long projects, stress, pressure. And, you know, after that, I think I did that for about four years, and then I was like, “Right. I’m going to just go on my own.”

Is that is that when you transitioned into documentary film making, or feature making?
Yeah. I mean, I knew I wanted to get back into doing video production somehow. But my first gateway back into it was to concentrate on photography. I’ve always been very passionate about photography, but I hadn’t really explored it on an absolute professional level. And so I did. I started to push myself to get work in photography, and I did, and I really started to understand cameras, technology, composition, artistic direction, light shadows, you know, those kind of things. And then I was like, “Okay, I’m ready to make this step up and be a director.”

I’ve been producing little pieces of work, corporate stuff and working with other creatives in my network that I really like, but I hadn’t done any directing because it’s just a completely different discipline. And I was like, “ You know what? Sod it. You know, I’m not even going to start small. I’ll start big. I’ll do a feature length doc. I’ll try it.” At the time I was living in Istanbul (which is another story for maybe another time.) When I came back to London I met with Gemma Sakamoto—you know the pro player and organization leader at WRC. We had worked at Nintendo together years ago. And I said to her, “What’s going on? What are you doing in your life?”

I knew, actually, that she’d done a lot of mahjong because she was teaching people at Nintendo when she was working in Frankfurt. But I didn’t really know the whole world and what she described to me was just unbelievable. I was like, “This is so, so rare, really.” And when I heard her story I instantly knew there’s something here about the world or the people of mahjong that can be made into a movie.

You mentioned before that a lot of the short video productions and interest pieces that you did for television were sort of very niche information and presentation. Mahjong is, in a Western environment, still very niche in its appeal; in its community. Is that what drew you to doing this as your first feature documentary?
Yeah. The simplest way to answer that is yes. Documentaries have to do a few things. They have to show a unique world from a unique perspective. And mahjong, I think in the modern day mahjong in the West, does that because it doesn’t matter what kind of mahjong you play in the West, you’re in the minority. It’s definitely niche, it’s definitely something special and that instantly hit me because it’s important when you do a documentary. You can’t just do something that you like.

And I do I do like mahjong. I have played it before—my parents owned a Hong Kong mahjong set. I hadn’t played that much to be honest with you. So I had to I certainly had to learn riichi mahjong for the first time after I met Gemma. But it’s really interesting because, well, I’m working with one of our executive producers, Candida Bradey, and Candida is a veteran documentary and narrative drama director and producer. When I was trying to explain to her about the unique nature of this world, the thing that she threw back at me to describe what I just said to her was that it sounded like a game that half a billion people play but no one has ever heard of.

I think that’s the best way you can sum up mahjong right now. There are lots of people playing, say, American mahjong in America, right? As we know there’s hundreds of thousands because lots of people buy the National Mahjong League’s card every year. But it’s still something that nobody really knows about. And even if you do play it you don’t know everything about it. Where is it from? Who made it? There’s a lot of mystery and mythical things out there.

Quite frequently I run into individuals who play mahjong that think what they’re playing is the only way, or aren’t really aware that there is a broader international appeal or spectrum to what they’re doing.
Yeah absolutely. And I think it’s kind of, let’s say “cute”, that many mahjong players who play only one type and are only familiar with one type will often tell you that their mahjong is the best mahjong. And I find this cute. I think other mahjong players, when they hear that, they might get defensive like, “No, my mahjong is the best.” But for me its just interesting that people are so…they have taken ownership of this game in a true sense. They’ve made it their own. I think if you look at the history of mahjong in, say, America, the American style mahjong known as the National Mahjong League rules, I think these kind of players would say that Mahjong is almost, you know, American. The way they play it, the way they feel about it, the people that they play with…there’s no connection to China or Japan. And I think that’s great. I think that it’s evolved and it’s formed its own culture.

Whatever your mahjong style is, whatever your community is, whatever your group is, wherever you are in the world, I think that lots of different people want to see that, not only mahjong players. I want this film, and the things that we reveal in the film, to be appealing to non-mahjong players because I think that’s a great goal to have, as well as to open the game to a completely new set of people; a new generation.

And you will know, and I’m sure lots of mahjong players today will know, that board games have become much more popular recently. There’s been a boom with them and I hope that mahjong can ride that wave, or create its own wave. I don’t know, but I think that’s definitely achievable with this film. So I’m looking to kind of…I mean in the footage that we’ve taken so far and what we filmed, when I show it to people who know nothing about mahjong they are much more open to the idea of finding out what it’s about when it’s explained to them through that lens—that it’s a board game, well it’s a tabletop game, and, you know, it has similarities. And of course it has all the strategy that more complicated games have, like chess.

Let’s turn a little bit more towards your actual production of the documentary. What has been your largest production challenge for this project?
Oh, it’s a great question. I think the first one…I’m going to pick first and then move up because there’s probably a couple. The first one was figuring out how to film mahjong, like, the actual game-play because as anyone who is a fan of mahjong knows, there is four players sitting at a table all looking in a completely different direction. And there’s a lot of things going on in front of your hand, behind your hand, to your left, to your right. You know, you’ve got people pon-ing and chi-ing, with tiles moving around from the middle of the hand to the edges of the hand. You cannot cover this properly with without a huge amount of cameras. I found this problem out on my first trip to Japan to film mahjong. We were lucky enough to be invited by the Japanese Professional  Mahjong League to film in their studio which is where they film their lives games and tournaments. And so I had at this point got myself a list of things that I’d love to show people, you know, in stylistic ways because we’ve got to offer up something new. There’s a lot of people who film mahjong streams and they’re done in professional ways. But in a film way, in film terms, that might not be the best way and it might not be that engaging.

Because they are filming with no less than five cameras.
Exactly, and that’s the first thing you notice. You realize, when you watch a stream, you’re watching about four or five cameras. And that’s the other problem with mahjong. And I’m probably going to ruffle some feathers by saying this but let’s take Japanese mahjong for a second. The hanchan can be quite long, especially in a tournament. The style of directing of the footage is very sedentary—the camera stays still. And you’re fixed on those four players, plus maybe you can see the discards if you’ve got the top down, bird’s-eye camera. And over a long period, this can be a little bit…boring.

Especially when you consider that, although the players sit there with this very intense, focused concentration, there’s not really a whole lot happening there either.
No. And if you know, and since we’re taking the example of the Japanese mahjong, the pros are taught to minimize their gestures for various reasons. For politeness, for example, and for fairness. I think if mahjong had as much money and coverage and popularity as, say, poker then you’d have all the flashy cameras. Then you’d work into the whole thing. You know in poker, pro poker is televised, and you’ll have people bluffing for like 10 minutes where they’re deciding whether or not to raise the other guy or call him or whatever. Maybe if we get to that point then mahjong can work on those things.

I mean if you see a Mondo production, they’re great at capturing some of the those moments…you’ve got to be quick. The director has to be very quick. It’s like a sport. I mean imagine how the directors and the crew work on filming football, for example. You’ve got to be, you know, milliseconds fast in decision making to capture those moments when, say, a really famous player starts bashing the table with his tiles because he feels like he’s going to win. But with smaller productions you can’t do that. You’ve just got your fixed cameras and I thought, well, we need to do something differently. We don’t want to do the same thing because we’re not offering the fans anything new.

So that was the first hurdle, like, what do we do? So the first thing I thought was, you know, I’m never going to have…there’s never gonna be an opportunity in the film to show an entire match—it’s too long. We’ve got enough things to get on with in the film. So if we shorten down the games to the point where, well, we don’t understand who’s discarding what and how the flow of the game is going tile by tile, then what should we focus on? And the answer was, “Well we should focus on the players. What are they doing? How are they feeling? What are they looking like?” So I started to explore more close ups and, you know, working with the cinematographer, Sam, trying to get their raw emotion and feeling through the lens from how they’re feeling from moment to moment; how are they reacting. Because that’s more interesting and I think a lot of players feel like they don’t want to show any emotion at the table because, you know, they definitely don’t want to show the tell. They don’t want to have the tell.

Do you feel like you’ve been successful in capturing that so far?
Oh yeah. At WRC I’m sure a lot of people tried really hard to kind of emulate that professionalism and stuff, but everyone has a tell and the camera does not lie. The point is not to expose people’s tells, but I think, when people are frustrated, when they’re tired, or when they’re excited, when they think they’ve got a good hand, it comes through. And I think from that you can build a really exciting picture of what’s going on in the match; in the hanchan. So that was kind of the first, biggest problem we had. Like, how do we  represent mahjong in an exciting and new way? And what it made me think of when I was going through this whole process was, “Man, I wish this was an anime!” Because in anime you can do anything you want. You can speed up time. You can slow down. You’ve got any angle you want.

So what was your number two challenge then?
Well number two is frankly getting to all these places because, you know, we are a UK production at heart, although every time I film anywhere I use local professionals and creatives. I mean there’s so many places and so many people that I want to film. The question is do we have the budget and resources to be able to do that—to go everywhere. That’s a huge ongoing challenge to be honest with you. Because we want to go to lots of tournaments; we want to go to lots of clubs. We won’t make them all, I know that.

So in the face of all of that, what’s been your most rewarding experience or your biggest revelation personally?
Rewarding experience—I’ll start there. Well I think the most rewarding experiences has been meeting all the different types of people who play mahjong. It’s certainly opened my eyes about what they think and how they play. Some people were more passionate than I could ever have imagined. Truly absorbed in this game to the point where I think there are people out there (and they know who they are, I’ve met them they know me) who will be practicing mahjong every free moment of their day. They’ll have a practice routine, a training routine coming up to a tournament. They’ll spend all their money on travelling around to go to a tournament. And those kinds of people sharing with me their lives, where they come from, who they are, how did they get to that point where mahjong was the thing that they do. That’s been the most rewarding thing because I could go to as many tournaments as I like, but I wouldn’t be able to make a great film and persuade people of the greatness of mahjong if it hadn’t been for people opening up their lives and their passion for the game. And so it’s a huge reward for me that they do that and I’m ever appreciative that they do that. That’s easily the single biggest reward.

On lots of different levels, smaller levels maybe, I get to see mahjong from a perspective that even players don’t. You know, I get to walk around the tables constantly. I mean, maybe refs know this best. I get to see all the hands happening live, and I get to see the behind the scenes too. I get to see players being nervous, being frustrated, being very excited when they win. You’ll see a few of those moments in the film. Those are some of the nicer moments, definitely.

So how about how about a revelation. This could either be, you know, something personal to you as a director/producer, or something specifically related to this project.
The biggest revelation is probably that for some people mahjong goes way beyond. I thought I could wrap this film up a little bit quicker than, in reality, I will take in terms of time. And the reason is because a lot of the people that I want to film, and I’ve met, and I continue to film…their lives are much deeper than I ever imagined. I didn’t think that this world would ever be as big and deep as it is, and the roots it’s taken in people’s lives, and the generations of their family and the culture, and so on and so forth. To be honest with you it’s much more than a hobby.

A lifestyle, would you call it?
Yeah, it is a lifestyle for some people. And I think that’s special. There is no one out there who’s organizing their life and their schedule and their weekly or daily routine around, you know, solitaire. I mean this is a game that, you know, it requires a lot of time, practice, patience. You need four players to play it when you play it live. Obviously, you could play online or, you know, on a piece of software. But I think it goes a lot further than what I ever imagined. This isn’t some kind of dying game that just happened to pop up in humanity over the period of a couple of hundred years, including now. It’s something much bigger than that now.

So if you had expected initially to have this done a lot sooner, in a nice package, where are you now with your overall production?
It’s hard to quantify; it’s hard to answer that. But I always imagined that a great climax and a great structure for this film and how it would end would be centered around a tournament. To follow the lives of a select number of players around the world and see, as they work towards getting better, and then appearing in a tournament, and then whether they win it or lose…that structure, that film, that was the initial idea that I came up with and that would be great. But it’s not going to. It didn’t work out like that.

I had a brief conversation with you at WRC, and you seemed, I don’t to want to say despondent, but very thoughtful and that’s what you mentioned. Do you want to talk about that?
Yeah. So to answer your question then, that’s where I thought we were going, and where we’re really going now is, rather than it being a film based around the competitive nature and obsessive nature of the players around, say, just Japanese mahjong, we’re going to take this pretty much global, or at least think of it in terms of the different mahjong types out there that are really, really popular right now and try and bring everything to light. So the best way I can sum this up is I want this film, right now, to be the definitive mahjong film for our time. I want this film to last for the next few decades as the film that a couple of generations of people will go, “Oh, you need to watch this film if you want to understand mahjong,” because we’re going to feature the history of mahjong; the history in America, and how it got there. The Japanese pro leagues, the anime, the manga. The difficult living of mahjong life in Japan, being a pro, and what it takes.

You will have known, if you’ve if you’ve been following us, that we’ve followed both Japanese players and the foreign pro players like Garthe Nelson and Jenn Barr. We’ll obviously feature European players and what it’s like going to a European tournament. And we’ll definitely focus on the history of the Chinese game, but I want to stress that we can’t feature everything, and I made a decision early on this isn’t about mahjong in China. China can make its own mahjong films and they are a lot better than what I’m going to make. You know, they make drama films, they make documentary films. For them it’s like…I’m sure that there’s probably, you know, as many mahjong clips online as there are football clips in the West. I don’t need to go into that space; that’s covered. I want to get mahjong in the West documented and recorded for history. So that’s where I want to take it really. The ins and outs of what is going to feature in the film will largely depend on the characters because I also want this to be a very character driven film. I want this to be about their lives and their connections to mahjong. I don’t want it to be just, you know, a very factual PBS style documentary.

Do you know what your next step is? What your next practical, logistical step is?
Oh, yeah. That’s a very easy question to answer. The next practical step is getting money. We are not fully funded. We’ve got this far through investment, through some very passionate, very helpful, very supportive American investors. But we’re ever on the hunt for funding to get this done and I think that’s going to decide a lot of what we do in the approach to it.

The direction is set. I know what this film is. But you know like I mentioned earlier, where are we going to go? Who are we going to film? And over what period as well? Because we can keep filming for…some documentaries take 10 years to make, you know. So we also have to decide that timeline. And I don’t I honestly don’t want it to be that long. I think there’s enough going on. It’s so rich and active right now in the community that I think there’s a lot to film.

So, let’s not neglect the people that work with you. What can tell me about your crew? Your supporters and inspirations behind this project and as a filmmaker?
Yeah sure. I think probably we have to start with Gemma Sakamoto because, as I mentioned before, it was a lot about what she’d experienced in mahjong, what she’s doing right now; that kind of inspired me to come up with ideas for this film and that got us going, you know. Her connections, her inviting me into the community, in UK and Europe, and allowing me to meet so many people in the States and Japan. She got me in the door with Japanese Professional Mahjong League. So, the film is massively, massively improved because Gemma is a big part of it. So, she’s one of our executive producers. And the other executive producer is Candida Bradey. You can look up Candida Brady’s profile on IMDB or wherever, but she’s worked in film television for about 20 years and her last couple of films are fantastic. She’s worked with Jeremy Irons on a film about garbage; it’s called Trashed. It’s won so many awards all over the planet. That’s great. She’s also done a great drama film recently about…it’s an adaptation of a book based in the north of England about this group of homeless kids and it’s about…

Urban and the Shed Crew?
Urban and the Shed Crew! Yeah that’s it. And that’s, you know, that’s out right now. You can buy it; you can rent it. But she’s phenomenal at basically understanding the ins and outs of the film business. And so, she’s a great supporter. She thinks the world of mahjong is really interesting and it needs to get out there, so she’s supporting on so many levels.

We’ve had lots of support from people, investment wise. I won’t go into detail about all the people that have given us money. But in terms of WRC of course we’ve worked very closely with David Bresnick, and lots of different people from NARMA and USPML, so that’s been fascinating. A few of them went out to Japan while I was there, which was great. So that’s when I first met them and that’s why some of them end up in the first trailer that we released last year. But since then I’ve also been working with PML, the Pacific Mahjong League, and LAPOM as well, in California. I could go into detail about everybody who wants to be a part of this, and I want them to be a part of it, and you are helping us right now. But I can’t. But yeah, from Seattle to Florida we’ve got people in the States who are being very supportive. In Europe we have, you know, people like Tina Christensen and EMA that are really helping out. So, I hope that we can film a lot more in Europe as well in the coming year. But…sorry you’re probably going to ask me about, I know you said the second part was like inspiration’s as a filmmaker. Is that right?

Inspiration, either for this project (obviously we already know that Gemma is a big part of that.) Or just anybody else that you want to recognize.
I think then if I can recognize one more person it would be the chairman, Moriyama, at JPML for giving us the support to film his players and their organization. Because I think that’s a big thing. I think a lot of riichi mahjong fans want to see more of that organization and what they do. And yeah, it was a real treat and a pleasure to be able to film behind the scenes at their studios. So, I’m hoping that makes it all into the film.


Thank you, Jamie, for giving us this opportunity to interview you about Masters of Mahjong!

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Tina’s Tactics #3 – Knowing Your Play Style

May 28th 2018, Mr. Takeo Kojima, a Mahjong Legend also known as Mr. Mahjong, passed away at the age of 82. I was deeply saddened when I learned of this, as I studied his books greatly and thought of him as my Sensei.

When the news of his passing hit, Kojima-sensei’s fans from all over the world were moved by his loss and my feed was covered with videos of Sensei playing mahjong. Perhaps you saw one of the famous videos of him winning 九蓮宝燈 (Nine Gates) in an official league/tournament game. This is just one of the many Yakumans that Kojima-sensei won in his lifetime, as his playing style was set on winning the biggest hands. He thought of 1000 or 2000 point hands to be “boring”, and his book also discusses the mindset of always aiming for a Mangan or higher.

I wanted to take some time to talk about Kojima sensei and his playing style, not only to pay respect and to honour him, but also because I wanted to highlight the importance of establishing your own playing style.

There are different play styles and each mahjong player will have his or her own way based on personalities and preference. Are you the Occult type that believes in your luck and reads the Nagare at the table? Are you the more modern, Digital type that focus on tile efficiency and winning a faster hand? If you, like Kojima-sensei, know and have established your personal style already, great! However, most players including me are somewhere in between and are still trying to figure out what works best.

Where do we start?

So, we all want to be better, right? Sure, but where do we start? Some people eventually get an idea after playing enough games, but for someone like me who prefers to plan things out, I need at least a general idea on where I need improvement.

To do this, I found my player statistics on Tenhou to be useful. I believe most of the readers already play on or at least know of Tenhou so I won’t go into the details to introduce it, but if you are not familiar with it, I recommend you to read through Ch.1 of Riichi Book 1, written by Mr. Daina Chiba.

As described in Ch. 2 of the same book and on http://arcturus.su/wiki/Tenhou.net_ranking, Tenhou analyzes your playing and will provide certain data. I believe players can benefit from looking at these numbers, since it gives you a general idea about the strengths and weaknesses of your playing style, which can then give guidance on points that need improvement.

Working on Defense

I find 放銃率 (Houjuu ritsu) – Deal in rate % – to be especially important because if you are dealing in too much, then you can still place lower even if you were winning often.

Houjuu ritsu – 放銃率 – Deal in rate %
Low (defensive) 10~11%
Average 12~13%
High (aggressive) 14~15%

If your Houjuu ritsu is too high, you may want to take time to learn more about defense strategies and study Ori techniques. Defense is something I am also personally working on too, which is why my previous two articles focused so much on defense techniques.

Working on Tile Efficiency

For some, mahjong is all about winning and getting that adrenaline rush. 和了率 (Houra ritsu) – Hand win rate % is a good indicator on how often you are winning.

Houra ritsu – 和了率 – Hand win rate %
Low (defensive) 20~21%
Average 22~23%
High (aggressive) 24~25%

If your 和了率 is low, you should study more about tile efficiency and going into Tempai faster. If you come under this category, you should also look at your common tendencies in aiming for Tempai.

Fuuro ritsu – 副露率 – Call rate %
Low (Menzen-type) 28%
Average 35~36%
High (speed-type) 40%

Riichi ritsu – 立直率 – Riichi rate %
Low (speed-type) 14%
Average 16~18%
High (Menzen-type) 20%

Generally a higher Fuuro ritsu will lead to higher Houra ritsu because you can get to Tempai faster, but could also lead to higher Houjuu ritsu because you have less tiles in your hand and this can leave you defenseless against others’ Tempai.

On the other hand, a player with higher Riichi ritsu is taking time to build his/her hand. This could mean slower Tempai and thus lower Houra ritsu, but the winning hand are generally worth more. Menzen style allows more options when folding too, as the player can choose the discard from the entire 14 tiles.

Working on Hand Building

Lastly, some players who have a high Houra rate may still struggle placing higher against the other opponents because their winning hands are too cheap, or “boring” as Kojima-sensei would say. In other words, winning 4 or 5 hands of 1000 points may give you higher Houra rate, but cannot win against a single winning Mangan. 平均得点 or 平均和了点 (Average score) would be an indicator on how high you are scoring with your winning hands, but this includes uma and oka on Tenhou so it is not exactly raw data. Nonetheless, it can give you a general idea.

If you are facing this issue, take some time to study the different Yaku and work on tile efficiency with number of Hans in mind. If your Fuuro ritsu is on the higher end, consider thinking twice before calling Pon or Chi so that you can keep your hand Menzen, which gives you the option to Riichi and potentially more points.

Interesting Patterns

Page 40 of Chiba’s book looks at hand-performance statistics across the Tenhou players and shares how the deal-in rate steadily decreases as players move up the ranking. He emphasizes the importance of defensive skills, and I would like to second this.

If you look at the Tenhou rank players’ data shared on a blog by mahjong writer Makoto Fukuchi (http://fukuchi.cocolog-nifty.com/blog/2015/03/post-a7cf.html), the average 和了率 (Houra ritsu, discussed below) is 20% and 放銃率 is 10.6%.

The same pattern applies offline too. Mondo TV provides the similar data on the Pros at http://www.mondotv.jp/…/mpl-of…/ranking/winning_tile_average, and when we look at the average rates of the 5 players with the most number of games, the average 和了率 is 20% and 放銃率 is 10.3%. Amazingly similar!

When we look at Kojima-sensei’s data in the Mondo TV database, his 和了率 is 18.22% and 放銃率 is 8.43%. Interestingly, even though he was known for his “flashy” play style, the numbers show how he was a defensive player. Again, this shows how defensive skills are crucial in mahjong, and aiming for larger hands is not an excuse to carelessly push all the time.

May his legacy live on and inspire many others to follow his path.

Resources

https://www22.atwiki.jp/vipdetenho/pages/306.html
http://majandofu.com/mahjong-winning-rate
http://blog.livedoor.jp/kazucchi4465/archives/25810696.html

Yoroshiku onegai shimasu

 Yoroshiku onegai shimasu (よろしくおねがいします)

If you have ever played a hanchan of riichi mahjong with Japanese players or other traveled individuals, especially in formal play, you have likely seen players bow to each other at the table saying, “yoroshiku onegai shimasu,” before beginning the game. This formal opening is carried over from Japan, where social harmony is woven into the fabric of the culture. The words are a quintessential Japanese phrase that is difficult to directly translate to English, as the meaning implies a host of sentiment and manners that vary based on context. The general idea, in the context of mahjong, roughly translates to, “thank you for your time, nice to meet you, I am excited for our game, and will do my best.”

Not only does this show manners and respect towards your opponents, but it is also a promise to bring your best game to the table. I want to dig into this, as well as how it dovetails into good manners at the table.

An anecdote was recently related to me about a player who spent a good amount of time between their own turns chatting with others outside the game or was distracted by their phone. At the end of the hanchan, an opponent at the table said to them, “That was a good game. Too bad you missed it.” Nobody wants to compete for a victory that feels empty because an opponent phoned it in. What satisfaction is there in the challenge if other players, regardless of their skill level, didn’t make any effort to truly participate? Through either negligence or intent, that player is sending a message to the others which says, “you aren’t worth my time or effort”.

Respect at the mahjong table is a mutually beneficial arrangement. Four players convene in a common place at a given time, each armed with the sum of their own experience. Each offers and receives an opportunity to test their own skill against those of their opponents, as well as an chance to learn and improve. Poor sportsmanship, bad manners, or a half-hearted effort not only deprives ALL players of an opportunity to improve, but also cheapens the experience.

If you play mahjong, you owe it to yourself and those you play with to offer respect, good manners, and a strong effort.

The most immediate way to be respectful at the table is with your manners. There are a number of conventions in riichi mahjong intended to formalize manners:

Where possible, play with only one hand. There are extremes to this one (google games between Japanese pros and watch how they handle tiles) and players are going to vary in dexterity, but the spirit behind it is draw your tile and discard with one hand. This shows the table that you aren’t up to any possible shenanigans.

Play your discard before putting your drawn tile into your hand. The next player can’t start their turn until your discard hits the table. It is considered rude to make the whole table wait while you shuffle and rearrange tiles when this can easily happen while it is not your turn. Draw. Discard. Then sort.

Put away potential distractions. There is quite possibly nothing more frustrating to a player than consistently reminding someone that it is their turn, or repeatedly being asked, “what was your discard?” Putting a nose into a smartphone or holding a conversation on the side is not only distracting to other players, but says to the table, “this isn’t worth my attention.” Stow the phone and hold the conversation for a break. Use the time to look over your hand and consider possible discards. Speaking of which…

Know your potential discards. The shape of a hand can change quickly based on the draw, and sometimes a few extra moments are needed to consider this new information.  But if the table is consistently waiting on you to choose a discard after your draw, you aren’t using your time wisely and the rest of the table is paying for it. The time between your last discard and your next draw should be used to evaluate your hand and consider what you might discard if you drew x. You’ll generally have a better idea what you’re about, the game can proceed quickly, and you’re showing a healthy respect for the time of the other players.

Be gracious when winning or losing. Nothing says “poor sport” like storming away from a table having lost, or gloating over your victory having won. While it feels superb to win a hanchan, if everyone has brought their best game to the table, then everyone walks away with something valuable.

Thank your opponents for a game well played. Win or lose, if everyone played their best, everyone had the opportunity to learn something. Thank the table for the challenge and opportunity.

What other conventions in manners do you know and use at the table?

 

Spring at the Garden

Spring at the Garden

DFWM is returning to the Japanese Garden at the Fort Worth Botanical Garden this weekend for their Spring Festival. Fall was our first visit and we had a great time meeting and teaching everyone that stopped to see us. We look forward to another successful weekend.


Fort Worth Botanical Garden
Japanese Garden
3300 Japanese Garden Ln
Fort Worth, TX 761076

April 28 & 29  10am – 5pm

Admission: Adults $12, Children 4-12 $4