SUN CITY – Lucy Giallanza has loved mah-jongg since she first picked up one of the colorful, hand-engraved tiles used to play the centuries-old game.
“[I learned how to play] when I lived in New York about 20 years ago,” she said. “My Jewish neighbors taught me, and I loved the game at first.”
Giallanza wanted to keep her passion for mah-jongg thriving when she moved to Sun City, so she joined the Mah-Jongg Club. The club consists of approximately 70 members who play organized mah-jongg games throughout the year. However, there is one tradition the club has had since its inception: a tournament in June to kick off each year.
“The tournament, above all, is the Super Bowl of mah-jongg,” Giallanza said.
Four players play at once with one dealer.
Tiles are placed face-down in the center of the table, and each player collects two stacks of 18 tiles to create their “wall.”
Players collect tiles from each wall selected and make their hand.
Each player then draws a tile from their wall and discards it if they do not want to add it to their hand.
Players get points if they have certain hands, which they can correlate with scoring sheets.
If you are interested in learning how to play, the Mah-Jongg Club of Sun City teaches newcomers how to play the first Thursday of each month.
This year’s annual tournament was held on Thursday, June 28, and drew 28 participants from the club.
“It’s something that’s looked forward to the entire year,” said Shelley Esterson, this year’s tournament moderator. “People play more often because they have the tournament to look forward to.”
Esterson was president of the club from 2008-2011 and organized the tournament during that time. One thing she noticed over the years is the effect that mah-jongg has had on the players themselves.
“Many people have started games in their own homes after coming here,” Esterson said. “Many lifelong friends have been established through mah-jongg.”
Throughout the majority of the tournament, all that can be heard is the shuffling of tiles, calls of different scores, and a murmur of talking and joking.
“It’s not a kind of competitive tournament where there’s a lot of fighting and screaming,” Esterson said. “It’s a comfortable tournament among people who enjoy the game.”
This year’s tournament began at noon and ran until players started turning in their scorecards after 10 rounds of play, around 3:45 p.m. — nearly four hours after play began. After the tournament, the participants went to a celebratory dinner at Jameson’s to award prizes.
“[This year’s tournament] was very good,” said club president Mary Belcher, who is in her second year presiding over the club. “Everybody had a good time.”
At the dinner, prizes were given out to the top four winners of the tournament. In past years, there has been a trend with the top finisher.
“The bulk of people is close, but there’s usually the top winner who is light years ahead,” Esterson said.
But in this year’s tournament, the trend was broken. The top finishers were all within a margin of 25 points.
Monica Grabowski (160), the vice president of the club, took home the first-place prize of $75 after beating second-place finisher Carol Novelle (150) by a tight margin of just 10 points. Giallanza finished in third place and just 15 points shy of Grabowski with a score of 145. Ann Dukes rounded out the top four finishers and brought home her prize money of $30.
“The top winners get prizes that are covered by our dues because everyone pays a $10 membership fee to join the club,” Esterson said.
Although the Mah-Jongg Club hosts games pitting members against each other, it also serves as a forum for socializing and fun rather than just competitiveness.
“I would absolutely recommend it to people who have never played before,” Esterson said. “It’s a challenge, another way to keep your mind active, and a way to meet new friends.”
And even though Giallanza didn’t repeat as the tournament’s champion this year, she will still enjoy not only playing the game, but also teaching others how to play.
“We all socialize and joke about how close we were to winning,” Giallanza said. “It’s fun.”