Mah jongg


clockwise from top left: Missy Van Lokeren, Susan Slosman, Corie Herschelman, Kathleen Sweeny

“It’s amazing how well you get to know these people. We play every week, and that adds up over three-and-a-half years.”

–Missy Van Lokeren, host of a weekly mah jongg group

by Jessie Ammons

photograph by Christer Berg

By the middle of the week, Missy Van Lokeren and her friends need an outlet: Come noon each Wednesday, it’s gametime. “It’s strategy; it’s luck…” says Corie Herschelman, one of Van Lokeren’s friends and fellow players, before Van Lokeren finishes her sentence “…it’s a thinking game.”

They’re talking about mah jongg, an ancient Chinese tile game similar to rummy. Van Lokeren, Herschelman, and friends Kathleen Sweeny and Susan Slosman play every week at Van Lokeren’s home in Five Points. They spend three hours chatting and scheming: Out of 144 total tiles, four players begin the game with 13 tiles each. Through a choreographed give-and-take, the goal is to draw and discard tiles until 14 tiles are organized into four groups that comprise a legal hand. “People sometimes say, ‘Don’t you play that when you’re 80?’” Herschelman says, “But it’s had a resurgence. I think a lot of the people that used to play bunko are now playing mah jongg.”

Groups typically form casually and socially, mainly via word-of-mouth. This particular group, for example, began because Slosman, Sweeny, and Van Lokeren all had kids in the same class at Ravenscroft School. Their children’s pick-up time determined the weekly time frame. “We play for two to three hours,” Sweeny says, “because that used to be when we’d pick up our kids.” Now that the crew has graduated, the three-hour slot has stayed “out of habit.”

It’s also remained because of the friendships formed. With years of playing under their belt – all of the women play in multiple groups, and often play with their spouses and children, too – the Wednesday afternoon group has learned to multitask during play. That comaraderie is the unanimous favorite aspect. “Some groups are a little ruthless about rules,” Slosman says, “but not us.” She’s added a layer of meaning, too, by bringing a vintage mah jongg set that was her husband’s grandmother’s. Using those heirloom tiles, the group “plays for money” – never more than a dollar in quarters – kept in coin pouches given to the group by Slosman’s mother-in-law.

They each look forward to their mah jongg session like many look forward to an afternoon cup of coffee, as a pick-me-up. “It’s like a men’s poker night,” Sweeny says with a chuckle. “We have mah jongg day.”