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Mah Jongg -- A pastime gaining popularity

Joyce Larsen (center) plays Mah Jongg with a group of women who gather every Wednesday at the Elks Club in Alexandria. (Echo Press photo by Caroline Roers)

While cribbage and bridge have been common games in the past few decades, a new game has recently started to gain popularity, and now holds the interest of more than 350,000 players - Mah Jongg.

"Most of us ladies travel south for the winter and we play Mah Jongg with the people there. But then, when we come back to Minnesota in the summer, we don't have anyone to play with, so we decided to start a Mah Jongg club here," Joyce Larsen of Brandon noted.

So far, there are 10 women who gather at the Elks Club in Alexandria every Wednesday at 2:30 p.m. to play Mah Jongg, but they are always looking for new players.

Mah Jongg, similar to the western card game rummy but played with tiles rather than cards, originated in China some 100 years ago.

During its inception, the game was only played by the ruling class; but after being introduced to all classes, it was met with instant popularity and still remains one of the most popular games in the East.

The game is played with 152 tiles adorned with Chinese symbols. Because of this, the women had to learn what the symbols represented in order to play the game.

"We all had to learn the Chinese symbols, but it was not hard at all," Larsen recalled. "Some of the symbols are as easy as dragon and flower."

During the game, three or four people sit around a square table.

Each person starts with a line of 34 tiles in front of them called the "wall," and 14 tiles in their hand.

In the American version, each player then passes three unwanted tiles to the other people at the table in hopes of receiving tiles that help their hand; this is called the "Charleston."

After exchanging tiles, each person picks from each wall until all the tiles are discarded into the center or in the hands. The goal of the game is to get tiles in the hand that match one of the 50 or more hands of Mah Jongg on the Standard Hands Card.

"The symbols on the tiles are represented as letters, like D equals dragon, on the Standard Hands Card. It makes it easier to tell which tiles are used for which hand," Larsen said.

An example of a hand is FFFF DDDDD 11111, meaning four flowers, five dragons and five tiles with ones on them.

Jokers are also used throughout the game in the American version of Mah Jongg in order to help complete hands.

Though the game may seem confusing at first, it takes very little time to master the elementary principles of Mah Jongg

While the ladies in the Alexandria Mah Jongg club do play the game to win, the room is usually full of laughter and chatter. During the game, they learn from one another's mistakes and ask questions regularly.

"We really learn together," Larsen said. "Some of the women have been playing Mah Jongg for a long time, but we never stop learning and teaching."

Many of the women learned Mah Jongg so they could play in the South, but some decided to learn it just to try something new.

"Mah Jongg is good for your mind and your brain to just get out of your comfort zone and try something new," Larsen noted.

If you are interested in joining the Alexandria Mah Jongg club, go to the Elks Club any Wednesday at 2:30 p.m., or contact Joyce Larsen at 952-210-6239. For more information on the game, visit