By Tim Kelly
Longtime friends Peg Cole and Joan Lehberger, both of Ocean City, were avid participants in a small group of mahjong players, when they suddenly found themselves alone.
“The others moved (out of the area),” Lehberger said, “and I think we got tired of playing against each other all the time. Peg said, ‘We’ve got to do something about this.’”
That was more than three years ago. The women contacted Ocean City Free Public Library Director Karen Mahar, who backed the idea to promote the ancient “mind sport” and agreed to provide space for devotees to play the game and for interested newcomers to learn it.
“The library was very supportive and it just took off from there,” said Lehberger, a retired teacher in the Cape May County Special Services district.
Mahjong, or Mah Jong, is believed to have originated in China around the 1850s during the Qing dynasty. It spread throughout the globe early in the 20th century, according to Wikipedia.
A so-called “mind sport,” mahjong is a game of strategy, calculation and includes a degree of chance. Although the game’s playing pieces – tiles decorated with Chinese characters and symbols – might appear complicated to outsiders, Lehberger said it’s not hard to learn.
“I taught my granddaughter, who is 12, and she became a good player,” she remarked.
On the other side of the age spectrum, “Mahjong is a great game for senior citizens,” Lehberger said. “It’s a thinking game, it keeps the mind active, and it’s social.”
Players are dealt 13 tiles, which are arranged, discarded and sometimes “robbed” from other players to form legal hands of 14 tiles. Depending on how the tiles are dealt, point values are assigned to each hand.
Most times there are four players to a game, and only one winner is determined per game. When there is a tie, the game is replayed until a winner is found.
Mahjong is a Mandarin Chinese word, the exact meaning of which is unknown. In Asia, the game is sometimes called “Sparrow,” supposedly because the clacking of the tiles were said to be reminiscent of the chirping sound of a small bird.
Those interested in learning to play the game or simply wishing to play should contact Julie Howard at the library, at 609-399-2434, extension 5222.
Howard, the library’s director of adult programming, added the group to its activities lineup, and coordinated times and locations to accommodate the group. Classes are held generally on Tuesdays from 9:30 to 11:30 a.m. Check with the library for availability to sign up.
“It has grown steadily over the three years,” Lehberger noted.
She said some of the students learn to play and then go on their own, taking their new skills into their social circles. Others stay with the Ocean City group that taught them the game.
Ocean City is the only place in South Jersey where prospective mahjong players can learn the game for free, Lehberger pointed out.
Mary Louise Hayes, the group’s third instructor (with Cole and Lehberger) said each of the instructors have their own playing styles.
“I learned the game from Peg and she is a very different type of player than I am, and Joan has her own (style),” Hayes said. “I’m definitely a Type A person and that (is reflected in her playing and teaching methods).”
Open playing is held on Thursdays from 1 to 3:30 p.m., space permitting. Occasionally, the group is bumped for higher-priority programming for school-aged children. That is a rare occurrence, however, and spirited games can be found there most Thursdays.
Mahjong comes in dozens of versions and has slight variations in the rules depending on where it is played. The American version is often played for money.
“Not in Ocean City, though,” Lehberger said with a laugh. “We don’t drink here, either.”
In addition to playing their favorite game, members of the group give back to the community that gave them a home.
“Twice a year we have an event at St. Augustine Church with a $20 fee to play and all of the money goes to support their missions,” Lehberger said of the church.
“We have a lot of very nice people in the group,” she added. “We enjoy playing, socializing and trying to do positive things in the community.”
Last month, approximately 30 people attended the group’s Christmas party at Greate Bay Country Club in Somers Point.
Not a bad upgrade from the days when Cole, a retired employee of the engineering department of Base Ten Systems in Trenton, and Lehberger were facing off against each other and searching for new players.