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Jun. 25, 2019 | Tuesday
Local News
Mahjong community helps keeps minds active while building friendships
Carol Matheson, Trish Spagnol, Marlene Walther and Lesley Walsh meet for their weekly Mahjong tile game at the Community Centre. (Jer Houghton/Niagara Now)

When Lesley Walsh first moved to Niagara-on-the-Lake from Newmarket more than five years ago, she turned to the NOTL Newcomers group to stay active after retirement.

What she didn’t know, was how an ancient Chinese game would foster so many lasting new friendships.

At the time, members from the group were meeting regularly to play Mahjong (also referred to as, Mah Jongg), a Chinese tile-based game that hones in on concentration, memory and strategy.

“A couple of the ladies got together and taught me the game, and I got absolutely hooked on it, very, very quickly,” Walsh says. “Each hand is a challenge.”

Played in groups of four or three (and rarely two), the tile-based game is complex, and not something that you can just sit in on.

It revolves around 54 hand sequences dictated by the Mahjong card, which changes at the beginning of every April.

“(That’s) what also makes this game so interesting and why so many people like it to keep their memory going.”

Walsh says the game constantly keeps your mind active by trying to quickly figure out what hands players are trying to play while trying to win yours.

“It’s extremely good for keeping your brain active. Think of it as a skill game, strategy game, memory game to know what tiles have been given out,” she says.

Since arriving to NOTL, Walsh says the popularity of the game has increased “ten-fold” in town.

You can now find organized Mahjong at weekly drop-ins played at the community centre and bi-monthly games through the NOTL Newcomers – it’s even spread into residents’ homes where groups meet to play and rotate from house to house each week.

“It’s unbelievable the play at the different venues,” she says, explaining that at some houses there are anywhere from two to four tables playing at one time for upwards of three hours.

“In the group I’m with, there’s eight of us that meet but I know of 20 to 30 women who belong to different groups, and they’re all doing this.”

Depending on the venue and group playing, each table will have different rules to make the game more challenging and enjoyable, and this is why training has become such a big aspect to starting, Walsh explains.

Walsh says she started doing a lot of training because of the amount of interest from so many people wanting to learn. Though a lot of her training is through the NOTL Newcomers, she trains her sorority club and has trained friends, acquaintances and couples in the past.

“I just started training a number of women, and then my name got out, and now I do a lot of training for the newcomers that are coming in,” she says.

“It’s not one of those games that you can just go and sit and watch how it’s played because there are a fair amount of rules and you have to have an understanding of how the tiles work.”

She says she typically takes four to six people at a time over three weeks, which starts with learning how to set up the game, understanding the different types of tiles and knowing how each group of tiles are paired.

She says the second and third sessions are more about reinforcing the moves and strategies in how to start matching the patterns and tiles and being able to move around the card.

“That’s why I do this over three sessions, then they’re not intimidated by some of the more experienced players because they will feel more comfortable in being able to ask questions,” Walsh adds.

“When you go out after you’ve had your training, however you get trained, most people say, ‘I’ve had training, but I am new.’ Everybody’s been in that position, so they don’t mind helping people out and answering lots of questions like, ‘Can I do this? Or, I can put this? Will this work?’”

To be trained in the game of Mahjong by Walsh for free, she is asking anyone interested to contact the community centre by leaving your information with the main desk and a group training session can be arranged.

For anyone looking to drop-in and play, the community centre offers Mahjong every Friday in the Mori room from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. Residents can also join the NOTL Newcomers Mahjong group to play.

“It’s just continually grown and grown – you go into the community centre at any time and you’ll always see someone with a game of Mahjong going on,” she says.

“Everybody’s always wanting to make sure that they keep active. It’s a social game, you’re out meeting new people, but most of all, you’re keeping your brain active.”