Feb 3, 2023 - News

Mahjong is having a moment in Charlotte

Photo: Jacqueline Ward. Courtesy of Mahj in the City

If you’ve seen The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel or Crazy Rich Asians, you may be familiar with a game called mahjong.

Flashback: It first arrived in the U.S. in the 1920s via wealthy travelers who brought it back from China, says Jill Graham, founder and instructor at Queen City Mahjong.

Today, most people in the U.S. play American mahjong, which has slightly different rules than traditional Chinese mahjong.

Why it matters: Mahjong exploded in popularity in Charlotte during the pandemic, when we all had a lot of downtime and were eager to pick up new hobbies, local instructors say.

  • “You could play with the people that you could safely see,” says Leigh Young of Mahj in the City.
  • Like pickleball, another sport that surged in popularity during the pandemic, mahjong appeals to players of all ages.

How it works: In American mahjong, you pick up and discard decorated tiles (which are based on Chinese characters and symbols) until you arrange 14 tiles into one of the approved pattern options.

  • The patterns are designated in a rules card put out annually by the National Mah Jongg League.
  • This card changes every year.
  • Mahjong is similar to the card game rummy, and is typically played in groups of four.

Though it’s often considered a retired person’s game, mahjong is quickly becoming popular among Charlotteans of different generations.

What they’re saying: “It’s the perfect combination of social, challenging and aesthetically pleasing,” Graham says. “You can chat with your friends and have a snack or a glass of wine while you’re playing, but the game still keeps your brain active.”

She says she’s teaching everyone from high school students to grandmothers.

  • In January, Graham taught the game to 126 people.
  • She’s given lessons at tennis clubs, country clubs, the Junior League of Charlotte and even at popular boutique Boem as part of a Cinco de Mayo event.
  • At one of the country clubs where she teaches, there’s a 50-person waitlist for classes.

Ashley Sigmon and Leigh Young of Mahj in the City are getting inundated with requests, too.

Context: Besides the lessons they offer here in Charlotte, they’ve been asked to travel to places like Charleston, Maryland, Washington, D.C., and Texas to teach.

  • Unlike other hobbies, you don’t need any special skills to enjoy mahjong, Sigmon says. That’s because much of the game comes down to luck.
  • This makes the game feel accessible to all ability levels.
  • Both Young and Sigmon have taught their husbands and children the game and now play regularly with them.

Zoom out: For some, a mahjong group serves the same purpose as a book club or a softball league, allowing them to decompress during the work week.

“I love the tradition of mahjong. I like that it’s something that can grow with me and I can play it as I age,” says Alexandra Whitesell, who’s been taking lessons through Queen City Mahjong.

  • She says that she enjoys that the game provides a point of connection with her grandmother, who’s played for roughly 50 years.

What’s next: If you want to learn how to play mahjong, the instructors from Queen City Mahjong and Mahj in the City say that two lessons should give you a good foundation for understanding the game.

  • Mahj in the City typically offers group lessons twice a month. One session is for newbies, and one is for those with some experience.
  • Group lessons in Charlotte are $40 per person. They also offer in-home private lessons for $50 per person.
  • Queen City Mahjong offers in-home private lessons for groups of eight or more for $40 per person, as well as weekly group lessons on Thursdays at the Charlotte Bridge Association.

Plus, there are several mahjong apps to help you stay fresh in between (or after) lessons.

If you’re looking to invest in a mahjong set to kickstart your new hobby, The Mahjong Line has become popular.

  • The brand is known for aesthetically pleasing, hand-painted tiles that come in a range of colors.
  • These sets are pricey, though, and start at $325.
  • You can find more affordable sets on Amazon if you’re just dipping your toe into the mahjong waters.
  • You only need one set per four players.

“I heard it was a fun, social game that’s the hot new thing right now, so I wanted to get on the bandwagon,” says Kimber Morgan, who took lessons with Mahj in the City and now plays twice a week.

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