Otakon 2012 marks the return of the Japanese Mahjong panel, run by myself and Kawaiikochans creator Dave. It was a surprise hit back in 2010, and we’re so looking forward to bringing it back. What I’m about to talk about is related to some of the challenges we’ve faced in updating the panel.

Mahjong is a rather complicated (some might even say convoluted) game, and when we originally set out to do the mahjong panel we tried to make it as simple as we could while still covering just what makes mahjong (and by extension mahjong anime) fun. Naturally feeling a bit rusty with the material, we devoted some time to practicing the panel only to realize that there was a significant problem we did not have to deal with two years ago: we have both gotten significantly better at mahjong.

Mahjong is a game where subtle changes to the rules and even to the character and level of your opponents can impact the game tremendously. Playing multiple games to improve ladder ranking is a different beast from playing one or two significant games. When I attended the United States Professional Mahjong League in June, I had not played against flesh-and-blood opponents in over a year. Not only did I have to get used to the tiles again, but while I had definitely improved through playing online on Tenhou continuously (a process which forced me to constantly re-evaluate my play), I had become accustomed to that ruleset. So, for example, when I went into a game expecting it to last a full 8 round and began playing for the long term) I was sidelined by the fact that the UPSML games had a (necessary) time limit such that any round you were playing could be your last.

Though I was certainly thrown off by these unfamiliar rules, I was able to adapt reasonably well. It is the ability to recognize how those changes can potentially affect strategy that, at least for me, is an indicator of personal improvement.  However, it is that very same ability which can trip up an introductory mahjong panel.

When we were relatively inexperienced, we could deliver ideas with simplicity because the exceptions did not immediately spring to mind. Now, the danger was that our heads were too full of minutia. We knew where our statements fell short, and in an effort to correct them we continued to give explanations, but much like how the USPML’s time limit necessitates a different strategy, so too does the hour time limit for the panel.

The pursuit and refinement of knowledge in a given topic is actually what trips up so many intellectual presentations, whether the audience consists of professors or anime fans. The presenter has spent so much time exploring the limits of ideas and where their exceptions lie that it becomes difficult to “lie” to your audience, especially when improvement in your area (such as mahjong) is your main focus.

I think that the lesson to take away here is that we were so caught up in trying to teach strategy we’d learned that we had forgotten that before you learn how to play well, you have to teach how to play, period. And because our panel isn’t even about learning how to play, per se, we have to take that one notch down.