If Only It Were a Ra Tilt Instead

A few months ago, after many hours of intense not-actually-gambling gambling action, I managed to graduate to the next level in the online mahjong client Tenhou. Then, two weeks ago, I squandered all of that and lost so much that I got demoted. From this experience I have learned many things.

When I was telling esteemed Anime News Network columnist and mahjong co-panelist Dave about it, he said that I must be “going tilt,” which I learned was poker lingo for someone whose emotions are clouding his or her ability to play well. At first I denied that this could possibly be happening to me, but in hindsight that was exactly the problem.

It all began when I actually became aware of the points system on Tenhou. On Tenhou, in addition to the scoring in the game itself, between matches you gain or lose what are essentially experience points. The better you do, the more points you receive, until you manage to break into the next level. Lose, however, and points are deducted from you. In my situation, I was just one point away from reaching the next rank, where even barely placing 2nd in a game would have been enough. Conversely, I lost the match hard and then proceeded to lose pretty much every other match following. I kept thinking to myself, “You were so close to moving forward! Just keep at it!” This eventually turned into desperation where I was trying to just win something, which pretty much had the opposite effect. And all that while, I was constantly looking back at my points. I became too obsessed with seeing those numbers go up and it completely affected my skill and it cost me.

While my life was not on the line, from this experience I can relate to Nangou in the first episode of Akagi. Nangou is in deep, deep debt to the yakuza, and in his mahjong game against said gangsters he is desperate for any sort of win, but this desperation also prevents him from accomplishing anything. He is too afraid to take risks when he should, and so behind that even a glimmer of hope for a high-scoring hand means he’ll go for it even when he has almost no chance of accomplishing it. It is not until Akagi himself arrives that Nangou is able to break the self-induced spell and play as he should, foregoing his frantic scurryings for a confident charge forward. For me, the realization hit when I ended up dropping down a rank.

From that, I looked at myself and figured out some of the tendencies that arise in me when I’m desperate. The first is to be bothered when someone declares riichi very early in the game. When one goes into riichi, it appears a bold declaration that they are about to win. Under normal circumstances I welcome the challenge, but when I’m going tilt it becomes almost nerve-wracking, and I get so eager to finish a hand that I easily throw away tiles I shouldn’t, as opposed to when I’m right of mind and am able to alter my hand much more readily. That leads me into the second sign, which is that I get too attached to achieving certain hands, and become too unwilling to deviate. This is more than just a matter of going for high-risk hands when I shouldn’t, because even the cheaper, easier to assemble hands can result in the same trap. When you’re aiming for pinfu (a hand that is special because there is absolutely nothing special about it) no matter what, pinfu starts to feel surprisingly distant. Even my favored ikkitsuukan (full straight) does its best when my hand gradually morphs into it, as opposed to when I am consciously aiming for it.

Although this can be attributed to simple probability, I have a rather occult feeling about it, which is that fear is a big problem in mahjong. Without the ability to overcome fear, the hand is often unable to progress and transform. Sometimes I have to be able to abandon a seemingly grand potential because in reality it is a stifling noose that keeps me and my hand from growing within the game.

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Take My Place, Fair Citizens, at the Mahjong Table

So a bunch of stuff has come up all of a sudden in my life, and this will prevent me from going to the monthly Riichi Mahjong sessions held by the US Professional Mahjong League in New York City.

But while I am unable to go, another continues to champion the cause, and you can join him in his endeavors to bring on the “its.” If you barely know how to play, that’s really not a problem, as it’s a friendly learning environment, and you get free snacks and soft drinks to soften the blow to your fragile ego. You’ll reach Akagi level someday. Or at the very least, Kanbara levels.

Wahaha.

This month’s Open Play session will be this Sunday, April 25th. The address is below.

Simple Studios
134 W. 29th Street (b/t 6th and 7th)
2nd Floor
New York, NY 10001

I’ll see you there.

What to Buy, Man? Why, a Mahjong Set of Course!

The March gathering of the US Professional Mahjong League was possibly the most exciting yet.

For those who don’t know the USPML is devoted to playing Japanese-style mahjong, which is probably best known for the ability to declare a hand as “ready” or “riichi” in order to score extra points and to clearly reveal yourself as the aggressor. While I was without my usual accomplice on this occasion, I was joined by thedigitalbug, who I believe had heard of these mahjong sessions from my previous posts on the subject.

We played two games total, one east + south game and a quick east-only game after that. The first game was quite intense, with people declaring ron and tsumo all over the place, and not a single round ending due to all the tiles being drawn. I was the first to lose points in the match, getting hit for a decent amount, but my fortune was reversed as I managed to win using a high scoring hand which turned the tables of the match and put me in the lead. Actually, at first I thought my hand was worth less than it actually was, misreading my “junchan” (All sets have at least a 1 or 9 in them) hand as the similar and less valuable “chanta” (All sets have at least a 1, 9, or “honor” kanji on them). On top of that, by declaring riichi and winning instantly off of it, my hand’s score increased further. In total, I netted 12,000 points. To give an idea of scale, for these sessions we start with 29,000 points each and games typically use 25,000.

By the final round I was about 17,000 points in the lead, and the other players were scrambling for second place. With such a comfortable lead, I could have very well ended the game by intentionally dealing into another player’s hand, but thanks to a mix of luck, greed, good reading of the game, and even a fortunate accident, I managed to end the game on a very high note.

For this round, I started my hand with two 8-su (bamboo), which was the bonus “dora” tile. If you have seen Akagi, the “dora” tile was the centerpiece in the final battle between young Akagi and the blind player Ichikawa (in that instance it was the pure white “haku” tile). Seeing another 8-su discarded, I called for it, which, while improving my potential score, also limited its freedom by removing the only pair I had in my hand. Having a pair in your hand is a vital part of winning at mahjong, and I could have very well thrown my only opportunity away.

Things were looking good however, especially because I had two of the “south” wind tiles which in sets of three are worth extra, provided you are playing in the south round, or alternately if you’re sitting in the south position. Both of these criteria applied to me at the time so I would score off of both of these if I won. However, when I looked down, I realized my opponent had already discarded a south tile and I had simply failed to notice it. Silently cursing, I waited for the next opportunity, hoping that the last south tile (there are four total in a set) would fly out of someone’s hand. As luck turns out, the same player who had discarded it previously believed it to be a safe tile and decided to toss it out again. Seizing the opportunity, I called for it, and was one step closer to completing my hand. Now the open parts of my hand looked truly threatening, and the other players were surely aware of it.

In the end though, they were unable to stop me, and with a shout of “Ron!” I won off of a player’s discard. My hand ended up being the following:

Toitoiho (All triplets)
Honitsu (Psuedo-flush)
Bakaze (Round wind)
Jikaze (Seat wind)
Dora 3 (3 bonus tiles)

Which all together looks like this:

A demigodly hand

In total, this hand was worth a “Baiman,” or 18,000 points. Winning like this was a rare and wonderful feeling, like I was actually in a mahjong anime and lightning and thunder had come crashing down as I revealed my hand. Actually, I once again did not initially notice just how much the hand was worth, and had to have someone tell me its true value.

What’s funny about this win was that had I paid more attention in the match, I would have probably called on the first discarded south wind tile, which would have then changed the flow of the match considerably. It was possibly my brief lack of concentration which let me win so gloriously.

After some mutual handshakes and a quick break, we started the next game. Here, I did not do so well, scoring dead last, but I did manage to get one good hand in, and I had better concentration than last time. Previously, I had made the mistake of drinking too much soda, which dehydrated me and wore me down and hampered my ability to focus, but this time I went with a non-caffeinated root beer as well as a bottle of water. I still lost, but at least felt alert the whole way through.

I had a great time, as I do every time, and I don’t mean that simply because I won so hard that I accidentally impregnated a woman half-way around the world. It just reminded me that while online mahjong is certainly fun, the direct human element is irreplaceable.

As for the Pringles, they were available once again, but this time I ate them with a pair of chopsticks. Yes, it was rad.

I Thought We Liked Mahjong Series!

While Akagi and Saki were probably a lot of people’s introduction to the notion of manga based on the game mahjong, I don’t think I’m alone when I say that my first introduction to “mahjong manga” was from Frederik L. Schodt’s seminal book Manga! Manga! The World of Japanese Comics.

In it, Schodt explores the burgeoning genre and talks about popular titles such as Mahjong Houroki (“Tales of a Wandering Mahjong Player”) and Jigoku Mahjong (“Mahjong Hell”), even citing the author of Mahjong Houroki, Kitano Eimei, as the sort of “father” of mahjong manga, who showed that a comic about dealing tiles could look and feel exciting.

Truth be told, while I was fascinated by the idea of mahjong manga back when I first read Manga! Manga! ten years ago, I am not so different than the people who discovered it through Akagi, as that was the first mahjong series which I actually had the privilege to see. And while I don’t expect mahjong manga to become a runaway success in even the scanlation community, it’s clear that it has its devoted followers.

Here’s the odd thing though: Where are the scans of Mahjong Hourouki? If Akagi and Saki have resulted in people from all over the fandom getting into mahjong even at a periphery level, why hasn’t anyone bothered to look into these significant works which established the genre that so many are enjoying now? And it can’t really be the case where fans of these newer series might not like the older series due to the artwork. After all, we’re talking about Akagi fans here, and I’ve never seen anyone proclaim, “If the characters don’t have ultra pointy faces and noses and everyone looks shocked all the time, then I refuse to read it!” And I see you considering making a comment where you reiterate what I just said. I’m watching you.

Oh, and of course the reason I’m talking about it in the realm of scanlations and such is that no sane company would license a mahjong series in the United States. The closest you’d get to one that could conceivably do well is Saki which is streamed on Crunchyroll, and even that is a bit of a stretch when you consider the not-internet.

The most likely culprit is probably scarcity. It’s no doubt difficult to find these old series in the first place, especially with a niche genre like mahjong. And I’m as guilty of not contributing to the pursuit as any other. This is the first post I’ve made about it, and it’s only because I was re-reading Schodt’s book today. But still, I’m making the call out. We have to find these old works, titles like Mahjong Fuunroku (“Mahjong Crises”) and Gambler no Uta (“The Son of the Gambler”), and bring them to the forefront of consciousness.

Now It’s YOUR Turn to Survive a Deadly Game of Chicken

For those of you who were regaled by my tales of exciting mahjong (as well as the tales of others) but were saddened by the fact that you yourself were not able to participate, fear not! There is a new opportunity for you (yes you!) to participate in a live session of Japanese-style “riichi” mahjong! Well, provided you live in the New York area.

This month’s “US Professional Mahjong League” meeting is Sunday, March 28, 2010 from 3-7pm. Address and further information are here. If you’re going, make sure to RSVP on the forums.

I’ll most likely be there, ready to lose.

Passionate Fiery Mahjong 2 – The Dora Revenge Wave

Just as I had in January, this past weekend I participated in another live session of Japanese-style mahjong, aka “Riichi” or “Reach” mahjong. It’s held by the “United States Professional Mahjong League,” but don’t take that name too seriously. These are not a bunch of hardened grizzled tile veterans who have mastered the game.

Since last time I’d done some more reading on the various types of mahjong out there, from Chinese to Korean to the outright outlandish American style (which features “jokers” of all things), and discovered that, for various reasons, Japanese mahjong is considered much more of a defensive game than the others. Not that this knowledge really helped me too much, but it was a new way of looking at the game. It also makes it clear why Akagi is so crazy: when it comes to his chosen game, a game where “not losing” is generally more important than “winning,” as Sub often puts it, Akagi is an incredibly aggressive player.

Speaking of Sub, he was there too, and we played two hanchan sessions together, i.e. the format which takes longer. I managed to do both well and terribly, winning the first session, where my waits were effective, and then hitting dead last in the second session, where I was largely unable to do anything.

Luck factors aside, and mahjong is certainly full of them, the big thing I realized about myself when it comes to the art of tile-slinging is that I have some issues with mental stamina. After a while, I was just making bad decisions because I couldn’t focus. Not to say I would’ve won had I done that, but I could actually feel my concentration slipping away partway through the second hanchan as I struggled to even think of hands to aim for. It’s something I really have to watch out for; maybe I should bring some fresh fruit to the event to keep my brain sharp and ready.

Or I could keep eating Pringles. Speaking of which, isn’t it amazing that the craving for Pringles feels so different from the craving for normal potato chips? I know I’m amazed.

I Played Mahjong with Real People and Also Ate Potato Crisps

When it comes to playing mahjong, I am a very recent convert. I’m not good by any stretch of the imagination and I generally make bad decisions, but it’s generally fun and I like the way the game gives you the ability to make constant decisions so that you don’t feel entirely subject to the whims of fate and luck while  still incorporating those very same aspects into the game itself. But as fun as it’s been, I knew I had been missing out on the full experience by playing only against people online and against Char Aznable on my DS.

Then fortune struck. Sub of Subatomic Brainfreeze (aka Dave of Colony Drop), himself a newbie in the wild world of mahjong, notified me that someone was holding a live gathering in the NYC area to play reach mahjong, i.e. the Japanese style of mahjong used in all anime and manga. And so we decided to hit it up, see how we stacked up against these other players who more likely than not had far more experience than we did.

The first thing I noticed was just how tiny the Japanese mahjong tiles are. They are significantly smaller than Chinese tiles, almost to the point of being cute. The second thing I noticed was that playing live is awesome.

Having played against real people with real mahjong tiles at a real mahjong table while eating real Pringles, I have to say that I much prefer it to online mahjong. On a basic level, it’s like playing video games with people next to you on the couch instead of playing against them through X-Box Live. But more than that, I loved the feel of the tiles and the way in which I had to manually pick them up and discard them.

I also loved how there was more to go by than just people’s tiles, like their energy; I’m definitely no Akagi Shigeru, but I think anyone can appreciate that element of the game.

Speaking of Akagi, it turns out that almost everyone there had learned how to play reach mahjong because they saw the anime. Basically, everyone was a nerd and that is definitely an environment to which I’m accustomed. I’m waiting for the people who got into mahjong because of Saki to start arriving.

In the end, I played two games total, one East-only game, and an East-South game that was aborted early due to time constraints, getting second place in the first game and first in the second, scoring a few decent hands and calling, “Pon!” and, “Chi!” with gusto. Knowing my results you might think that I was being modest when I said I wasn’t good, but I really do mean it. I don’t know how to score, I can’t do multi-sided waits, and a lot of it I would chalk up to luck. Next time I play, I’m likely going to end up in last place. But that’s the way mahjong rolls, and it’ll still be fun as hell.