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.