On a Friday night in 2006, a 23-year-old programmer dragged three of his friends over to his apartment, sat down at the table, and started to play a tile-based game that he saw in a Japanese anime. They started at 7 p.m. and didn’t finish until 7 a.m. the next day. They didn’t know the rules properly, which had just been codified in English at the time, but that didn’t stop them from enjoying the game.
That’s how David Bresnick played his first hand of Riichi Mahjong. The anime that intrigued him is Akagi, a melodrama about Mahjong gambling. Bresnick fell in love with the game immediately and continued to play it with friends every Friday night for the next four years. In 2010, Bresnick turned his Friday night routine into the United States Professional Mahjong League (USPML), which is the first organization to promote Riichi Mahjong in the United States.
“Mahjong is like a battle with yourself,” said Bresnick, sitting by an automatic Mahjong table at his apartment in Queens, NY. “It’s very much a game of awareness and a game of level headedness.”
The type of Mahjong that Bresnick plays is a Japanese variant of an ancient Chinese game of Mahjong. Four players draw and discard tiles, looking for pairs and melds that are three or four of a kind, and a straight in a poker game. When a player is one tile away from winning, he declares “Riichi”.
Bresnick, who now works in the UI Infrastructure team at Bloomberg, hosted the North America Open — a major Riichi tournament standing alongside the European Riichi Mahjong Championship and the World Riichi Championship — from Oct.13 to Oct.14 in the financial district of New York City. Bresnick’s event and organization has drawn nearly 80 players from across the country. Many players who came to the tournament are people with STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) backgrounds.
Pengqi Cheng, 28, who works as a quantitative developer in a hedge fund in New York, placed 8th in the North America Open. He compared playing Riichi with doing quantitative finance. “It’s a lot of tradeoffs. Basically, it’s just like you beat other investors in the market. It’s the same thing,” he said.
Cheng grew up in Guizhou, a province in Southwest China, where Mahjong is a standard social game. “If you don’t know how to play it, you basically just cannot hang out with other people,” said Cheng, who learned how to play Mahjong at the age of two. But he said he believes the way he and his peers play the game now is quite different from previous generations.
“The prior generations may have a lot of experiences, but I think most of them never tried to think in a quantitative way,” said Cheng. “I think we treat everything quite professionally and maybe mathematically for the high-end players.” He referred to linear regression as one of the statistical methods being applied in Riichi Mahjong. The logic behind the game would be difficult for people to grasp if they are not quite comfortable or familiar with math, according to Cheng.
Daniel Moreno, a 26-year-old software programmer and a player in the Pacific Mahjong League, has been playing Mahjong since 2011. He also showed up at the North America Open. “Basically, my entire schedule is just sleep, work and Mahjong,” said Moreno. “Every day, I was just figuring out ‘Oh, how do I get better and better at this game?’ Every single day, I try to get just stronger than me the day before.”
When Moreno plays Mahjong he is constantly asking himself a series of questions. “What do I have on my hand? What titles can I see? What is this opponent trying to do? How many tiles are out? How many doors are left? What’s the poorest situation? What are people trying to do? How are they trying to do it?” This type of thinking helps Moreno get deeper and deeper into the situation of the game.
Ryan Adams, a professional Mahjong player and a math professor at Northwest Florida State College, said risk analysis is a big thing that students can learn from playing Mahjong. “If someone is in ‘Riichi’ and I feel like I’m going to fight them, is it worth the trouble to overtake them or is it going to be a failed attempt?” said Adams, who brought mahjong to the Asian pop culture club on campus, which later became a professional Mahjong club called Panhandle Mahjong.
“I can see how mathematicians or computer scientists would be drawn to a game like Mahjong,” said Garthe Nelson, one of the pioneers in the West to explore Riichi Mahjong and spread it to the world. “If you do have an analytical mind, like you work with numbers, then you can use that information that’s on the table to make better guesses about what people have in their hands and adjust your play accordingly.”
Nelson, 48, grew up in Sacramento, California, studied software engineering at University of California, Santa Barbara, moved to Japan in January 1999, and became a professional Mahjong player in the Japanese Professional Mahjong League. In 2006, Nelson and a fellow American, Jenn Barr, who’s also residing in Japan, launched a website called reachmahjong.com that translates rules from Japanese to English in an effort to introduce Riichi to the West.
Nelson and Barr have written books about Mahjong and create Mahjong podcasts. They have gotten lots of coverage in Japanese newspapers and have appeared on Mahjong-related TV shows. However, the two Mahjong pros had a very bumpy start when they began promoting Riichi in the West. In 2007, Nelson and Barr travelled from Japan to Las Vegas to the American Mahjong Tournament and were told that Americans would never play Japanese Mahjong. In 2008, they tried to run a Riichi tournament at the World Series of Mahjong, but the population was just too small at that time.
The game of Mahjong reached the shore of the United States in the 1920s and became a community building game among both Chinese and Jewish people — Jewish American women gathered together to play Mahjong once they moved to quiet suburbs after WWII. The Chinese Mahjong stayed a tradition because of the huge flow of Chinese immigrants and the American Mahjong was particularly adapted to the American audience. Joseph Park Babcock, a representative of the Standard Oil Company in Shanghai, redesigned the tiles that would have Latin letters and Arabic numerals on them, rewrote the rules so that Americans can better grasp the game. Whereas, Riichi Mahjong didn’t have such a heritage in the United States.
“There was nothing but obstacles,” said Barr, 35, who is originally from Seattle and studied Japanese for five years in the United States before leaving for Japan for college. “By the time we had pretty much given up, everyone else decided to do it. Then the world Mahjong took off without us.”
The change was brewing in 2007 when the anime Akagi came out. “That was a huge watershed moment for young western players to get interested in Riichi Mahjong. I think that the Akagi series probably had a stronger influence on the international spread of Japanese than anything else,” said Benjamin Boas, 35, who hails from Manhattan and moved to Japan in 2004 on a Fulbright Fellowship from Brown University to conduct research on Mahjong and the Japanese society. Currently, Boas serves as a global cultural ambassador for the Japanese government’s “Cool Japan” program and Tourism Ambassador of Tokyo’s Nakano Ward.
Boas helped Barr and Nelson to translate and write the rule set. The first World Riichi Championship kicked off in 2014 in Paris and attracted 120 players. The 2017 World Riichi Championship in Las Vegas drew more than 200 players. Now, currently in North America, Riichi players is the largest growing group of Mahjong players.
“There’s some overlaps between people who are very much into sciences and technology and people who are very adept at using the Internet to get their hands on media that haven’t been officially released in their country, which is the whole way that something like Akagi could spread to the West,” said Boas.
At the same time, Barr said the majority of western players are Japanophiles. Those internet-savvy anime fans in the West, according to Barr, are a much more educated and cultured crowd in which people have more interest in other cultures, whereas in Japan a lot of professional players are not college educated, some not even finishing high school, becoming Mahjong professionals at a very young age.
Bresnick is one of those internet enthusiasts. When he could hardly find any information available in English about Riichi in 2006, he thought to himself, “I shouldn’t live in a place where I can’t learn how to do this. We have the internet. We can do anything now. I should be able to learn.” He eventually reached out to Barr, Nelson and Boas online and got a lot of information from them.
“You sit down at the table with other actual people. You play this game together. It’s interesting and fun and you’re talking. It’s a bonding activity,” said Bresnick.
Moreno echoed Bresnick’s point. “You have everyone in there just putting their entire focus on the game, trying to accomplish a certain task. And even though we’re all just looking at the titles, even though we’re all paying attention to the game, from that comes a certain means of communication, from that comes some empathy,” said Moreno. “‘I know what this person was trying to do. They were trying to go for this, but instead this happened. It allows me to get a deeper sense of how that person feels. What are their expectations? What actually happened? So from that becomes a means a communication.”