by Cathy Martin
The popularity of mahjong has ebbed and flowed since the Chinese tile game came to the United States in the 1920s. Early on, the game was embraced by Chinese Americans and later Jewish Americans, particularly suburban mothers who played as a way of community-building. (Fans of Amazon’s The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel might notice a few mahjong references.)
South Charlotte resident Jill Graham started playing mahjong online and with a small group of friends during the Covid shutdown. “I really got into the rules,” she says. “And then people started asking me to teach them to play, because they saw us playing. It literally just exploded.”
Last year, she started Queen City Mahjong, teaching groups from four to 12 the rules of the game. She created an Instagram account (@queencitymahjong) in February, followed by a website, but her business has mostly spread through word of mouth. “It’s really taken off,” she says.
By most accounts, mahjong started in China in the mid- to late 1800s. Graham plays American mahjong, a variation of the original Chinese version. Ideally, it’s played in groups of four, though it can be played with three, Graham says. Each game lasts about 15 to 20 minutes. “It depends on the pace of play of the group — the more experienced players play really fast — and how much you want to chitchat in-between,” she says.
Graham recommends a minimum of two lessons, but she says most groups request four to five before they feel knowledgeable enough to play on their own. She attributes the latest surge in popularity to the social nature of the game.
“My mother’s generation, they’ve all played bridge,” she says. “The women now don’t want to invest the time in bridge. There are levels and layers of lessons — it is a long, lifetime learning process.”
She’s taught retirees, even a family, but most of her clients are groups of women in their 40s and 50s, she says.
“I let the people get their own groups, and I go to their homes and teach them in more of a cocktail-party setting or lunch setting — there’s usually wine involved.” SP
Photographs provided by Jill Graham/The Mahjong Line