Why is s/he playing?

Man have I played a lot of mahjong lately. And actually, results on the whole haven’t been so bad recently too. I was feeling pretty good about my play until I ran into the same comment a couple times, once directed to me, once to someone else, and both with unveiled disgust for their target. It has definitely been food for thought.

On the plane back to America for Christmas I had the good fortune to sit next to the sweetest little grandma returning from an adventure in Viet Nam. In addition to fretting about my marriage status (mothers will be mothers won’t they) she was really taken with my occupation, game player, and we got to talking about games and her game of choice, Bridge. Her group of friends has been getting together to play their game for who can imagine how long now, but there is a good friend in that group whose play she has never ever liked because “She just wants to win.” (Look of disdain)

Next instance, when I got back to Japan, some old friends invited me to play an all nighter. It was the first in a while with these guys as the last time we played I really beat the crap out of them; they didn’t seem to have had a very good time. I was starting to go on the rampage again when one game I woke up with this hand as dealer in the East round:

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Dora was  (twice!) and the one in my hand was red. One thing about the game these guys like to play, it’s often referred to as “inflation mahjong” in Japan as the rules they use tend to create huge hands. First of all, there are two red fives in each suit. Also, when we roll the dice doubles means we flip over two tiles for dora and any combination of 1’s and 6’s means 3 dora! Finally, they also like “wa-re-me” which means that the person whose wall is split first at the beginning of the hand, pays or receives double what they would normally for that hand. So because I rolled doubles and the fact that two  turned up as dora indicators, I actually started with 3 dora in just that one tile. I ponned the east, chied Active Image and was now waiting for another dora for a 12,000 point hand. My friends were gossiping away about work and this and that when one of them dropped the other red  ! Ooops! Because it was also red that made 4 dora for 18,000! Oh but actually he was the “wareme” for that hand so actually it was 36,000! TKO! The other gossiper glared at me in contempt and scoffed, “You just don’t get it. You’re always just playing to win.”

In both situations, my immediate reaction was to ask incredulously, “What are YOU playing for?!” In a game where the only option besides winning is not winning, are they really playing to lose?

Alright, I know in a lot of games, people are just playing to have fun and the winning and losing is secondary to the chance to hang out with friends. I just can’t stand losing to that guy because I know that in truth, he really wants to win too, evidenced by how different the conversation is when he goes on a run and wins several games in a row. He is an even worse loser than I and his whines just make me want to crush him all the more. Still to keep myself in their game, I probably need to soften up a bit, and not go for their jugulars every chance I get.

But what I found more interesting was the continuing conversation with Grandma. Not sure if I have the bridge strategy exactly right, but what she really disliked seemed to be the fact that her friend liked to bid no-trump because it took fewer tricks to win that way. And in turn, nothing gave her more pleasure than to stop her friend from trying to win that way. And by extension, win her OWN way.

Her comment about winning is also not exactly to her point either, which is more about the way her friend is winning, and the way she likes to win herself. And that I think is something that is a lot more interesting to think about. Her entertainment comes not just from winning, but the way she wins.

If Grandma’s friend knows Grandma thinks and thus plays that way, that is very valuable information she can use to her advantage when she decides to play that way, or even when she decides to play another way, despite Grandma’s expectation of that same style of play.

A similar analogy in Hold ’em would be that guy who always wants to win on the river by drawing out his flush or straight and will call any bet you make on the turn, no matter how bad the odds. In mahjong, there are people who like knock out punches only, and despite long odds go for limit hands every chance they get. My red 5 throwing buddy from above goes for 13 Orphans whenever he has 8 or even 7 tiles for it in his starting hand. And he is similarly (to Grandma) disgusted when I win that hand and stop him with a no reach peace only hand.

Something to think about as we join our next game with friends, at work, or walking off the street into a cash game, look across the table and ask yourself, “why is that guy in this game?” It will help us decide not only how to win, but whether to win as well.

RM on Social