‘It’s gin rummy with tiles and a little tougher’

The rattling of tiles and the soft calls of winds, dragons, bams and flowers from four women sitting around a table are the only sounds coming from Maureen Corcoran’s den on Wednesday afternoons.

Wednesdays are mahjong days, and, for the four friends, the game is serious business.

“I work at home,” said Maureen Corcoran’s husband, Mal Corcoran. “When the girls come, it is quiet. It is the most quiet I have ever heard from women in my life.”

Mahjong, which originated in China, is played with 152 tiles with Chinese symbols and numbers in several different colors. The tiles are drawn from a “wall,” or long stack, or are passed from player to player as each player tries to mahjong by being the first to form combinations of suits, numerals, winds, dragons and flowers as illustrated on the National Mah Jongg League’s Official Standard Hands and Rules card. The league changes the mahjong hands and rules each year to add more interest to the game.

“It’s gin rummy with tiles,” said Cocoran, “and a little tougher.”

Her group started playing after a Women of Congregation B’nai Israel meeting at Bistro Byronz in 2009. For most of the 20th century, mahjong was mainly played by Jewish women.

“Chinese men and Jewish women,” Cathy Craig Labens said with a laugh.

“Laurie Brandt stood up at the meeting and asked if anyone would like to learn,” said Elaine Simon. Fifteen women signed up and met at Brandt’s house.

The group started playing with Lee Caplan as their teacher.

“Everybody learns at a different rate, just like with cards,” Corcoran said.

In Baton Rouge, many of the older women, like Corcoran’s mother, the late Sylvia Steiner, played regularly, but their daughters never learned the complicated game.

Brandt’s mother, the late Ruth Weill, played, and Brandt has her mahjong set as well as her grandmother’s set. Corcoran also has two sets — one from her mother and one from a family friend, Hermine Reiter.

In recent years, the game has become wildly popular in the United States, even among young people, both men and women.

“We’ve all taught our husbands how to play,” Labens said.

The Wednesday women are fascinated by a game that dates to the time of Confucius, who was born in 551 B.C. For centuries, it was only played by the aristocratic Mandarins, who forbade others from playing.

After China became a republic in 1911, mahjong spread throughout the country. In 1920, it was introduced in America.

By 1937, the game had become so popular that a group of Jewish women got together in New York to form the National Mah Jongg League to standardize the rules, widely known as American style.

Corcoran is addicted. She plays at least three days a week, sometimes more.

“Games are going on all over town,” she said. “It’s not just Jewish people now.”

Her group enjoys both the social and mental aspects of the game.

“It’s nice to be with people,” Simon said.

Many in the group play on Mondays at B’nai Israel.

“We bring our own lunch,” Corcoran said. “Anyone who wants to play can play.”

Pattie Armstrong, one of the Wednesday regulars, learned to play in 1980 in Saudi Arabia, where her husband was working for an oil company. In 2010, she learned the American rules in Houston.

“I moved to town two years ago,” she said. “I didn’t know anybody, and now I know all of these Jewish ladies.”