Friday, August 15, 2003

There's No Damn Bird in the All Green Hand*

I got a pleasant surprise the other night, of the kind which will be familiar to anyone else who is in the habit of hiding money from themselves. No-one hides money from themselves consciously of course - at least I don't think they do, but if, like me, you occasionally tuck a five dollar note given in change into a shirt pocket instead of putting it straight into your wallet with the bigger denominations, the effect is pretty much the same. A few days later when you're feeling a bit strapped, you remember the note and a quick search of the dirty laundry turns up the shirt, and the money. One dollar and two dollar coins can also be effectively hidden in the upholstery of lounge furniture by allowing them to fall out of your trouser pockets when you sit down. It's a way to lighten up dull days with a little of the festive spirit of Easter (even the secular commercialised version which I subscribe to).

The surprise about the Mah-Jongg set is that it used to be community property and I'd forgotten I had it. When my marriage went belly up, the divvying up of the chattels wasn't exactly done with a lot of care and attention: neither of us had the stomach for big arguments over who got the Bohemia crystal and who got saddled with the Selangor pewter. There wasn't too much argument about the two-pack epoxy resin anniversary presents: we arrived at a civilised agreement to each tell the donors the other had them, and put them out for the next scheduled hard rubbish collection. I think a lot of hand-me-down Tupperware went the same route: look, if you've got a house full of unwanted junk that you can't get rid of without offending friends and rellies, a messy break-up and divorce is probably the way to go. A rowdy argument with lots of throwing of crockery will take care of the willow pattern and the Franklin Mint collector plates and a lot of other "treasures" can be disposed of, to the satisfaction of both parties, by setting out a few sensible rules of engagement before you start the screaming match.

It doesn't even have to be real: once you've done with the property damage you can both "come to your senses" and realise that you're better off with each other. If some third party does get shirty about the fact that the heirloom Tupperware got blow-torched as payback for the chain-sawing of the Shaker reproduction television cabinet, you've got the upper hand, morally speaking: what really matters is that you were both able to forgive each other these acts of vandalism because you realised that the important thing about your relationship was the underlying love and trust which was strong enough to prevail in the end.

There's only two other things I need, now that I've found the Mah-Jongg set - which might still be nominally community property by the way. Although I currently have posession, I think it's on the understanding that there are borrowing rights, just as I have visitation rights with the cats. Of course the cat population has changed since the break up - of the three originals, only Csl is still alive. As far as the other two are concerned, I'm just this bloke who turns up occasionally, and can sometimes be harassed into tossing them a few pellets of kibble. As far as Csl is concerned, I'm still the bloke who lets her climb on his shoulder and wrap herself round the back of his head which, given her declining attention to personal grooming, is sometimes a big ask. The only reason it's still tolerable is that she's at least keeping her bum clean: expecting her to do that and take care of the body odour problem is a much bigger ask, too big to be fair. I've seen this before when Csl's nephew Duffy was in his terminal decline: eventually he didn't have the energy to keep his bum clean at all. The dog was usually eager to do it for him, a kindness which he didn't always welcome with appropriate gratitude.

What I need to go with the Mah-Jongg set (there's no graceful way to segue back from the cat digression to the Mah-Jongg set, so to hell with it) is an intelligible set of Mah-Jongg rules and three other players. That's actually one thing and three people, which provides a perfect excuse for a Wittgensteinian philosophy of language digression, but I think the cat digression was probably bad enough.

I'm still trying to track down my copy of Golden Oddlies, a collection of articles by the English humorist Paul Jennings. There's one that I'd like to post in The Potemkin Museum of Antique Humour called, if memory serves, "Halma is a Fine Game Damn It". It's about Jennings' attempts to learn Halma from instructions in German which came in a Halma set presented to the Jennings family at Christmas. The other Jennings classic which I consider required reading is the Report on Resistentialism, which has been put on-line by quite a few people. The problems in learning to play Mah-Jongg from the instructions in English provided mith most Mah-Jongg sets match the difficulties of learning Halma from German instructions. Here for example, is an extract from the Directions of Playing Mah-Jongg that are included in the set I have:

Director of the four players are as follows :-
East is the direction of BANKER or Chief of a game.
West is the direction of the person who sits directly opposite to the BANKER.
South is the direction of the person who sits to the right of the BANKER.
North is the direction of the person who sits to the left of the BANKER.

This is followed by a description of the three suits (bamboo, numbers, circles) and the various honours (the three dragons and four winds), flowers and seasons etc. I think fisking the instructions would be a rather pointless exercise: I hope it's clear that I don't need instructions for myself, I actually do know how to play the game. It wouldn't be too hard to get three experienced players together either. The problem is, without intelligible instructions, you don't know the scoring system. It's the scoring system, with its complex rules for doubling the value of hands, special limit hands and all the rest that turns what would otherwise be an overly elaborate version of Gin Rummy (actually, like Canasta, a westernised and extremely simplified version of Mah-Jongg) into a genuine strategic challenge.

Normally a winning hand in Mah-Jongg consists of sets of three of a kind (for example three matching eights of bamboo) or three tiles in the same suit and numeric sequence (for example 4-5-6 of circles), plus a pair of two matching tiles. Some pairs, such as a pair of winds, or a pair of dragons score points. The game may also include a number of special limit hands, which automatically score maximum points, no questions asked. There are ten traditional limit hands, which are usually included (unless you've decided to exclude limit hands entirely) and several others which may be included by agreement between the players. The American version of Mah Jongg, which includes four extra "Joker" tiles among other innovations (such as an inflated scoring system which makes it easy to produce thousand point scores) includes a frankly bewildering number of limit hands. I've heard that in association play, limit hands are changed on a regular basis, to spice up the competition and keep things interesting.

For most social purposes, the ten traditional limit hands and maybe a couple of the more memorable common limit hands (such as the "All Green", the "Seven Pairs" and the "Great Snake") are quite enough to maintain an interesting game. There are also a few potentially entertaining sheer luck hands, such as "Moon from the Bottom of the Sea" which is going out on the last wall tile or discard, that tile being the One of Circles. Lest anyone think I've got a phenomenal memory for Mah-Jongg limit hands, it's time to admit that I'm getting this information from the help file of my copy of one of those PC Mah-Jongg games, of which more later. If I was up against some seriously heavy Mah-Jongg players, I'd be dumb enough to toss the One of Circles (or the Five Circles or Two Bamboo) as the last discard and end up paying out some seriously heavy points to winner of the hand.

One of the traditional limit hands is the "Thirteen Orphans" hand which consists entirely of what, to a Canasta or Gin Rummy player, would be rubbish: it includes a 1 and a 9 from each of the three suits, one each of the winds and dragons, and an extra tile which matches any of these thirteen to make a pair. It's a pretty devastating piece of showmanship to quietly build a crap hand into a 500 point winner, while everyone else is franticly competing for pungs (three of a kind) and chows (sequences). If you start the game with at least 10 out of 13 of the required crap tiles, it's often worth trying for the Thirteen Orphans. Here's how it's described in the instruction book:

Except 2 to 8 of the "Bamboo" the Circles and the "Numbers" cards the winning cards can be formed by constitution or 13 different cards of each of the remaining varieties. (See Figure 10).

In having such a form of cards in hand the player in order to win has to wait for any 1 of the corresponding cards so as to form a pair of "The head of the Bird" ...

You can see what I'm up against here: the explanation of the scoring system is completely unintelligible. So tracking down something better is essential. Because I have a hankering to play Mah-Jongg again. As enjoyable as the occasional game of Mah-Jongg on the PC might be, it's no more a substitute for sitting down to a table with four other people, shuffling the tiles and building the wall, than on-line porn assisted self-help is a substitute for a more sociable approach to prostate care. For some things you just have to get real. Especially when the AIs are routinely kicking your arse.

* The All Green Hand consists of sets composed entirely of Green Dragons, and all-green members of the Bamboo Suit - anything but the 1, 5, 7 and 9. The 5, 7 and 9 of Bamboo commonly include at least one red stick of bamboo in the design, while the 1 is traditionally represented by a bird. As a matter of fairness, the All Green Hand shouldn't be included if one of the players is red/green colour blind**, as they're at an obvious disadvantage when it comes to recognising the Bamboo tiles which don't qualify as "all-green". In a good quality set, the designers really go to town on the bird, as well as the Flower and Season tiles which aren't used to form sets, but do provide very handy points bonuses.

** As it happens, red/green colour blindness is a sex-linked genetic trait, which is more common in men than women. I wouldn't give much for your chances of getting a fair game of Mah-Jongg if you were a colour blind male taking on a game of Mah-Jongg with three of those man-hating-politically-correct-lesbian-separatist radical feminists who have done so much over the past twenty years to make western civilisation a living hell for the average bloke. Call me callous or a sexual quisling, but I don't much care what might happen to anyone who would be stupid enough to get into such a game.

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