November 2012

Former Hill Resident Teaches Ancient Game of Mah Jongg

Nick Deluca

You hear “Mah Jongg,” and what do you think about? Somebody’s mother? Or grandmother? Maybe a scene from Joy Luck Club? One thing you’re probably not thinking, “Yeah, that’s what I’m doing Tuesday night.”

Sara Levy Linden is out to change that. She wants to see young San Franciscans get their “Mahj” on. Starting from her Potrero Hill home – Levy Linden recently moved to Noe Valley – she’s spent the last two years teaching how the game is played. Maybe it’s fitting that Mah Jongg should make its way to a new generation in San Francisco; it was here – and New York – where the game was first introduced from China in 1920.

Mah Jongg is like rummy, played with pieces called “tiles” instead of cards. Levy Linden teaches American Mah Jongg, which is tweaked just a bit from the Chinese original. American tiles have numbers on them as well as Chinese characters, and the American game adds a set of “joker” tiles, much like the jokers in a deck of cards.

When a class of beginners first sits down to play, there’s a lot to take in: 152 tiles spread before them. Three suits, “bams,” “craks” and “dots,” with tiles numbered from one to nine, and four of each number. And three sets of non-suit tiles: “winds,” “flowers,” and “jokers.”

But with some simple tips from Levy Linden, “if it’s a picture and it’s not a bird, it’s a flower,” and the occasional, “Oh, I thought that was a dragon…” from the students, it isn’t long before the group is diving into the tiles, pulling out just what’s needed for three sets of three-of-a-kind, or consecutive runs of numbers.

If you wonder how a girl from Scottsdale, Arizona got hooked on a grandmotherly game, the answer is: mom. The two of them learned together when Levy Linden was a teenager. According to Levy Linden, it’s not unusual for today’s Mah Jongg beginners to have a family connection to the game, often having watched it played when they were kids.

It wasn’t a straight path from teenage beginner to thirty-something maven. Levy Linden detoured into the biomedical business for a number of years, made her way to San Francisco, and then, two years ago, began her new profession: teaching the ancient game to young players. To learn how to play well takes time. But to just play and enjoy it, Levy Linden said four lessons are enough to get a novice up and clacking the tiles. The length of a game, if you’re playing socially, can run an hour. Of course, you can play faster, especially if you forgo the conversation, the wine, and the snacks. Levy Linden said her personal best is 10 minutes, but half the point of the game, she said, is the conversation…and the wine and the snacks.

Even though the game is old, there’s always something new. The National Mah Jongg League oversees the game from its other U.S. home, New York. Every spring, the League issues a new list of combinations that make winning “hands.” So, as the Bard said, there’s no danger that custom will stale its infinite variety. You won’t be bored.

If you’re ready to Mahj up, you can start from scratch with “Beginning American Mahj,” the first three Tuesdays in December. If you already know your bams from your dots, you can take a crak at “Continuing Mahj,” this month on Fridays. And on Sunday, December 9th, there’ll be an afternoon of “Open Mahj” for all comers at the Contemporary Jewish Museum.

You can find the details on Facebook at Mahj Club, or contact Sara Levy Linden at

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