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Mah-jongg clicks with new crop of players

Mah-jongg is played all around Long Island.

Mah-jongg is played all around Long Island. Photo Credit: Ed Betz, 2011

At King Kullen in Commack, you'll find dairy products in aisle 10, paper goods in aisle 5 and, by the produce section, an American-style mah-jongg game in progress.

These days, you never know where you're going to hear the click of tiles. A restaurant. A library. Almost anywhere that there are playing surfaces and chairs.

As players of this popular tile game stow away their bridge tables and unplug their coffee makers, they're setting out for places their mothers and grandmothers would never have imagined. Here are just a few:

Tile spill in aisle three

King Kullen, 120 Veterans Memorial Hwy., Commack, 631-864-3077, kingkullen.com

King Kullen's informal cafe is the scene of regular weekly mah-jongg games. Here, players do more than just play. They also eat cake or muffins and drink coffee or tea from the cafe. And that's fine with store manager Brian Bourguignon.

Judith Giroux of Kings Park is part of a weekly game going on here for the past six months. She sees many advantages in the location. "We don't have to bother doing our places, moving tables, getting munchies," Giroux said. "You can have a cup of coffee if you want. And then, we shop afterward." When her group is down a player, they can usually find someone at a nearby table to fill in.

Winning menus

Mother Kelly's, 490 Chestnut St., Cedarhurst, 516-295-5421

Weekday afternoons, this popular pizzeria-ristorante is filled with mah-jongg and card players. "The ladies come at about 10:30 in the morning -- sometimes they're banging on the window for us to open," said Mother Kelly's co-owner Glenn Gobetz. "They leave about 5." For $17 (with tax but not gratuity), players order off a special menu of 10 items, like a Cobb salad or egg white vegetable omelet. That price also includes coffee, tea, dessert, cookies and fruit.

Linda Gioia of North Woodmere has been a Mother Kelly's player the past five years. "They treat us like royalty," Gioia said. "All day, we get coffee and tea." As soon as entrees are ready, players move to another table to eat. Later, during play, fruit and cookies are brought out.

Jackson's, 6005 Jericho Tpke., Commack, 631-462-0822, jacksonsrestaurant.net

At this comfortable Commack restaurant, the semi-partitioned "library" room is the backdrop for mah-jongg, canasta and Scrabble. Many of the players drifted over to the place after nearby Borders Books closed, according to manager Ryan Ullah, who added that most games are on Monday and Friday afternoons. Players arrive around noon and usually stay until about 5 p.m., ordering lunch off the regular menu. Ullah sees the use of the restaurant by game players as a win-win situation. "We encourage it," he said. "It's good for business, and it's good for them."

A novel place to play

Mah-jongg players all over Long Island can take advantage of the free space libraries provide. Here, though, there's seldom any food involved.

Plainview-Old Bethpage Public Library, 999 Old Country Rd., Plainview, 516-938-0077, poblib.org

To Gloria Kaye of Plainview, whose group is booked one Tuesday a month at the Plainview-Old Bethpage Library, the lack of food is a good thing. "We don't play in each other's home for many reasons, and one is because we don't want all that nosherai around us," she said. Her group of four is looking for more people to start another game. Here, though, you have to be a local resident to play.

East Islip Public Library, 381 E. Montauk Hwy., East Islip, 631-581-9200, eipl.suffolk.lib.ny.us

Anyone is welcome to play at the East Islip Public Library, where space is available Thursday between 10:30 a.m. and 3 p.m. "It's for visitors to play mah-jongg, canasta or any game of their choice," said reference librarian Jo Ann Carhart.

Check the library near you to see whether space is available for a friendly game.

About the game

American Mah-jongg, a game played with 152 tiles, is said to have originated in China long ago -- there's controversy about just how long. The American version was standardized by the National Mah Jongg League during the 1930s. According to mah-jongg instructor Alex Pollack of Ronkonkoma, the American version has about 50 winning hands; one can buy cards with the hands yearly from the league.

The object of the game is to make these hands by picking and throwing out tiles, which are in numbered sets and categories with names like bams, cracks, dots, flowers, jokers, winds and dragons. In concept, the game is similar to gin rummy.

In Chinese mah-jongg, there are no cards listing winning hands. Instead, Pollack said, as in gin rummy, "all the hands you can win with are in your head."

For questions on mah-jongg, email Pollack at alextoday@netzero.net.

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