Tabletop game gains popularity at The Paradise Center, even during the slower summer months.
Every region has a signature table game. The Midwest has euchre, Las Vegas has blackjack, and, though not steeped in far east culture, Longboat Key has mahjong.
The game of skill and chance remains popular enough on the Key to warrant games at The Paradise Center throughout the slower summer months.
Described by some players as addictive and intense, it’s played with 152 tiles inscribed with Chinese symbols.
From 1-3 p.m. Tuesdays, mahjong enthusiasts converge for lively games.
“It’s challenging, it’s social, and it’s great for your brain,” said Suzy Brenner, executive director of The Paradise Center. “You really have to think about what you’re doing and the strategy involved.”
Mahjong came to The Paradise Center two years ago when patrons kept asking to see the game added to the programming list. From there, it took off.
Longboaters visit the center year-round, but during the slow season on the island where the population melts from 20,000 to 7,000 people, it can be tough to hold enough interest in recurring events to make them worthwhile.
Typically, a yoga class here or there will last throughout the summer season.
That was until mahjong started.
“Especially during the summer when it’s so quiet on Longboat Key, providing an opportunity for people to just avoid loneliness and isolation is one of our big goals,” Brenner said.
During season, about 28 people play each week, but during the summer months the games run about 12-14 people per session.
The game is a way to forge communities and friendships, volunteer mahjong coach Carol Peschel said. The group has even held birthday parties that revolve around the game.
Unlike bridge, during which Brenner said players are often quiet, reserved and focused, mahjong players are lively and boisterous.
Laughter often fills the small room inside Temple Beth Israel, where three tables can be found set up with 12 women playing around them.
Some of the players, all women on one recent visit, have been playing since they were preteens. They learned from their mothers and now pass the game and its finer points onto their friends.
But all come with one goal in mind: to be the first player to call out “mahjong.”
For Carole Shaw, who has been playing since she was 12, winning is her favorite part — next to all of the friends she’s made along the way.
Shaw said she comes with the goal of winning at least one game when she plays. But after she’s succeeded, she said it’s OK if others experience the thrill of victory.
You don’t have to be a well-oiled, mahjong-playing machine to jump into the game.
The skill level ranges from beginner to intermediate, and tables are broken down by levels. That’s why it’s important to RSVP before hand, Brenner said.
The center also hosts a beginners class every so often. Brenner keeps a list of anyone who is interested in the game, and once it hits eight, a four-week beginners’ class is held.
But just in case people are still foggy on the rules, three volunteers circle the room to lend a helping hand.
For Peschel, volunteering to teach the game has been rewarding because she gets to see how far each player has come, she said.
In addition to teaching, Peschel is quite the mahjong fan herself.
“I never miss a game,” she said. “I even schedule my doctor appointments around them.”
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