by Dennis Dalman
The game of mahjong helped teach Chris Trout, a California transplant, the meaning of “Minnesota Nice.”
Mahjong is a game played with either hard-plastic or ceramic tiles shaped a bit like dominoes. It originated centuries ago in China and then swept the world in waves of popularity. The goal is to match up tiles in certain combinations to score points.
She started playing the game at the Whitney Senior Center in St. Cloud but later joined the group of about 18 mahjong players at the Sartell Senior Center.
“That game was my introduction to Minnesota folks,” said Trout. “At first, the ladies might have been a bit suspicious of me, being that I’m not a local, that I’m from California.”
But it wasn’t long before any possible suspicions vanished, and they welcomed the California newcomer warmly and demonstrated lots of Minnesota Nice at every mahjong session.
Trout moved to Minnesota about a year ago to be with a man she calls “the love of my life,” a man she met online some years ago – Jay Adams of St. Cloud, a retired Iowa art teacher who also taught at the local Area Learning Center.
One day shortly after she arrived in Minnesota, she became frustrated at a local bank, dissatisfied with a service, and she said some rather caustic words. Jay quickly said, “Dear, don’t be California Nasty. Try to be Minnesota Nice.”
It’s a niceness and social warmth she enjoys every Wednesday during her mahjong games in Sartell.
“It can be very hard to move to a new place to live, especially at my age, 77,” Trout said. “It can become very lonely at times. Jay said I need to become involved in things and suggested I play mahjong. And ever since I did, I still consider it my welcome to Minnesota – to Minnesota Nice.”
The mahjong sessions take place from 9-11:30 every Wednesday at the Sartell Senior Center. Anyone willing to learn the game is welcome to attend. The Sartell sessions grew from about half a dozen women seven years ago to closer to 18 women currently. Each Wednesday, an average of about 12 of them meet to play in small groups at four or five tables.
Linda Ganshert of Sartell loves the game.
“It’s so challenging, and the ladies are so much fun,” she said. “After my husband, Stephen, died years ago, I needed a way to get out and do something,” said Ganshert, the mother of three grown children. I’ve been playing mahjong for six years.”
Like many Sartell mahjong players, like Chris Trout, Ganshert is a transplant who came originally from Freeport, Illinois. She moved to Sartell 20 years ago when her husband was laid off and then found a job at the Ferche plant in Rice.
“Mahjong is not really a hard game to learn,” she said, adding that she would recommend it to virtually anybody. “I love card games, too, like bridge, 500 and pinochle. And I enjoy reading, crocheting and knitting.”
Mahjong is a good game for senior citizens because its intensity is supposed to keep the mind alert and even ward off cognitive impairment and the onset of other mental difficulties.
There are variations of the game. The one played in Sartell is the Modern American Mahjong.
The game, which is a real brain twister, involves lots of skill, strategy, calculations and some elements of chance. The white hard-plastic tiles, typically 144 of them, are marked with Chinese word script, as well as designs such as stylized bamboo, flowers and dots. The tiles, face down on the table, are scrambled up by all the players using their hands. Then, during the course of play, each player has 13 tiles in front of her, not counting some bonus tiles reserved at the side. The goal is to match up the tiles in certain combinations, which is a lot more difficult than it sounds. A winner will then say loudly, “Mahjong!”
A wide card in front of each player shows the lists of the many combinations of tiles each player aims to put down before the others.
The game is replete with strange names. Simples, for example, are numbered tiles. There are “honor” categories of “winds” and “dragons,” and there are “bam” tiles, short for “bamboo” and “eyes” (two identical tiles). The game also involves the four directions, the four seasons and four flowers (plum, chrysanthemum, orchid, bamboo).
To an observer, it appears to be a mysterious ritual. “Pongs, kongs and chows” are three combinations of tiles. A pong is three identical tiles; a kong is four identical tiles and a chow is a meld of three tiles in a specific numerical sequence. “Stealing” in mahjong is when a player takes a discarded tile from another player.
In California, Chris Trout lived in a mountain town (Idlewild), owned an art gallery and was marketing director for a community center. She now does volunteer mentor work for the Mayo Clinic online, a task she took on after her husband had a brush with cancer and was a Mayo Clinic patient.
For most of her life, Linda Ganshert was a stay-at-home mom.
Both Ganshert, Trout and many other women have found a new, nice, comfy niche – having a ball playing mahjong together at the Sartell Community Center.
This article was written prior to the state quarantine guidelines. As with all social gatherings, this event is on hiatus until further notice due to the Covid-19 social distancing rules.