During the height of the coronavirus pandemic and related lockdowns, Marian Brisch was pregnant with her first child and holed up at a relative’s lakehouse. A family member suggested a round of mahjong, an ancient Chinese tile game, pronounced mah-JONG.
Under her cousin’s tutelage, Brisch promptly became confused and intrigued.
“We were googling rules, doing things that made no sense, but it made me want to learn more,” she says.
The game invented in China two millennia ago has spread like fire in Western countries, according to a May report in China Daily, which attributes the growth to technology and social media.
Things finally clicked for Brisch when her cousin brought in an instructor to teach a group. She began playing online every day and reading books about the game. Then, in part because she needed more friends to play with, she started teaching others.
“Ideally you need a group of four,” she says. She was playing online and the two-person version with her husband Taylor, but she was “chomping at the bit” to get friends together for a mahjong party.
The number of people around our neighborhood who’ve learned it in the past six months is “just staggering,” she says.
“It’s become such a popular game among moms because we’re all looking for an outlet and an excuse to have time for ourselves or time with our girlfriends,” she says.
Neighborhood mom Melissa Moore’s interest was piqued by Instagram images of gorgeous mahjong tiles and, later, a group of women her age playing at a local restaurant. Then a friend who won a set of tiles at a Lake Highlands Elementary school fundraising auction hosted an L Streets mahjong party, bringing Brische in to teach the game.
“She is the best, and I was instantly hooked after her lesson,” Moore says. “I like that mahjong requires a level of skill and strategy, not just luck like other dice games. Each time you play you learn something new or figure out ways to play better next time.”
As Brisch puts it, unlike Bunco or other chance-driven games, mahjong has a “barrier to entry, a learning curve.”
She encourages people to push through that, because it is so rewarding once you are over that hump and able to compete.
“When you ‘mahjong!,’ there’s this whole other level of excitement because you have a sense of pride, like you earned it, did something good for your brain.”
Brisch, who was a teacher at Forest Lane Academy before becoming a stay-at-home mom, says mahjong satisfies her need to learn and teach. It’s a game at which players can continue improving and reaching new levels.
“Especially for competitive people, I think it taps into a lot of different emotions and fulfills a lot of things.”
Lauren Jacks, center, attempts a play in a game of Mahjong at a party in the Lake Highlands neighborhood on June 2, 2022.
Player and neighborhood resident Melissa Neuman says she thinks Brish’s experience as a teacher makes her the perfect mahjong instructor, “enabling her to be so patient with everyone, and she really takes her time to explain and show examples of how to play.”
Brisch ordered textbooks on mahjong, absorbed them, soaking up every nitty gritty rule and custom, and tries to learn and impart the history and origins of the game on her mahjong pupils.
“I really try to uphold the tradition and culture of mahjong, to respect its rich history,” she says. “It’s just so fascinating. So many rituals are embedded in the game, and I am trying to teach new players to uphold that.”
The tile sets used to play mahjong are works of art, she points out. “They are beautiful to see and touch, such a sensory thing.” She recommends clients play online before investing in a tile set, because they are expensive. She’d love to have a true antique set someday, when she can afford it, she says.
She talks to her groups about the variety of gear options. She recommends a couple of apps and directs players to the National Mah Jongg League website to get their own card. Those score cards, updated annually, are an integral piece of the game.
In addition to the brain exercise and aesthetic pleasures, mahjong is helping Lake Highlands women bond.
According to Moore and Neuman, Brisch and mahjong have prompted all sorts of new relationships.
“We recently had a mahjong night at the Kaycee with two groups she taught — a group of 16 of us and lots meeting for the first time,” Moore says.
Brisch says the experience has opened her eyes to all the remarkable people in her neighborhood.
Mahjong is not solely for moms. “Men can mahj too,” Brisch says. Kids also can be very good at the game. “They sometimes pick it up faster than adults since they are such visual learners,” she says.
When Brisch does a party, she brings everything the players need including game accessories, playing mat, tablecloths, tables and chairs if needed and visuals — big anchor charts for instruction. She charges per person. Other teachers might charge per hour, but Brisch likes to go with the vibe, she says.
“If you’re just focused on the game, two hours will do, but a lot of the attendees want to drink wine, socialize, and then I’ll stay and it will be a longer night.”
Follow @mahjwithmar on Instagram and call 412.418.4430 to book.