Chinese New Year

A habit, almost a ritual, to see off the old year and usher in the new: gambling games.

The basic idea of 十點半 “Ten and a Half Points” is like Blackjack. Ace to ten are worth their face value in points; face cards are worth half a point; the basic hand for player or dealer is just one card; you bust if your total value hits 11 or higher, and you get double payoff with hitting 10.5 exactly or until you have five cards without busting. With an infinite, evenly-distributed deck you have better-than-even odds of not busting with an extra card at any point value 6.5 or lower. Of course, that doesn’t mean that’s the optimal hitting threshold. If I had any homework, I would probably start compiling a table.

Games of Mahjong as usual as well. Yesterday Charley, my younger cousin, joined the table for the first time and became vaguely anxious because he won twice in a row, which meant he had to continue playing as dealer, and was coaxed to stay instead of apparently computer games. It also marked my first “gàng blossom”, a win with the replacement tile for a drawn-onto-melded gàng, which is just moderately rare but very dramatic to execute and experience. At least for me. Probably not for my elder relatives, who have easily played thousands of games. (The canonical minimum for a game is four rounds of four hands each, plus any dealer-win extensions. On the rare occasions when our parents take out the tile set at home, we usually stop at one round. Time is crazy.)

In the movies, drama is injected into mahjong games rather differently. Aside from complicated blackmails and threats outside any given game, it’s hard to portray strategic considerations very interestingly, so mostly, it’s completely ridiculous luck or cheating techniques. Luck: things like the dealer winning with his/her starting hand, which is worth a crazy number of points. It happened in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (I strongly doubt this is a spoiler; if the chapter of Mahjong accomplished anything plotwise, it was strictly in the conversation. Anyway, the ending is, I don’t know, epic. I digress.) Cheating: people who can crush a perfect-looking circle into the middle of a Four Circles tile with their bare hands. Circles with millimeter-thick designs in them. I know that checking for reality in a movie of this type is completely missing the point, but seriously.

Anyway, the basics of this game are not too complex but there are amazingly many corner cases. Of course 90% of the opportunities I have to play are holidays and family gatherings like these in Taipei, but that’s been enough to respond smoothly with three other experienced players. I’m still learning of obscure rules: apparently there’s a rule that you can’t declare mahjong on the tile drawn from claiming a discard for a kong. How many games does one have to play to know something like this?

And this is only in the Taiwanese variation; Wikipedia lists sixteen of them and an outside source has 23+2, or, er, 26. We play with three more tiles than everybody else, which makes cool winning hands harder, and is presumably the reason we don’t have a lower bound on point count. How interesting. I’ll probably have to get all confused about learning a variant if I ever want to play in the distant future.

I still can’t keep track of the prevailing winds and seat winds while playing, or reflexively count out where the dice start the tile draw. The algorithm goes a bit like: count sides counterclockwise with the dealer as 1 for the starting wall, then count tile-pairs clockwise with the same number (wat) for the offset, and start taking tiles four by four. Scoring is so intricate it gets its own Wikipedia article, which doesn’t even have any of the interesting parts. The Taiwanese scoring criteria table has… no, I’m not going to bother to count how many rows there are.

What else happened? I didn’t eat as crazily as a couple days before (but still pretty crazily) and have not yet gotten a second stomachache. Tada. Some people were setting off firecrackers or fireworks or something very loud and noisy at pretty darn exactly six in the morning. Note to self: acute = áéíóú, grave = àèìòù. That is all.

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