Pieces Fall into Place for Fletcher’s Mahjong Club

The traditional game of strategy attracts those focused on diplomacy and global problems

As the Mahjong players in Mugar Café gently glide ivory-colored tiles along a tabletop, shuffling them, the sound is like dice being shaken—only it's richer, more resonant. Four pushers made from clear green, yellow, pink, and blue plastic surround the tiles, colorful and ready. 

The three players are students at The Fletcher School, all women in their 20s. Together, they lead Fletcher’s only active game club, the Mahjong club (or, as the Fletcher group spells it, Mah Jongg, one of the many variations on the traditional Chinese name.) 

Many Americans know about Mahjong thanks to an iconic scene in the 2018 movie Crazy Rich Asians. But Avery Closser, F24, learned Mahjong while spending time with her mother in Hailey, Idaho, during pandemic lockdown. “I don’t usually like learning new games,” Closser says. Mahjong was different, though—complicated to learn and “addicting,” she adds. “It’s just a lovely, beautiful game.”  She bought a Mahjong set and taught friends to play.

When Closser moved to Massachusetts in August 2022 to start her master’s program at Tufts, she hoped to teach more people: The game’s strategic play and international roots (the game dates back to 19th century China) seemed a natural fit for a cohort focused on diplomacy and global problems. 

Her instincts were spot on: When Closser texted a Fletcher School WhatsApp group chat and messaged the school’s social list in January 2023 inviting people to play Mahjong, about 70 people expressed interest.  “If it was going to succeed anywhere, I think it would succeed at Fletcher,” says Bri Fierro, F24, who, along with Megumi Komai, F24, co-leads the club with Closser.

Early on, Closser led a group training to teach the club’s many newbies how to play. “People here get the hang of it really well, maybe compared to the average person,” she says. 

“If it was going to succeed anywhere, I think it would succeed at Fletcher.”

Bri Fierro, F24, co-leader of Mahjong club

The biggest challenge so far has been consistently finding a space with square (or nearly square) tables to accommodate the four-person game. Typically, three to 10 students show up and adapt as needed, sometimes playing in teams of two.

During a game, it’s hard to focus on anything other than tiles and strategy, Closser says. And while Fierro notes that Fletcher games aren’t super competitive, that could change as players become more experienced. 

Mahjong became popular in the United States in the 1920s, largely in Chinese American communities. By the late 1930s, Jewish American communities had also embraced the game, standardizing it along the way. The National Mah Jongg League formed in 1937, codifying American Mahjong, and issuing an official playing card each spring that lays out that year’s winning tile combinations. Today, Fletcher’s club plays American Mahjong. 

The American rules were new for Komai. She’s from Japan, one of many Asian countries with its own version of Mahjong. Komai remembers games during special family times in childhood, such as New Year’s. As an adult, she played the game with colleagues. 

“That was really fun. So coming here, I was kind of looking for something like that,” Komai says. When she saw Closser’s message to the group chat, “I was like yes.”

For her part, Fierro first played Mahjong at Fletcher. She had always been curious about the game, but had never had an opportunity to play, even while studying in Shanghai.

When someone suggested applying for official Fletcher School club status, Closser did. With their funding, they purchased two Mahjong sets to supplement Closser’s. Closser dreams of hosting a tournament before she, Komai, and Fierro graduate, a milestone that will put the group’s fate in question.

Whatever happens, Closser plans to keep Mahjong in her life after graduate school. “It’s what I look forward to most when I go home,” she says, and it’s how she imagines building community, whether in a classroom or—after seeing her mom’s Mahjong community blossom—her own weekly Mahjong gatherings.

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