"Babcock Rules" to the Fascinating Game of Mah Jong

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"Babcock Rules" to the Fascinating Game of Mah Jong

By Phil Archer, Director of Public Programs | @LearnReynolda 

Mahjong endured for centuries. Why? A recent issue of the Hong Kong Medical Journal reported that it is “cognitively demanding” and “involves substantial higher mental processing and outputs: memory, concentration, calculations, reasoning, strategies, sequential thinking, and planning." Beyond brain health, people are drawn to the game’s whiff of antiquity, the beauty of its smooth, clattering tiles, and the camaraderie of its rituals. I first wanted to learn mahjong because of connection to the history of Reynolda, but it quickly became the favorite game for me and a circle of friends, who played it nearly every week for several years.

According to Chinese legend, the philosopher Confucius invented mahjong. It’s similar to the Western game of gin rummy, with the addition of special tiles including the four winds and three dragons that represent the cardinal Confucian virtues of Benevolence, Sincerity, and Filial Piety. In the 1920s mahjong became a global craze following the publication of Babcock’s Rules for Mah-Jongg: The Red Book of Rules by Joseph Park Babcock. He and his brother Charlie Babcock (who would later marry Mary Reynolds Babcock and lived at Reynolda from the 1930s through the 1960s) were president and vice-president of the International Mah-Jongg Sales Company of America, headquartered in San Francisco. Joseph Babcock had worked in China as a sales representative for the Rockefellers' Standard Oil Company. There he recognized a moonlighting opportunity in the popular tile game and introduced it to Western players in 1920. By 1923 Vanity Fair reported on the "rage of mah jong...which has taken America by storm."

George Gershwin wrote a song about it. More popular was Eddie Cantor's hit "Since Ma is Playing Mah Jong:"

If you want to play the game, I’ll tell you what to do.
Buy a silk kimona and begin to raise a crew,
Get yourself a book of rules and study till it’s clear
And you’ll now the game when you’ve got whiskers down to here.
After that you buy a set and oh how you get stung
Then you start in guessing which is Chow and which is Pung
And when you’re exhausted and you’re shaky in the knees,
Then you’ll know why people say, “Darn clever, these Chinese!”

The game meant big business for the Parker Brothers Company, which included a copy of Babcock’s rule book with each set. Robust sales required the company to send American cattle bones to China to be made into tiles (at a lower cost than the traditional ivory), and the game grew to become China’s sixth largest export as of 1924. The following year Charlie Babcock left his brother’s company to return to his banking career and a growing friendship with Mary Reynolds, whom he married in December 1929 in the Reynolda House reception hall.

Following its initial success in America, the game’s popularity has waxed and waned, with steady enthusiasm among Asian-Americans, Navy spouses, and Jewish Americans, many of whom play a variation of the game that originated in New York in 1937.

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