'Pong'! Singaporeans competed in World Mahjong Championship held in France

Nicholas Yong
Assistant News Editor
Some 256 players from countries such as France, Italy and Russia took part in the seventh edition of the World Mahjong Championship, held in the historic French town of Villefranche-sur-Saone. PHOTO: Mahjong Club du Rhône

SINGAPORE —  For a game commonly associated with Asian culture, the recent biennial World Mahjong Championship seemed out of place when it was held in a historic French town and attracted many players from the West.

Earlier this month, Villefranche-sur-Saone, capital of Beaujolais, played host to the seventh edition of the biennial World Mahjong Championship.

Of the 256 men and women who took part, the largest number of representatives came from France, with 50 players, followed by China’s 27. There were also sizeable contingents from other European countries like Russia, Italy, Spain and the Netherlands.

Among the smaller contingents were three Singaporeans, including teacher Lee Sze Chuin, 45. After three days of fierce competition, Lee finished a respectable 94th, the highest among the trio.

“My performance could have been better, but I took it as a first experience. I was here to see, to feel and soak in the atmosphere,” said Lee over the phone from Lausanne, where he is based with his New Zealander husband Marc Checkley, 42, a freelance producer and story consultant.

Ironically, Lee was supposed to represent the Swiss at first. “Word spread that I was playing, so the Sparrows Club in Singapore asked me to play for them.”

Having moved to Switzerland in 2016, Lee was surprised to find a thriving competitive mahjong scene in Europe. He told Yahoo News Singapore, “We had no idea that mahjong existed in the European side of the world. Mahjong has different rules depending on the region. On our side of the Earth, it’s all about gambling and fun. Here, they play by international rules. It’s a mind sport like chess or weiqi.”

PHOTO: Mahjong Club du Rhône

And while Lee has played the game from a young age, competitive mahjong is a different kettle of fish. “You have chi (three consecutive tiles of the same suit) and pong (a set of three identical tiles), but they have combinations that allow you to gain points, so it’s a little more challenging,” explained Lee.

“I just kept practising. I tried to play with senior players who had competed before, so as to build up my confidence.” 

And the tournament was as intense as any other competitive sport, with the participants packed into a large hall and rotating between games. Players accumulated points in each game, based on the combinations that they had managed to conjure up.

“Each game is 2 hours and you play four games a day, all on an individual basis. It is very quiet and intense. You are not meant to chat or talk, the only noise comes when you shuffle the tiles,” said Lee, who was most impressed by the high standards of the Chinese and Japanese players.

“Your mind is always ticking. There is a time constraint, so you cannot think for too long. You have to make your move within seven seconds or so. The game finishes within two hours, so everyone wants to finish the game and accumulate points.”

Ultimately, it was Yong Zhou of China who finished top. France was the top-ranked country.

Lee said that he learned about different strategies and “how to strategise while you are stressed”, as well as reading the player and whether to play attack or defence.

But was it strange to see so many Caucasians playing mahjong? “Yes, it was weird to see so many white faces. You don’t think of it as an Asian game, it’s more like an international game.”

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