Monday, December 31, 2007

World Mahjong Championship 2007

The 'first' World Mahjong Championship (WMC) was held earlier this year in Chengdu, China, and featured the best players of MCR in the world, bringing together mahjong enthusiasts from America, China, Europe, and Japan.

The WMC was meant to be the culmination of a World Series of Mahjong, coordinated by the World Mahjong Organisation. However, there was very little news (in English) about this World Series of Mahjong (not to be confused with the other World Series of Mahjong held in Macau, with a prize purse of US$1 million). Of the five proposed stops in this World Series of Mahjong, I could only find coverage of the European stop, that is the Open European Mahjong Championship, in Denmark. The proposed American tournament was apparently cancelled, as there is a lack of interest in MCR in the United States, where American mah-jongg is the most popular form of mahjong (although some would argue American mah-jongg is not mahjong at all, not anymore!) amongst the non-Asian players living in the United States, while the Asian players there are probably more familiar with Hong Kong style mahjong or Japanese riichi mājan.

World Series of Mahjong aside, this WMC was to feature the best from the various mahjong-playing 'areas': China; Japan; Europe; and America and others. The best players from each area were to be chosen via qualifying tournaments organised by their national associations. Of course, not all areas could send their best players: due to the lack of interest in MCR in America, there is thus only a small contingent from the United States. Instead, the player quota for 'Area D' (i.e. America and others) was filled up by extra teams from the other three areas. The players from the same area would not play against each other during the tournament. Instead, each table would comprise a player from each of the four areas. Players therefore meet a whole variety of opponents, including all the formidable players from China and Japan (who indeed dominate the top end of the WMC 2007 standings).

This tournament was billed as the "first" World Mahjong Championship, but there was actually an earlier First World Mahjong Championship held in 2002, in Tokyo, Japan. This was before the founding of the World Mahjong Organisation in 2006; the 2002 tournament was jointly organised by the Takeshobo Mahjong Museum, the Japanese Mahjong Organising Committee (JMOC) and the city council of Ningbo. However, since the first actual world championship in Tokyo was more of an ad hoc event, and this tournament in Chengdu marks the start of a regular world championship, the WMO and JMOC had agreed to call this tournament the real 'First World Mahjong Championship'.

There are differences between the two tournaments, of course. In the course of time since the 2002 World Championship, there has been some changes to the mahjong ruleset. The WMO issued the updated official rules in 2006, and this new ruleset is called 'Mahjong Competition Rules' (MCR) in the English edition (the previous English edition is called 'Competition Mahjong Official International Rulebook', often abbreviated as OIRB). The tournament format has also become more structured, with the division of players into four areas, and is more international in outlook. The 2002 tournament had 100 participants of which 24 represented four non-Asian countries. This year's WMC saw the participation of 55 players from ten European countries and the United States. It really does seem more of a world championship with the increased participation of players from the rest of the world (apart from the host country and birthplace of mahjong, China, as well as traditional mahjong powerhouse Japan).

The WMC 2007 has a tournament system where all players get to play against opponents from other 'areas' for eight ju 局 (game/session). The top 16 players after the completion of the eight ju then go on to compete for one final ju, where they are drawn to face each other Swiss-style (i.e. the top four players face each other at one table for the final ju, the next four at another table and so on).

Each ju lasts for two hours, or the sixteen hands of a complete game, whichever is faster. As this Chengdu tournament utilised automatic mahjong tables, the players probably saved some time in not having to shuffle and stack the tiles, and the chances of cheating by manipulating the tiles while shuffling are also reduced.

After the first eight ju, the sixteen finalists included five Japanese players, and one European player from the Netherlands. This meant that there were ten Chinese players. This showed the dominance the Chinese (as well as the Japanese, to a smaller extent) had on mahjong. Laurent Mahé, a French player, had narrowly missed out on the final, being ranked at 17th with 20 table points, just one point off the next higher-ranked player. (Laurent Mahé can, however, boast of having set a tournament record of the highest-scoring hand of +303, after self-drawing a Thirteen Orphans hand. Also, a special prize was awarded to any 88-point fan made.)

At Table 1 (where the top four players were drawn to play each other), the Japanese player Imaeda Minoru 今枝実 was in the lead with 29 table points out of 32 possible after eight ju, while his three Chinese opponents all had 28 table points. However, he was outplayed, and third-ranked Li Li 李立 (pinyin: Lĭ Lì) won the game with a convincing +256. Imaeda Minoru only managed to obtain 1 table point with a score of -76 giving him third place. His overall ranking was thus also third place, just edged out of second place by Zhang Zhangfei 张章飞 (pinyin: Zhāng Zhāngfēi). At Table 2, ranked fifth with 26 table points, Zhang Zhangfei managed to win at his table during the last ju and earn 4 table points to tie with Imaeda Minoru, each with a final 30 tables points, but he had a better competition point score of +1143 to Imaeda Minoru's +752.

So, the final individual standings: Li Li in first place, Zhang Zhangfei in second, and Imaeda Minoru in third. Désirée Heemskerk, the only European in the final, managed to improve her ranking from 12th to 10th. The full final results can be found here on the China Majiang website 中国麻将网.

The team results: China Shanxi Jiexiu team 中国山西介休队 in first place, China Shanghai Zhangjiang team 中国上海张江队 in second place, and the Japan Mahjong Sport Association Osaka team 日本麻將體育協會 大阪隊 in third place. The winning team was really strong, with three of its members in the top sixteen (after eight ju): in 2nd, 4th, and 15th places. The second-placed team also had three team members in the top sixteen: in 5th, 6th, and 16th places.

News, information and photographs of WMC 2007 can be found at the following websites: Mahjong Danmark (photos), Sloperama's Mah-Jong Zone (photos), and Mahjong News (photos).

To mahjong enthusiasts, WMC 2007 is truly exciting in some ways. Mahjong may not be a very well-regarded game (perhaps due to its negative image as a gambling game, especially in Asia), and is probably not very exciting to watch (unlike many sports). However, it is a source of great pleasure for many people who play the game. It is a fascinating game, with its elements of randomness and strategy. It is certainly not an easy game, especially in rule-heavy variants like MCR and Japanese riichi mahjong. WMC 2007 affirms that mahjong can be played seriously and legitimately as a sport, especially since it does not have a hefty registration fee to justify a big prize structure like the Macau World Series of Mahjong (this was discussed in an earlier post).

No doubt most Singaporeans who play mahjong now, play it with small-stake gambling in mind. Yet, moving on to play mahjong at a gambling-free competitive level is not so big a leap. I believe MCR as a ruleset is interesting and complex enough to entice players to play without the excitement of gambling. With a goal like a world championship to work towards, it can be possible to build a culture of mahjong-playing Singaporeans aiming to be the best, yet not losing the pleasure in playing a intellectually stimulating and mentally rewarding game.

With the next WMC planned for 2010, there is time for preparation. Who knows, there might just be a Singaporean team participating at WMC 2010!

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