All aboard: Amy Yung talks Chinese Chess and Mahjong

Chinese chess and Mahjong are two classic games that never get old. Sam Agars talks strategy with DB’s Islands District Council Member Amy Yung and finds out why both games are easy to learn but extremely difficult to master.

A Chinese chess contest organised by Discovery Bay’s Islands District Council member Amy Yung in July generated significant interest, predominantly among elderly local residents eager to test their skill against new opponents and create bonds within the community. Lovers of Chinese chess tend also to be fans of Mahjong, and it seems both games are enjoying a bit of a revival locally.

We take a look at the ins and outs of each of these games, explore their following in DB and find out just what it is about them that has seen them stand the test of (a very long) time.

Piece by piece

Chinese chess is a strategic board game that has similarities to international chess in the way that pieces must start in specific positions and different pieces can move certain directions and distances. Like international chess, it’s played on a board of 64 squares with opposing armies aiming to take down one another’s king. While some pieces are the same in each game, others differ, notably the cannon, which moves like a rook but captures by jumping an opponent’s pieces.

Amy enjoys the strategic side of Chinese chess and the fact that there is always something new to learn. “You have to put the pieces in their pre-determined positions and walk the steps one by one, but normally we plan them in advance to evaluate what next step the opposition party will do, so that is why you need a lot of thinking,” she says. “It is not physical training but you need a lot of practice and you must play with different players to see different strategic games. It is an educational exercise – you train the brain.”

Accounts differ as to the history of the game and the exact date it was invented is hard to pinpoint. Some suggest Chinese chess is a variant of international chess, which was invented in India in the sixth century, while others believe it evolved out of a game called Liubo, which was big in China some 3,500 years ago.

Amy admits the number of people playing Chinese chess in DB is not huge, but is confident her recent Chinese chess contest has aroused interest in the game. “We had some people come who are extremely quiet in the community that engaged in the activity,” she adds. “A lot of them said how much they enjoyed meeting new friends with a shared interest, and they plan to carry on.”

On the tiles

Mahjong is immensely popular throughout China and Hong Kong, and it too enjoys a strong following with DB’s older generation. “Young people are so keen on the IT games, they are not interested in Mahjong anymore,” Amy laments.

Played by four people with 136 tiles, the aim is to get a complete set – four sets of three and a pair. There are 16 rounds in a game, with a winner after each round. The game – which can be played with an additional eight ‘flower’ tiles – was formalised in China in the 1800s, although variations of it have been played for centuries. Mahjong often involves a gambling aspect, with players gaining points for their hand, and points given a monetary value agreed on in advance.

Similar to the Western card game Rummy, Mahjong is a game of skill, strategy and calculation and it involves a degree of chance. Like Chinese chess, you get better at it the more you play. Amy sees Mahjong as a perfect way to keep the mind and wits sharp. “I was trained at a very young age by my mother, that is why my mathematics is very good,” she jokes.

“In Mahjong, you have to consider the other three parties and you have to determine which party you want to join as allies,” Amy adds. “Sometimes you have to work with others but it all depends on the situation. If somebody has very good assets, they are surely going to win so sometimes, to reduce the damage, you have to help them win the pot. We learn that by sacrificing something, we gain something – that is the best part of the game.”

Having a punt

While gambling in any form is illegal in China, you can legally play Mahjong for money in Hong Kong, if you do it correctly. For the casual player, who enjoys a game with friends, putting a few dollars on the line is legal as long as you’re not playing in the course of a trade or business.

You can also bet legally at Mahjong parlours, as long as they are licensed by the government. These can include restaurants, function rooms and clubhouses, licensed by the Home Affairs Bureau. There are still many illegal Mahjong parlours operating in Hong Kong and police are often shutting them down.

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