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Time to play Asian games

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Quiet chatter and the distinctive clinking of tiles can be heard from the back of Seven Cups, a Chinese tea house on Denver’s South Pearl Street. Surrounded by authentic tea ware, old-fashioned lanterns and paintings of Chinese characters, four games of mahjong are in action. Players sip tea, line up the shiny tiles and make conversation. But they all have one common desire: to be the first to say “mahjong” and win the game.

“If you say mahjong one more time, I am going to kick you under the table,” said Ken Carpenter to the young lady next to him.

Carpenter has been coming to play mahjong at Seven Cups for weeks. He said he’s addicted.

“I came for the tea, but stayed for the mahjong,” he said. “It is a game that is simple to learn, but takes a lifetime to master.”

Although Carpenter was one of less than 20 individuals present at the Tuesday mahjong night, he is one of several individuals who have increasingly become more interested in Asian games.

For two years Seven Cups has hosted mahjong on Tuesdays and Thursdays between 6 p.m. and 8 p.m.; they invite beginners to come learn the game from those who know how to play. Dozens of clear glass jars of imported tea line shelves at the front of the store—black, white, oolong or green—customers have their pick from a large variety to take home or enjoy in-house.

Regulars Sean Slocum, an environmental science student, and George Cole, a businessman, help newcomers learn the Chinese tile game at wooden tables behind Chinese room divider screens.

The two even played one-on-one mahjong when cold weather discouraged others from coming to play during winter nights. On this particular Tuesday evening, Slocum traded strategies with Carpenter and two young ladies at one table while Cole chatted with ladies about finances at another table.  All had tiles skillfully lined up in front of them.

“It is surprising to see how many new people come and play each week,” Slocum said. “Every week I am seated with a new table of people teaching them the rules.”

Cole said he started playing mahjohg after watching Disney’s “Kung Fu Panda.” When Po the panda asks his father why their family got into the noodle business, his father replies that it was because “he won it in a mahjong game.” After seeing the movie, Cole was determined to learn what mahjong was all about.

Now he plays the game for relaxation. Cole said it is the only time he can concentrate on anything besides work. The different age groups that come and play never fail to surprise him.

“It is not uncommon to see a mix of people in their 20s and their 60s,” he said.

Seven Cups in Phoenix, where the franchise is based, was the first to feature mahjong nights. However, when Denver Seven Cups owner Greg Fellman decided to bring the game to his Mile High City location, it soon proved to be more successful than in Phoenix.

“It is definitely becoming more popular,” Fellman said. “A lot of people know it from mahjong solitaire, but it is nothing like that.”

Fellman said his fond memories of listening to the sounds of the tiles while living in China for two years also inspired him to bring mahjong to the teahouse.

Although there are many variations to the game, especially in the U.S., the object of the game is to collect sets of tiles according to the number and type shown on the face of each tile. Similar to games of rummy, players take and discard a tile on each turn. The first player whose hand consists entirely of a legal set or sets ends the game or says “mahjong.”

A complete mahjong set has 144 tiles, a wind indicator and three dice. It is rumored that the game emerged in the late 19th Century outside of Shanghai. Joseph Babcock is credited for bringing mahjong to the U.S. in the 1920s. Although learning to play is easy, it is the rituals and complex scoring that have made the game appear difficult.

At Seven Cups, the complex scoring is usually left behind and players just count how many games they have won.

“My record is seven wins out of nine games with four people,” said Slocum.

One of mahjong’s unmistakable rituals is the shuffling of the tiles at the center of the table. It is called, “the twittering of the sparrows.” Mahjong is roughly translated as “sparrow tiles” or “the games of the sparrows” in Chinese. Other rituals include the building of four walls in a square and splitting of the wall for the “kong box,” which take time to master as the dealer.

Due to the popularity of the Tuesday and Thursday mahjong nights, Seven Cups now also offers mahjong on Wednesday afternoons. Fellman said someday the tea house might even have a night for people to come play a variety of Asian games like mahjong, Chinese checkers and go.

Like mahjong, Go is said to be easy to learn. However, playing go requires even more study and practice than mahjong.

“Go is a game that uses the whole brain,” said Alex Yavich, who has been playing and teaching the game since 1975. “It not only uses calculation, but also imagination.”

The object of the board game is to acquire territory or points by surrounding territory or capturing opponent’s stones. It is a two player game; one player represents black stones and the other white stones. It is played on a board with horizontal and vertical lines.

At the start, the board is empty. Players alternate placing stones at intersections of the horizontal and vertical lines until intersections are occupied by one color or surrounded by one color. The empty space inside a group of stones is called an eye. Strategy includes creating eyes for your own groups and preventing opponents from making eyes.

Ukraine-born Yavich has studied and played with professionals in the game. Rank indicates a person’s skill level. One could rank anywhere from a beginner to a professional eligible to participate in tournaments and competitions.

He taught Go at the Colorado Dragon Boat Festival banquet in 2010 and helps host Go clubs for children at different libraries in Denver, Westminster and Highlands Ranch. Yavich said the clubs typically have 15 to 20 players of different nationalities and ages.

“Even more than playing, I like the kids,” he said.

Although playing the game well requires a level of skill, Yavich said children as young as six-years-old come to play. They hold Go tournaments a couple times a year at Denver metro area libraries.

Yavich said he does not get much of a chance to play with older, more proficient players because teaching the game to the children is quite time consuming. He encourages those who know how to play the game well to come to the Go clubs and help out.

Before Go spread to Korea and Japan, it originated in China over 2,000 years ago. Weiqu roughly translates as “board game of surrounding” in Chinese.

Hanafuda are known as Japanese flower cards. Many games can be played with the Hanafuda deck, but they are usually referred to under the same generic name. The deck has 48 cards with 12 suits, one representing every season. Every month has its own special flower. For example, cherry blossoms for March or maple leaves in November.

“I am awful at playing hanafuda card games,” said Jenn Nguyen, a civil engineering student. Although Nguyen doesn’t play often play hanafuda, she has always been fascinated by the beautiful cards. She said her family has had several decks for as long as she can remember.

“I remember getting the cards out when I was younger just to look at colorful cards. I would try to match up the pictures of different flowers and invent my own games,” Nguyen said. “The decks are antiques now.”

Hanafuda has a notable history. Portugese brought 48 piece card sets of hombre playing cards came to Japan during the middle of the 16th century. Before this time, gambling was not popular. Cards were mostly played recreationally by nobility. Soon during the Tokugawa Shogunate, gambling was banned and isolationist policies stopped the import of hombre cards. Card enthusiasts replaced the cards with homemade decks with Japanese characters and scenes so they would not seem suspicious to the government.

At the end of the 19th Century, the Nintendo Corporation was founded for the sole purpose of producing hand painted Nanafudo decks. It was the first product offered by the now-famous video game makers.

“We have some cards manufactured by Nintendo,” Nguyen said. “I think you can only buy them directly from Japan now. Not a lot of people know they made cards long before video games were even in existence.”

Variations of the game usually involve two to seven players. One variation involves three players—a oya (dealer), a doni (second player) and a beki (last player).

The objective is to accumulate more points than the other players. This can be achieved by capturing and accumulating cards of the same suit or special combinations by matching them based on their flower or month. Then point values of the cards are listed and vary from game to game. Like mahjong, there is a pick up or discard system.

Nguyen is surprised at the increase in popularity of playing Asian games like hanafuda and mahjong.

“I have noticed that the directions for more and more Asian games are showing up on the Internet,” she said. “It is a great resource. Hopefully it will encourage more people to pick up some cards or some mahjong tires and play.”

To learn more about Seven Cups and their mahjong nights, visit To learn more about children’s Go club or tournaments, contact Alex Yavich at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

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