Come along for mah jongg

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As the tile landed on the table with an audible click, Cyd Pougiales knew she had won.

"Oh, is that a flower?" Pougiales exclaimed, scooping up the colorful tile and declaring victory. "Mah jongg!"

What: Local mah jongg gatherings

When: First and third Thursdays of each month at 6 p.m.

Where: Amante coffee shop and bar, 685 Marketplace Plaza, near GART Sports

To learn more

Mah jongg on the Web: National Mah Jongg League (with rules and instructions)

www.nationalmahjonggleague.org

Worldwide Mah Jongg site

www.mahjongg.com

International Mah Jongg News

www.mahjongnews.com

Around a table at the Amante coffee shop and bar Thursday night, Pougiales and six other Steamboat women sat, talked and sipped beverages while playing a game invented halfway around the world more than 2,000 years ago.

Mah jongg is a rummy-like game that requires players to gather sets of matching tiles to form one of numerous winning patterns. Players discard and take new tiles in turn, trying to create one of the patterns designated on a card in front of them.

"It's a lot like gin, with getting three and four of a kind," said Steamboat Springs resident Lesley Schuldt, a freelance German translator. Schuldt said she came to Amante on Thursday to "learn a new game and meet other women."

Thursday was only the second mah jongg night at Amante for the group, which plans to meet on the first and third Thursdays of each month.

"If we go once a month, we'll forget how to play, so it's best if we go every other week," Pougiales said.

Forgetting how to play would be understandable. The American version of mah jongg played by the group -- the game originated in China, and the Chinese version is played internationally -- involves 152 tiles and more than 40 winning patterns. Each tile has a picture, creating a system similar to suits of playing cards. There are bamboo tiles, dragon tiles, a joker, flower tiles and more. Tiles can have numbers or letters. Winning patterns require sets of tiles that match in picture and number or letter.

In other words, mah jongg keeps the mind active.

"See, this is a bad start," said Ginny Azzato, leaning over her tiles and frowning as a game began. "Last time, I at least had an idea of how to start -- the trick is to pick (one specific pattern) early and go for it."

Like Azzato, most of the women were still learning to play the intricate game Thursday, with helpful instruction from Pougiales.

"Hold on to the flowers," she advised, fresh off her earlier victory.

Most of the women also received a little help from appropriate beverages.

Glasses of white wine, coffee -- straight or with a kick -- and beer sat on the table, encircling scattered tiles waiting to be played.

"It's been a long day -- this is how we relax," Pougiales, an architect in Steamboat, said with a smile.

The games can get competitive also, especially near the end when a player is "fishing," or only one tile from victory.

"We get kind of brutal here," Kathy Gayer said, slapping a tile firmly onto the table. "The object is to win."

Amante manager Stephen Malek said that after watching the women play two weeks ago, he decided to pick the game up himself. An online Web site for the National Mah Jongg League helped him learn rules and how to play, he said.

But playing on a computer is not the same as playing in person, Malek said as he watched a game Thursday evening.

"Those cards (with winning patterns) that they have are key," Malek said. "I couldn't figure out the instructions that came with the computer game."

Pougiales said she hopes to see more people at the Thursday mah jongg gatherings.

"We could have used a second table tonight," she said.

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