Episode 1

By Tom Sloper


In October of 1997 I was a game designer and producer for Activision. I was in the process of producing Shanghai: Dynasty , the then-newest version of the classic tile-matching game of Shanghai. Shanghai games had always been simple tile-matching (with mah-jongg tiles), but with this product I was adding true mah-jongg into the mix. I was aware that mah-jongg is played differently in different regions, and that the Japanese version of the product would have to include the Japanese variant of mah-jongg. And that this would be crucial to the product's success in Japan, where mah-jongg software can be found in abundance.

I had not yet learned the rules for Japanese mah-jongg. No books exist that describe the modern Japanese rules in English. There are a couple of books that describe the classic Japanese rules (one is by Eleanor Whitney, the other by Kanai & Farrell), but those books are sadly out of touch with the changes that have taken place in the game in the last few decades. To get around that problem, I had sought and found an expert to teach me the rules in Los Angeles. I hadn't yet started my lessons.

The many times I'd tried to play Japanese mah-jongg videogames, I'd always been thwarted by error messages informing me that I had made chombo (penalty mistake).

I was especially anxious to learn how to avoid this so I could play the games better. And so I could make a competitive product for the Japanese market.


Among my Shanghai responsibilities was approval of licensed versions in Japan, necessitating occasional business trips to that wonderful country. October of 1997 was one of those occasions.

My adventure began on a Monday morning. I showed up at the office of Activision Japan Ltd. As it turned out, I arrived there while their weekly staff meeting was going on.

I was invited to join the meeting and talk to the staff about my then-current project, Shanghai: Dynasty . As I discussed my project with the Japan staff, I focused mainly on the mah-jongg aspects. I said I hoped to play some real mah-jongg while in Japan. The Sales Director, Hiroshi Seno, was the only person among the staff who played the game. He said we would need to go to the mah-jongg parlor with 4 people (one doesn't just walk in and ask to join a game); so we started discussing who we could get to round out the foursome.

Bill Swartz (the head honcho of the Tokyo office at the time) had an idea -- he asked Ms. Yukari Kurosaki (the P.R. manager) to call Login Magazine, the top Japanese computer games magazine, and invite two of their people to play against Seno-san and me.


So she made the call right after the meeting. Login was amenable to the challenge of a game, but in Asia nobody just plays mah-jongg for the fun of it. There had to be something at stake! As the conversation evolved, she began thinking about the P.R. possibilities, so she asked for some print coverage. Thus the stakes were decided. If Activision won, Shanghai: Dynasty would get two free pages in Login magazine. If Activision lost, the Login personnel would get their names added to the staff credits.

The game was arranged for Friday, at a mah-jongg parlor in Ginza.

I had just wanted to go to a parlor and play a bit -- have folks explain what I was doing wrong, so I'd never hear chombo again (and so that I could make a good computer game). But this was a very different kettle of raw fish! Now there were big stakes!

Feeling a bit overwhelmed by this turn of events, I said to Bill, "You realize I still don't understand the Japanese rules, right?" His reply was hardly sympathetic: "You have to win."


For the next few days I conducted the meetings that I'd come to Japan for. On Thursday (the day before the big game), I gave a demo of my product's work in progress to Hiroshi Seno, paying special attention to the mah-jongg modes. I went over my plans for how we would make the game be competitive in the crowded Japanese mah-jongg market. I'd clipped some pages from Japanese game magazines (including Login), and compared our game to some competing mah-jongg games I'd found profiled.

And I'd even bought a computer mah-jongg game in Tokyo, specifically one that was playable over the internet (an important feature of the one I was making). This competitive game was called Shisenfu Gekikara Majan ("Spicy Szechuan Mah-Jongg"). He and I played it together, discussing its weaknesses and strengths. He helped me to better understand one or two of the Japanese mah-jongg rules. I asked him about chombo and another rule that was mentioned in the Whitney book, "the 1-4-7 rule." I hoped that I wouldn't make too great a fool of myself the next day at the big game against Login. His explanations didn't help me understand, unfortunately.

He played the "Spicy Szechuan" game as I watched over his shoulder. At one point, I noticed that he was close to making a Seven Pairs hand (chii to itsu). Now I knew of this special hand, but I had never tried making it myself -- I thought it too difficult for a novice like me. An A.I. opponent went "mah-jongg" before Seno-san could complete the hand, but it had been noteworthy observing him try for this special hand.

Back at the hotel, I delved into my two books that described the classic Japanese rules. The Kanai & Farrell book was the older of the two, by nine years. So I focused my efforts on the Eleanor Whitney book. She described the mysterious "1-4-7 rule," but her description didn't really help me understand how to avoid the dreaded chombo. (As it turned out, I should have spent more time with the Kanai & Farrell book after all!)


Once my daily emails and reports were out of the way, I spent much of the morning that Friday practicing playing mah-jongg on the computer until I was due to head to the mah-jongg parlor for the big match. Girding myself for battle.

In Ginza, I hooked up with Seno-san and Kurosaki-san just outside the B9 exit from the Ginza subway station, and we walked together to the mah-jongg parlor (its name was Aoi, Japanese for "Blue"). We were a little early.

The host ensconced us in a gorgeous little room where you sit on the floor with your feet in a carpeted well; we familiarized ourselves with the mah-jongg table (a machine reminiscent of the equipment behind bowling alleys -- at the press of a button, a flap in the center opens up and the tiles fall in -- another press of the button and the machine delivers up a freshly shuffled wall of tiles and play can begin -- a press of another button and dice roll) and showed Kurosaki-san some of the basic rules of mah-jongg.


The first three Login people arrived -- two Login editors, Mr. Yamamoto and Mr. Sawamura, and a photographer who unfortunately didn't have any business cards on him (so I've forgotten his name). Mr. Sawamura would be playing mah-jongg, but we would need to wait for the Editor-In-Chief, Mr. Yamakawa, who was running late. Mr. Yamamoto, it seemed, was just an observer / writer.

The photographer proceeded to fuss over the cramped room. He asked me to sit in front of the decorative alcove (so that I would have the best background). He set up lights in the corners, put our briefcases and coats out of the camera's view, and asked me to remove my pocket notebook and pen.

The photographer took pictures of each of us who would play -- each of us was prompted to pose as though he was deep in thought; as though he was slapping a tile down; as though he'd just won; as though he'd just lost; and just smiling into the camera. Mr. Sawamura was very good; he'd obviously done this sort of thing many times before.

Mr. Yamamoto offered us copies of Login issue #20, but I said that I'd already read it. In fact, I produced a clipping from my briefcase to prove it (one of the competitive MJ game clippings I'd brought from L.A.). The folks were amazed that I was already a faithful Login reader.

Finally the big man (I'm speaking literally) showed up. Mr. Yamakawa was heavily bearded, heavyset, with long hair and blue jeans. (A bit later as we started playing, it developed that he is also a heavy smoker.) He posed for his "I won" and "I lost" photos -- and I was asked to do some more "generic" poses, with a fan and with my Tamagotchi toy that I carried with me everywhere, back then.


At stake (as Kurosaki-san and Seno-san kept reminding me): if we won, we'd get 2 free pages for Shanghai: Dynasty . If we lost, I would have to put their names in the staff roll.

Before starting, they agreed on the rules, which would be: tanyao (whatever that means -- I know now, but I didn't then), ...and some other stuff I didn't follow... and (I only found out later, the hard way) riyan han shibari (Two-Point Minimum).

As play started, the club hostess brought food and drink. The photographer caught some shots of actual gameplay. Kurosaki-san watched, anxious about the outcome but (no doubt) fairly clueless as to how well or how badly things were going. Yamamoto-san also just watched as we played.

Seno-san sat opposite me. Sawamura-san sat to my left. Yamakawa-san, the heavy-hitter, the big man, sat to my right. From the instant that he took his tiles and arranged them in front of him, his fingers moving with great confidence and extreme speed, I knew this would be a battle. He handled the tiles with the grace and ease of a pro -- or of a magician.

As play began, I was nervous. Playing with real tiles is always very different from playing on a computer -- the difference, of course, comes not from the tiles so much as from the people. One's "face" is at stake. I didn't want only to get two pages (judging by all the photographs being taken, it seemed likely we'd get an article no matter what) -- I also wanted the article to be positive.

The first couple of hands seemed to go my way. I started to feel that maybe this would be okay after all. Other folks won hands too, and occasionally we'd play to the wall -- meaning all the tiles were used up without anyone declaring a win.


But it developed that sometimes as I would claim tiles to make melds, I'd get strange looks. And even worse, sometimes they'd make a hissing sound through their teeth! Always a bad sign. If I asked what was wrong, folks would make inexplicable statements like "if you make a pon and a chii, and if the pon is of a wind that's not your wind, well then it looks like you'd better not go out."

Me: "You mean it would be chombo?"


The other players would've preferred playing, without having to make such burdensome explanations so much. Or at least that's the feeling I started to develop.

As I mentioned before, I had already learned to dread the mysterious chombo penalty. I've played Japanese mah-jongg games on the 3DO, Saturn, Playstation, Nintendo 64, and Windows 95. Just when I think I have chombo figured out, I get a chombo for doing something that seems completely unrelated. And as I said, none of the English language mah-jongg books clearly explains today's Japanese mah-jongg game, thus I couldn't find out on my own what chombo was. And here I was, playing for high stakes, and still nobody would explain for me what exactly chombo was.

So, naturally enough, it didn't take long before I made a chombo. As I have since learned, chombo is any error which requires the payment of a penalty (it could be any of a variety of rule violations that incurs this penalty). I don't know what error I made exactly. I thought I had a perfectly valid mah-jongg hand -- but they all saw it instantly as a mistake. Meaning I had to pay.

Eventually (after a couple of chombos) I had to pay more chips than I had. So Sawamura-san verbally loaned me the chips so I could keep playing (and so the game could continue). As the game progressed, I fed Sawamura-san two wins, meaning I incurred ever deeper and deeper indebtedness to him. I was in a deep hole I could never recover from.


I was pulling our team down, but mah-jongg is a game for individual winners. And it was Activision's own Seno-san who won!

We got our two pages.

Seno-san happily wrote out the final results on a score sheet. He had the high score -- I had the low score. I told the Login boys that I'd put their names in the staff roll anyway. This they did not find disagreeable.

Pleased at the way things had turned out, Kurosaki-san decided to depart. Yamamoto-san and the photographer decided to leave too. But Sawamura-san and Yamakawa-san wanted a second game. Seno-san and I agreed.


I was less nervous in general, but trying desperately to avoid another chombo. But since I was not aware that we were playing riyan han shibari (two fan minimum), I made a faulty (less-than-minimum-score) win declaration -- you guessed it, another darned chombo. I had to borrow again from Sawamura-san.

The beer and food kept coming.

I asked Seno-san to explain to the guys that even though I obviously had more to learn about the game, I was hiring the owner of a Little Tokyo mah-jongg parlor to teach me the rules. My computer game would be true to the proper rules in spite of my apparent ignorance of them. I wanted them to know this.

I played even more cautiously now. I tried to avoid making melds at all. Despite my caution, I still garnered toothy hisses -- this time for making unwise discards. An experienced player can look at the discards and know immediately what tiles can and cannot be safely discarded -- an ability I would hopefully someday be able to call my own.

And, naturally enough, I made discards that earned me more than toothy hisses -- I had to pay for everyone when people took advantage of my discards. It got to where I would be happy just to make tenpai -- meaning to survive a hand without anybody winning, but with my hand needing only one tile to win (thus I would be paid a few chips). But I was also trying to be more cautious with my discards, so even that pitiful goal was difficult to achieve, so it seemed I was doomed no matter what I did.

Welcome to the game of mah-jongg.


I only had one lousy 1000-point chip left. Then I found myself in a strange situation. I'd been dealt a hand with several pairs, and I was trying to turn them into triples, but those tiles simply refused to come in! The best I could do was to pick one tile that gave me one lousy triple.

Inwardly I bemoaned my fate: "I have all these pairs, but..."

This thought process caused a light to suddenly go on in my head.

With enough pairs, I could make a Seven Pairs hand (the hand Seno-san had tried to make on the computer the night before). I looked again at my hand. Not only could I go for a Seven Pairs hand, but if I simply broke up my one triple, I could declare reach (ready to win) -- right now!

So on my turn that's exactly what I did. I discarded the (now) unwanted third tile of my sole triple, threw down my one remaining chip, and said, "Reach." I needed a Five Dot. I don't even remember if I was aware at the time that the face-up tile in the dead wall (the "dora indicator" tile) was a Three Dot (meaning that my pair of Four Dots was very very valuable).

The others were incredulous -- looking at the discards, they could not believe that I had anything. Either I was going to make another chombo (they must have figured) - or - I had an unfathomable and impossible hand. But they had to take my declaration seriously.

Yamakawa-san drew a tile, considered his options carefully, and tentatively held out a Nine Dot tile. This behavior was a marked difference to his normal casual tossing out of his discards, mind you.

"No," I said -- "not that one."

Seno-san also was hesitant to discard. He, too, showed me the tile rather than just putting it on the table.

"Not that one."

Sawamura-san drew and held out his discard -- it was becoming a standard practice, it seemed. (I now know that this cautious hesitancy was due to the extra danger of giving me the winning tile within the first round of my reach declaration).

"Nope, not that one, either."

The tension was palpable. What on Earth could I possibly have?


I drew and discarded. Play continued around the table once more, tension mounting (especially, by this time, for me). As play came around again to Sawamura, he produced the golden Five Dot tile.

I knew how to verbally declare "win by discard" -- so I shouted exultantly, "RON!"

There were cries of denial.

Surely it was not possible for me to have anything that could be won with a Five Dot!

I turned my tiles face-up and added Sawamura-san's Five Dot, creating the holy Seven Pairs hand. Chii to itsu!

Seno-san and Yamakawa-san started adding points on their fingers: Going OutEtwo doubles for Seven Pairs handEdouble for reach... two doubles for Dora (if I hadn't been aware of the face-up "dora indicator" tile on the dead wall before this, now I found out). And then (I didn't yet understand what causes this) I had also earned the right to have the ura dora (the under-dora) indicator tile turned face-up -- it was a Four Dot! Which meant that my pair of Fives was also incredibly valuable -- two more doubles for Ura Dora! Haneman!

Their cries of shock, and the looks on their faces, said it all to me (in spite of my poor language skills and my abysmally poor understanding of the rules of the game itself). Not only had I won, I had won big time.

The damages were tallied up -- Sawamura-san didn't have near enough chips to give me, even considering all the loans he'd made me -- and the totals were put on the score sheet. It was only then that I learned that this had in fact been the final hand of the final game.

My final score was huge. In spite of all my previous losses, I was the big winner of the night. Thanks to that one hand.

Congratulations were heartily (if somewhat disbelievingly) given by the Login boys, as Seno-san went to pay the tab.


My head felt as though it had exploded, blasted off in a rocket, and was now sailing above the clouds. Words failed me. I bowed deeply to show my humility and my gratitude for the game.

Sawamura-san looked long and hard at the score sheet in his hand. He looked at me. My Japanese is not very good, but I believe this is what he quietly said: "Too bad the photographer left. I would've loved to have gotten a picture of that last hand." Then he slowly folded the score sheet -- I thought he was going to present it to me -- and put it in his own pocket. As much as I wanted it, I was proud to have him take it. Who better than a magazine editor to hold the evidence of my incredible win?

As we parted ways outside, I asked them how they wanted their credit worded for the staff roll. Their answer: "Mah-Jongg Friends."

As Seno-san and I walked off, I asked him what he thought of the game. "It was a miracle," was all he said.

When I called Bill to tell him about it the next day, it seemed that Seno's report to him had been even more laconic: "We won."


Eventually Login published an article about the challenge match. (There's a photo of the article here. I'll put up more pictures one of these years.) In the article, they told how the challenge had come about, and that this American game producer, Tom Sloper, sat down and played mah-jongg with them.


The article showed Seno-san's "I win" picture. The article told all about the first game we played together (the one that counted).

No mention whatsoever of the second game -- the one that I won.

Now I wished Sawamura-san hadn't kept the score sheet.

Eventually I finished my computer game project, and Login published a two-page color review of the game. This, not the article about the challenge match, was our prize.

I can't complain. I went to Japan and played their game. Badly. And I got coverage in two issues of a magazine.

And that was only the first of several mah-jongg adventures in Japan.

(C) 2001 Tom Sloper. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced without permission of the author.