Mahjong Crash Course (Pt. 1)

In mid-November eight students arrived in Tokyo at the Sugamo Dojo, the main training location of the Japan Professional Mahjong League (JPML), for a one-week master course on riichi mahjong. The Mahjong Crash Course, organized by Gemma Sakamoto (WRC, JPML) and hosted by the JPML, was conceived as a  pilot scheme aiming to explore ways to aid skill improvement for Western players and help them stand on the same level as Japanese riichi players.

This program’s primary objectives were to show students how the Japanese approach and study riichi in a fundamentally different manner than many Western players are managing, giving them insight into the wealth of cultural experience.

“It was important for me to show Europeans and Americans how the Japanese players approach the game and study for it. I wanted to give them a taste of what I experienced when I took the JPML professional test. To achieve this, I wanted (and still want to) bring people over to Japan and show them what Japanese mahjong is really like.”

Gemma Sakamoto

In addition to providing people with a unique experience that might otherwise be closed to them, the hope is that a learning environment like the Mahjong Crash Course will help cultivate a different approach to studying the game in the West and raise the skill floor.

While Mahjong Crash Course isn’t ostensibly an endeavor branded by the World Riichi Championship (it’s difficult to separate the flag of WRC from its matriarch) much of the conversation is centered around the global tournament. The JPML has the perspective that the attendant students share a primary objective of training for the WRC. Everyone, Japanese included, would like to see a non-Japanese player at the final table—an accomplishment only approached by two Europeans, John Duckworth (2014) and Lena Weinguny (2017), both of whom made the semi-final round.

“Everyone wants this to be a genuinely international battle on that final table. Everybody, including the Japanese community, wants that.”

Gemma Sakamoto

In showing their support for this goal, the JPML allowed the use of its dojo by players so they can practice their skills against Japanese players. JPML instructors, translators, and other professionals cheerfully supported the initiative. It is easy to understate the level of backing offered by the JPML as there were months worth of correspondence taking place behind the scenes in arranging all the necessary details. They even assisted in getting access to typically sold-out passes to M.League events for the students with an added VIP access.

With all of the planning, effort, logistics, and language barriers involved there remained a fundamental question,”How do we make it work?”

Two things were essential to ensuring the paying participants were successful. First, keep it small. As a pilot course the number of available seats was restricted to eight (two tables worth). Second, recruit capable students who were of diverse riichi backgrounds and willing  to offer feedback. Gemma first offered this opportunity to individuals she had worked with over the years in executing WRC tournaments, followed by people she works closely with in her local club, JanKenRon, and finally offering invitations to players recommended by trusted associates. Additionally, they had to be able to pay their travel expenses and cost of the course.

Attending from the United States was Andrew Whitcomb, Michael McLeod, Jaben McCormack, and David Bresnick. From Great Britain came Andrew Smith and David Clarke, with Henrik Leth arriving from Denmark.

So what did they do?

The first three days of were split between lessons with JPML pros and open play in the janso. Instruction, practice, and analytical feedback was provided by Katsumata-pro, Takizawa-pro, and Yamada-pro. The topics, cultivated on the advice of Yamai-pro and also by polling the participants for areas of interest, varied from the timeless question “Should I riichi?” to management of early hand discards. After interviewing many of the students it seems that the most popular lesson involved reading discards for likely patterns held by your opponents. 

Sugamo Main Dojo November Pro/Ama Open Conference Results Table (Final Result of November)

Evenings opened the doors of the JPML janso to all comers and allowed the students to play, foregoing the customary fee. Each night saw thirty to forty players at the tables with a handful of pros sitting throughout, including the current world champion, Tomotake-pro. JPML President Shigekazu Moriyama also made appearances during play. Crash Course student Henrik Leth even left a lasting impression on the monthly WRC-rule rankings for November!

Day four brought the unique opportunity of playing a hanchan in the JPML studio filmed with live commentary by Hiyoshi-pro and Sasaki-pro—arguably the most valuable part of the day. (Of course most participants will need to wait for the subtitled version of the produced video to finish up, but I understand that the work is definitely under way.)

A closed mini-tournament (four hanchan) was held the next day with the student roster augmented by Yamai-pro, Aki-pro, Jenn-pro, and Gemma-pro. David Bresnick coasted to first place after scoring strong in the first two rounds, and Andrew Whitcomb finished second. They were awarded an Amateur 2nd-dan and 1st-dan certificate respectively. They celebrated with Yamai-pro and Hara-pro with a group dinner at a nearby restaurant.

David Bresnick accepts the 2nd-dan award for the mini-tournament.

On the final day with the dojo students took a challenging written skill test composed by the JPML teachers and Gemma and received a special certificate to commemorate their week.

A recent social media post by Gemma implies plans to repeat the course next year.

Finally managed to get photos off my camera from last month! This is the Mahjong Learning Tour or "Crash Course" that…

Posted by Gemma Sakamoto on Tuesday, December 11, 2018

And a recent post by the WRC featuring Yamai-pro suggests further efforts as well.

[World Riichi]Our first world champ, Mr. Yamai, with the new WRC badge from the recent learning week at Japan…

Posted by World Riichi Championship on Wednesday, December 12, 2018

It’s felt by all that, for a trial session, the Mahjong Crash Course was definitely successful, and Gemma has, on record, confirmed that there will be a next time! While students were closely selected for this first run, following Crash Course rosters will be open to the public, though details on the matter have yet to be determined. But look for details to come soon – hopefully we’ll be back at Sugamo Dojo in fall 2019!

There is one thing important factor that needs to be weighed by any hopeful attendee, and that is the expense. Professional instructors, booking classroom and studio time, and other materials doesn’t come free. In addition to airfare and accommodations, not to mention any additional sightseeing taking on, the Mahjong Crash Course can be considered a learning vacation and should be budgeted as such. While the price tag is going to make this trip prohibitive to many people, organizers are confident that the Mahjong Crash Course can still greatly benefit Western mahjong by seeding the knowledge it hopes to disseminate through those that have the means to attend.

In part 2 of this article, students of the Crash Course talk with Riichi Reporter about the trip, some of the things they learned, and their favorite memories.