JPML Crash Course (Pt. 2)
When Gemma told me she was going to arrange a mahjong “tour” (that’s what she called it back then) in Japan, I was both excited and apprehensive. It sounded like an exciting opportunity, but there was no blueprint for something like this. With the Crash Course behind us now, Riichi Reporter has been examining how it lived up to expectations. I’ve been privileged to a behind-the-scene view of the endeavor before and after, but the truest insight comes from what the guests themselves thought! I have spoken with a handful of the participants regarding their most memorable experiences during this (hopefully) inaugural event.
For more information on the structure of the week, please check out our first article!
For three consecutive days, students spent their morning attending lessons delivered by JPML pros. (I understand that Katsumata-pro is particularly good at delivering a lecture.) Topics varied from early game discards to determining player waits and patterns from discards. Of all the different activities, the students that I spoke with had the widest range of take-away impressions around the lectures, ranging from shareable pearls of riichi wisdom, insight into how the Japanese study mahjong, to realizing that pros are human too.
It was definitely the most valuable part of this experience because it’s the one that I can carry forward in my mahjong. There were certain parts of it that I kind of had down already, like when to riichi. But there were other parts of it like figuring out how to proceed with an opening hand and figuring out what to discard. I had come from a very naive, very amateur experience. As I joked, everyone’s classic move is just, “Oh, there’s a North in my hand and it’s not my wind…throw it as the first tile without a second thought.” That’s one thing I’ve been able to re-examine; look at it and go, “Huh. Maybe that’s not the smartest idea in the world.” There’s a lot of factors that goes into each decision. This coursework has laid out the foundation for reevaluating how we play on a much more thoughtful scale.
One of the most valuable things of all of it, in a way, was getting a picture of the technique that [JPML] uses for teaching and how they expect people to approach the material. That really highlighted something for me—the difference in how Western players are approaching their game knowledge, and the way JPML and those types approach their game knowledge. So a lot of these [questions asked during lectures]…I felt like there was this very strong push, and the first thing everyone would do is hedge. They would say, “Well, how many points do I have? Well, what’s on the table? What are the other players doing?” It’s very interesting. The Western players really wanted to get a complete situation and give a single correct answer.
While getting a feel for how the Japanese were presenting their material, it became very clear to me that what they were trying to do was to teach you a mindset so that it would be embedded in you and available to you almost instantaneously. Like, the most tile efficient discard when you hand looks like this, is this tile. Doesn’t matter what’s on the table. Doesn’t matter what anyone else is doing. What matters is being able to instantly identify these things. They want to teach you these isolated drills—a default set of behaviors, almost like instincts. I think the idea there is once you look at your hand and in that instinctual way say, “Oh, five-pin is what I would discard,” then you’ve spent a tenth of a second figuring that out, and now you have plenty of time to look at broader game situations. I think it’s something Western players are going to struggle with a little bit.
It’s certainly something new, because any time you do learn something about mahjong, it’s not like we have someone teaching us about it on a whiteboard giving examples. We’re usually just like, “Here you go about tile efficiency,” at the table and they start to go on about statistics and then, “Ok. Let’s play mahjong I guess.” And there’s not any good feedback because it’s really just you thinking to yourself.
Every time we had a lesson, we would play…and be thinking about what we just learned and how we should approach it. And then we’d have a replay of that hand, and when each player gets to that point when they were thinking about something similar we’d bring up questions. Should we have done that, or was that the correct discard? Whether or not they should be pushing their hand.
When it came to asking questions, even the pros would say, “I’m not sure about that,” or “I think you should do this, but I’m not one-hundred percent sure.” A lot of stuff was not set in stone which really stood out to me. In some situations you can have a lot of people agree with your decisions, but it might not be the most “correct” decision. When it comes to that level of play, it’s a lot more about reading the conversation of the match at that table, assuming that everyone is trying to communicate something with their discards, versus trying to play for the most efficient hand or the highest point hand to catch up.
They were a really good experience! We started with 30 minutes on a whiteboard. Then we spent about 2½ hours playing hands while four Japanese wrote down every move. After a hand, we played it through once more and discussed interesting aspects. This was a great opportunity to ask some of the everyday questions I face when I play.
I certainly learned most from the playing and discussions. This was a great way to get some insight in how a really good pro player plays and what considerations he finds relevant. The teachers were also really good at saying something like “That is a very defensive move. In a situation where you need some points, you should consider this or that more aggressive move.”
In the evenings, players were encouraged to attend the JPML dojo for open play for a series of five 1-hour hanchan along with a handful of pros and paying customers from the area.
There were like twenty or thirty people there each night. The folks at the dojo were incredibly patient and kind with us Westerners being in there, and dealing with the fact that our manners weren’t necessarily perfect. Everyone got along very, very well and were very welcoming. It was clean and bright, and it was a really nice place to go sit and play and I think if anyone wants to go experience that intense janso style mahjong with very skilled players, fast and punctual and playing seriously, it’s a great place to go.
I would realize that this one person keeps going for a half-flush and I’m going, “Wait, stop that! I’m trying to go for my hand. Now I have to think about you over there every time.” It was good to watch them because I go for that hand quite frequently, so I have changed the way I playing going on a half-flush depending on where the tiles land. I would usually call much earlier, but depending on how many pairs I have I’ll just wait to see what else I’ll draw into and build on the hand itself before opening; sometimes I can reach or choose damaten.
That was a really, really fun experience. The overall play of everyone felt like I was playing the higher level players in America. But there was one noticeable difference that I noticed in all my matches. Depending on what I would discard from my hand everyone else at the table would also discard very differently. It felt that I could sometimes bluff about my hand and get the round to pass on if I felt I wasn’t going to win. I remember looking at one hand thinking, “Nope. I’m not going to win.” So I started just discarding middle tiles like I was very close to kokushi, and everyone else just stopped discarding 1’s and 9’s and honors, and then no-one was tempai because everyone was responding to my discard. In America, if I were to try those things I wouldn’t always get response from the other players at the table.
As chance had it, I had my best game ever (as far as I recall). It was going quite well, then I self-picked Three Big Dragons as East. That helped me getting the high score of that evening. And all in all I ended second for that month with 19 games. The winner was a Japanese guy with 66 games.
On Friday, I also tried the JPML A-Rules, no ippatsu, no ura-dora, no kan-dora, and that was a bit harder for me. I think I would need more practice with these rules to be good at them.
On the last official day of the Crash Course players participated in a mini tournament along with JPML pros. In recognition, the JPML awarded first and second place players with an amateur 2nd dan and 1st dan scroll, respectively. The top scoring player was David Bresnick followed by Andrew Whitcomb, both of New York, USA.
It was stressful, but I was definitely able to enjoy it a lot more. [The things that were taught over the previous week] definitely came into play, especially when it comes to how to play out an opening hand and how to read the discards. That day had a level of focus I hadn’t exhibited the entire week – never having doubt that whole day, just being able to play some of the best mahjong I have played before. The fact that it worked out as cleanly as it did was just…wow.
In the third game I believe I was second place two to four thousand points and I was dealer in South-2. I had drawn into a nice closed iipeko in a half-flush with a set of South. Unfortunately I’m waiting for a 2-man for a 123. This entered into one of the situations whether you riichi or not riichi. Usually you want to riichi because if you hit any of those ura-dora it can benefit you, but [the other players] all know I need a certain set of tiles so they are just not going to discard them. It’s the third discard row. It’s coming to an end quickly and I’m just so stressed. Okay, I’m not going to riichi…everything hurts. And I just wait it out and eventually tsumo the tempai.
I did so poorly in that! Other bad habits stuck out and people took advantage of that. When I’m not doing so well and my points are low, I tend to go for a lot of half flush hands and open hands to catch up. But the other players at the table can see that immediately so literally everyone took advantage of that and my points kept dipping lower and lower and lower.
I see it as a learning experience. If I want to get better, I definitely need to work on these kinds of things, like stop making risky discards when I know something is dangerous.
I did hopelessly bad and ended as 9 out of 12. But it was great playing [a] tournament like that and getting a chance to play some pros. I also learned bit more about table manners from Jenn—they are more strict in Japan than what I usually experience in Europe.
Apart from the JPML Crash Course, players had the option of joining in a tour of Hakone, a volcanic mountain region south-west of Tokyo with a view of Mount Fuji.
[Hakone] has to be my favorite part. Wearing a yukata playing mahjong in a Japanese style room playing on an auto-table. It just felt great.
At the hotel there’s an in-house restaurant and Gemma had warned us ahead of time that we have no choice over what we are going to eat and that it was going to be mostly seafood. I’m not the biggest seafood person, but getting there and having the experience, and God knows how many plates of food. Overall it was actually really amazing.
We headed down to the Hakone Pirate Ship. It is completely inexplicable. There’s a crater lake there, and there are boats that go over the lake to take you across, and they have decided to make these boats look like pirate ships…so they do.
To a person, everyone I asked stated they would do this course again. The only drawback that I came across was that the hours spent outside of the dojo left people mostly to their own plans which didn’t always suit everyone’s temperament. However, this in no way reflects upon the professionalism of the Gemma (the organizer) or the JPML. I look forward to seeing this opportunity to open up again in the future attempts to not only raise the skill floor in Western riichi, but also de-mystify the game and expand how we can learn to play better.