Recreational Mahjong May Be At Odds With Gambling Laws

This week’s news cycle features stories regarding licensed mahjong parlor’s in China shut down by police. The reported closures affected parlors in two local governments within Jiangxi province aiming to clean up the social environment of its citizens. What I specifically want to tease out of this is a statement by a civil servant that the line between gambling and recreation is unclear, which can lead to confusion among law enforcement when blanket polices are enforced.

The activity was ostensibly part of President Xi Jinping’s organized crime crack-down started nearly two years ago, but the backlash against this week’s action started immediately as licensed parlors operating for recreation or “minimal wager”, supposedly protected by local law, were closed along with everyone else.

The Lines Aren’t Always Clear

Different countries regulate the topic using different language. Gambling in the United States is regulated at the state level, banned or permitted in varied degrees according to law. The definition of gambling, contest of chance, or other related terms are also somewhat generalized allowing for legal argument.

It bears remembering that while most of our countries may not be entrenched in a national culture war with legal business falling as collateral damage, we each still need to be aware of what our governing laws state lest we find ourselves on the wrong side of them. Mahjong has generally remained under the radar of greater public perception in regions where it isn’t considered a national past-time, but that is slowly changing.

All Contribute To Growth

Western mahjong groups and organized clubs generally begin by servicing their own small collection of players. While some remain private and unadvertised, others eventually expand into promotion and recruitment in their area. National, supranational, or international organizations have coalesced to provide a common standard. All of these groups serve to raise awareness of the game either by explicit intent or by simply existing in the public space.

As the profile of mahjong rises, it is inevitable that it will come under legal scrutiny; in some cases it already has. A judge hearing a 2012 criminal case in New York decided against classifying mahjong as a “contest of chance.” While the defendant was ultimately tried for their particular actions, it was declared that, “The mere fact that the game combines skill and luck does not make it a contest of chance.”

While this looks like a positive endorsement of mahjong, it sends an unclear message. Mahjong is not gambling, but your actions can still be construed as gambling. (It does bear noting that the judge appeared to have done some nominal research on the game and took into account the evolution, as well as its growing popularity as a recreation.)

I welcome debate on this point; however, I feel that will further underline that laws surrounding our activity of choice are open to interpretation. As public awareness grows (and I hope it does!) we need to be sure that we are carving out a healthy and respectable space for our community.