RRO 2019: Philly’s “Mah-Jawng” Reports
A large contingent of nine players from Philadelphia club PRMC attended the 2019 Rochester Riichi Open, one of whom, Justin Toporcer, went home with the champion’s trophy! Riichi Reporter asked them to contribute a write-up of the event, and in true club fashion they pulled together as a group to bring it to you.
By Taylor Heffernan, Mike Lee, Justin Toporcer, and Vinnie Emilianowicz.
The Philadelphia Riichi Mahjong Club (aka Mah-Jawng after Philadelphia’s famous slang) found out about the Rochester Riichi Open from our club member Mike, who graduated from RIT a few years ago. Our club is less than one year old, so we’re delighted we were able to field such a large delegation! We’re a loose collection of anime fans, boardgamers, card-players, and speed-runners united by a love of mahjong. I think we’re all a little surprised that there was so much interest in forming a club in Philadelphia!
Attending a tournament as a club seemed like a natural first step towards entering the North American riichi mahjong scene. For most of us it was our first taste of competitive mahjong outside of club meetings and pickup games on Tenhou.
I was excited to finally see a real mahjong tournament in action. I didn’t know what to expect besides that the field would be strong and that I’d discover some deficiencies in my play. All things considered, I’m quite new to the game, having played for less than a year. I came hoping to network with other club presidents from the east coast USA mahjong scene, and to get some first-hand experience seeing a tournament being run by an established club.Taylor
I have played in a few local tournaments in the past. I participated in last year’s RRO where I placed 10th going into the final tables, and also in last year’s NAO where I placed a respectable (so I tell myself) 35th out of 70 or so. I was expecting to do fairly well, but knowing the strength of the competition, I was just hoping to not do too poorly.Mike
I have been playing Riichi for a long time, but never seriously before. I’ve taught a lot of people and feel pretty comfortable with rules and just the general game. I went into the tournament expecting to be pretty comfortable. I wanted to learn more about what it was to be competitive at this game, and got that in spades.Vinnie
My plan was to maximize what I could get out of the weekend. My employer has an office in Rochester, so I introduced myself to their crew and worked with them for a couple days. I was also excited to catch up with my college buds for the first time in a couple months. For the tournament itself, I wanted to have a good time, see other peoples’ perspectives on the game, and feel the unique pressure that can’t be found online.Justin
The RRO began a little before 10 AM on Saturday, March 17th. Our members took varying strategies to prepare. Some jammed hanchan after hanchan in the days beforehand to hone their skills. Others forswore mahjong altogether to keep their powder dry. Once the timer started on round 1, all 32 players were ready to bring their A-game.
The relative values of each player’s A-game quickly became apparent. Strong showings by local New York players and members of the Montreal group began to appear on the scoreboard. By the end of the fourth hanchan, the eventual top 8 had started to take shape. Montreal’s Shan Kuang rattled off a series of strong finishes to end the day at the top of the standings. Anybody hoping to get their hands on the trophy was going to have to go through her to do it. Chris Ellis and Justin Toporcer, both eventual top-4 competitors, ended day 1 in fourth and second. Eventual top-8 competitor Ty Kennedy ended the day in third, no doubt helped by 8000 of Taylor’s points thanks to a suji-trapped ippatsu.
Tracking points cumulatively really opens your eyes to weak spots in your play. I lost over 30000 points, not counting uma, to minus-EV reaches, ill-advised tempai pushes, and attempts to unseat aggressive dealers with 1-and-30 hands. Back-to-back-to-back fourth place finishes revealed how much I have yet to learn with unmistakable clarity.Taylor
I played well in the early matches, but still came in 2nd in my first two hanchan. In my second game I even reached 40,600 points, but still fell to the eventual winner, Justin. I made a poor mistake at the end of the first day, dealing into a dealer haneman and not having a chance to climb out, resulting in my only 4th place finish to top an otherwise pretty good day. I knew I would need to play very well in the second day to have a chance of even making it to the top.Mike
Getting good hands and coming in second/third place is not enough to do well in a tournament. When you track your scores from game to game it becomes so clear how inconsistent your play is and it reveals why things like defensive play are important. In my first few hands I made a few dumb mistakes like dealing into hands because I was pushing hard thinking “if only I can get 2nd” without realizing that 2nd place means nothing when you’re in a point deficit.Vinnie
I set a few records on the first day. For example, I think I had the first riichi AND the first chombo! No, those weren’t in the same hand. Anyway, I won my first three tables with the basics: tile efficiency and well-timed bailing. Nothing sneaky, because the game wouldn’t let me! Whenever I thought of a suji trap or whatever else, a classic pinfu or double pair would develop. On the other hand, I felt guilty about my poor wall building and point counting skills, which definitely slowed the games down on the first day.Justin
By the time hanchans five and six began, players goals had come into focus. Some players were hoping to salvage a respectable finish, others were hoping to zoom to the head of the pack. While the atmosphere remained friendly and welcoming, the tension had clearly risen. At table 2, that bubble of tension burst when dealer Steve Augustin’s thrown die came to a stop resting perfectly on its corner! The table burst into laughter and momentarily forgot the competition.
Standings at the end of hanchan six revealed an agonizingly close spread for membership in the top 8. Eighth place beat ninth by just +0.1, and beat 12th by +6.6. But for an extra homba here or a few points of uma there, the composition of the top 8 could have looked very different.
Facing Shan Kuang in hanchan five was my hardest match of the tournament. She smoothly navigated dangerous situations, and blew me out with a concealed kan of 5-pin inducing me to discard a 4-pin for a dealer mangan. In the all-last hand of hanchan six, grouping for 2-4 was very tight; I couldn’t bear coming in fourth again, and needed to net +2500 points from the second place player to go from 4th to 2nd. My hand was nearly kyushu kyuhai to boot. I called an East early, but 1-and-30 wasn’t going to cut it. I managed to maneuver into a hell wait on the 1-sou for chanta. With less than 10 tiles remaining, the second place player dealt the final 1-sou, launching me into second. I was very proud of my play there – I came up with a plan on the fly, successfully implemented that plan, and got paid.Taylor
I placed 1st in the 5th hanchan, placing me in 12th overall and giving me an opportunity to reach the top 8. In the final hanchan for seeding, I ended up being tied for 1st place with another player going into all last. There was an obvious scramble for the earliest tanyao hand, but unfortunately I did not make it, resulting in second place for that game. It wasn’t long before I found out that had I managed to win that game, I would have been placed 7th overall, but with the second place finish, I came in 10th, with a very tight window for the players from 6th through 12th. Despite the short miss, I was happy to have accomplished even that with the quality of play I was experiencing this weekend.Mike
There are a lot of excellent players and a lot to learn from them. I felt more comfortable with the second day and managed to do more maintenance of points. I ended the scramble with -35.6. Admittedly not a great score, but I was happy because I went into the day with a similar score and set a goal for myself to not dip any further. I avoided dealing into big hands all day and got a few of my own. One I’m very proud of was a chanta, sanshoku, 3 dora, riichi, ippatsu where I actively (that is, not by mistake) set a suji trap and had a very good player deal into it and compliment me on it. Everyone was very friendly and encouraging to the “new” players. It was very strange to feel new again.Vinnie
The tension started cooling off for me on day two. I felt pretty confident about getting the final table, and combined with quicker wall building, these rounds were much more relaxed. A couple of Montreal players had solid, funny banter during the match. In another round, two people declared riichi and I felt obligated to riichi as well! I did not win that particular hand, but sometimes you have to go with novelty.Justin
After the scramble, player were seated by score for a pair of hanchans to determine final placement. Each player’s standing at their respective table at the end of those two hanchans determined their final result. In other words, once the top 4 made the final table, scores were wiped clean, and the king of that final hill would walk away with first prize. The Mah-Jawng club’s Justin Toporcer, third in the scramble, ended the final table at +25.5 to take the tournament down!
Read Reach Mahjong of New York’s post-tournament interview with Justin Toporcer.
The final tables progressed leisurely, all things considered. The pressure was off for most of the field, after all, and the increase in ambient table talk showed that players were taking a good-natured stance on their tournament performance. The mood was lightened by Montreal’s Loïc Roberge, who gleefully recited a pair of kazoe yakuman tsumos to a room full of gobsmacked players. Even with the WRC rules capping his points to “only” a sanbaiman, he easily carried his table.
My thoughts on my final placement were summed up by my greeting to my opponents at table 8, “Welcome to the kids’ table, fellas.” I think I played my standard game throughout the scramble and final table, and my performance has shown me that my standard game isn’t going to cut it against a crowd of this caliber. Add a sprinkle of bad luck, and you end up with my final total of -181.2 for the weekend. I’m heartbroken, but I’ve got nowhere to go but up.Taylor
I was placed in the 3rd table (ranks 9th through 12th) and despite there still being some level of competitiveness, I was much calmer than during the seeding matches. It allowed me to play much more loose and I managed to claim first place in the first hanchan on the strength of 52,500 points thanks to some lucky hands. From there, I played fast yet defensive in the second game, resulting in a second place finish with only 31,500 points. Overall I managed to take the victory in my final table, giving me 9th place overall for the tournament. I do feel rather bad though; in the final hanchan, the 4th place player at my table was dealt an immensely dangerous hand (nearly full flush of man tiles, and even with that, only 3 away from a nine gates yakuman). However, due to my desire to end the game as quickly as possible, he wasn’t given a chance to see it to fruition. The tournament was run very well, as it always is, and I am happy to return to my alma mater to participate in a great game with awesome players. I hope to continue playing and hope the mahjong community continues to grow in the coming years!Mike
We were on table 6 at the end and I came in 2nd after what I felt was a great second hanchan. A firm reminder that single good games don’t do it, consistency does. Our final table was really happy and focused on bringing their best. Even though we had all “lost”, it didn’t feel that way at all.Vinnie
For final table, I assumed up front that the only ways to gain points were through tsumo and end of hand tempai. I think the others had the same idea, but I would never put words in their mouths. I made a few wild plays in match seven, like very visibly try to self draw little dragons to shake things up. At the start of the final round, I could hit 1st place more easily than drop to 3rd, so I pushed… But nothing really happened until Brian drew a dealer haneman. It hit the rest of us hard, but we were finally willing to play aggressively. Whether it was luck or skill, our looser styles worked out in my favor.Justin
All nine members of the Philly delegation enjoyed their tournament experience immensely. Being immersed in competition, having your skills tested by players who love mahjong as much as you do, is an intoxicating feeling. When such a tournament is headed by an organizer like Luke, whose professionalism and dedication is matched only by his warm, welcoming personality, it’s destined to become an institution in the North American riichi mahjong scene. We can’t thank the Nine Gates club enough for enabling us to share in this experience. The Philadelphia Riichi Mahjong Club can’t wait to return the favor by running a tournament of its own!