Mahjong masters clack tiles in glitzy Macau casino

HONG KONG- In a ballroom of a glitzy casino hotel, the clatter of plastic tiles turned into roaring applause as the winner was determined for an international mahjong competition late Sunday (Dec 6) following a weekend-long wrangling over square tables.

Zhao Jian was among some 200 players who had crowded the corner of Macau's Venetian Hotel, vying for a cash prize and a golden mahjong tile-shaped necklace for coming top at the "World Series of Mahjong" competition.

"Sweetheart, we got money," said the 36-year-old from mainland China's Jiangsu province as he hugged his wife after he was crowned champion for accumulating the most points, at the end of some 20 hours of gaming inside the casino hotel.

"I just feel I am lucky. I don't think I'm much better ... It's just my hobby," the lawyer told reporters as he was awarded HK$400,000 (S$72,300), the necklace, and guaranteed lifetime entry to all of the contest's future events. He celebrated the victory by waving a tiny Chinese red flag that he had brought to the venue.

Mahjong, China's answer to poker, is played both locally and abroad. Games are played with a set of up to 144 tiles engraved with Chinese characters and symbols. While rules may vary across countries, it requires four players who take turns to draw tiles to compose a complete set to win a "hand".

Despite defeat, other participants said they were also going home delighted. A Japan-based player, who gave her name as Jenn, told AFP: "I play almost everyday. I feel really at home at the Mahjong table. It's my favourite place to be. So I love being a pro."

Sun Yuexian, an 80-year-old player also from mainland China, said he thought playing the game could help stimulate his brain: "I think playing mahjong could prevent my brain from deregulating," he said.

Despite claims linking it back to Confucius, there is no consensus on the definitive origin of mahjong, but many historians believe the modern version of the game dates back to 19th century China.

But it is also a mode of gambling, so rampant that state-run media warned officials last year to "stop" playing, a message seen as part of the Chinese president's crackdown on corruption.