PIEDMONT -- The tiles clack as players shuffle the 152 colorfully decorated tiles to begin the intricate game of Mah Jongg.
Players nosh on snacks like nuts or candies for "brain food," as they look over their racked hands.
Some players are learners, while others played before the group was formed after a Mah Jongg class offered at Kehilla Synagogue in spring of 2011. Another class may be offered sometime in October.
"I'm not a game player, but I always wanted to play Mah Jongg," said Rosie Rosenthal, of Berkeley. "I love the visuals, the slapping of the tiles. It is much more engaging than cards, and good for the brain. And it's a nice group."
Players gather twice a month in an empty room at Kehilla Synagogue to play in informal drop-in groups. Anywhere from one to four tables are assembled, depending on the turnout. Novices can sit and watch, or players take turns if there is no space at a table.
The games are not timed, nor is betting involved, unlike the lively tournaments or Chinese versions of the game. Players do not have to be a member of the synagogue.
Lynn Bravewoman tried playing at a recent game as a beginner. Other players helped Bravewoman sort through the tiles in her hand to decide what hand to try for.
"You're catching on quick, that's good," Barbara Cohen said, nibbling a pretzel.
It can be intimidating. Do you go for a dragon/wind combination or go for threes, sixes and nines in two
"I get close sometimes; I can't really tell what makes a difference," Rosenthal said.
Mandy Bratt, of Oakland, was curious about the game watching a friend from Hong Kong play with her family.
"I love all sorts of games," Bratt said. "Mah Jongg requires a lot of concentration, it is totally engrossing. I like to lose myself in the game and have a good time."
The American version of Mah Jongg is played with rules set by the National Mah Jongg League in New York. Each spring, the league issues a new player's card defining what hands can be played in the game. There are pungs, kings and quints, singles and pairs, winds/dragons and other hands. Luck and skill both play into forming a "Mah" or winning hand. The rules take a bit of mastery, with "Charlestons," or several rounds of passing discards to the player next to you. There is the ritual "breaking of the wall" to begin drawing tiles from the pile.
The American-style sets consist of four red, green and white dragons apiece, four sets of winds, eight flowers, eight jokers, and four sets of crabs, bams and dots (suits) numbered 1 through 9.
Some believe the game is 2,000 years old, while others say it dates back to the mid-19th century, likely around Shanghai. Mah Jongg roughly translates as "chattering sparrow." The game was popular in the 1920s and 1930s, died off, then picked up again and now is played worldwide and online.
For more information, or to order a 2012 play card, contact www.nationalmahjonggleague.org or call 212-246-3052.
WHAT: Mah Jongg games
WHERE: Kehilla Synagogue, 1300 Grand Ave., Piedmont (side entrance)
WHEN: 3 to 5:30 p.m. Sunday
COST: $3 room donation