So I got back this afternoon (just in time for the dismal England v Germany match) from London and the UK Riichi Mahjong Open. Out of the field of 48 people for the tournament, I placed 14th, which I'm fairly happy about. The Cambridge University Riichi Mahjong Society actually had some pretty awesome success, with members taking 2nd and 3rd place, and five out of the seven of us finishing in the top half of the field.
I'm not really sure what to make of the result. On one hand it's nice to do well and have something of an ego boost (even though the short tournament format meant luck played a reasonable part), but at the same time the general consensus from the Cambridge guys was that the average skill level at the tournament was pretty low. I don't mean that as a negative to the people involved or the tournament, because everyone I spoke to was nice, and the tournament was good fun, but aside from a few players there who genuinely seemed pretty good, the majority of the field was at a fairly low standard. It didn't stop the tournament from being enjoyable, but it wasn't what I was expecting, and I'd say in some ways I could have enjoyed it more if I'd gotten slaughtered by playing people way above my level.
The basic thing that stood out was that a lot of people just seemed to ignore most of the strategic aspects of the game. There were a few players who knew what they were doing when it came to defending, and would discard sensibly, but a lot of people just seemed to continually be chasing any sort of hand that they could win out on. Most of the hand values were pretty low because people seemed happy to settle for poor, single-yaku hands instead of going for anything big, and defensive play especially just seemed to be non-existent. There was no need to go for clever waits after declaring Riichi because a lot of people just seemed to completely ignore any notion of not dealing in, and instead pursue getting their low-value hand out instead. It's actually quite hard to play when you've got some people floating around who are extremely good, and others which will deal into the most obvious and dangerous of hands because they don't really consider the idea of throwing a hand to avoid dealing into someone (which we all were like at one stage, or at least I definitely was).
Like I said, none of this applies to the tournament, which was extremely well run, both in terms of the sets and the food and drink provided, and everyone was fine. They just weren't that awesome at mahjong, or at least weren't as good as I was expecting people to be. I was expecting to get blown away, so it was quite a contrast to have people who seem to struggle with things like scoring up hands and any of the more intricate rules (though not helped I imagine by the fact that when playing online the computer tends to do it all for you). Though I guess for those people I just hope they keep playing and actually start to improve and develop some strategy, because that's what the sport needs. It's hard to fault people for essentially being beginners at the game, and I was expecting a few there, just not so many. And I guess I'd rather have a strong showing for the tournament than only a dozen people turning up. If anyone reading this was at the open and isn't particularly fantastic at MJ because they're just starting out, then keep playing, keep practising and I'll hopefully see you next year. And I recommend playing on Tenhou rather than other online games, because it's the best browser-based free one I've come across in terms of skill level. Sure, it's all in Japanese, but there is a fantastic English guide for it.
Really, on the flip side I can say that it just makes me more proud of the Cambridge society. I think that we'd all agree unanimously that the average standard of skill that we have on Friday evenings at the society meetings is far higher than the average yesterday, so I'm thankful that I have the ability to play with people like that on a regular basis (something that most people there probably don't have). It's also quite impressive given that a lot of people at the society didn't know how to play when we set it up last October (ie. less than a year ago), so the fact that we've progressed so far so quickly, and are already extremely strong, at least for the standard in England, is really good. It'll also be awesome to hopefully have the 2nd and 3rd place trophies from the Open on our stall for the Freshers' Fair next October.
Having said all of this, far from everyone at Guildford yesterday was poor. The few British guys who set the thing up and are also founding the UK Mahjong Association right now were good, as were a lot of the Dutch and the rest who had come from mainland Europe. There was also the president of the Korean Mahjong League there, who was a really nice guy, but a scary player. Even from his hand movements with the tiles it was fairly obvious he was fucking good (sort of the equivalent to experienced card/poker players doing little sleight of hand things with the cards/chips). I was lucky enough to play him in my second game, and was also lucky enough to win against him as well, which was a pretty nice thing to come away from the day with.
I say most of the stuff in this entry probably sounding somewhat big-headed and arrogant, but I know that I'm still not that amazing at Riichi Mahjong, and as a group the society isn't that amazing either. The majority of the people topping the European rankings weren't there at the tournament (or at least weren't as far as I can tell), and the most were just people who are relative beginners or clearly don't take the skill aspects of the game that seriously. Plus there's the fact that I'll watch videos of the Japanese pro matches on YouTube, and their skill at reading the game seems to go into a realm that I literally can't comprehend, because I watch those videos completely not having a clue at how they make all the amazing decisions they do without being able to see their opponents' tiles.
My only other point for the tournament would simply be that I don't like some of the EMA specific rules, or the seeming reliance on score tables which, in my opinion, are set out incorrectly (as in they ignore the two extra han for going out which actually give sense to how the scores are calculated). I think a fair amount of that can simply be attributed to "We play our way so think our way is the best way" from the society though. Except for how seating/dealership is decided. CURMS uses a simple method of just taking one of each wind tile, shuffling them around face down, and then everyone picks their wind and therefore seat for the first round, with East starting as dealer. Instead, yesterday they used some crazy system with the four wind tiles and an odd and even tile and a dice roll and only the Dutch players seemed to properly understand how it worked. Then there was a temporary East and then another dice roll to decide actual East, and it all seemed horribly complicated for what it was actually doing, and I don't get why they don't just do it the simple way.
The CURMS has basically just modelled it's mahjong rules on Saki, which is at least something of a valid reference. Saki is the framework, and then Tenhou fills in gaps that are left by the anime (except for a few society specific things we've decided on for fringe cases). The EMA however seems to have made it's own flavour of what is a game already hugely overcomplicated by various different rule sets. The EMA ruleset isn't something I've seen as a specific ruleset on any Japanese mahjong game, and seems to be a weird combination of various different ones (it's Nashi + red tiles + other tweaks) which, in my opinion, could be streamlined and adjusted to be made a bit better.
It's made me fairly excited for the society in Cambridge next year. Partly from the perspective of wanting to attract more members so we can have an even larger showing when, hopefully, there is a 2011 Open, which I will look forward to immensely. I'm also excited because this tournament has showed that the games at the society are to a pretty high standard, and therefore there's actual meaning in the results and the long-term rankings of the society. We are, probably by a good margin, not the best players in Europe, but we're certainly up there as a pretty strong group. It'd be nice to think that some of the people who were there yesterday as beginners will keep up the game, keep improving and picking up strategy, and that when Riichi Mahjong is a bit more established and people are more experience next year, it'll be a far stronger field and more what I was expecting this year.
PS. For anyone who has examined the CURMS leaderboards, I'm at/near the bottom not because I suck, but because I had a few experimental weeks and have played like a complete retard at certain points in the year, which have shoved me right down. It's quite hard to gain points for the leaderboard, but it's fairly easy to lose substantial amounts in a very short amount of time. I'm actually not that bad. Honest. No, really :(