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The London Underground

Despite it being a quintessential gambling game, you won’t find it in the casinos of Las Vegas, the Bahamas or Monte Carlo. The 2,000-year-old game of Mahjong is the exclusive province of the Chinese communities in China and abroad. Whether you are in Beijing, or in the Chinese communities of New York, Vancouver, Sydney or San Francisco, somewhere you can find a game in progress almost any night of the week.

Westerners call these communities Chinatown, a place where the Chinese maintain a portion of their culture through, language, cuisine and community while learning from the indigenous cultures in which they’ve transplanted.

One of the most successful of the World’s Chinatowns is in London, UK. There, the Chinese community has built a prosperous commercial, gastronomical and entertainment hotspot around the now famous Gerrard Street. The area is close to some of London’s top casinos and there are sports betting shops dotted along Gerrard itself. Yet if you are looking for a game of Mahjong you won’t find it there.

Gambling Online Magazine (GOM) went undercover to find one of London’s busiest games. The trail blazed to find a game began with many dead ends. We were rejected at “home” games that were closed to new comers, at family-only games, and by groups of friends that simply didn’t have a free space in their regular game. After a short time it became clear that for the general masses, Mahjong is a secretive and closed society played underground, in the shadows of the city, sometimes in the most sordid of places, sometimes in the most opulent.

GOM finally managed to get itself an invitation to one of the city’s busiest games. It was hosted each week in a popular Chinatown restaurant just after closing. From the outside you would think that only the kitchen staff were left inside, but in reality the restaurant as just as bustling as it had been a few hours earlier during normal opening hours. Drinks were being served by waitresses and the room was filled with the smoke of cigarettes. There were eight tables each with a different Mahjong set ranging from ivory to plastic. Shouts of “CHOW” and “KONG” rang loudly throughout the dining room, and cash was changing hands at the end of each game.

People kept coming in through the back door of the restaurant until three am, at which time the Mahjong parlor was as buzzing as the licensed casino up the road. As more people came, more tables were opened and more money changed hands.

The restaurant was now a casino, a fully functioning gambling den that rivaled Western casinos on both the amounts being bet and on the skill at which the games were played.

For almost 1,000 years Mahjong was illegal in China for all but the royal class. And like a circle, the Chinese communities speckled through out the world are again playing the game in the protective shadows of their homes, businesses or private dens; the games are kept secret, and the entry is by invitation only. Mahjong has been named “the game of a hundred intelligences” and if you add the resourcefulness and guile required to find a game, that figure jumps to one hundred and two.
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