The Triumphant Return of Table Games

There's nothing like a game with family and friends.

4 women playing a table game
Melissa Smrekar's Mahjong group. Photo: Emilee Prado

Growing up, my aunt played a lot of Bunco. Her house was covered in tchotchkes, and when I asked where they came from, she would elatedly reply "I won that at Bunco!" On my mom's side of the family, my Nana taught all of her grandchildren how to play rummy which resulted in bragging rights as well as adulthood expertise. To this day, we all think we are skilled card sharks. My husband's grandmother played bridge weekly until she passed. Recently, mahjong has been back with a vengeance, becoming so popular that companies such as The Mahjong Line and Mark and Graham are selling versions of the 19th century Chinese game. I recently even bought a vintage game table, ready to tackle the return of table games myself. Since then, my husband and I have played nightly rounds of cards. Table games are back, and hopefully this time, it's for good.

Molly Hardy is a mahjong instructor based in Dallas. As a former elementary school teacher, coaching others is part of her calling. When a few of Hardy's peers got together to take lessons, she became hooked, and within a few years, she was teaching others how to play. "Mahjong is the perfect mix of thinking and strategy, but anybody can grasp it. That's what's like lovely about it," she says.

Dallas influencer Melissa Smrekar cites a similar experience, "My four-person mahjong group learned mahjong together six months ago. Instantly hooked, we made a standing commitment to play together twice a month. It's the most refreshing treat during the middle of the work week!"

Connectivity and friendship are a few of the reasons players keep returning to the card table. Lauren Janowiak of Peachtree Corners, Georgia has had a Bunco group for nearly 29 years. "Having a group of women to share life events with is so important. We support one another all while having fun and relieving the stresses of life." Smrekar, who owns and plays at a vintage 1960s Italian inlaid floral game table, agrees, "​​Instead of just going out to eat, it's fun to catch up with girlfriends over a shared hobby that is truly played in community!"

If card, tile, and dice games have been around for centuries, why then, are we seeing a sudden increase in interest? Hardy explains, "Chinese mahjong goes back hundreds of years, but American mahjong (what both Hardy and Smrekar play) actually only goes back to the 1920s when Joseph Babcock Americanized it." According to Hardy, in a graph of the past hundred years or so, there are spikes in the game. First in the 1920s led by Babcock, again in the late 1930s led by Dorothy Meyerson, a founding member of the National Mah-jongg League, again in the 1950s led by Jewish women, and again today.

One theory for the most recent influx is that the COVID pandemic brought small groups of people together in new to them ways, such as learning a game together. Smrekar further says there's also something comforting about a standing game night. "You know exactly what to expect. We always play three games and leave by 10 p.m."

Arlington, Virginia resident Jamison Doran recently acquired her own card table and plans to host regular ladies' games in her newly minted game room. "My husband and I love games, so it made sense for us to dedicate a space to them. It's a space he can have friends over and play video games or long strategy board games and a place where I can have my girlfriends over for cards, mahjong, or even a game of Mystery Date."

Smrekar, like Doran, enjoys playing with her girlfriends but has high hopes to pass on her affinity for strategy to the next generation, too. "I'm going to teach my godchildren table games and let them cuss when we're at the game table. It will be our not-so-secret secret. I feel like that really embodies being godmother "Midge" and the spirit of my 1960s Italian game table."

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