Metropolis Magazine
Issue #805 - Friday, Aug 28th, 2009
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Benjamin Boas
Game researcher, mahjong player and Fulbright fellow

Where are you from and what brought you to Japan?
I’m originally from suburban Connecticut. I’ve been interested in games all my life and have been playing Japanese games since the age of 6, which is when I learned both go and Nintendo. A combination of those two is probably what brought me over here.

Tell us about your mahjong career.
My first big tournament success was in 2007, when I got third at the European Championship, and I took second place at the 2008 Championship, which was played with the same rules they use here. I think this is more due to luck than skill, but it does make me the only person in the world to have placed in two European Championships. Last year as a Fulbrighter at Kyoto University, I also helped to translate and write the official European Mahjong Association Riichi rules. I currently have a position at Osaka University of Commerce as a visiting researcher at its games research institute, and I made a presentation on mahjong to Diet members last September. Of course, we only played for book certificates.

What drew you to the game?
In 2004, during a backpacking trip in the Himalayas, I spent the night at a Tibetan monastery. Since it was raining, there was nothing for anyone to do but play mahjong , so I learned the game on the spot, had a remarkably good streak of luck, and doubled my money, which I donated to the monastery. The next stop on my trip was Japan, so I learned the Japanese rules and became fascinated by how deep mahjong culture is here. There are mahjong TV shows, comics, pros—even a mahjong museum!

What’s your favorite spot in Japan?

Kabukicho. Besides being the capital of Japanese mahjong , it’s got some of the best Chinese and Korean food in the country. People are a lot less, um, reserved there, and you can get into a lot of interesting conversations. The people I’ve met in neighboring Golden Gai are some of the coolest people I know on the planet. To me, it’s the realest part of Tokyo.

What’s the most amazing thing you’ve seen or done here?

The most amazing thing that’s ever happened to me was being made into a four-page manga in a mahjong magazine. Now, whenever anyone Japanese asks me how I learned mahjong, I can just show them the comic strip! Leading the American team to victory in the 2008 Kyoto Station Giant Staircase Climbing competition—yes, you heard me right—also ranks up there. I got so into it I even made my own red, white and blue costume, complete with blue sequins. I credit my ultra-fast 29-second time to those sequins.

What’s something everyone in Tokyo should do once before they leave?
Learn mahjong and go to a parlor! Seriously, Tokyo might be the only place in the world where you can find places to play board games against total strangers nearly everywhere. The rules to the game are basically the same as gin rummy, and although knowing Japanese helps, there are a number of English-language resources online. The most comprehensive is www.reachmahjong.com, run by the only two American mahjong pros in Japan. In terms of good places to play, one of those pros manages a parlor called Fairy in Hachioji (www.mahjongfairy.jp), and there is also a parlor called Shibuton near 109 in Shibuya that is very beginner-friendly (www.shibuton.jp). Patrick W. Galbraith

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