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ECR 2010
Kim Iversen at the EC Riichi 2008.

HANOVER - It will be a clash of styles. In Hanover, Germany, next month the second open European Riichi Mahjong Championship will take place. For many players, the Japanese stand the best chances to win the title this time. After all, Japan is the place where riichi mahjong was invented, where they have a riichi pro competition and where the better part of the population at least knows the rules well enough to play the game.

Which does not mean Europa is left without a chance.

The Japanese hardly know the way Europeans play, so, says Kim Iversen, who was number one on the European Riichi Mahjong Ranking List for a long time (he lost this position since, in the Danish Riichi Open 2010, he ended on the last position): “Their traditional safe-playing style will fail against most Europeans. Simply because they have not much experience with Dutch, German and Danish new-player styles. While we have an advantage: we know a little bit about the Japanese way of playing.”


Danish favorites

And for many other players, the Danes, who have proven to be very eager and clever players, are the favorites. Thomas Kragh from Denmark is the current champion. Kim Iversen is a Dane as well. Yet, he does not sound too easy about a new Danish victory in Hamburg. ”The competition will be much harder than on the previous EC”, says Mr. Iversen. “For instance, the Germans have learned a lot. Last time, many players could make yakuman (limit) hands, since so many players were quite inexperienced. Than will not happen this time. If one player gets one or two yakuman hands - by luck of the table draw - this may be enough to win the tournament.”

His favorite for the title is his fellow countryman Henrik Krog.

Thomas Kragh

The current champion, Thomas Kragh does not feel qualified to give a prediction. After he won the championship, two years ago, he did not play much riichi mahjong. Mr. Kragh was not admitted to the tournament until Italy declined its seats and since Japan sent in less players than expected (two instead of six). He did not qualify directly since he has moved to Norway and did not play in the Danish qualification tournaments.


Dream comes true

Jenn Barr, an American who lives in Japan, is the owner of the website Reachmahjong.Com, where riichi players from all over the world meet, and she is the only American girl who plays in the Japanese pro competition. Together with her fellow countryman Garthe Nelson, who also lives in Japan, she will try to hit the honorary stand in Hanover. She says: “It is just great how riichi is spreading in Europe and that the players are so enthusiastic. It is hard to believe that just two years ago there was hardly a riichi tournament in the region, and now there are many each year in multiple countries. It is like a dream coming true.”
According to Mrs. Barr, the European players are improving amazingly fast for the short time that riichi has been popular in the region. But, the Japanese have one great advantage which the Europeans have not, and that’s availability. “We can step off a train and be playing mahjong within ten minutes anywhere in the country. It is unlikely that Europe will ever have that culture.”
Jenn and Garthe will be playing for the US in Hanover, but one of the Japanese Jenn would bet her money on, is one of the Japanese pro’s, Yu Takehana. “He is a bit younger than us both in age and in experience, but I think he’ll surprise us all.”
Jann adds quite modestly: “I hope I will be able to represent both Japan and the USA and take the title myself.” On the last EC, Jenn ended on position #43 (of 80).

Chinese

Ma Yongliang

Chinese player Ma Yongliang was the winner of the Second Chinese Championship (MCR) in Hong Kong. Last time in Hanover, Ma, an international tradesman, ended on 19th position, but he is determined to do better now: “I really want to win this time.”
- Why do you travel such a long distance to play in a tournament where no money prizes can be won?
Ma Yongliang: “I mainly want to meet mahjong lovers around the world, and promote the dissemination of the Chinese mahjong culture.”
Jenn Barr answers the same question for the Japanese: “Even in Japan, there are not big prizes for mahjong tournaments. Serious mahjong players in Japan love the game and the fact that players outside Japan love it, gives them a camaraderie and lets them go past language barriers to create new friendships. Of course they want to promote the game, but it is also a chance to make new friends they share a common interest with.”

Turkey

Japan has a magical attraction on European riichi players. Austrian player Paul Beneder has lived there for over a year now. And Deniz Gencturk from Turkey will go there soon. Deniz is the first Turk to play in a European championship. He is studying Japanese and he will go to Osaka for the next academic year. “My primary purpose in going to Japan is not riichi”, he admits, “but it sure is one of the biggest motivators, and I will probably spend most of my week not in the university but in the jansou (parlor) downtown, I would love to make a living out of riichi if that were possible.”
In Turkey, it is extremely rare to see people play mahjong, where games like backgammon, rummy or rummikub are much more popular, with men sitting around a table smoking and shuffling tiles all night. In fact, chances are big that if you see a mahjong player in Turkey, he has learned the game from Deniz.
If Deniz himself might have a chance to win the EC, is hard to say. No one of the other candidates ever played against him, so no one knows neither his style nor his strength.

Dutch

But what about the chances of the Dutch, who will have the largest delegation in Hanover (20 out of the 80 participants will be Dutch, against 13 Germans and 12 Danes)?

Kim Iversen answers quite cautiously: “I don’t think the Dutch have changed their playing style since the last championship. Their special way of playing only works when there are more than one Dutch at a table, or some new players. So the Dutch might do worse this time.”
- What is that ‘special way’?
Mr. Iversen: “They very often make ‘All Pongs’ or pongs of valuable honors (Dragons, Table or Seat Wind). This makes the game quite random. It is easily countered with Pinfu (No Points) or Riichi, combined with safe play, especially when you get a lucky Dora.
“This might even be the reason why Danes started focusing on safe play, Riichi and Pinfu several years ago. That way, the Dutch don’t get as big hands as you get. Even though they win more hands, they mostly lose the game. But if more of them at the same table play the ‘Pong Way’, then everyone has to play that way because of the many feeds.”

Flexibilty

Jenn Barr

Ma Yongliang thinks that the Europeans should improve their flexibility and proficiency.
Jenn Barr has some more advice. “One thing to look out for in a tournament, is finishing the game by winning a hand that is only good for third place. If you are behind in the last hand, you need to try and build a big hand, not just a winning hand.”
And European champion Thomas Kragh: “I feel that we have some good players in Europe and that they do stand a chance against the Japanese. But of course, as always any winner in a relatively short tournament of riichi mahjong needs luck. And maybe the Europeans would need a little more luck than some of the Japanese. But then - there are more Europeans, so I think there is a good chance that a European may win the title.”
“If I cannot win myself, I would like to se a Dane take the tile again.”

 

Martin Rep wrote this article for GX Magazine, ‘the only men's lifestyle magazine featuring mahjong, poker and horse racing in Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan’. He will participate in the EC Riichi as well, but is not sure if the will win the tournament.

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