SANTA MARIA, Calif. - The Minami Center was the place to be Friday for Mah Jongg players.
The community center played host to nearly 90 players who competed in the city's 5th Annual Mah Jongg Tournament.
For more than six hours, players ranging from 50 years old to 90 years old took part in the event that featured the ancient Chinese tile game--also spelled mahjong.
"We like to say Mah Jongg is the new bridge since no one is learning to play bridge anymore," said tournament director Donna Eschen. "It takes about four lessons and then you just build up your skills. It attracts people of all ages, all walks of life."
Eschen also emphasized the game is great for the brain.
"You have to think, you have to act fast, you have to make decisions," Eschen said. "It's like playing a card game with tiles, so the object of the game is to take your tiles, which you have 13 of, and to form a certain hand that's on the card in front of you, so you have to aim for something that's on the game. First one to get it says 'Mah Jongg,' like playing a card game, something like similar to rummy."
Eschen added the tournament is played using the American version of Mah Jongg instead of the one used traditionally in China.
The tournament is not only an opportunity for Mah Jongg players to test their skills against other top competitors, it also serves as a fundraiser for the Santa Maria Special Olympics chapter.
"We love supporting Special Olympics," said Eschen. "We love supporting the athletes. We love seeing them go on trips and buy new uniforms and buy new sports equipment and we just love supporting the local athletes. It's our charity of cause and we love it and we have three athletes around the room that have been helping us all day and they love to help us."
Eschen noted many of the participants traveled here from outside the Central Coast, including one from Washington. Other players traveled from Napa, Fresno, Visalia, Bakersfield, Carpinteria and Thousand Oaks.
"We put on the best tournament," said Eschen. "We're one of the few tournaments on the Central Coast and we're pretty well known now after putting it on for five years, so people do come from a distance and make it a weekend, which is good for us and we love it and they love playing because they keep coming back."
The tournament was held one day before Chinese New Year, which will celebrate the Year of the Rat.
The rat theme was evident throughout the event, with several players, including Eschen wearing Year of the Rat t-shirts.
Each player paid a $42 entry fee to participate. At the conclusion, a $150 first prize was given to the player who accumulated the most points.
"We stress kindness and friendliness and welcoming new players," said Eschen. "We have about 18 players that have never played in one of our tournaments. We have people that have been playing for over 50 years and we have people who have people that have been playing for less than a year."
The tournament is hosted each year by the Mussel Senior Center Mah Jongg group.