Mahjong with a side of shmear

Stuy Town resident Susie Fasbinder has started teaching mahjong classes at the Ess-a-Bagel in Stuyvesant Town on First Avenue. (Photos by Maria Rocha-Buschel)

By Maria Rocha-Buschel

Stuyvesant Town resident Susie Fasbinder wants to bring an old game to a younger generation—over a classic New York meal. Fasbinder approached Ess-a-Bagel owner Beverly Wilpon about hosting small games at the shop on First Avenue and Wilpon was open to it, thus “mahjong and a shmear” was born.

Fasbinder, who is also a children’s book author, learned how to play the game as a teenager and picked it up again in her 50s but began teaching classes because she was having trouble finding games locally. She started listing classes through Facebook groups and said that she taught about 30 people how to play over the last six to eight months before starting the classes in the Stuyvesant Town Ess-a-Bagel at 324 First Avenue.

Those initial lessons were private classes but she got the idea to open it up to the public when walking by the bagel shop, which also offers space to a knitting group on Tuesday nights. Classes started out on Monday nights but Fasbinder said that she’s adding a class on Wednesdays as well due to their popularity. Wilpon said that they already have classes scheduled through September and was surprised at how popular they ended up being.

Banu Chediek, a Long Island City resident, found the class after hearing about it from the knitting group that Ess-a-Bagel hosts on Tuesday nights and attended one of Fasbinder’s mahjong classes last month. Another student who attended last month, Lee Murphy, used to live in Stuy Town and Katie Ward, who lives in the East Village, also attended.

Wilpon herself sometimes sits in on the classes and she knew of the game because her mother played with friends, although she never learned to play. But she said that she’s been picking some up from Fasbinder’s classes.

“I didn’t really know anything about mahjong but even as an observer, I was able to play a game at the end of the third session,” she said.

Fasbinder‘s instruction is $25 per class, and she estimates that it takes about three classes to learn how to play. In the first two classes, Fasbinder teaches the fundamentals, what she calls the ABCs of mahjong.

“Then after that, you can form sentences,” she said.

Fasbinder (right) explains the game to Wilpon (center) and Murphy (left).

Fasbinder said that the game has a definite social aspect and for others is very connected to food. Wilpon said that the connection to food is especially strong for her.

“When my mom and her friends played, it was all about the food,” she said. “I don’t even know if they ever played mahjong without a big spread.”

Although the game does require relatively little communication and is mostly quiet, Fasbinder said that it’s still a very social activity.

“For the one to three hours that you play, you’re distracted from everything that bothers you,” she said. “It’s an escape.”

Prospective mahjong players need to sign up for classes on a clipboard to sign up on and any students of the class get a 10% discount at Ess-a-Bagel.

Fasbinder said that she and Wilpon are hoping to expand within Ess-a-Bagel, opening up some tables just for games in addition to the classes, and they’re also trying to plan a tournament for the fall, although details for that are still being worked out.

Banu Chidiek and Katie Ward play the game.

Fasbinder said that her goal is to teach prospective players not only how to play the game but also strategies about how to win, although not at the expense of having fun.

“I’m competitive and I like to win but I also make it fun,” she said. “I love the game and I think that comes through. I want everyone else to love it, too, otherwise why bother?”

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