Street Talk: Chan Tak-kwan, World Series of Mahjong champion
Chan Tak-kwan is the current World Series of Mahjong champion. He tells Yanis Chan how he defeated 200 players from more than 10 countries last August to claim the title and take home $180,530 in prize money.
HK Magazine: How did you get into mahjong?
Chan Tak-kwan: When I was a kid I used to enjoy playing with the tiles, especially at banquets. I often used to watch my neighbors playing. It’s what people did back in the day to kill time. I am self-taught: Every loss is a lesson you literally have to pay for.
HK: What were you doing before winning the title?
CT: I was, and am still doing, furniture sales. My life hasn’t changed much, because the cash prize was a lot less than the previous two years: it used to be US$500,000. That’s because the year I won, the prize was linked to player numbers, which were low. Winning lots of money doesn’t guarantee a good future, right? I’m into photography though, and have been able to pick up some new equipment with the prize money.
HK: Did the competition look like it does in Cantonese movies such as “Kung Fu Mahjong” or “Fat Choi Spirit”?
CT: They are too dramatic! I have never seen players doing those kinds of weird cheating tricks. But in some ways my winning the competition might sound like a movie plot in that I was the dark horse, losing the first two rounds before coming from behind to ultimately triumph.
HK: What’s your best memory of the tournament?
CT: My friends self-financed themselves to join the WSOM just to keep me company, which was really nice of them. The best moment was that when I won the competition, they were there with me. They are the mahjong buddies I usually lose my money to!
HK: Did you hold any mahjong titles before this?
CT: No, and to be honest, I rarely win when I play with friends! But since claiming the title, I’ve been playing more because they keep challenging me. Winning or losing isn’t really a huge deal to me though, and we never bet big anyway.
HK: How is playing in a competition different from playing with friends?
CT: I think playing in a professional context requires full concentration. Unlike playing with friends, you don’t really talk to other players in competitions because they are all strangers. In the semi-finals I played a full-time mahjong player who teaches it in Japan. I could see she took a strategic approach to the game. I just won that game by luck.
HK: How do you approach the game?
CT: In Cantonese there’s an expression, to keep a “usual” mind—something like an open mind, accepting anything that comes your way. In 2010 a beer maker hosted several rounds of banquet-style qualifiers, so a few of my mahjong buddies and I booked a table to celebrate a birthday for fun. That’s the reason I joined the contest. But then I eventually got sponsored to participate at the WSOM in Macau, which I didn’t expect at all.
HK: How much time do you spend playing mahjong?
CT: Not much: probably once every two to three months. With so many other forms of entertainment it’s hard to find someone to play with. But I did spend time practicing for this particular competition, just to become familiar with the rules and scoring system.
HK: What qualities does a mahjong player need to have?
CT: To be able to use their brains. Too often people link mahjong with gambling, which gives it a bad reputation. It’s actually a good learning tool to train your brain, like math. Some steps are calculable, or at least have an element of probability. Children and students should play it more.
Official registration for the 2015 WSOM Main Event opens on August 1: www.worldmahjong.com