Chances are pretty good that if you are play mah-jongg in Lexington, you know Marlene James.
Since she took up the game 13 years ago, James has given free lessons to more than 150 people. She offers free classes twice a year, in April and September. James said jokingly that she started offering classes to strangers because after she started playing, "I proceeded to teach everyone I know."
She not only teaches the basics but helps newcomers find groups to play with and find replacements when a player can no longer make a regular game.
"I don't just throw you the rules and put you out there," she said.
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Estelle Hamburg was taught by James and now plays several times a month.
"She's an amazing teacher," Hamburg said. "She is so generous."
Hamburg said it's clear James teaches mah-jongg because she loves the game. But James said the thing she loves most is meeting new people. Because a mah-jongg session can last for several hours, it's not unusual for players to become friends.
Before she took up the tiles, James was like most folks: She knew of the game because she had read The Joy Luck Club and had seen the movie Driving Miss Daisy.
James, who has lived in Lexington for decades, said growing up in rural Alabama made her a fan of games of all kinds. Mostly, she said, "because there was nothing else to do."
When she discovered mah-jongg, a rummy-like game of Asian origin that's played with tiles rather than cards, she was hooked.
The game can be intimidating to a newcomer. There are 152 tiles divided into categories, some adorned with Chinese symbols. A player uses 14 tiles in a rack to create a winning hand. It is a betting game, but locally, the stakes are usually the kind of money that clinks rather than folds.
Bobbi Shain, who joined James and several dozen others for a mah-jongg luncheon recently, said she likes the game because it's a mental exercise.
"It's a very good game for a challenge," she said. "It makes you think."
James, who volunteers at Kentucky Radio Eye, said she sees her mah-jongg classes as part of her volunteer work in the community. She said she's had only two or three people who were interested in classes but decided the game wasn't for them.
She'll keep playing and teaching, as long as there are strangers willing to become friends.