About a month ago I had the pleasure of attending the 2017 World Riichi Championships at the Palms Casino Resort in Las Vegas. The event had just over 220 players, representing nearly 30 countries, with 80 pro players from Japan. The tournament was held over four days, with the first two days being a 9-hanchan preliminary stage, with the top 32 going through to the knock-out rounds over the last two days.
I arrived a couple of days early, to give myself the chance to shake off a bit of jet-lag and to have some time to actually get out and see a bit of Las Vegas. Finding out where everyone was when I got to the hotel in the evening wasn’t particularly difficult – the bar where half the tables were full of people playing mahjong was a bit of a give-away. I got a couple of drinks and hung out with some people before getting some sleep.
The day before the tournament was pretty relaxed. A bunch of pros hung out on the casino floor for pretty much the entire morning playing Buffalo Grand (where shouts of “Buffalooo” became a thing for the rest of the week), and Daniel ‘Dasuke’ Moreno spent most of the day recruiting people to copy a photo ASAPIN posted on Twitter, resulting in a pretty long chain of copycat photos. The evening had a cocktail party and the opening ceremony, featuring a cameo performance by Elvis.
Elvis at WRC (Credit: David Clarke)
But anyway, onto the mahjong…
All the preliminary games were seeded in such a way so that each table had one, or occasionally two, Japanese pro players. For my first game I had Kansuke Sugiura, who had a quiet demeanour but also seemed really focused and was a bit scary to play against. The first game was pretty unspectacular for me – I won I think maybe one fairly cheap hand, and didn’t deal into anything particularly big either, but finished slightly negative in third place, with the French player Vadim Horvat coming first on the table.
In the second game I played Vincent Gau from the USA, Maiko Saito from Japan, and Jesper Nøhr from Denmark. I felt I played pretty well in this game – I took a comfortable lead towards the end of East round and did a reasonable job defending it and winning a couple of hands to extend it. Going into the final hand, Vincent in second place needed a mangan to overtake me. He riichi’d, which had me worried, before he won by tsumo and revealed his hand to be riichi tsumo dora 1, which wasn’t enough… until he managed to hit three ura dora and overtook me with a haneman tsumo at the end. Still, the game gave me a decent second place which put me pretty much back to zero overall.
Game three I had two pros on my table – Garthe Nelson and Kyosuke Hyuga. Garthe said he was feeling a bit rough after lunch, and we had a substitute on stand-by in case he needed to dash off. The illness didn’t seem to affect his mahjong all that much though, and he absolutely cleared up on both of his dealer turns and ended up winning the table with a pretty comfortable 50k point total. I managed to take what ended up being a fairly tight second place against Kyosuke Hyuga, who came third, which put me slightly positive overall.
Game four, I ended up matched against Shigekazu Moriyama, the President of the JPML. Not only that, but as we sat down the people from MondoTV came over and beckoned us into the separate room to be on the table for the stream. I think I have to blame this game on a combination of tiredness from jet-lag at the end of the day (it was around 2am UK time), and nerves from being against Moriyama and on the stream, but whatever the cause I played abysmally. The first hand I discarded a 1p early on, not realising until just after I discarded it that it was both dora, and also broke up a potential sanshoku in my hand. For most of East round my decision-making was pretty horrendous and I was second-guessing myself way too much. I made a poor riichi that then dealt into a chasing riichi ippatsu for a dealer mangan ron, and I managed to turn what could have been riichi iipeikou on a decent wait, into a hand that ended up just being menzen tsumo nomi four or five turns later.
By South round I’d managed to calm down and get things together a bit more, but by then the damage had mostly been done and I was more fighting to not run out of points rather than being able to improve my placement. Moriyama-pro got a pretty massive nosebleed halfway through South 3, though he still managed to win his hand in South 4, despite playing the whole round with one hand holding a wad of tissues to his face. Overall the American Anthony Hsieh (recipient of my dealer mangan ron) won the game, with Moriyama-pro coming second and myself a distant fourth place. I can only hope that Mondo lost the footage of that game or something because from a mahjong standpoint I was awful…
And so I ended the first day around 30k down overall – not ideal, but still a recoverable position. In the evening there were some casual games being played up at the bar (because after a day playing mahjong what you really need is a few beers and more mahjong), and Gemma and Garthe did a fairly interesting Q&A session on some of the ins and outs of being a pro in Japan.
Gemma and Garthe giving their talk on the pro scene in Japan
(Credit: David Clarke)
Social games after the first day (Credit: David Clarke)
For the first game of the second day, I was against two pros again – Yuumi Uotani and Noriyuki Kiriyama, as well as Tuvya Felt from the US. It was one of those games where all of my hands were just slightly too slow to be useful – I had a couple of nice ones but someone else would win before I could. I ended up coming 4th in what was a fairly frustrating sort of game.
For the sixth hanchan, I was against Kohei Ide-pro, along with Lena Weinguny from Austria (who ended up top 8 overall) and Bichen Wang from America. This game was pretty crazy, with 8000 and 12000 point hands all over the place. I put myself in last place early on dealing into a dealer mangan for Ide-pro, before getting a few dealer mangans back to back in South 1, including one I won with rinshan kaihou after riichi. By the middle of South round, I had a pretty nice lead, before I dealt into a totally unexpected turn 5 chinitsu from Lena on her dealer turn, where she only had a single chii already called.
That evened things up a bit, and going into the last hand it ended up with Ide-pro having about a 4000 point lead, with 100 points separating myself and Lena for 2nd and 3rd, and Bichen being very negative after bearing the brunt of a lot of the mangan hands flying around. I managed to get fairly lucky and won a fast riichi ippatsu tsumo pinfu dora 1 to end South 4 and grab 1st place. I’d say that game six was probably my favourite of the tournament. Partly because I played well, partly because it was quite an exciting game, and partly because Ide-pro was just really good fun to play against, and was a lot more chatty and laid-back during the game than the majority of the pros.
Hanchan 7 I had two pros again: Kenneth Tokuda and Kentaro Kakagi, as well as Anne Rinfret from Canada. I managed to take a reasonable lead after winning the first two hands, and the game from there got pretty cagey. In particular there was a run on Anne’s first dealer turn where it got up to honba 5 after several draws back to back, which actually ate into my lead quite a lot just through noten payments. I then managed to win a really cheap 1000 point hand to end her dealership, which actually ended up being about 6500 points total when I got the honba bonus and all the riichi sticks that had piled up after the various draws. In the end I couldn’t quite hold onto my lead, and Tokuda-pro just nudged ahead in the last couple of hands to put me into second.
At this point I relaxed quite a bit – I was on around -12 overall with two hanchan remaining, which basically meant that things would have to either go incredibly well for me to finish top 32, or incredibly badly for me to finish uncomfortably close to the bottom of the standings. The penultimate game I was against Atsushi Yoshino from Japan, Tina Christensen from Denmark and Takahiro Sakurai from the US. Tina dealt into a few big hands early, which put her way behind, but it was pretty close between the remaining three of us until Takahiro got a huge tsumo hand to pull out in front. In the end I finished slightly positive, but came in third, ending up with -2.4 after uma.
Again in the evening there was some social play, with Ben Boas giving a talk on some of his experiences in Japan. I also played some of Master Mahjong, the game made by the main sponsors. The client itself had a pretty nice user interface and some cool features, but the game itself was American Mahjong so none of us playing really had any clue what we were doing. It turns out in American mahjong there are some pretty big differences compared to Riichi/Chinese, and the equivalent list of yaku is confusing and unintuitive if you’ve never played it before. I enjoyed it, but I don’t feel like I’m missing out much by sticking with Riichi…
My 9th and final Hanchan was pretty uneventful – I ended up coming 3rd, giving a total of -31.1 overall and 146th place. Overall I feel that was about right for how I played – I wasn’t really at my best, but then with the pressure of being in a tournament, combined with a bit of jet-lag, I think it’s difficult to be 100% sharp.
For the people who didn’t make the top 32 cut there was a side-event played with tonpuusen and red fives. These games were obviously a bit more relaxed than the proper tournament, and it was fun to have semi-competitive games with a few people and play against some more of the pros.
On the last day, there was a general training session for players. This was done differently on different tables, with some just discussing aspects after each hand, some having pros play with an open hand and discuss their discards, and some with all four players having their hands open. It was really interesting to be able to break away from the tournament format a bit, and have some proper strategy discussion, especially with pro players there to give their input. I’d say for myself and others it was a real highlight of the event, and I hope it’s something that happens again for future WRC events.
In the afternoon, they were showing the finals on the TVs at the bar on one of the top floors of the hotel, so the majority of the players, including the pros, were up there to watch. A bunch of us also played on the shuffleboard table up there before the games got going, including ASAPIN and Maya Matsuda. Once the finals started, everyone was pretty engrossed in watching the streams on the TV before we all got ushered down to be there for the last few hands and the closing ceremony.
The final was won by Masaharu Tomotake, who won game 1 of the final and then got enough to get 2nd place in game 2, beating Ryuchi Matsuda, Hiroyuki Yamada and Yutaka Nakamura (who I was rooting for personally).
Masaharu Tomotake with the WRC trophy and jacket, alongside the other finalists.
(Credit: David Clarke)
Overall I really enjoyed the event, and I’d urge anyone who gets the opportunity to go to one, to make the trip. I enjoyed the tournament itself, but what was really great for me was to meet so many people who are strong mahjong players, many of whom I’ve also known online for a long time but haven’t met face-to-face before. It was already really awesome to meet so many of the top pros that I’ve watched play in Japanese tournaments – even with a bit of a language barrier they were all super approachable throughout the weekend. Plus I can now honestly say that I’ve beaten Hisato Sasaki in a tournament!
Throughout the week I was dragging a poster around and trying and get people to sign it – I managed to get most of the names I was really looking for, and it now hangs on the wall in my living room as a great souvenir. Hopefully at some point I’ll manage to find a way of digitally scanning it so I can make a few duplicates.
The final poster, framed and mounted