100-year-old mahjong maven shares her passion with younger players


WARWICK – At The Phyllis Siperstein Tamarisk Assisted Living Residence, the game of mahjong is helping form connections between generations.  Every Wednesday, Florence Katz, 100, teaches her daughters, daughter-in-law and friends the popular game.

“I’ve been playing since the ’60s, when everyone started playing around here,” Katz said during a recent interview. “I remember when it was just one card [with the possible winning combinations]; now they have new cards every year.”

Katz, who volunteered at Tamarisk when it first opened in 2006, is now the oldest and longest resident at the facility on Shalom Drive. Prior to moving to Tamarisk, she lived in Cranston, where she was a teacher at Cranston High School East.

“It doesn’t feel like 100 years, but they tell me it has been,” Katz said, showing off photos of her 10 grandchildren. “And now to be able to teach this game, it feels nice to be able to have some things that I can say I left behind for them.”

Judy Fox, of Cranston, Katz’s daughter, said she always knew her mother played mahjong, but it wasn’t until the pandemic that she and her sister-in-law, Patty Katz, of Cranston, decided it was time to finally learn.

“It seemed like everyone was playing it,” Fox said. “And we had a chance to learn from the best.” 

“Now we’re sort of addicted. We play online, too,” Patty Katz said. They also play at Tamarisk with a friend, Loretta Robin, of Jamestown, and Joan Sackett, of East Greenwich, Florence Katz’s stepdaughter.

Mahjong is a tile-based game usually played with four players. The goal is to be the first to form a winning hand by collecting sets of matching tiles. It’s a game of skill, strategy and luck, according to Katz – who added that it also might be the secret to a longer life.

“It gets you thinking, your brain working in all different ways,” she said.

Katz may be onto something: According to the National Library of Medicine, mahjong has been proven to help improve memory and cognitive skills, as well as providing an opportunity to practice counting and strategy. 

Katz said she is pretty good at learning the new card every year, and once she has, she pretty much knows all the combinations in her head at once.

“That’s the secret, to see the tiles in your hand and know how many different ways you can go to win with them during a game,” she said.

Fox, who said she is nowhere near the player her mother is, said she appreciates the companionship and communal aspect of the game. It has also given her an opportunity to relate to her mother on a regular basis through something her mother is passionate about.

“She is really good,” Fox said of her mother’s play. “Sometimes she lets us win. I can see she’ll have ‘mahjong,’ but she won’t say it and lets us try to get one.”

Katz said she looks forward to Wednesdays with her girls and mahjong.

“It’s been fun teaching them. I try to have snacks. Tamarisk is so nice to us, too …. We have a good time, I get to see them, and we have fun playing,” she said. 

“What more can I say: I love mahjong, and I’m happy to know they’ll love it with or without me.”

SETH CHITWOOD (www.sethchitwood.com), of Barrington, is a features reporter for The Standard-Times, in New Bedford. He is also the creative director of the award-winning Angelwood Pictures production company.

Tamarisk, mahjong