Riichi Mahjong Takes Over America! – An Interview with Claire Pozniak of Riichi Nomi NYC

Tony chatted with Claire Pozniak, President of Riichi Nomi NYC, about the popularity of riichi mahjong in North America.

Riichi Nomi NYC meetup at Downtown Manhattan, NYC in 2023.
Source: Riichi Nomi NYC

During the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, many of us probably found a hobby during a time where we had to take a pause and wonder about life outside of the normal routine. Whether it was baking bread or reading a ton of manga, there was something for everyone. And in some cases, the hobby grows into a community that slowly takes the world by storm, like mahjong.

Mahjong is a tile strategy game with roots in China dating back to the 19th century and a rich history of bonding people together. Riichi mahjong, which is a variant originating from Japan, has gained popularity overseas and has become a staple at anime conventions in recent years. One particular mahjong club in North America has been helping to spearhead the charge.

Today, I’ll be talking with Claire Pozniak, the President of Riichi Nomi NYC, America’s largest riichi mahjong club, about the riichi mahjong community and its appeal with many players in North America.

This interview has been slightly edited for clarity.

1.) How did you get into mahjong?

I first got into mahjong after watching the anime Saki back in 2009. I think I was about 16 years old at the time and I thought the special effects were so cool. So I had to try the game out. I started playing online and have been hooked ever since.

2.) What made you decide that you wanted to form a riichi mahjong club?

I love playing mahjong, love making friends, and wanted to play all the time! At first, we were just a group of friends playing regularly. Then the group got bigger and bigger and now we’re the largest club in America.

Claire Pozniak and a fellow Riichi Nomi NYC member cosplaying Mahjong Soul characters at Anime NYC 2023.
Source: Riichi Nomi NYC

3.) What do you think has helped made riichi mahjong into a game worth having at pop culture conventions and events?

You wouldn’t think riichi mahjong would be a good game for pop culture conventions because there are SO many rules and the barrier to learning and getting into it is so high. But because it’s been featured regularly in popular video games like Final Fantasy XIV and Yakuza/Like a Dragon and in anime like Kakegurui and now Pon no Michi, people have seen mahjong and heard of it. Plus, people have watched streamers and Vtubers play Mahjong Soul and they recognize the concept. So they’re interested in the game, want to learn more, and just need somebody to explain to them the rules and details.

4.) As someone who’s been to your local meetups in New York City, I was really impressed with how beginner-friendly and accessible your group is with providing proper table setups, tutorial sheets, and enthusiastic teachers. How important was it to emphasize accessibility given that riichi mahjong is a complex game to learn?

Absolutely critical. You need people to feel like they’re having fun or they won’t stick with the game. Mahjong groups only grow when people feel excited to come back and play more.

5.) While riichi mahjong has definitely become the variant to watch, there’s still room to grow. What challenges do you see going forward with regards to further outreach and appeal?

I’d say the biggest challenges to growing the game’s appeal are its rules, the high entry barrier to learning, and the sort of attitude that inspires in people who have dedicated themselves to the game. After playing this game a lot, you sort of get lost in the sauce and forget that not everyone is speaking in terms like “mentanpin” or “entotsu” or “nakasuji.” And then new players can become alienated and confused. Experienced players don’t always want to hold themselves back to help the newbies, which is fair, but can diminish the appeal of the game overall for new players.

6.) Speaking of further appeal, Riichi Nomi NYC started their own team league called N-League featuring teams made of players based in the New York/New Jersey areas competing for a cash prize. How did that idea come about?

Nomi League (N-League) is based on the wildly popular M-League in Japan! The format of N-League is very similar to M-League, with teams competing to get the highest score possible over a season to win a big prize. It’s so high-profile and exciting that we tune in over here in NYC to watch it live on AbemaTV.  It’s so hype! We wanted to bring that live-mahjong excitement to the English-speaking mahjong community as well.

Riichi Nomi NYC members at the 2023 Riichi Nomi Open.
Source: Riichi Nomi NYC

6.) What are you most proud of during your time as a member of the mahjong community?

Maybe the first time I ever won an open tournament, which was Montreal in 2022. Or maybe running the largest open tournament in America two years in a row, the Riichi Nomi Open 2022 and the Riichi Nomi Open 2023. I’m proud of both!

7.) On Riichi Nomi NYC’s About Us page, you stated that the club’s mission is to help elevate the overall popularity and competency of riichi mahjong in the U.S. How would you rate the competency level today? Where do you see the competency level of the players here 5-10 years from now?

That’s a hard question! We definitely have plenty of players here in the USA now who can hold their own while playing in Japan in terms of skill, scoring, and etiquette. But at the same time, it takes people a long time to get to that level and we are always seeking to bring new people into the community. So the skill level on average rises slowly, but that’s a good thing. It means more people are joining and will get there eventually as well if they stick with it. We can see that playing competitively is getting more popular as tournaments have gone from being as small as 24 players before COVID to over 100 players at many tournaments in 2023 and upcoming ones in 2024. In the next 5-10 years, I’d like to see competitive tournaments with over 200 players as a regular occurrence!

Mahjong players gathering around a game at a Riichi Nomi NYC meetup.
Source: Riichi Nomi NYC

8.) Why should people want to learn mahjong and be a part of your community?

You should learn riichi mahjong because it’s social, fun, competitive, and difficult all at the same time! You can play casually if you like just making friends and having fun. Or you can read strategy books all day to try and become the best player in the world. Riichi Nomi cultivates both attitudes and types of players by making space for both social and serious play. We’re out there eating dim sum or hot pot together as a mahjong family, but also running the most professionally streamed and commentated, highest-paid riichi league in America. If you’re in NYC, come check us out some time! We’d love to have you!

You can find Riichi Nomi on the web at https://www.riichinomi.com. They are also active on Facebook, X/Twitter, Instagram and Discord.

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