SIOUX CITY | Mary Beth Satterfield looks intensely at rows of tiles decorated with dragons, flowers and squiggly Chinese characters.

"They say mahjong is a game of luck and a game of concentration," says the 77-year-old retired nurse from Sioux City during a match at Western Iowa Tech Community College's Overlook Cafe. "Today, I don't seem to have either."

Satterfield is part of a group of mostly retired professional people who play mahjong -- a game originating in China -- every Thursday.

Usually played by four people at a table, mahjong uses 144 individual tiles. Each person gets 13. A player can draw or discard tiles until completing a legal hand. Satterfield said mahjong is similar to rummy, using tiles instead of cards.

"I started playing the game as a way to challenge my mind," she said. "What keeps me coming back is the social aspect of mahjong."

Satterfield learned about the game nearly two years ago from Liang Gates, a Changsha, China, native now living in Moville, Iowa.

Teaching a course titled "Mahjong for Beginners" with WITCC's Institute for Lifelong Learning for more than five years, Gates said Satterfield's experience is pretty common with her former students.

"Mahjong is as fun as it is addictive," she said. "But it's also sociable because you're always interacting with your fellow players."

For Colleen Goodwin, 64, of Sioux City, mahjong allowed her to meet an entirely new group of friends.

"Through this game, I've met nurses, lawyers, teachers, you name it," said Goodwin, a retired State of Iowa parole officer. "I've discovered we have some pretty lively mahjong players in the area."

Yet Goodwin admits the group isn't especially competitive.

"We don't play for money or even really keep score of who wins," she said.

Well, that isn't the case with Maury Rawe, a mahjong regular who racked up 12 consecutive wins one afternoon.

"Maury still mentions it whenever we play," said his wife, Nancy Rawe, 64, of Sioux City, a retired technology instructor. "Maury said he wasn't really trying too hard but he kept on getting good hands."

When her husband, a retired attorney, is out of town on business, she said she plays mahjong for up to three hours every Thursday.

"People can't believe how long we play the game but the time just flies by," said Rawe.

That's exactly what Gates wants the players -- many of whom are her former mahjong students -- to take away from the game. Many share family photos and stories between games.

"When a person gets older, it's easy to become isolated," Gates said. "Mahjong allow us to stay young, both mentally and spiritually."

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Food and Lifestyles reporter

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