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“Mah Jongg: The Art of the Game” will be released online and in major bookstores… (Supplied Photo)

CAMBRIDGE, N.Y. >> Local authors Ann Israel and Gregg Swain will launch their new book, “Mah Jongg: the Art of the Game,” today, Thursday, Nov. 12, with an event at 7 p.m. at Battenkill Books, 15 E. Main St.

The book signing, discussion and display are a part of the “Curiosity Forum” series that is sponsored by Battenkill Books, Hubbard Hall rural opera house and community arts center, as well as the Leslie Park Studio.

“We have all kinds of topics in our ‘Curiosity Forums,’ from art to history,” said Battenkill Books owner Connie Brooks. “They always attract people to drive from neighboring towns,” for interests in niche book genres.

A book about the game of Mah Jongg sounds extremely individualized, but might serve to the broader interests of those with a passion for art history.

Israel and Swain grew up with Mah Jongg, the four-person tile game that identifies with similarities to the game, “Rummy.” The two friends, Israel of Columbia County, New York, and Swain of Shaftsbury, Vermont, were intrigued by the art on an early-20th Century set of Mah Jongg tiles, so they did a little research to identify the intricate designs and symbols, as well as the history behind the game.

After the two ladies realized that there were not many, if any, records kept on the game’s origins, they set out to explore the history and imagery behind Mah Jongg tiles.

Swain was an art history major in college, and has a shared appreciation for art with Israel, which sparked interest in the project. Swain’s husband, Woody Swain, was a silent partner as the art director for the book published by Tuttle Publishing. Upstate New York photographer Michel Arnaud created the book’s imagery.

Three years in the making, “Mah Jongg: The Art of the Game” explores the antecedent to the 1850s Chinese strategy game. At first just a three-suit card game, Mah Jongg quickly developed into a bamboo or bone tile game.

Taking off in popularity, visiting Americans and Europeans discovered Mah Jongg years later, introducing a simplified version in 1917. Several different ways to play for different combinations of points sprouted out of the Western adoption of the game, which allowed the game to fall out of favor for a while.

Today, one could find tiles made out of everything from plastic, wood, to ceramic or glass, but many more aged and detailed tiles have a much more established history.

“It’s truly an underappreciated art form. So many sets are hiding in basements and attics, but people don’t even realize what they’ve got,” Gregg Swain said. “There were so many layers to this history, which made the writing process a lot of fun.”

Swain said the process was equally challenging, because most predated records were destroyed when Mah Jongg was made illegal in China during the country’s cultural revolution, possibly due to the game’s connection with gambling.

While Israel and the Swains were compiling all of their findings, the visual details and words inscribed on tiles of Mah Jongg sets could be decoded by learning about symbolism in Chinese art. Gregg Swain said she continues to learn new things , because many of the high-end tile sets are very unique.

From depictions of graphic war scenes, to landscapes, flowers and money, “many of the tiles are so stylized, you won’t even recognize them for what they are right away,” Swain said.

Pre-released copies of the book on Mah Jongg will be available at Battenkill Books the night of the forum, but the publisher release date is scheduled for Nov. 18, online and in most major bookstores. Visit the bookstore for an opportunity to meet the authors, have a book signed or to take a look at some Mah Jongg sets on display.