Jackson Hole News&Guide, Price Chambers, Associated Press
Fran Spencer, left, Dottie Waters, and Margie Thomas are seen playing a game of mahjong at the Jackson Hole Senior Center in Jackson, Wyo., on Thursday, Jan. 5, 2012. The Chinese game uses small tiles and is thought to have derived from a Ming dynasty card game.

JACKSON HOLE, Wyo. — The stakes are small, but the players are passionate.

A tight group of four or more people — on Thursday all ladies in their 70s and 80s — gathers each week to play mahjong at the Senior Center of Jackson Hole.

The sessions usually last from 1 to 5 p.m., said Fran Spencer, 81, but the long days of summer have convinced the women to keep clacking the tiles for an extra hour.

"A couple of times, we played till 6 and called for pizza and beer," Spencer said.

The late Helen Sanders introduced the ancient Chinese game to Jackson Hole roughly three decades ago, Dine Dellenback, 75, said.

Mahjong is probably an ancestor of rummy and other tile or card matching games, according to game historians, but it's more complicated.

"There's a lot to learn," Spencer said. Players try to make runs of three consecutive numbers in the suits of wheels (or circles), bamboo and characters. There are also three dragons, four seasons, four directions, four prevailing winds and four flowers.

"You can only pick up a run from the person on your left," Spencer said, or by drawing tiles from a wall of them in the center of the table.

Scoring is complex, too, but when points are measured in pennies, a little change goes a long way. The players corral their coins in plastic cups.

"One day I lost one penny," Spencer said. "One day I won a couple of dollars."

Margie Thomas, 78, remembers giving away all her change once.

"One day I lost all my quarters," Thomas said. "I didn't have any for my laundry."

Thomas said she bought her set of mahjong tiles from Fern Nelson, who played into her 90s.

Dellenback said she remembers Nelson called the one bamboo tile "dirty bird."

Dottie Waters, 87, drew and then discarded a tile. "East wind."

Spencer followed. "South wind."

"Mahjong!" Dellenback said. She laid out four groups of three and a pair of bonus tiles. She collected 6 cents from each of the other players.

The women chatted about the health of friends and family members, accomplishments of grandchildren and the finer points of scoring a hand.

In China, people play the game "really fast," Dellenback said. The senior center game has caused no repetitive motion injuries that she's aware of, only injuries to "one's pride and pocketbook," she said.

The social aspect of the game is the draw for Thomas, she said. Another player told her "quit talking," she said. "But that's why I come over here. To visit."

Not Spencer. "I come to play," she said. "It requires a lot of concentration."

And the game is good for warding off dementia, Dellenback said.

"It keeps your mind going," she said.

Information from: Jackson Hole News And Guide, http://www.jhnewsandguide.com