You can bet on itYou can bet on it

Elderly Jewish women accused of illegal gambling

Florida police shut down long-standing Mah Jongg game of women aged 87 to 95 thought to have violated a local ordinance

Renee Ghert-Zand is a reporter and feature writer for The Times of Israel.

'Playing Mah-Jong at the Clubhouse of the Century Village Retirement Community' by Flip Schulke (U.S. National Archives and Records Administration/Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)
'Playing Mah-Jong at the Clubhouse of the Century Village Retirement Community' by Flip Schulke (U.S. National Archives and Records Administration/Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Mah Jongg has long been a favorite pastime of Jewish women. Just ask Lee Delnick, Bernice Diamond, Helen Greenspan and Zelda King, who have a regular foursome at the Escondido Condominium clubhouse in Altamonte, Florida.

The women have always known that the game, which originated in China, is fun and interactive. But what they didn’t know until recently was that despite the abundant sunshine, their hobby could also be considered shady.

Imagine the group’s surprise when one of their recent games of Mah Jongg (also spelled Mahjong) was broken up by police officers who showed up at the clubhouse. The women were told to pack up their domino-style tiles and leave the premises.

When the women asked what the beef was, they were told that there was no problem with playing the Chinese game. It was the fact that they were gambling that had landed them into trouble.

Apparently, someone at the Escondido had reported to police that the women were illegally getting some action. That person referred to a local ordinance proscribing wagering on Mah Jongg.

According to Heritage Florida Jewish News, the women did as they were told, but they weren’t happy about it.

“This is ridiculous. We haven’t played in the clubhouse for weeks! We have to go to each other’s homes to play and not everyone lives in Escondido,” complained King.

“It is an international game and we are being crucified!” she added for dramatic effect.

For King, playing the game is not just something she wants. It’s something she needs. She told Heritage Florida Jewish News that there’s a medical issue involved. King was told by her neurologist that Mah Jongg is good for her health. It is apparently one of the best games for older people because it can delay and possibly prevent dementia.

Heritage Florida Jewish News did some investigating, and it turns out that, although the women were wagering on their games, they were not acting in contravention of a local statute dealing with penny-ante games. For instance, the winnings per round did not exceed $10, and the women were all well past the legal betting age of 18.

It’s also highly unlikely that the women were forcing one another to pay up on their debts. This is Mah Jongg in the common room, not the craps table in Vegas.

So why can’t a group of elderly Jewish women just have their fun?

As it turns out, they can. The group has been cleared to return to the clubhouse.

Whoever had snitched on a bunch of old ladies hadn’t really known the law. (The police, who reportedly returned to the clubhouse several times after their original visit to make sure the gambling Mah Jongg fanatics hadn’t snuck back in, also must not have been up on the specifics of Florida Gambling Laws, Statute 849.085.)

All’s well that ends well. The women and their tiles will reportedly be back at the table after Thanksgiving.

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