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In Character with Carol Chestler

A conversation with an interesting Portlander
by: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT Carol Chestler’s main game is Mah Jongg, but she’s not above a little word play. After all, what’s a game of Mahj without a little kibbutzing?

Southwest Portland resident Carol Chestler has been playing Mah Jongg for more than 50 years, and for the next couple of months, Chestler and friends will be playing as part of an exhibit at the Oregon Jewish Museum in Northwest Portland.

Played with tiles, Mah Jongg is known as a great game for kibitzing, so we thought we'd try our hand. At the kibitzing, not the Mah Jongg.

Portland Tribune: Did you ever think you'd become a performance artist?

Carol Chestler: I don't consider Mah Jongg to be a performance artist type of thing.

Tribune: What do you mean? You're going to be sitting at a table in a museum playing with friends and people will be walking by, watching you play.

Chestler: I guess you're right. I finally got on stage.

Tribune: Finally? Did you once have dreams?

Chestler: When I was a very little girl taking ballet and taps I had visions of being a performer on Broadway. But I gave that up at age 14 because it was more important to be a cheerleader.

Tribune: Looking back, good move?

Chestler: A very good move. Becoming a cheerleader was all about being involved in high school and making friends.

Tribune: And boys?

Chestler: A little bit.

Tribune: I don't suppose there's cheerleading in Mah Jongg.

Chestler: Yes there is. I play with a group of girlfriends, we're all in our 70s or 80s, and we have a paradox going.

Tribune: So two of the girls have their doctorates?

Chestler: No. We're playing against each other but we still cheer each other on when somebody makes a real good hand. Or if somebody hasn't mahjjed in three weeks.

Tribune: Is that a real word?

Chestler: No, I made it up. You don't say, 'I mah jongged.' You say, 'I mahjjed.'

Tribune: This is an ancient Chinese game. Are you sure you don't mean homaged?

Chestler: I don't think so, but I get your drift.

Tribune: So how did an ancient Chinese game come to be played mostly by Jewish women?

Chestler: My mother never played Mah Jongg but she had a lady's poker game every Monday afternoon. When it was her turn to have the poker game it was like, 'Don't mess with me.'

Tribune: So you and your girlfriends could be playing poker if you were following her example?

Chestler: Mah Jongg is much more interesting. It has an aesthetic to it. The tiles are beautiful, they're Chinese letters and numbers, they're colorful, there's clicking. It's challenging, but it's not stressful the way bridge is because you're playing for yourself. You don't have to worry about living up to your partner's expectations.

Tribune: Hard to learn?

Chestler: If you're a teenager and you're bright you can pick it up in about three sittings.

Tribune: What about if you're say, 57 and have a failing memory?

Chestler: You have quite a challenge ahead of you. About five years ago I started teaching my teenage granddaughters to play. They were having a little bit of trouble and being a little bit rebellious. They made up their own game and they called it Midge and they committed cardinal sins.

Tribune: Wait a minute. This is a Chinese game played by Jewish women and you're bringing the Catholic Church into play?

Chestler: When you try to put a joker into a pair that's a cardinal sin, I don't care what religion it is.