This year, however, was different. Maybe word has spread around better, or maybe the game is increasing fairly rapidly in popularity, but people were good this year. There were still a few players who really didn't seem to understand the entire defensive side to the game, but out of the fifteen people I played, and the nine of those who weren't from Cambridge, I'd say only one or two were noticeably not that great, and even those weren't hugely terrible. So pretty much the complete opposite of a year ago.
The day involved getting up at 4:45am and walking to the station in pissing rain, because we had to be in Guildford for around 8:30am, and trains between Cambridge and Guildford involve going through London and take forever. The journey there was reasonable enough, we arrived in good time and got registered, and chatted to a few people.
I can't remember a huge amount from my games, other than I felt I played fairly solidly. I missed out on a potential yakuman by taking a poor decision early into a hand, and I also lost out on a fairly big seven pairs hand from taking the wrong choice in a 50/50 decision on my waiting tile. I didn't really screw up much, but I didn't get a huge amount of luck either, so I alternated between fairly nice wins and small losses. I finished a respectable eighteenth, which I was fairly happy with.
On the whole the tournament did a decent job of being able to play some real-life mahjong (as opposed to online stuff) with players of a pretty decent calibre, which is all you're really going to get from a one-day tournament. My only real complaint is that five games isn't anywhere near enough for the skill to filter through properly, and I think that those at the very top of the rankings are there because they are good players, but also because they got a fair helping of luck through the day. I don't think anyone would really argue otherwise either - the winner himself said pretty much the same thing on the train back to London.
That said, I don't really think there's much that could be done. Mahjong is inherently fairly luck based, and while Riichi offers a fair amount of scope for skill to make a difference, if the flow of the game isn't in your favour then you're always going to struggle to make headway. Being the best poker player in the world won't help you much if the best cards you're going to get all day are a pair of sixes. Five games was also a pretty exhausting feat mentally, especially at the speed generally played during the tournament, and I doubt that there'd be any way to meaningfully expand the tournament to increase the role of skill without adding extra days.
What was nice to see was the appearance of other UK mahjong groups besides the Guildford and Cambridge strongholds from last year. There was a group from Leeds, and also a group that I already knew about from Warwick. It'd be awesome if some sort of Saki-style team tournament was possible in the future, and more groups like that are only going to increase the standard of play. I can't say it with complete confidence, but I'd say the people who were from groups that played regularly and took things moderately seriously were far better than the people who were there as individuals and presumably play primarily online. My only real disappointment on the team aspect of things was that in a table with three Cambridge guys (including myself) and one from Warwick (who hangs out in our IRC channel a fair bit), the Warwick player was the winner, although he was somewhat assisted by a fairly epic string of good hands as dealer at the start of the game.
So yeah, despite leaving my room at 5am and not getting back until a little past midnight (mostly due to train issues on the way back), it was a pretty good day. Looking forward to next year, and with rumours that the European Open may possibly be hosted in Cambridge in the near future, I'd be looking forward to that a fair amount as well. It'd be pretty good if there could be some sort of regular UK tournaments which were a bit more often than once a year, even if they were hosted on Tenhou or something, but I guess that's probably a way off yet. Still, good progress on last year's standard and nice to see things are going in the right direction.