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SCH student creates modern app for ancient game of Mah Jongg

Zach Schapiro ’22 was growing impatient as he waited for his family members to figure out their next move in a game of Mah Jongg, when he realized there was something he could do to help: develop a Mah Jongg app.
Zach spent well over a year building an app called Mahjongg Accomplice (available in the App Store), which analyzes players’ tiles and suggests the top five hands they should play. The app allows players to select their risk comfort level, to save hands for review later on, and to play their “usual hands,” according to their preferences.

“I thought I knew how to play the game pretty well,” Zach said. “Selecting the right hand can be the most difficult part. I did a test where I would record how often I won with and without the app, and it made a pretty significant difference. It’s a great way for new players to learn the game and gain confidence with how they play.”

American Mah Jongg, which originated in China, is similar to gin rummy in that players pick up and discard tiles from other players or from the deck to get the best hand and the most points. The game uses up to 144 tiles with various Chinese characters and symbols. Zach first learned Mah Jongg when he was 7. The game has been enjoying a resurgence lately and has been popular among his extended family over several generations (including his grandmother who hails from Romania).
Zach, now a freshman at Springside Chestnut Hill Academy (SCH), started to develop his app in the Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership (CEL) Venture Incubator program when he was in 7th grade. The Venture Incubator is an extracurricular offering that supports students who are interested in bringing a venture idea to life. Former students in the CEL Venture Incubator have gone on to create products ranging from a babysitting service to a nutrition and exercise education program for underserved kids to a web platform that connects high school students in the college search process with undergraduates at their college of interest.

Dr. Vincent Day, program director for computer science and interactive technologies at SCH, served as Zach’s Venture Incubator mentor, helping him learn the basics of how to create an app, then tailor the app’s features and functionality to his preferences. “He has the ability and desire to go out and learn on his own, and that’s what makes for a good programmer,” Dr. Day said. Day added that Zach had to be creative, problem solve, and stay resilient—which are hallmarks of the school’s CEL program—in order to complete this project.

The two met once a week for an hour; Day also set Zach up with an external expert in app development for an hour per week, but he stressed that Zach was the number one person responsible for writing thousands of lines of code and spending over 1,000 hours working through bugs and various challenges.

When the Venture Incubator class ended, Zach continued working on Mahjongg Accomplice, and Zach’s app was accepted into the Apple app store right before the 2018-2019 school year started. To be accepted, he had to create a developer account, test the app, provide a USB version of it to Apple, and pass the company’s 2-3 day review. He is also working on getting the app into Google Play. Zach said he is always looking for ways to improve the app and has an email dedicated to suggestions:

In the few short months it has been available online, Mahjongg Accomplice has been downloaded by people from around the world: the United States, China, Japan, Germany, United Kingdom, and India. The app is free, but Zach is considering an in-app purchase for new annual cards that the National Mah Jongg League designs each spring.

“Whenever I see someone using it, even if I’m playing against them, I always feel happy when they win because of the app,” Zach said. “I think, oh I just lost to my own app. I didn’t really lose to them.”

Zach came to SCH in 5th grade, after attending private preschool and a few years of public school. Zach said that while many different things at SCH appealed to him, it was the CEL offerings and the robotics program that really drew him to the school. “These were two different areas that I had lots of interest in, and I have really enjoyed classes and extracurriculars in these two programs,” he said.

In addition to coding in CEL classes and his work in robotics, Zach is the current president of the chess team and is also involved in debate, science fairs, golf, tennis, and math competitions and also plays trumpet in the jazz band.