If you have ever downloaded the Mahjongg Accomplice app, you should know that it was created by a ninth-grade student.
Zach Schapiro might be the first genius that Vincent Day, program director for computer science and interactive technologies at Springside Chestnut Hill Academy in Pennsylvania, has ever worked with.
“I quickly realized that Zach was really highly intelligent,” Day said.
Two years ago, Schapiro approached Day with a new project in mind: He wanted to create an app to make mahjong easier and more fun to play.
Mahjong, as many in the Jewish community know, is a game similar to gin rummy. Players are dealt a random selection of tiles and try to complete a hand through drawing and discarding tiles.
The app helps players make their moves in real life. It analyzes the tiles and recommends a few different hands. Players can choose their risk level, save hands to review later and play preferred “usual hands.”
Mahjongg Accomplice is available on the Apple App Store, and Schapiro is in the process of bringing the game to Google Play as well. So far, about 60 people from 10 different countries on four continents have downloaded the app.
Schapiro has found that a player is twice as likely to win with the app than without.
“Sometimes the phone will tell you something you didn’t even consider, and it turns out that was the right thing to do,” Schapiro said.
The teen has played mahjong with his family since he was 7 or 8 years old. In a kind of family tradition, he learned how to play from his mom, who learned the game from her mom.
“One of the most fun aspects about mahjong is that it’s a social game,” Schapiro said. “You can play it with family or with friends. You can relax. Each round takes about half an hour. … It’s not a game like chess, which I also like because of the strategy, but in chess you have to be thinking seriously the entire game. Mahjong is a lot more relaxed.”
One day, the Schapiro family had gotten together and started playing a game of mahjong. The game progressed slowly as family members took their time deliberating which hand to play. Schapiro started to wonder if there was a way to make the hand-selection part of the game go faster.
“It takes a while,” Schapiro said of the hand selection, “and you need to be accurate with your hand selection because otherwise you’re not going to do well in the part of the game that comes next.”
He began developing the app in seventh grade through his school’s Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership Venture Incubator program, an extracurricular option that allows students to develop a project with a mentor.
After the program ended, Day continued to help Schapiro develop the app.
“He’s not a mahjong player, so I couldn’t ask him something about mahjong, but if I explained to him what I was trying to find, he could help me program it,” Schapiro said. “I talked with him a lot of times over the past two years and meeting with him every so often to see how things are going. He played a very large role in the app development.”
Schapiro estimates he spent between 1,000 and 2,000 hours working on the app over the past two years. That’s more than 41 full days. He spent maybe about 500 hours programming, he said. The rest of that time was spent testing the app by playing mahjong.
“Programming is something that I find relaxing,” Schapiro said.
Day provided Schapiro with guidance and resources and helped him work through errors.
“He’s one of the nicest kids I’ve ever dealt with,” Day said. “I don’t want this to just seem like Zach is a genius kid, which I do think he is. He’s one of the nicest kids I’ve ever met in my entire life, in addition to his amazing talents.”
But, even after years of working with Schapiro to create the app, Day still doesn’t know how to play.
“The idea was Zach’s,” Day said. “He had the perseverance and the resilience and the mental attitude to really pull this through.”
Schapiro used the app in mahjong games with his family for about a year, he said, before it became available to the general public on the App Store.
He also took the app to a mahjong league during this testing period to introduce it to serious players and see how it fared. It was pretty successful, he said. The players tested out the app and offered him some suggestions. One was to give the option of a comfort level on the app because, they explained to him, some players like to go big or go home, while others prefer to play it safe.
Creating the app was sometimes an uphill battle. Schapiro’s mother, Donna, said there were times when he could have given up, but Schapiro persisted.
The app may be finished, but Zach is still keeping busy. He does robotics and chess; participates in science fairs, math tournaments and a debate league; plays sports; and is even building a plane, on top of his regular school work.
“It’s all fun to me,” Schapiro said. “You can’t be busy when it’s fun.” JN
This article originally appeared in the Jewish Exponent, a Jewish News-affiliated publication.