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Mahjong – An Exciting Combination of Skill and Luck

When we talk about most parlor and skill games, we typically describe rules using a standard deck of cards, a single game board, or even dominoes or dice. But Mahjong is in a category all its own.

The game of Mahjong uses a custom set of 144 tiles with Chinese meaning and symbols. Each tile is like a mini piece of artwork and is included in one of seven categories.

  • Circles
  • Bamboos
  • Characters
  • Winds
  • Dragons
  • Flowers
  • Seasons

Even though they bear little resemblance to playing cards, these tiles are used similarly. In fact, you could compare Mahjong to the game of rummy in that the objective is to get a Mahjong which consists of a particular combination of “rummy-like” hands with identical ranks and runs.

Have you ever been curious and wanted to learn more about the clicking tiles? Or perhaps you wanted to step out of your comfort zone from a traditional game of gin rummy? Even if you just want to try out a new game, read on, as we’re going to provide you with all the information you’ll need to get started with Mahjong.

Mahjong History

Mahjong made its way to the US and England in the 1920s and is quite popular in social circles, clubs, and casinos. But in China, it’s a part of everyday life.

As Mahjong is China’s national pastime, many gaming historians try to enhance its history and significance. You’ll read some accounts of Confucius inventing the game over 3,000 years ago, the main reason being that the dragon tiles align with his three noble virtues philosophy.

While we can’t unequivocally state that Mahjong was NOT invented by Confucius, the oldest Mahjong set only dates back to 1870.

Most historians would agree that the game first appeared in Shanghai in the mid to late 1800s. But while the history may not be as rich as some would like, there’s no doubt that Mahjong has played an essential role in Chinese culture.

It’s a community building game, and it’s not uncommon to see Mahjong tables set up outside or for family and friends to get together regularly for friendly competition. The game is played with four people at the table, but it draws a crowd and creates a sense of unity amongst neighbors.

Let’s take a look at how the game has evolved over the years.

Beyond China – 1905

The first global export of the game began at the turn of the 20th century where sets slowly started to make their way to Europe and the rest of the world.

As interest started to grow, businesses were there to meet the demand.

Into the United States – The 1920s

Two events are attributed to Mahjong’s acceptance and subsequent popularity in the United States in the ‘20s.

Abercrombie & Fitch imported the first Mahjong sets that were sold in their stores starting in 1920. Their supply was depleted quickly, especially within the Washington D.C. area. Store representatives were then sent to China to buy up as many additional sets as possible, and Abercrombie ended up distributing a total of 12,000.

At the same time, Joseph Park Babcock, upon returning from a trip to China, published a book of Mahjong rules, although he spelled it Mah-Jongg. Rules for Mah-Jongg (also called the red book) was a simplified version of gameplay written specifically so Americans could catch on quickly and easily.

The combination of the sets and the book of rules created a permanent place of Mahjong in the United States.

Mahjong in Britain – 1923

Not too far behind the US, England was next to experience this new and unique game. Players became so devoted to it that it even spread through British outposts in India.

While the British adaptation played today does have a few slight differences from the original Chinese version, in the 1920s, the Chinese version was opted for instead of the Americanized revamp.

Beyond the 1920s

Although the initial excitement waned a bit after the 1920s, the National Mah Jongg League was established in 1937 with American rules as the official guideline.

Like most games and hobbies, enthusiasm seems to come and go while a group of devotees remains loyal to their favorite game. In the US, New York has traditionally been the hub of Mahjong activity, and particularly women of Jewish descent are credited with not only keeping the game alive but its growing acceptance once again.

While the National Mah Jongg League started out with just 32 members in 1937, today it boasts over a half a million!

In 2010, Mahjong became Japan’s most popular game, but it’s played with three players as it is in South Korea and Southeast Asia as well. Slight variations depend on geographics. Some of the tiles vary, and scoring systems can be as simple as a point for a game or extremely complicated with long lists of point possibilities.

The game has continued to flourish in China. Many homes not only own sets but also custom tables. Today’s Mahjong table looks nothing like anything that the early players used. It seems futuristic because it’s automated with a mechanized shuffling system under the table, and tiles pop up from below, ready for the next game. The following video shows one in action.

Regardless of where it’s played or how it’s played, Mahjong retains its original elegance with custom tiles and rituals that make it exclusive and culturally significant.

Mahjong Tiles

The entire game centers around the tiles. Many of today’s sets are made of plastic, while the originals were bone. Rare and pricier options are ivory and jade. Regardless of the material, the symbols are typically engraved or pressed into the tile instead of being screened on the top.

Traditionally, there are 144 tiles in a Mahjong set. American sets have more because they add in eight jokers. There are two main categories of tiles: suits and specials.

Suits

The tiles are like playing cards as they have a “suit” as well as a “rank.” Each suit has four sets of nine with the ranking running consecutively from 1-9. For example, the circle suit has 36 tiles total.

They’re comprised of four sets of circles valued from 1-9. For example, you’ll have four circles all with the value of “one,” four with the value of “two,” and so on all the way up to nine. Here’s how the circle tiles look in a typical Mahjong set.

The circle tiles from a typical Mahjong set

The same principle applies to the bamboo suit and the characters suit.

Specials

The specials are divided up as honor tiles and bonus tiles.

Honor tiles have no rank, but as with the suits, they are divided into “sets,” as follows.

  • 16 wind tiles
  • 12 dragon tiles

Each set of wind tiles consists of four tiles. There are four sets of wind tiles, with each set consisting of one tile for each of the four main points of the compass (north, east, south, west). There are four sets of dragon tiles, with each set consisting of three different colors (red, green, white).

The bonus tiles consist of the following.

  • Four flower tiles
  • Four season tiles

The four flower tiles are plum, orchid, chrysanthemum, and bamboo. The four season tiles, as you’d imagine, are spring, summer, autumn, and winter.

In total, there are 144 tiles used in Mahjong. Here’s the full breakdown.

  • Circles: 36
  • Bamboos: 36
  • Characters: 36
  • Winds: 16
  • Dragons: 12
  • Flowers: 4
  • Seasons: 4

The original Chinese set did not include the flowers or seasons. In a current game, if a player draws one of those tiles, he or she puts it aside and re-draws. They’re used for bonus points only. A game scored relying exclusively on wins doesn’t need the flowers or seasons.

The American set would include the 144 tiles as outlined plus eight jokers. Some other regions use four jokers, making their sets total 148.

Mahjong Melds

If you’re used to playing rummy, particularly gin rummy, you’ll catch on to Mahjong quite quickly as the premise is similar.

A Mahjong

A player wins the game when he or she has a “Mahjong.” A Mahjong consists of the following.

  • 4 three-tile melds
  • 1 pair
  • 14 tiles total

It’s important to note that each player has 13 tiles at all times, but a Mahjong is made without a discarded tile. So, once you draw a tile that will complete your hand, you lay it down on the table. You won’t have to give one back.

The Melds

In Mahjong, winning sets and sequences are called melds, and there are only two types of melds in the game.

  • Identical tiles (e.g., three or four tiles that have “one circle” or “three bamboo sticks,” etc.)
  • Suited sequences (e.g., two circles, three circles, and four circles)

The melds break down as follows.

  • Pong (or sometimes called Pung): A set of three identical tiles
  • Kong: A set of four identical tiles
  • Chow: Three suited sequence tiles
  • Eye: The last pair to complete the Mahjong

For the traditional and straightforward game of Mahjong, those four combinations are all you need to know.

The American version adds two more with quints and sextets using jokers to complete the melds.

Setting up the Game

Unless you have one of those modern computerized tables that does all of the work for you, the setup is an important part of the game. There’s a certain way to set up the tiles as well as deal them out to each player. It’s part of the tradition and feng shui aspect of Mahjong.

When we discuss the setup and how to play information, we’re going to stick to the most fundamental game, the 144 tiles and basic rules and scoring.

If you’re reading the “how to play” info, the chances are that you’ve never played or that you’re a beginner. We want you to be excited about learning something new and developing your Mahjong skills, so we’re going to provide you with enough to get you going, but not too much as to overwhelm.

Determine the Dealer

The dealer for the first game is determined with a roll of the dice. The player who rolls the highest is the first dealer.

Gameplay in Mahjong rotates counterclockwise instead of the usual clockwise manner that most games use (in the US anyway).

Tiles on the Table

All 144 tiles are placed on the table, and players help the dealer to turn everything upside down. Then the tiles are mixed around as much as possible to ensure that there’s a fresh “deal.”

Once everything is set for a random selection, the wall is constructed. The wall is a square structure that’s 18 tiles wide on each side and two tiles high all around, for a total of 144.

The Deal

After the wall is built, a dice roll will determine the starting point, which is essentially the top of the deck if we equate the tiles to cards. Three dice are rolled, and the score will be in two parts: one is which wall will be used and the second is which part of the wall will be the starting section.

The dealer starts the process with his hand pulling four tiles from the left of the starting point. Players go around the table in a counterclockwise manner, taking four tiles at a time for three turns around the table. On the last round, each player takes only one piece.

If a player drew a bonus tile (a flower or season), then she needs to select another one from the next position on the wall.

Player Positions and Hands

Mahjong is played with four players each occupying one side of the table. The table is set up in directions — north, south, east, and west — and the dealer typically sits in the east position.

The deal will change hands in a counterclockwise direction, and after everyone has had a turn at the dealer position, the game may be completed. Some players play 16 rounds with everyone in each position four different times.

Players keep 13 tiles in their hands at all times. As a “Mahjong” requires 14 tiles, there is no discard when Mahjong is attained.

Playing the Game

Gameplay is a straightforward process of picking up a tile and discarding a tile with a few exceptions. Let’s start with the basic moves, though, as this is the typical type of play for each participant.

Everyone takes a turn, one at a time, going counterclockwise around the table. If you’ve ever seen some experienced players in action, you may think they’re all playing at once because they move so quickly, but it is a game of one by one interaction.

When it’s your turn, you’ll pick up a new tile from the wall and evaluate its worth within your hand. You’ll then either place it in the discard pile in the middle or keep it and get rid of a different one from your hand. You do need to maintain 13 at all times, including any tiles you may have exposed in a set or series.

Exception One: Claiming a Discard

If a player discards a tile and you can use it to complete a Pong or Kong (set of three or four), you can announce your completed hand and pick up the tile. Even though you typically keep your melds in your hand until you have a Mahjong, if you pick up a discard, you have to reveal your meld.

A player who uses a discard to complete a meld has to get rid of one tile from his or her hand. Then the game resumes with the player to the right. That may cause one or two players to lose a turn, but the order needs to stay consistent moving forward from the last play.

Now, if you are the player directly to the right of the one who just made the discard, meaning you’re next to act anyway, you can claim the discard for a Chow as well. A Chow is a suited sequence. The same rules apply where you need to discard and show your meld.

If there is more than one player who wants the discard, the following is the priority to claim it.

  • A “win” takes priority over Pong, Kong, and Chow
  • If two players both want the tile to get the win, the player to the right of the discarder takes it
  • Of the three hand possibilities, Pong and Kong would win over Chow

Exception Two: Playing a Kong

If a Mahjong consists of four melds and a pair and is comprised of 14 tiles, you may wonder how a Kong fits into the equation. A Kong is a set of four identical tiles, instead of the three that make up a Pong.

If a player decides to play a Kong, they will play the tile they picked up from the wall or discard and reveal the Kong. Then, they don’t make a discard yet. They’ll pick another tile and then give one back to keep 13 in play.

Completing the Game

In Hong Kong Mahjong, the game is played with four rounds. That means that each player will play 16 hands and will take the position of the dealer four times. If a Mahjong isn’t called and the tiles run out, the round is usually considered to be a draw.

Mahjong Scoring

When it comes to the game of Mahjong, there are more ways to score than there are game variations. You could play in China and still be subject to different systems depending on where you are and who is at the table with you.

You’ll find unique systems for cash games as opposed to tournaments. Some games have you accumulate points, and others provide a “score” to players, and then points are deducted for losses.

If you’re an absolute beginner, you may want to play at least a few games as naturally as possible. That would be that the winner of each game (i.e., the one who gets a Mahjong) gets the point, and the player with the most points is the overall winner.

The following is a simple scoring system that’s used by many players. It’s more streamlined and easier to follow. It’s implemented mainly in cash games where players are settling up with each other after each round.

Here are a few things to note about this particular scoring system. 

  • The player who gets a Mahjong doesn’t pay anything. Every other player pays him (or her)
  • The dealer is in a “double” position. If the dealer wins, she gets paid double. But if she loses, she pays out at double the regular stakes
  • If the dealer gets a Mahjong, she gets the benefit of the next deal as well
  • Often, players will set a game limit. That means that there’s a ceiling on the total points that can be won. It’s usually something like 500. The limit would only be reached if special hands came into play
  • In some melds, points are higher based on being concealed as opposed to being drawn from the discard pile. If you play your entire hand like gin rummy where everything is a secret shown to you only until you either come up with a Mahjong or the game ends, then you get double the points value for sets of threes

For the most part, you’ll be sticking with the basic melds and applying points accordingly.

  • Runs (sequences of three or more) = zero points
  • Sets of threes (from rank 2-8) = four points if concealed
  • Sets of threes (from rank 2-8) = two points if result is from the discard pile
  • Sets of threes (1s or 9s) = eight points if concealed
  • Sets of threes (1s or 9s) = four points if result is from the discard pile
  • Pair of dragons = two points
  • Pair of special winds (east wind or the wind that matches your position) = two points
  • No runs in hand = 10 points
  • Each flower or season = four points

Winner’s hand only:

  • Mahjong = 20 points
  • No Chows = 10 points
  • Winning with a drawn tile = 2 points
  • Winning with the last tile dealt from the wall = 10 points

Doubles* – Winner’s hand only:

  • Hand entirely of honors = limit
  • Hand of one suit with honors = one double
  • Hand of one suit without honors = three doubles

Doubles – All players:

  • Set of player’s wind = one double
  • All four flowers or seasons = three doubles
  • Set of any dragon or prevailing wind = one double

*The term “fan” is sometimes used for doubles.

Other Point Systems

There are numerous other point systems that you can adapt for your own game of Mahjong. Some can be as complicated as having to memorize 81 different combinations. It’s best to keep it simple at the beginning. You can also follow a cheat sheet next to you to help you make decisions according to better point values.

Keep in mind, though, if you’re playing with three other experienced players, the action will be fast-paced, so you’ll want to memorize as much as you can.

Strategy Tips for Beginners

Just reading about all of the different types of tiles and point systems, you now know that Mahjong is a simple concept at its very core.

But the symbols and the intricate combinations take the game to an entirely new level. Experienced players move so fast that you don’t even know whose turn it is as the tiles are click clicking constantly, and it’s like a blur as the pieces are shifting back and forth from the wall to the discard pile.

There is a learning curve, but it should be a gradual one. The best way to start with Mahjong is to learn the basics. You’ll want to know the circles, bamboos, and characters inside and out so you can quickly put combinations together. Then start memorizing the honor and bonus tiles. Stick with the basic three-tile runs and sequences at the beginning. Don’t worry about the Kongs until you’re more comfortable, as you can get away with playing three-card combinations for the time being.

A Mahjong is four melds and an eye, so it’s easier to stick with the simple three-tile combinations plus a pair.

It’s also advisable to play without the intricate point systems at first. Get used to putting together the tiles and knowing when to act and what to call out before you worry about the best way to rack up those points. You can play the game for one point to the winner with the traditional 16 rounds.

Then, you’ll have a much easier time calculating points. Just sitting down at a table can be intimidating at first, so ease yourself into the game.

The following are a few other tips that you may find helpful in your first few Mahjong experiences.

Keep your hand a secret

If you start separating out your tiles into groups, your competitors will have a good idea of where you stand with a Mahjong possibility. Yes, you should arrange your tiles accordingly, but don’t separate them into groups of two or three, or you’ll give too much away.

Plan your strategy

Study your hand in depth before you start making any moves. If you have a good feel for what tiles would help you complete your melds, you’ll be able to react faster and make the exchanges and discards without hesitation.

Be willing to change your strategy

It is important to have a general idea of what tiles you’re looking for to complete your melds. But you don’t want to limit yourself, either. If you are drawing tiles that lead you in a new direction, take a breath and study your new hand and adjust your strategy accordingly.

Grabbing a discard isn’t always wise

Remember, when you grab a discarded tile, you have to show your meld. That gives away information to the other players. It also narrows down your possibilities for the rest of the tiles in your hand. There are different ways to play each tile, so you want to keep your options open.

Pay attention to the discard pile

Tiles that are already in the discard pile are the keys to helping you decide on a safe discard. If you throw away something close to what’s already unused, your chances of helping out an opponent are much less than just randomly giving away any unwanted tile.

Work on your memorizing skills

The more that you know, the easier it’ll be to play the game. There’s a lot to learn in the game of Mahjong if you’re new to it. From the symbols to the combinations to the point system, everything is fresh and unique. You can keep a reference sheet next to you when you play, but you may find that it slows you down way too much. Try to memorize at least the basic tiles and then work your way up to the intricate combinations and opportunities to claim more points. Mahjong keeps your mind sharp as long as you do your homework.

D – A – D

Some Mahjong experts advise you to break up your gameplay into three sections. D is for develop, and it’s the beginning strategy. Develop a plan so you can be successful. A is for attack, and that’s to play offensively midway through a game. The second D is for defense, and that’s good advice for later in the game. You don’t want to let anyone else win. Watch your discards and choose wisely.

Mahjong Variations

As we mentioned in the previous section, the most significant difference between various games of Mahjong revolves around the method of scoring. Most games are quite similar, except for slight changes in the number of tiles, joker use, and minor rule differentiations. But the way that each game is scored is what makes it distinct.

The following are a few different ways to play Mahjong. But if you learn the traditional version, and then keep adding new combinations to the point system you use, you can advance your game accordingly.

American Mahjong

While the game of Mahjong is played pretty much the same in the West as it is in the East, American Mahjong does have two main additions.

  • Jokers
  • The Charleston

The American set uses 152 tiles, and when the wall is structured, it’s 19 double tiles across in each direction instead of 18. The additional eight tiles are all jokers that have been added.

The jokers allow for quints and sextets to be added to the list of melds. Quints are five of a kinds and sextets are six, and both involve jokers as Mahjong tiles are like playing cards and only include four of the same rank for each suit.

The Charleston has been a trademark of American Mahjong for nearly 100 years now. It’s a pre-game exchange of tiles that takes place immediately after the deal.

Players may either agree to one Charleston round or two. What happens is that each player will pass three unwanted tiles to the player on the right side. Then three more unwanted tiles are exchanged between opposite seated players. Lastly, each player passes three to the player on the left side so that an exchange has been made with all opponents.

In the Charleston, a player can make a blind pass as well. A blind pass is taking three of the newly given tiles and passing them to the next player without even looking at them. If you have a good hand in front of you, a blind pass would be a wise move.

The purpose of the Charleston is to build up a stronger hand before any of the gameplay even begins.

Mahjong Solitaire

Mahjong Solitaire is a fun game for one person, but it doesn’t really resemble the traditional game. It uses the tiles, but they’re all placed face-up on the table in different layouts depending on the player.

The most common structure is four rows high and at least 13 tiles across, but the fun of the game is designing new layouts.

Gameplay consists of pairing up matching tiles without disturbing any of the others. The object is to use all of the tiles and clear the board.

Online Mahjong

Mahjong has been themed, tweaked, and twisted into all kinds of varieties for online play. There are numerous sites dedicated solely to the game of Mahjong.

If you’re a traditionalist, you’ll have no problem finding a game. But if you enjoy the modernity that the internet provides, you may appreciate selections like Mahjong Connect, Mahjong Tower, or 3D Mahjong.

If you’ve never played before, website play may be beneficial so that you can learn the ropes. You can always practice online and then sit down at a table when you’re more comfortable with the tiles, the melds, and the strategy.

Most players say that the best way to learn the game is to just sit down and play it. Online Mahjong allows you to do that seven days a week, 24 hours a day.

Casino Mahjong

Mahjong is one of the most popular gambling games in China and Japan. In fact, there are an estimated 350 million Mahjong players in Asia. Some participate in cash games, and others play for the fun of it.

Mahjong parlors are prevalent, but they’re not set up like traditional casinos. You can rent tables and play with friends. While cash is being exchanged at many of them, it’s not a widely publicized service due to the gambling restrictions throughout parts of Asia.

Some online operators are starting to integrate some form of Mahjong into their casinos, though. Playtech, one of the prominent software companies, now offers two versions of casino Mahjong.

One is called Japanese Solo Mahjong, and it’s a game of player versus casino. You wouldn’t say that it stays true to the game, though. A player does receive 13 tiles, but the hand is set up to be just one tile away from a win. The player then has three chances to select the correct tile from a wall of 24 total.

Solo Mahjong is available at a number of online casinos.

If the choices are incorrect, the wager is lost. If one does result in a Mahjong, the payout is according to the value of the hand. The game also includes Seat and Quarter Wind indicators that could provide bonus prizes.

The second game is called WMF Solo Mahjong, and it’s played the same way, except this particular game also provides an Honor Streak Bonus.

If you’re looking for the actual game, you would need to head over to some of the dedicated Mahjong websites, but for real money wagering using tiles and the same scoring system, one of these games may appeal to you.

Mahjong Tournament Play and Organizations

You don’t need to be in China or Japan to be a part of a considerable Mahjong community. There are Mahjong clubs and organizations throughout the US and UK as well.

As the game has global appeal, there are international competitions like the World Mahjong Championship.

In Europe, tournament play has just exploded over the past ten years. The European Mahjong Association went from about six sanctioned events in 2006 to 66 in 2015.

American Mahjong has quite a few clubs and associations that promote the game as well as provide official competition. In October of 2018, Las Vegas was the site of the Annual Mah Jongg World Championship.

Tournaments aren’t landlocked, though. Destination Mah Jongg offers tournament cruises to Mexico, Alaska, and other locations. Or if you want to stick closer to home, you can find a local competition in 21 different states.

How to Stop Worrying and Love Mahjong

Of all of the skill-based games played around the world, Mahjong may have the most scoring combinations. Unlike some games like solitaire that offer hundreds of variations and each provide a much different gaming experience, changes to Mahjong are mainly within its point system.

If you’re interested in giving it a try, familiarize yourself with the different symbols and combinations and try to get your feet wet in a game with the least amount of point opportunities. The simpler the game, the easier you’ll be able to adapt. You can always enhance your knowledge along the way.

Mahjong has always been known as a game of social interaction and connectedness and can be a fun new hobby and way to get your friends or family members together on a regular basis. It’s fast-paced and competitive and provides just the right combination of strategy, skill, and luck.