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Guide to Playing Mahjong

Mahjong is a traditional Chinese game that began in the 1870s. Fifty years later, it spread to the United States and Great Britain.

Today mahjong continues to be a popular game worldwide. It can be a social game if you play it in person, but it has also spread to the online gaming industry.

There are hundreds of websites and apps that offer a variety of mahjong games. Many of them are free games that you can play for fun. But it’s possible to play mahjong online for real money, too.

We’re going to explain how you can play mahjong for money, as well as introduce several variations and offer a few strategy tips.

But, first, you need to know how to play mahjong!

Mahjong Rules and How to Play

Mahjong can seem very complicated, primarily because there are many different ways to score it. However, basic mahjong rules are quite simple.

All you need to understand is how the tiles are categorized, how to make melds, and how the scoring works. Then you’ll have the fundamental mahjong game rules down.

Mahjong Tiles

One of the things that makes mahjong such a unique game is that it uses engraved tiles instead of playing cards.

These tiles were initially carved into bone. Today, most of them are made of plastic. If you want to be extravagant, you can buy expensive mahjong tile sets made with ivory or jade.

There are 144 tiles in a standard mahjong set. But some arrangements include four or eight additional tiles that can be used as jokers or bonus tiles.

The tiles are divided into categories, which are similar to the suits of cards. Part of learning the rules for how to play mahjong is knowing which tiles go together.

It is easier to remember them in groups.

Suit Included Symbols Number of Tiles
Circles 1-9 Four sets of 9, 36 total
Bamboo 1-9 Four sets of 9, 36 total
Chinese Characters 1-9 Four sets of 9, 36 total
Winds N, S, E, W Four sets of 4, 16 total
Dragons Red, Green, White Four sets of 3, 12 total
Flowers Plum, Orchid, Chrysanthemum, Bamboo One of each, 4 total
Seasons Winter, Spring, Summer, Autumn One of each, 4 total

The circles, bamboo, and Chinese characters tiles are the main suits that make up most of the mahjong set. They represent 108 of the 144 tiles.

Winds, dragons, flowers, and seasons are considered special tiles. They are worth more points for your total score.

Because there is only one of each flower and season tile in the mahjong set, these are bonus tiles. You get bonus points for each of these tiles in your hand without having to use them in a meld.

Mahjong tile names and symbols.

Mahjong Melds or Hands

The objective of mahjong is to collect tiles in melds, which are similar to poker or gin rummy hands. If you collect the correct number of melds, you can get a mahjong and win the game.

Melds are groups of specific combinations of tiles. Each type of meld is worth so many points.

The stronger your melds, the faster you’ll accumulate points and get to declare mahjong before your opponents.

These are the meld options you can collect.

  • Pong: Three tiles of the same rank and same suit.
  • Chow: Three tiles of the same suit in consecutive rank.
  • Kong: Four tiles of the same rank and same suit.
  • Eye: A pair of identical tiles. The eye meld can only be used as the final piece in a mahjong.
The four melds in mahjong.

Basic Instructions for Mahjong

When the game begins, each player receives 13 tiles. When it is your turn, you will draw a tile. Then you will discard a tile, which ends your turn.

If you have a meld in your hand, you can keep it hidden until the end of the game. Concealed melds are worth more points.

You may pick up another player’s discarded tile to complete your meld. However, if you claim another person’s discard, you must immediately reveal the meld. This means it is worth fewer points.

Any time a player picks up a discarded tile from another player, they must also discard another tile.

After their discard, play resumes with the person to their right. This means that some players may miss a turn.

The first player to get a mahjong wins the round. A mahjong includes four melds with three tiles each and a pair. Players with a kong meld will have an extra tile in their mahjong.

Mahjong Scoring

Mahjong rules state that there are two ways for a round to end.

  • The tiles run out and none of the players have a mahjong. The game is considered a draw.
  • When a player gets a mahjong. They announce it and win the round.

There are many different ways to score the game. The scoring rules for mahjong depend on the variation you are playing.

According to the official Chinese version of mahjong rules, a player must have at least 8 points before declaring a mahjong.

Each meld has different point values.

  • Chows= 0 points
  • Four Chows= 2 points
  • Concealed Pungs= 4 points
  • Revealed Pungs= 2 points
  • Kongs= 2 points

Some game variations offer different point values depending on the rank of the tiles.

For example, pungs with ones or nines are considered a higher value than pungs with numbers between two and eight. If you play Hong Kong Mahjong, you can double your points based on specific patterns.

Special tiles, including dragons, winds, flowers, and seasons have their own set of rules in mahjong.

  • Pair of dragons= 2 points
  • Pair of winds that matches your seat or the round= 2 points
  • Flower or Season tiles are added as bonus points on top of your mahjong, which means you can get additional points, even if you only have one flower or one season tile.
  • Some games allow players to set their flower and season tiles aside at the beginning of the game and draw additional tiles.

There are additional scoring rules in mahjong that give extra points to the winner. Typically, the winner automatically gets 20 points, but they can get extra points for the following scenarios.

  • Make a mahjong without chows = 10 points
  • Winning by drawing a tile instead of picking up a discard = 2 points
  • Winning with the last tile dealt from the wall: 10 points

These are the most straightforward mahjong scoring rules. Once you grasp this system, you can try different versions with other scoring options.

Some scoring systems include additional melds that can be used to get more points. The American mahjong game has a list of meld combinations that change every year.

Those variations are fun and challenging, but it is crucial to understand the basics of mahjong first. Here is a resource with more rules for scoring mahjong melds for when you’re ready.

How to Play Online Mahjong for Real Money

Online mahjong

You can play mahjong online for real money or for free.

If you want to play mahjong for free, hundreds of websites are dedicated to free mahjong games.

Some websites only offer mahjong variations, while others offer a wide variety of skill games.

A few of the top online gambling sites allow you to play mahjong cash games.

But the most common multi-player format you can play online is a mahjong tournament.

Mahjong Tournament Scoring

Instead of tracking the overall number of points each player gets, tournament scoring is simpler.

Each player gets a number of points based on their place in the round.

Ranking for Each Round Number of Tournament Points Applied
Winner 4
2nd place 3
3rd place 2
Last place 1

The player with the highest number of tournament points at the end of a mahjong game will win the pot.

Mahjong tournaments typically have a specified number of rounds. Sixteen rounds is a common format because it gives each player the chance to be the dealer four times.

Depending on the tournament’s mahjong rules, the winner might take the entire pot, or they might offer second and third-place prizes.

In some tournaments, the losing players pay the winning players instead of dividing the pot.

Real money mahjong tournaments are a fun way to play mahjong. But, it is not quite the same as traditional gambling.

You are betting on the outcome of the whole game instead of betting on each hand as you do in blackjack, poker, or other casino games.

You will want to tailor your mahjong strategy accordingly. We’ll go over some strategies for playing mahjong shortly.

Mahjong Variations

Because mahjong is such a popular game, there are dozens of variations.

Here are a few of our favorite mahjong variations.

  • Ricchi Mahjong – This version of mahjong doesn’t use the flower or season tiles, and there are no jokers. There are additional bonus options, including a Dora tile and red fives. Players can declare ricchi when they only need one tile left to win.
  • Hong Kong Mahjong – This version is similar to traditional Chinese mahjong, but the scores are based on a specific paytable that includes doubles for specific combinations.
  • American mahjong – This mahjong variation includes eight jokers, allowing players to make melds with five and six tiles. It also includes a pre-game tile trading ritual known as the Charleston.
  • Mahjong Solitaire – Traditional mahjong is a four-player game. When you want to play by yourself, you can play mahjong solitaire. Instead of creating melds, you match pairs of tiles that are set up in a predetermined layout.
  • Japanese Solo Mahjong – This variation is a unique version that Playtech created specifically for online casinos. It allows players to compete against the dealer. The players receive thirteen tiles, but they are predetermined so that the player only needs one tile to get a mahjong. The player has three chances to choose the tile they need.
  • Mahjong Connect – This game is a variation of mahjong solitaire. It is a single-player game with the goal of matching pairs of tiles. However, the tiles are set up so that the tiles drop down to fill in the place of the tiles that were just matched. You have to be mindful of the matches and the tiles that come after them.

These are just a few variations of mahjong available. There are hundreds of variations that make it possible to play by yourself, or with two, three, or four players.

Online mahjong games have a lot more variety than traditional games. Many of them combine traditional mahjong with other games like solitaire to create mahjong solitaire.

The dozens of mahjong scoring systems create additional variations, too.

These scoring systems keep the game fresh and interesting, too, because you have to adapt your mahjong strategies for each one to win.

Strategies for Playing Mahjong

The basics of how to play mahjong is simple. But it can be challenging to remember everything while you are playing.

What’s more, mahjong games are known for moving fast. You may lose turns when other players collect a discard and struggle to keep track of their discards.

So, we have a few tips that can help.

First, we will explain a few mahjong strategies for beginners. And then we will offer a few tips any player can use to increase their odds of winning at mahjong. 

Memorize the Tiles

It is impossible to look for meld sequences if you are not sure which characters go together. That is especially difficult if you are not familiar with Chinese lettering.

You might want to invest in a mahjong tile set that includes Arabic numbers. These Arabic numbers are in addition to the traditional symbols on mahjong tiles.

That way, you can find the tiles you are looking for without also having to learn how to read traditional Chinese calligraphy.

Focus on Three-tile Combinations

You might be tempted to wait until you can get a kong in your hand to earn more points.

But, when you are first learning how to play mahjong, focusing on chows and pongs is a better strategy.

Three-tile meld combinations are the foundation of mahjong. Practice making those three-tile combinations until it becomes natural.

Remember that you can always add a fourth-tile when it becomes available. Just don’t make that your primary goal.

Think About Point Values

It is also a good idea to keep in mind that pongs are worth more points than chows are. Chows are only valuable when you have four of them to create a mahjong.

But creating pongs instead of chows can feel counter-intuitive, especially if you are a poker player.

In poker, a three-of-a-kind is a lower-ranking hand than a straight. A pong is the same as a three-of-a-kind, and chow is almost the same as a straight (even though it includes only three cards).

You might be tempted to focus on chows because they would be worth more in poker, but the hand rankings in mahjong games are different.

Beginner mahjong players will make fewer mistakes and get better faster if they memorize the different meld combinations and consider the point values for each.

We have also found that playing three-card poker games like Teen Patti can help remember how the hand rankings work in mahjong.

Gradually Work Your Way Through Scoring Systems

When you are first learning how to play mahjong, there are a lot of things to understand. It would be best if you kept the game scoring as straightforward as possible while you are learning.

The simplest way to score the game is to give the player that gets the first mahjong a point, and everyone else zero points. Tally the points so that the winner is the person who wins the most rounds.

After you have a better understanding of the game, you can use the scoring rules outlined above. They are the same as the Chinese Official Mahjong Competition rules.

From there, you can try more complicated mahjong scoring systems, like those for Hong Kong or Ricchi Mahjong.

Hide Your Melds

Keeping your melds concealed until you are ready to declare a mahjong will get you more points, so don’t reveal them unless you have to.

Beginner mahjong players often like to move their tiles around to see which melds they are working on efficiently. You can move your tiles around, but you should keep them all in a straight row.

Separating completed melds or putting some tiles to the side makes it easy for your opponents to see what you are working on, so they’ll adjust their mahjong strategy accordingly.

Keeping your tiles in a straight row makes you a tougher mahjong opponent to play.

Make A Plan, But Be Adaptable

After studying your mahjong tiles, you should have a good idea of which tiles you need to create a meld. Having a plan is essential, especially when you are playing with quick players.

You will want to make a plan for how you will use your tiles. That way, you know which discarded tiles you want to collect.

However, you should remember that collecting a discard requires you to show your melds to the other players. It is not always wise to collect a discard, especially if you can use the same tiles in another way.

That’s why it is just as important to be willing to change your plan when necessary. Remember that all of the tiles can be used in different ways.

If you are not getting the tiles you need, or the other players reveal a meld with the tiles you need, you will need to adapt.

Think Through Your Discards

It is tempting to discard any tile that doesn’t work in your hand, but that is not the wisest strategy. Instead, you need to pay attention to the tiles that your opponents are discarding.

When you pay attention to the discard pile, you will be more likely to find discards you need, but you can also prevent yourself from discarding into another player’s mahjong hand.

If you have multiple tiles that you can discard, it is better to discard the tile that is closest to other tiles that have already been discarded since you know your opponents won’t want them.

It’s tactics like this that will help you win at mahjong.

Learn to Play Mahjong Now

Learning how to play mahjong

Mahjong is an exciting and fast-paced game with several variations.

You can play mahjong online for free, but it is even more exhilarating when you have some money on the line.

Playing mahjong for real money is not quite the same as traditional gambling, but it is a skill game that you can use to add some variety to your online gaming repertoire.

The rules for playing mahjong are relatively straightforward. But it is a challenging game for beginners to learn because there are so many things to memorize and so many ways that you can score mahjong.

We hope that this page helped you understand how the basic rules for playing mahjong. We covered how the tiles are organized, the different meld combinations, and some strategy for mahjong.

If you found this page helpful, you might want to bookmark it so that you can come back and refresh yourself on the rules for mahjong whenever you need something clarified.

Good luck in all of your mahjong games, and have fun!

FAQ About Playing Mahjong

What Is the History of Mahjong?
A

Most historians agree that mahjong first appeared in Shanghai in the mid-to-late 1800s. It’s not clear who invented the game, though some people believe Confucius did.

Mahjong made its way to Europe in the early 1900s and the United States and UK in the 1920s. And the National Mah Jongg League was established in 1937.

Interest in mahjong comes and goes, but with it now available to play online, we expect that more and more people will start playing – including for money!

What Is the Object of Mahjong?
A

Your goal in mahjong is to create a mahjong before your opponents. A mahjong consists of a hand with four sets and one par.

You’ll also need a minimum of eight points before you can declare a mahjong (using standard rules). You earn those points by collecting different meld combinations.

How Long Does It Take Learn Mahjong?
A

How long did it take you to read this article – 10-15 minutes? That’s all the time it took to learn how to play mahjong and how the rules and scoring works.

All you need to do now is play one or two rounds to solidify what you learned. Time-wise, you’re looking at an afternoon or evening at most.

Can I Learn to Play Mahjong Online?
A

Yes. Learning how to play mahjong online is a great approach because you don’t have to worry about getting enough players together for a game. You can easily find enough players online.

Plus, you can play for free or play mahjong for real money online. Though, we suggest waiting until you understand the rules before you start playing for cash.

Can You Play Mahjong With Two Players?
A

Yes, and you don’t need to make any major changes to the rules for mahjong, either. Here are the biggest changes to the rules.

  • One player will play east, the other west.
  • No chows are allowed.
  • The East Win doesn’t pay or receive doubles.
  • The player who declares mahjong will receive the normal total score plus the difference between scores if their point total is less than their opponent’s.
Can You Play Mahjong By Yourself?
A

You can’t play a traditional mahjong game with only one person. But you can play a variant like mahjong solitaire.

What Is a Winning Hand in Mahjong?
A

This depends on the mahjong variation and scoring rules. The hand ends when someone declares a mahjong and has a completed 14-tile hand with four sets and a pair.

The person who achieved a mahjong will receive a point (per simple scoring rules for mahjong).

You can then tally up these points to determine who won the tournament or round of mahjong.