Mahjong is a game that originated in China and dates back to over two thousand years ago to the court of the Chinese King of Wu. This is basically the same time that the Chinese philosopher, Confucius was alive and the game has often attributed to him. Mahjong is commonly played by four players but there are variations of the four player table version.
There is a single player online game known as Mahjong solitaire, which is completely different from the table game. Mahjong is a game of skill, strategy, calculation and a bit of luck. In Asia, mahjong is often played as a gambling game and today with the internet it is becoming more popular worldwide. Having wrestled with a reputation for being a hard-core gambling game during most of the 20th century, Mahjong has today established itself as a bonafide accepted international classic. In 1998 it was officially named China’s 255th sport and in 2002 the first World Mahjong Championship was held in Tokyo.
Due to the fact that there are many variations of mahjong we will look at the game from an International standpoint with rules set up by the World Mahjong Organization. This is the way in which you play in most online Mahjong games and tournaments.
In Mahjong, the four players sit at a table facing each other. The players are identified by the four cardinal directions: in counterclockwise order, East, South, West and North respectively.
Note that this does not correspond to the order on a compass!
Each deal begins by shuffling and arranging the 144 tiles in a square 2×18 tiles long on every side, called “the Wall”. Then each player draws (according to a certain ritual) 13 tiles each; the exception is the player in the East seat, who draws 14 tiles. When playing online this entire process is taken care of by the software.
Starting with East who must first discard one of their tiles, then in counterclockwise order take turns to pick tiles, either claiming the last one discarded by a previous player provided certain conditions are met, or drawing the next available one from the Wall. After picking a tile, the player must immediately discard a tile, after which it is the next player’s turn.
While picking and discarding, each player tries to exchange and arrange their tiles so as to form them into a mahjong hand which is four sets and a pair, or one of the special hands. The first player to accomplish this declares “Mahjong” upon which the game immediately stops. Note that a player declaring mahjong and thereby going out, does not discard a tile in that same turn!
The winning player is then paid by their opponents, according to the score for the hand: the more valuable the hand, the more points they gets. The other players do not exchange points between themselves, unlike in the Classical form of the game.
Mahjong is also playable with two or three players instead of four although in tournaments and International games they are generally played with four, following the same principles as above.
The Suit tiles
Bamboo, Character and Circles
There are four of each tile therefore there are 36 Bamboo tiles, 36 Character tiles and 36 Circles tiles for a total of 108 Suit tiles. The numbers 2-8 are often referred to as Simples and the 1’s and 9’s are called Terminals.
The Honour tiles
Winds and Dragons
The Winds tiles represent the four winds or cardinal directions, East, South, West, North. There are four of each for a total of 16 Winds tiles.
The Dragons tiles represent the Red Dragon, Green Dragon and White Dragon. There are four of each for a total of 12 Dragons tiles. There are a total of 28 Honour tiles.
Seasons and Flowers
The Seasons tiles represent 1-Spring, 2-Summer, 3-Autumn and 4-Winter
The Flowers tiles represent 1-Plum blossom, 2-Orchid, 3-Chrysanthemum and 4-Bamboo
The Bonus tiles are not used in game play but if drawn by a player they are set aside and another tile is drawn. This will increase the player’s score.
Picking The Seats
Players initially assume their seats randomly and they pick up a wind tile each. The tiles are then laid face down on the table. Then two tiles, one odd number and one even number, are taken and placed face up on either side of the shuffled wind tiles. The wind tiles are sandwiched between the numbered tiles. Now the two or sometimes three dice are thrown by a random player and the player indicated by the count on the dice is given the dice. This player throws the dice and if the count on the dice is odd he picks the wind tile first at the odd number end and then passes in a counter clockwise direction as the players pick the remaining tiles. If the dice count is even, then a tile is chosen from the even number end. The player who gets the East wind tile takes the respective seat and the remaining players take their seats in counter clockwise direction. When playing online Mahjong the software takes care of seating you and this part of the game is bypassed.
Building the Wall and Dealing the tiles
As soon as a new deal begins, the 144 tiles are shuffled and then arranged in a square: each side is 18 tiles long, and 2 tiles high. This arrangement is called The Wall.
The player in the East seat throws the dice to determine the spot where you Break the Wall and start drawing tiles. When playing Mahjong online this is automatically handled by the software.
Starting with East taking the first 4 tiles, each player eventually draws 13 tiles from the wall with the exception of the player in the East seat, who draws 14 tiles. Again, when playing online the entire process is automatically taken care of by the software. When the tiles are dealt, you will see your own tiles face up on the screen, while those of the other players are seen standing on edge and are hidden from you.
Note that you during the game will be drawing “normal” tiles from the Wall in clockwise fashion, but drawing any replacement tiles from the back end of the Wall. If the last tile has been drawn from the Wall without any player managing to go out, play stops and no scoring is made. This is called a washout or a dead hand.
Replacing the Bonus tiles
Each player now examines the tiles they have drawn at the start. In turn order counterclockwise, Starting with East and moving counterclockwise, the players now declare any Bonus tile or tiles they have, setting them aside face up, and drawing replacement tiles from the back end of the Wall.
If any new Bonus tiles are drawn when replacing, these are also set aside and further replacement tiles drawn. After this is completed, all players should have 13 tiles each in hand, with the exception of East who should have 14 tiles. Again, this procedure is handled automatically here by the software.
Basic Game Play
The East player always takes the first turn, by discarding any of the 14 tiles in their hand, face up within the area of the Wall. If none of the other players claims this tile, South now draws the next tile from the Wall and then discards any of his tiles in the same manner, followed by West, North, East again, and so on in counterclockwise order around the table, drawing and discarding each time in turn.
Note that the tiles from the Wall are drawn in clockwise fashion, while the turn order among the players goes counterclockwise!
The only time that you do not draw a tile from the Wall during your turn, is when you pick up another player’s recently discarded tile.
Claiming a tile for a Pong
If any of the other player’s discards a tile which you need to complete a pong, which is three identical tiles, you immediately say “Pong” and may then pick up this tile. Any players sitting between you and the person who discarded the tile, are skipped over in turn order.
You must then at once expose the set you claimed and put it on the table face up. This is called a meld. After this you then discard a tile, and the turn then passes to the next player counterclockwise. In this case one or two players may miss there turn. If no player claims a newly discarded tile, it is considered “dead”, remains face up on the table, and may not be claimed later in the game.
Claim a tile for a Kong
Claiming a tile for a Kong which is four identical tiles is performed exactly the same way as claiming a tile for a pong. The only difference is that the player claiming and exposing the Kong must then immediately draw a replacement tile from the back end of the Wall, Before discarding one of the tiles in their hand. This is because if you do not draw a replacement tile after putting down a kong, it is impossible to form four sets and a pair with the tiles you have left in hand.
Claiming a tile for a Chow
Claiming a tile for a Chow may Only be done by the next player in turn. West may only claim such a tile if it is discarded by South, North may only claim such a tile if it is discarded by West and so on around the table. Other than this, the procedure is the same as when claiming a tile for a pong and melding it. If completing a chow would also complete your mahjong hand, you may claim this tile no matter which of the other players discards it,just say Mahjong and pick up the tile for your hand!
Claiming a tile for a Pair
This may only be done on one condition. The player claiming the tile must be able to finish their mahjong hand and go out. Under no other circumstances can a player claim a discard to complete any pair needed in a mahjong hand.
If drawing a tile from the Wall completes a pong in your hand, or a chow, or if you are dealt such a set at the start of the game, it is considered concealed and you do not need to declare this set before you go out by achieving your mahjong hand: when this occurs, such sets are of course shown but still considered concealed, not exposed.
Keeping your opponents from knowing whatever combinations of tiles you have in hand during play is a tactical advantage! Any tiles in concealed sets in hand may of course be rearranged in new combinations, whenever you wish. However, already exposed sets may never be touched.
If you already have a concealed pong in hand, and draw the fourth identical tile from the Wall, you have a concealed kong. You declare this set by putting it on the table in that same turn. It is still considered concealed.
You must then immediately draw a replacement tile from the back end of the Wall, after which you discard a tile. It is then the next player’s turn. If you are dealt a concealed kong at the start of the game, you also declare it in the same way, and draw a replacement tile. Note that you are not required to declare a concealed kong! You may if you wish keep your concealed pong, and use the fourth identical tile in a chow instead.
If you have previously claimed a tile to complete a pong, having the exposed pong beside you on the table, and you later yourself draw the fourth identical tile from the Wall, you may add this tile to your exposed pong: this turns it into an exposed kong instead. Note that you may not claim this fourth tile to an already exposed pong, if it is discarded by another player! When drawing and adding the fourth identical tile, you must as with any declared kong draw a replacement tile from the back end of the Wall before discarding.
If you draw a Bonus tile during the game, you simply set it aside with your exposed sets, immediately draw a replacement tile from the back end of the Wall, and then discard a tile as usual. Note however that you actually are permitted to discard a Bonus tile, instead of adding it to your exposed sets! No other player may claim it. This is a desperate measure when playing defensive tactics in the endgame, and you are trying to prevent another player from going out.
Whenever you draw the last tile you need to complete your mahjong hand consisting of four sets and a pair or completing another recognized winning hand, you say Mahjong. Show the tiles you have in hand, marking concealed sets. You may also claim the last tile you need to complete your mahjong hand, regardless of whether for a pong, a chow, or the pair, or any other recognized winning hand, and regardless of which of the other players discards it, just call out Mahjong and take the discarded tile. As soon as a player calls out Mahjong, play stops and that player shows their entire hand. Note that when going out with a mahjong hand, you draw or claim a tile; but this is the only time you do not discard a tile during your move!
After each hand, even a washout, and regardless of who won, the seating positions rotate one step counterclockwise. The next hand now begins, in the same manner as above.
Once you understand the game try playing for money at one of the tables or play in a tournament and enjoy hours of fun with players from all over the world.