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Learn How to Play Mahjong: Ultimate Guide

The game of Mahjong consists of tiles and is played by four players. The Qing dynasty is credited for developing it, which spread across the globe by the early 20th century.

Known as Sparrow because of the clacking of the tiles that resembled the chattering of sparrows, its origins are unknown. However, one theory suggests that it’s an adaptation of an earlier card game called “madiao.” Depending on how you shuffle the tiles, locals have also referred to the game as “dry swimming.”

It’s a game of strategy, luck, and skill, and I’ll cover everything you need to know, from the basic rules to the gameplay.

What Is Mahjong?

The South China Morning Post reported that Mahjong, or Mah Jongg, originated more than 300 years ago in China. The game requires four players and is widely played in Asia and around the globe.

After being introduced to the United States around 1920 by Joseph P. Babcock, an American businessman who had lived in China, the game gained particular popularity. New York’s Abercrombie & Fitch was the first to sell Mahjong sets.

The game of Mahjong consists of 144 tiles, each displaying an illustration from one of five categories. Chinese symbols or characters are used in the illustrations.

Equipment Needed for Playing Mahjong

Before I explain how to play Mahjong, I’ll list the equipment you’ll need in the sections below.

Tiles

There are 144 tiles in a Mah Jong (Mahjong) set, usually 30 x 20 x 15mm. Plastic has replaced bone or ivory as a common material for these sets. Below, you can learn more about the types of tiles in Mahjong:

  • Four sets of nine circle tiles numbered 1-9.
  • Among the 36 tiles, nine are in each of four sets.
  • Each set of bamboo tiles contains 36 tiles numbered 1-9.
  • 1. A sparrow or rice bird often depicts one of the bamboos.
  • 2. Red and green bamboos represent 1, 5, 7, and 9.
  • 3. The other bamboo tiles are represented only by green bamboos.
  • Each of the four winds is represented by four tiles.
  • The tiles have 12 dragons:
  • Four Red dragons, which represent bright red characters.
  • Four Green dragons represent bright green characters.
  • Four White dragons, which represent completely blank tiles.
  • A capital letter ‘P’ is used to denote a white dragon, which stands for ‘Pai,’ which means pure or white.

Suits

A mahjong set has numbered tiles called suits. Namely, there are only three suits in Mahjong, bamboos, characters, and dots numbered 1 through 9. There are four tiles of each suit, making 108 tiles in all. Since suit tiles can be chowed, punched, konged, or paired, they offer the most flexibility.

Honors

The Wind suit is one of two honor suits. Each tile features a compass direction character — north, east, south, and west. In order to recognize and organize this suit, you must learn to read the cardinal direction characters in Chinese.

There are four sets with four tiles each. Therefore, there are 16 wind tiles in each game set.

Arrows, or dragons, are the other honor suit. Each set of arrow tiles has three tiles. As a result of ancient imperial exams, archery, and Confucius’ cardinal virtues, this trio has multiple meanings.

Seasons and Flowers

Flowers can be worn as an optional suit. Each tile has a picture of a flower and a number ranging from one to four. Interestingly, each region has its way of playing the flower suit. Flowers can be used as wild cards to complete tile combinations or as a Joker in card games. Moreover, you can earn extra points by using flowers.

As with the flower tiles, the seasons are associated with a specific wind:

  • Spring – East
  • Summer – South
  • Autumn – West
  • Winter – North

Even though each season has only one tile, all four-season tiles match.

Wild Card or Jokers

Joker tiles can be used in assembling a hand, but for example, you can use four jokers in Southeast Asian and Chinese mahjong variations, including Shanghainese mahjong. On the other hand, you can use eight jokers in American Mahjong.

Dice

To determine seating and wall breaking, dice are used. There are usually two to three dice in a typical set. Therefore, it would be sufficient to use any six-sided dice. There are, however, some differences between mahjong dice and normal board game dice, including rounded corners and red numbers one and four.

Score Cards

In Mahjong, hands range in difficulty from 1 to 88 points, and a simple sum is derived by adding the points from each hand. In order to win, Mahjong can be declared with a minimum of eight points in the official Chinese version. Using a scorecard, you can keep track of your score.

Wind indicators

Wind indicators display the current wind speed. Usually, it’s held by the east (dealer). American Mahjong is referred to as a bettor, as the fifth player bets on who will win.

Different sizes and shapes are available, but generally, the most common forms are a rotating cylinder, disc, or cube and its placeholder.

Scoring Sticks and Coins

There are many ways to play Mahjong, considering many elements such as points, cash, coins, or chips, but the most popular method is with scoring sticks, also known as ”bones”.

This set is ideal if you have a Mahjong set without scoring sticks or prefer to play with more sticks.

Racks and Pushers

Tiles are held in racks while pushers, also known as “extending arms” or “helping hands,” push the wall into place. Note that racks and pushers were traditionally separate. However, the modern set includes racks attached with pushers to make it more convenient.

How to Play Mahjong?

There are variations of the game in different regions, but the basic rules are the same:

  • Face the illustration down as you shuffle the tiles.
  • Dice are rolled, and the dealer gets the biggest roll, and the person to their right is the first to play.
  • The players choose 36 tiles and arrange them into two rows of 18 each.
  • After that, the “walls” are pushed forward, leaving a space on the table for discarded tiles.
  • As the players take turns, they draw thirteen tiles from the pool, or the dealer divides them.
  • When the first player draws a tile from the pool, he or she can keep it or discard it so that their total number remains 13. Then, this process is repeated in a circle by the players. After that, you can take a new tile or pick up one discarded by another player.
  • Pong or Kong melds are formed when a player discards a tile, regardless of their turn. Compared to a Chow meld formed when the player to your left discards a tile. Note that a meld made using a discarded tile has to be announced and displayed to the other Mahjong players.
  • The player with four melds, or suits, and a pair wins. The total number of tiles required is fourteen.

How to Read Score Cards?

Red, blue, or green numbers or letters represent the hands on a scorecard. Using different colors means using different suits since the colors aren’t specific to a particular suit. For example, there are no suits for flowers and zeros, which will always be blue.

1-9 In accordance with the tile’s specific number (excluding flowers)
N,S,E,W North, South, East, West
D Dragon
R Red Dragon
G Green Dragon
0 White Dragon (Soap)
F Flower

To organize the scorecard, you can use common patterns to categorize hands:

Year A year’s patterns, such as 2023. 2’s, 0’s, and 3’s would be used in such cases. The white dragon is always used as a zero.
2468 Patterns that require even numbered tiles.
Change-up This section varies
Quints A hand with at least one quint (5 identical tiles), at least one of which is a Joker.
Consecutive Runs Patterns of consecutive numbers.
13579 Patterns that require odd-numbered tiles.
Winds-Dragons Patterns requiring wind and dragon tiles.
369 Patterns using 3’s, 6’s, and 9’s.
Singles and Pairs Patterns with single and paired tiles.

There are several different combinations for each hand. It’s possible to find combinations with non-matching tiles, but most have at least two matching identical tiles.

 

Pair Two identical tiles.
Pung Three identical tiles.
Kong Four identical tiles.
Quint Five identical tiles, with the use of Jokers.
Sextet Six identical tiles, with the use of Jokers.

Each hand has a value for scoring or gambling. The hand is marked with an ‘X’ or ‘C,’ depending on whether it is exposed or concealed:

E Exposed
C Concealed

The Charleston (American Mahjong)

The “Charleston” sequences before the gameplay are one of the main differences between American-style Mahjong and other Mahjong styles. Charlestons are exchanges of tiles among players. By passing tiles to other Mahjong players during the Charleston, players can get rid of tiles they don’t want.

There are three stages to the Charleston:

  • The First Charleston (required)
  • The Second Charleston (optional)
  • The Courtesy Pass (optional)

Let’s examine each stage in more detail in the following sections.

First Charleston

You, as a player, must perform the first Charleston regardless of how many hands you have drawn from the wall. The step consists of three passes:

  • 1st pass — To the right of each player, three tiles are passed.
  • 2nd pass — Players pass three tiles to each other.
  • 3rd pass — It’s the responsibility of each player to pass three tiles to the player on the left. When you perform this step, you can choose to perform a “Blind Pass” by taking one, two, or three tiles and passing them to the player to your left.

Second Charleston

Performing the Second Charleston is optional and must be agreed upon by all players. Three passes are involved in this step:

  • 1st Pass – Each player passes three tiles to the player on their left.
  • 2nd pass – Players pass three tiles to each other.
  • 3rd pass – Players pass three tiles to their right. It is possible to perform a “Blind Pass” at this step.

Courtesy Pass

When the First Charleston and Second Charleston are completed, two players who sit across may want to perform one last pass. Depending on the lesser tile request, one, two, or three tiles can be passed. The courtesy pass won’t be completed between a player and the player if no tiles are exchanged.

When all Charleston steps have been completed, the game can begin.

Tips for Playing Mahjong

If you still wonder, “how do you play Mahjong?” don’t worry, as I will explain several things in the following sections, such as drawing and discarding tiles, calling tiles, rules of joker in Mahjong, how to end the game, and some common errors.

Discarding and Drawing Tiles

The excitement begins as players attempt to improve their hands. Since East has 14 tiles, it discards a tile when it starts the game. Unless a discarded tile is called (claimed by another player), the turn passes to the next player on the right.

Next, a tile is drawn from the wall. Next, the tiles are taken from where the walls were broken. Finally, when two tiles are high; otherwise, the bottom tile is picked.

In either case, the drawn tile can either be discarded or placed in the player’s hand and discarded similarly. Their names are announced upon discarded tiles being placed face up in the center of the table. It won’t take the other players long to figure out which kind of hand you want to build when you discard a tile.

The turn moves to the next player on the left if the next player does not call the discarded tile on the right. Drawing the card, discarding it, and continuing the turn is continued until an interruption occurs by a call.

Calling Tiles

During the play, any player may use the tile they just discarded if it completes either a pung, kong, quint, sextet, or some other exposed hand combination (the types of hands marked with an “X” on the scorecard).

  • When a hand consists of only one tile, it is not permitted to call one for it to be completed.
  • To complete the Mahjong hands, each tile must form a pair with the adjacent tile.
  • Those tiles discarded before the most recent update are called dead tiles.

If a player calls for a discarded tile, and that tile doesn’t result in Mahjong, the combination completed by that tile is exposed face up on top of rack and that combination cannot be changed for the rest of the game. Following the discarding of the tile, the player will discard a tile, and if no one else calls it, the turn will go to the player to the right. Some players’ turns may be skipped when a tile is called.

If several people call at the same time, provisions are made as follows:

  • Any tile a player calls to complete the mahjong hand trumps any tile called by any other player.
  • As long as none of the calls make sense in terms of completing a mahjong hand, the discard tile will be given to the nearest player to complete the hand.

You must draw all the tiles in your hand from the wall to hit a concealed hand (the hand with a “C” next to its value on the scorecard) that has been concealed. Except for the last one, which allows you to declare Mahjong, none of these things may be called tiles except for the last one.

Joker Mahjong Rules

In addition to tiles used in a pung, a kong, a quartet, and a sextet, jokers can replace any tile in any combination. As a result, you cannot use tiles for completing a pair or a single tile if you have one in hand.

It is possible to exchange the joker for a tile in an exposed combination when a joker is substituting a tile if you happen to have the tile that is being replaced:

  • Draw a tile from the wall as usual on your turn, or call for a discard before the turn.
  • Substitute the substitute joker for the actual matching tile. It is possible to exchange multiple matching tiles for the exposed jokers.
  • If you want your hand to remain populated with the right number of tiles, you must discard a tile.

As long as the joker creates a combination, you do not have to expose any tiles when you exchange for it. In addition, it is permissible to exchange jokers in dead hands (hands not in the game due to a rule violation).

How to End the Mahjong Game?

The game of Mahjong ends when a player declares that it has ended or when they have drawn all the tiles on the wall.

The game of Mahjong is created when the scorecard is filled in with tiles from the wall or tiles called from a discard. In addition, it may be added a tile from the wall. It is the player who declares “Mahjong” who wins the game.

To determine the payout to the winner is based on the value of the hand and the way that Mahjong has been created:

Type of Mahjong Payout
Mahjong made off a discard. Discarder pays double the hand’s value to the winner. Other players pay a single amount.
Mahjong made off a draw from the wall. Each player doubles the value of each hand.
There are no jokers in Mahjong, and it does not fall into the Singles and Pairs category. Winners of discarding hands are paid four times the hand’s value. Other players pay double.
A draw from the wall is used in Mahjong, which contains no jokers and is not categorized as Singles or Pairs. Four times the hand value is paid by each player.

Draw

As long as no Mahjong is called, all tiles from the wall have been collected, and the last discard has been made, b. The result of this is that no payouts are made as a result.

Mahjong Game Rules for Errors

Incorrect discards, incorrect exposures, and incorrect calls of Mahjong are some errors that can happen. In these types of situations, there may be penalties that have to be paid. As a general guideline, here are some general guidelines regarding errors:

Error Penalty
The table has been touched or announced by an accidentally discarded tile. Tile cannot be taken back.
A tile has been announced incorrectly. Tile cannot be claimed.
Tiles are called but not exposed. The call may be retracted.
An incorrect exposure has been made. The exposure may be corrected before discarding.
A player has too few or too many tiles. At the end of the game, the player’s hand is dead (out of the game), but the winner will receive the same payout as all the other players.
There are too few or too many tiles for three players. The game is replayed.
Based on the tiles exposed on a player’s rack, another discovers that the player’s hand is impossible. The player’s hand is dead.
Mahjong is declared incorrectly in this case, but the hand has not been exposed. No penalty, and the game continues.
Mahjong is declared incorrectly, and the hand is exposed. A player’s hand is dead. In this game, the player pays the winner.

Conclusion

Mahjong is an excellent way to learn about Chinese characters, culture, and tradition, keep your brain sharp, and, most importantly, have fun. Learn the different variations of this game, and design your strategy based on your knowledge of the different tiles.

Finally, if you’re planning on learning how to play Mahjong, consider all the tips I prepared for you, and stay focused on avoiding the mistakes listed in this article.

FAQ

How many players are in a game of Mahjong?

Three or four players can participate in the Mahjong game.

How many tiles are used per Mahjong game?

A Mahjong game requires 144 tiles and two dice. However, the way people play varies from country to country due to cultural differences.

How long does a game of Mahjong take?

Mahjong game can last around two hours.

Is Mahjong Chinese or Japanese?

Mahjong originated in China in 19th century.

How many Mahjong pieces do you start with?

There are many variations of Mahjong, but usually, a player starts with 13 tiles

Is Mahjong good for your brain?

It’s found effective in middle-aged and elderly people that playing Mahjong improved attention, logical thinking, and short-term memory.

Is Mahjong based on luck or skill?

Mahjong game is a game of skill and luck, 25% and 75%, respectively.

Is Mahjong difficult to learn?

It’s not the easiest game to master, but the basics of the game can be learned in no time.