What Exactly is Mahjong?

Mahjong is a game of Chinese origin dating from the mid/late 19th Century rather than from the mists of antiquity as some would have us believe. It was first popularised and played in the West in the 1920’s. It is widely played today in China, Japan and throughout the Far East, and there has in more recent years been a significant resurgence of interest throughout Europe where a thriving organisation (The European Mahjong Association) now oversees an active programme of events and competitions.

The game is played with tiles that are both beautiful and tactile. Mahjong bears no relation either to dominoes or, worse still, to the solitary pastime that stole its name and its elegant designs to create a pair matching/eliminating game now featured on so many of our computer screens. Rather, it is a truly absorbing strategic game for four players (sometime three) that has more in common with card games like canasta or rummy, but having significantly more depth and variety. It is, in a nutshell, a sophisticated and elegant card game that happens to be played with tiles rather than cards. Just like the very best strategic games, a game of mahjong involves attack and defence, requires the differentiation of fact and inference, balances perception and deception, offers reward for skill and assessment, but as with another of the world’s truly great games, poker, leavens all this with an element of chance.

The Club prides itself on providing a welcoming environment for both experienced players and ‘students of the game’ of all ages and stages of learning. The Club also runs induction courses from time to time at the Guildford Institute, as well as some teaching sessions on club nights.

How to Play

Simply stated, the aim of Mahjong is to outscore your opponents by completing winning hands composed of four groups of three and a pair. After the initial deal which gives thirteen tiles to each player, they draw in turn an additional (fourteenth) tile from the wall (see pictures) and unless that tile completes a winning hand, subsequently discard any one of the fourteen tiles now held. The process continues until one player is able to meet the winning criteria and claim ‘Mahjong’.  

The full rules of Riichi Mahjong (which we follow), published by the European Mahjong Association (EMA), are available here.

If you really know nothing about Mahjong there are many useful guides available on the internet such as the series of YouTube videos referenced at the bottom of this page

How to Score

We score each game on a paper scoresheet as shown. It caters for the possibility that we have five players in a game from time to time, rather than the usual four, and whereby each player sits out one hand by rotation.

We find that most people are able to score more accurately if they dispense with the ‘000 and score in decimals of ‘000 so 3,900 becomes 3.9.

The sample scoresheet, shown below, demonstrates most of the result outcomes for a single hand.

The winner of a hand collects his score from one, or all three opponents (depending on whether he wins by discard as in Hand No.1 or by self-draw as in Hand No. 3). He also collects all unsuccessful 1,000 point riichi bets. Each row of the scoresheet has to be in balance, of course.

In the event of a drawn game the riichi bets are held by the Riichi bank which can be only empty or positive. The Riichi Bank pays out to the next winner of a hand, as in Hand Nos. 3 and 8.

In a drawn game 3,000 points are transferred between the players – the hands that are one tile from completion receiving a share of 3,000 points paid out by those that are not (e.g. Hand Nos. 2 and 6).

After a hand that is drawn, or one that is won by East, a repeat counter is placed for the next hand. Each repeat counter increases the winning score of the subsequent hand by 300 points. Hand Nos. (2) 3,4 and (5) 6,7 and 8 illustrate this.

Finally, when the East and South rounds have been completed or the time limit is reached, the final scores are modified by the UMA – the prize for placing in the game. 1st place gains 15,000 points, 2nd place gains 5,000 points both of which are forfeited by the players in the last two places. The UMA prize is just one of the things that give an additional tactical dimension to the game.

Here is the blank of our scoresheet you can download:

Tips on having more fun…, and being more fun to play with 

What follows is intended to remind us all of many of the good things that we do as a matter of course when playing Mahjong, and also act as a reminder of the occasional opportunity for improvement in that department!

The Deal

  • Concentrate on the deal. (If you aren’t fully aware that it’s your turn to draw tiles in the initial deal, three people are waiting for you. Need to ask whose turn it is to draw? Eleven times out of ten, it’s you!)
  • Wait until the end of the deal to flip the Dora indicator (you are highly unlikely to be able do this and draw your tiles in tempo which can leave three people waiting while you flip the tile, split the dead wall, adjust its position – and just occasionally polish it for good measure!) Flipping the dora indicator is important work, but is best carried out when others are not delayed by the activity.
  • Always make your wall 17 tiles long by two tall. This enables the position indicated by the dice roll to be found more easily (sometimes counting from the far end. Which is quicker – ‘1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10,11,12’ or ‘2,4,6,8,10,12’ or ‘5 from the ‘other’ end’? Some players choose to mark off on their wall where 6 pairs falls – making all numbers much easier to find. Which is quicker ‘2,4,6,8,10’ or ‘6+4’?).
  • Help the scorer. (If you are ahead of the field in building your wall, then as a courtesy to the scorer, who is working and calculating on your behalf, how about starting to build his wall too, rather than be one of the three players waiting while he completes his important scoring task and then starts to build his wall).

The Shuffle

  • First turn tiles face down en bloc where possible e.g. the rows of six from your discards/all the closed ingredients of your hand/the remaining unused walls. (This is patently quicker than lobbing tiles randomly into the middle, then turning them over individually)
  • Help shuffle the tiles by gently moving on a couple of handfuls at a time to the person on your right, taking sensible attention to avoid re-turning too many tiles. (Having everyone move in the same direction avoids clashes of hands and gets the shuffling done efficiently. When three people participate in this way, even the most enthusiastic of tile shufflers will be readily satisfied that the mixing has been adequately completed. What is the fourth player up to at this time? Scoring – or joining in too!).

The Discard

  • Consider your likely next discard well before your next draw, and maybe even the one that will likely follow it too. (You can always change your mind if the draw is even less suitable to your hand, or makes an attractive addition to the discard you had planned! That’s where the second choice discard comes in!) In any case, try to make the discard before inserting a tile that you decide to retain in its ‘correct’ position in your hand. (Very few players collect a ‘tick’ all the time for this one – just try to be one of the less frequent offenders).

The Draw

  • Be aware when it’s your turn. If you need to ask……..
  • See under The Discard for best practice of the sequence of actions
  • Try to anticipate what you will do if you should draw a particular tile that might change your intentions for the hand. (This is another reason to think in terms of not just one discard, but a second one too.)
  • Equally try to think ahead of what you will do if a potentially attractive tile to your hand is discarded. (This speeds up your decision making, and also helps you by not revealing to other players your potential interest in the tile should you choose to reject the stealing option).

The Steal

The recommended procedure when picking up a discard is:

  1. Announce ‘chi’, ‘pon’, or ‘kan’ and show the relevant tiles from hand
  2. Discard
  3. Collect the tile to be stolen

This is one of the least disciplined manoeuvres in routine play. It’s only another version of being ready to discard, but this sequence saves the time taken while the stolen tile is placed in hand. The announcing part is important, quite apart from being part of ‘The Rules’. Failure to do so is the most common cause of a player being unaware of their turn when play is disrupted by a steal.

The Pause

All this might seem to suggest that you are not allowed any time for reflection and assessment during the play of a hand. Not so. Admittedly, mahjong is a fast game but everyone needs a pause from time to time to consider (a change of) strategy and/or to find a safe discard at a particularly dangerous point, and it is perfectly reasonable to do that from time to time. The operative phrase, of course, is ‘from time to time’. Think of all the above hints as not only helping the game to go with a swing, but also as building up some time ‘savings’ for the occasion when you need to pause and think.

If you have a perfect score on all these points, then beatification awaits you in the near future.

Any minor blemishes in your personal score should be seen as representing opportunity to be ‘even more fun to play with’!

A Video Tutorial on Riichi Mahjong

Below is a series of short YouTube videos that cover the basic aspects of Riichi Mahjong, from the different types of tiles to the flow of a game.

Types of Tiles

If you have access to Microsoft Excel, the spreadsheet available below will help you practice your tile recognition.

Shape of a Hand

Setting Up

Rotation of Winds

Flow of a Game

Calling Tiles