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How to Play Mah Jong

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A game of Mah Jong in progress - note the small white tiles on the table.

Mah Jong, meaning 'The Sparrows', is a popular game for four players both in China – where it originated – and around the world. It has been known by a variety of names in the West. Joseph Park Babcock, a US oil company executive who had worked in China, introduced it to the US and played a part in developing the standardised US rules that are presented in this Entry. There are many other versions of Mah Jong, the most important of which are 'Classical Chinese' and 'Hong Kong'. Often claimed to be thousands of years old, there is no definite proof of the game's existence before the late 19th Century. It has been compared to many European games, including bridge, dominoes and poker, but is different to all of them. The card game it is most akin to is probably rummy.

The Components

Although there are many optional extras, a Mah Jong set need only contain two dice, 144 tiles and the rules. The dice are just dice, the rules a cheaply printed booklet; it is the tiles that are at the heart of the game. Traditionally these would have been made of bamboo and bone or ivory, but nowadays are more likely to be plastic. A tile set is made up of the following1:

  • Special Honours: Four Seasons (Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter) and four Flowers (Plum, Orchid, Chrysanthemum and Bamboo).

  • The Honours: Four Winds (East, South, West and North) and three Dragons (Red, Green and White).

  • Circles: Numbered from one to nine.

  • Bamboos: Numbered from one to nine.

  • Characters: Numbered from one to nine.

Use of the Flowers and Seasons is optional; they can be omitted without any effect apart from a slight reduction in the part luck plays in the game.

The Object of the Game

Each player has a hand consisting of 13 tiles2. In their turn they will pick up one tile and discard either it or another from their hand. The aim is to assemble a hand of 14 tiles, consisting of four sets of three pieces, each set made up of either three identical tiles (known as a Pung)3 or a run of three tiles with consecutive numbers in the same suit (known as a Chow), and a pair of identical tiles. When a player gets a tile completing such a hand, they call out 'Mah Jong!' and the hand is over. There are two other hands that allow a player to declare Mah Jong. One of these is the hand of 'Thirteen Odd Majors', consisting of a one and a nine from each suit, one of each Wind, one of each Dragon and a tile that makes a pair with any of those 13 tiles. The other is the 'Calling Nine Tile Hand', which consists of three ones, three nines, a run from two to eight in the same suit and any other tile belonging to that suit. Scores are calculated for each player after the hand. Play then proceeds to a new hand.

Getting Ready to Play

Each player rolls the dice. Whoever rolls the highest total becomes 'East Wind' and the other players take the winds corresponding to their seats. The player to the right of 'East Wind' becomes 'South Wind', the player opposite becomes 'West Wind' and the player to the left of 'West Wind' is 'North Wind'.

All the tiles except the Special Honours are now placed on the playing area, face downward, and shuffled thoroughly. Each player then takes 34 tiles and arranges them in a wall 17 tiles long4 and two tiles high. The four walls are then pushed together to form a hollow square which is meant to represent a Chinese city wall.

East Wind now throws the dice to determine which section of the wall is to be breached. Treating the section in front of East Wind as one count to the right, East Wind counts in a circle around the four walls until the value of the throw is reached. The player whose section of the wall is to be breached now rolls the dice to determine where this will occur. Adding the number they have thrown to the number East Wind threw, they now count this total along the wall from the right-hand end, breaching the wall by removing the tile arrived at and the one beneath it. The latter tile is then placed on the wall to the right of the breach and the former is placed on the tile next but one to the right. These two tiles are known as 'Loose Tiles'.

East Wind now takes the first four tiles to the left of the breach in the wall, South Wind the next four, West Wind the next four, and North Wind the next four, the process being repeated until each player has 12 tiles. East Wind then takes the uppermost tiles of the next heap and the next heap but one, South Wind takes the bottom tile of the end heap, West Wind the top tile of the next heap, and North Wind the lower tile of the same heap.

Each player should now have 13 tiles – except East Wind, who should have 14. They should be arranged standing upright, faces towards the player, sorted into the various suits and honours in whatever way the player finds helpful.

Playing the Game

East Wind now commences by discarding one of their tiles and calling out the tile's name: 'East Wind', 'Seven Characters', etc. The play passes to the right, the next player having the option to either pick up the tile just discarded, if they can use it, to make a 'Chow' or to take the next tile from the wall.

The 'Pung'

If any player has two tiles that are identical to a just-discarded tile they may take it, calling out 'Pung'. They must then lay down the three identical tiles face up in front of them. The player who Punged must then discard a tile. Play continues to their right.

The 'Chow'

If the player whose turn is next can combine a discarded tile with two tiles in their hand to make a 'run' of three consecutive numbers in the same suit, they may take the discarded tile, call out 'Chow', and lay down the three tiles face up in front of them. They then discard a tile and play continues to their right, as above.

The 'Kong'

In the event of a player having three tiles identical to one that another player discards, they may take the discarded tile, calling out 'Kong' and laying the four identical tiles face up in front of them. Before play continues, the player who Konged takes the Loose Tile closest to the breach in the wall. This is an exception to the rule about the hand normally containing 13 tiles. If both the Loose Tiles are drawn, the pair of tiles next to the breach in the wall are placed on the wall in the same way as the original Loose Tiles. Once this is done, they discard a tile and play continues to their right.

Concealed Pungs and Chows

If a player has a Pung or Chow in their original hand or draws a piece from the wall that allows them to complete a Pung or Chow, this is kept in their hand and counts as a concealed Pung or Chow.

Turning a Pung into a Kong

If a player has an exposed Pung and draws the fourth identical tile from the wall, this may be added to the other three to make an exposed Kong. The player must draw a Loose Tile and discard a tile as usual. It is not permissable to take a discarded tile to turn an exposed Pung into a Kong.

In the event that a player is initially dealt a Kong or draws a piece from the wall that turns a concealed Pung into a Kong, it becomes a concealed Kong. It is up to the player when they place their concealed Kong on the table, but they cannot declare Mah Jong until they have done so. The Kong will only score the same as a Pung if someone else declares Mah Jong before they have done so. The player may place the Kong on the table whenever it is their turn and draw a Loose Tile. It should be marked as a concealed Kong by only turning over the first and fourth tiles.


If two players want the same discarded tile, one for a Pung or Kong, the other for a Chow, the player calling Pung or Kong has precedence and may take the tile.

Declaring 'Mah Jong'

As explained above, once a player completes their hand they call out 'Mah Jong!' and all the players must expose their hands for scoring. When putting down a concealed Pung, the middle tile should be turned over to indicate that it is concealed.


Whenever a player needs only one tile to complete their hand, they are described as 'Calling' and may take that tile as soon as it is discarded. They take precedence over anyother player who might want it. A player who is calling may also take a tile that another player has drawn from the wall and has used to convert an exposed Pung into an exposed Kong. This is known as 'snatching a Kong'. A player who is Calling may not take a tile that another player draws and uses to complete a concealed Kong, however. If two players are Calling at the same time and want the same discarded tile, then the player whose turn would come next takes the tile.

The 'Standing Hand'

If a player is Calling after they have drawn and discarded for the first time in that hand, they may declare a 'Standing Hand'. East Wind may declare a Standing Hand if they are Calling after their first discard. Once a player has declared a Standing Hand, they may not change any tiles already in their hand, but must discard each tile they draw from the wall until they draw or take the tile they need to declare Mah Jong. A player who has declared a Standing Hand and succeeds in declaring Mah Jong receives a bonus to their score at the end of the hand.

Invalid Hands

The last 14 tiles in the wall, including Loose Tiles, may not be used. If no player has declared Mah Jong when only these remain, the hand is 'Invalid'. It is not scored and a fresh hand is started. The same player remains East Wind.

If a player should discover that their hand does not contain 13 tiles after discarding or 14 tiles before discarding, their hand is invalid and they may not declare Mah Jong. They must continue to draw and discard as normal, paying the other players their scores at the end of the hand. They cannot deduct their own score if they had too many tiles, but should do so if they had too few tiles.

East Wind and the Wind of the Round

If East Wind declares Mah Jong they remain East Wind in the following hands, until someone else declares Mah Jong. After another player succeeds in declaring, the player who was South Wind becomes East Wind, etc.

East Wind is the Wind of the Round until each player has held and lost East Wind. As soon as a player who has previously held and lost East Wind holds East Wind again, South Wind becomes Wind of the Round. Once each player has held and lost East Wind for a second time, West Wind becomes Wind of the Round. Finally North Wind will become Wind of the Round.

Playing with the Special Honours

These consist of two sets of four tiles, usually numbered one to four. They should be matched to the players as follows:

East WindOneSpringPlum
South WindTwoSummerOrchid
West WindThreeAutumnChrysantheum
North WindFourWinterBamboo

When playing with the Special Honours, the walls are each built 18 tiles long instead of 17. If a player is dealt a Special Honour as part of their initial hand they should reveal it, face upwards. Starting with East Wind and continuing to the right as usual, each player draws a Loose Tile for every Special Honour they laid down. This is done before East Wind discards their first tile. If a player draws a Special Honour from the wall or as a Loose Tile, they should immediately reveal it and draw a Loose Tile before discarding. Like the fourth tile in a Kong, Special Honours will cause the players' hands to contain more than the usual 13 tiles after discarding.


A Chow has no scoring value. Its only function is to help complete a hand.

2,3,4,5,6,7 or 8 of any suit24
1 or 9 of any suit48
Any Wind or Dragon48
2,3,4,5,6,7 or 8 of any suit816
1 or 9 of any suit1632
Any Wind or any Dragon1632
The pair completing the hand: 
Pair of any Dragon2
Pair of Player's own Wind2
Pair of the Wind of the Round2

All other pairs do not score anything. Each Special Honour in a hand scores four points. The above scores apply to all hands.

Bonus Scores

These apply only to the player who won the hand:

For declaring Mah Jong20
Winning piece drawn from the wall2
Winning with only possible piece2
Winning a 'Standing Hand'100
For having no Chows in hand10
For having no scoring value in hand10
Winning with last piece from the Wall10
Winning with a Loose Tile10


Once each player has calculated their score, and the player who won has added any applicable bonuses, the players should check to see if they are eligible to double their score.

The following applies to all hands:

Pung or Kong in Player's own WindDouble score once
Pung or Kong in the Wind of the RoundDouble score once
Pung or Kong in any DragonDouble score once
Player's own Season or FlowerDouble score once
Set of four Seasons or four FlowersDouble score three times

The following applies to the winner's hand only:

Snatching a Kong to go Mah JongDouble score once
Hand of one suit except for Winds and/or DragonsDouble score once
Hand of ones and nines with Winds and/or DragonsDouble score once
Hand entirely of one suitDouble score three times
Original HandDouble score three times
Hand entirely Winds and DragonsDouble score three times

Doubling of scores is cumulative, as follows:

 Multiply score by
One double2
Two doubles4
Three doubles8
Four doubles16
Five doubles32
Six doubles64
Seven doubles128
Eight doubles256

You get the idea!

Limit Hands

Although rare, it is theoretically possible to score very high totals on a single hand, so it is normal practice to set a limit value on hands. A typical limit value would be 600 points. Some hands are automatically limit hands.

Limit hands for any player:

  • A hand having Pungs or Kongs of three Winds, a pair of the other Wind and any Chow, Pung or Kong.
  • A hand having Pungs or Kongs of all three Dragons.

Limit hands for the player who won the hand:

  • A hand of all Winds and Dragons.
  • An original hand.
  • A hand winning with East Wind's first discard.
  • A hand of all ones and nines.
  • A hand of concealed Pungs or Kongs.
  • The Thirteen Odd Majors Hand.
  • The Calling Nine Tile Hand.
  • East Wind's thirteenth consecutive Mah Jong.

Paying Up

Once the players have calculated their scores, it is time to pay up. The player who declared Mah Jong receives the value of their score from each of the other players. The other players then pay or receive the difference between each other's scores. East Wind always pays or receives double the usual amount. Of course, it is entirely up to the players (although best determined before the game begins) what points are worth or if the game is to be played for pure fun.

Rules and Playing Styles

There are many variations in the rules, especially in scoring, in both the West and China. It might be a good idea to check that everyone is agreed on the rules to be used if the players have not played together before. Perhaps more importantly, style of play can also vary immensely, as the following narrative from a Researcher illustrates:

My brother befriended some Chinese girls who were over here as students, so we invited them over for their first English Christmas. Their version of Mah Jong was a very simplistic, almost childish game, with none of the formality us Brits have adopted (or perhaps invented). The walls were not of any specific length. There were still four walls of two tiles high, but they did not bother joining them together and there was no Kong Box5. It was just like a game of rummy.

Some Tips on Tactics

Mah Jong is, once you get the hang of it, quite a simple game. The most important tactic to keep in mind is to declare Mah Jong before someone else does. The person who wins always scores, although sometimes not a great deal. It is worth remembering that it is easier to win by collecting the three suits, Circles, Bamboos and Characters, as they can be used for Pungs, Kongs or Chows – unlike the Winds and Dragons, which can only be used for Pungs or Kongs. The Winds and Dragons do have the potential to score a lot more, but this will be small consolation if your opponents are always declaring Mah Jong before you are.

1There are four of each tile, with the exception of the 'Special Honours' tiles – the set includes one of each of these.2Except when it doesn't. Exceptions to this rule will be explained later.3Sets of four identical tiles known as Kongs can also be collected.4If, as in certain exceptions, the Special Honours are used, each wall will be 18 tiles long.5The Kong Box consists of the first six rows of tiles to the right of the breach in the wall and the two Loose Tiles. They are sometimes separated from the rest of the wall as they are only used to provide Loose Tiles to players who get a Kong or Special Honour.

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