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 wide variety of names in the West. Joseph Park Babcock, a U.S. oil company executive who had worked in China, intoduced it to the U.S. and played a part in developing the standardised U.S. rules presented in this article. 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 its existance before the late nineteenth century. It has been compared to many European games including bridge, dominoes and poker, but is different to all of them. Perhaps the card game it is most akin to is rummy.
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, bone or ivory, but nowadays are likely to be plastic.
A tile set is made up of the following (there are four of each tile, apart from the Special Honours of which there are one each) :-
- The Special Honours: Four Seasons (Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter) and four Flowers (Plum, Orchid, Chrysantheum 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 Objective of the Game
Each player has a hand consisting of 13 tiles1, and in their turn they will pick up one tile and either discard 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 tiles2 (known as a Pung) 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 go Mah Jong. These are 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, and the 'Calling Nine Tile Hand', which consists of three ones, three nines, a run from two to eight, all in the same suit, and any other tile belonging to that suit. Scores are calculated for each player after the hand. The play then goes on to a new hand.
Getting Ready to Play
Each player rolls the dice, whoever rolls the highest total becomes 'East Wind', and the other player take the wind corresponding to their seat. The player to the right of 'East Wind' becomes 'South Wind', the player opposite becomes 'West Wind', and the player to their left is 'North Wind'.
All the tiles, except the Special Honours, are now placed on the playing area, face downward, and shuffled thouroughly. Each player then takes 34 tiles and arranges them in a wall 17 tiles long3 and two tiles high. The four walls are then pushed together to form a hollow square, supposed 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 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 (continuing along to the next section of wall if neccessary), 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 with the face 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 tiles 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 the next tile from the wall.
If any player has 2 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 and play continues to their right.
If the player whose turn is next can use 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.
In the event of a player having 3 tiles identical to that another player discards they may take it, calling out 'Kong', then lay down the 4 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.
I n the event 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 go Mah Jong until they have done so and it will only score the same as a Pung if someone else goes Mah Jong before they have done so. They may place it 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.
Going 'Mah Jong'
The complete Mah Jong hand (including both exposed and concealed tiles) must consist of four Kongs, Pungs and/or Chows, and a pair of identical tiles. Two other hands also allow a player to complete a Mah Jong hand. These are as mentioned earlier the 'Thirteen Odd Majors' and the 'Calling Nine Tile Hand'. As soon as a player completes their hand they call 'Mah Jong' and all the players expose their hand for scoring. When putting down a concealed Pung the middle tile should be turned over to indicate it is concealed.
Whenever a player needs only one tile to complete their hand they are discribed as 'Calling' and may take that to tile as soon as it is discarded, whether it be for complete a Pung or Chow or to complete a pair, and take precedence over anyother player who might want it. A player who is calling may also take a tile drawn from the wall by another player and 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 another player draws and uses to complete a concealed Kong. If 2 players are 'Calling' at the same time, and want the same discarded tile, then the player whose turn to play 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 go Mah Jongg. A player who has declared a 'Standing Hand' and succeeds in going Mah Jong recieves a bonus to their score at the end of the hand.
The last 14 tiles in the wall, including Loose Tiles, may not be used and if no player has gone Mah Jong when only these remain the hand is invalid. It is not scored and a fresh hand is started, with the same player remaining as East Wind.
If a player should discover that their hand contains other than 13 tiles after discarding, or other than 14 tiles before discarding, in both cases excluding any extra tiles in Kongs, their hand is invalid and they may not go Mah Jong. They must continue to draw and discard at normal and at the end of the hand pay the other players their scores, without deducting their own score if they had too many tiles, but deducting their own score if they had too few tiles.
East Wind and the Wind of the Round
If East Wind goes Mah Jong they remain East Wind in the next hand and until somebody else goes Mah Jong. After another player succeeds in going Mah Jong the player who was South Wind becomes East Wind and so on
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 it 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 and 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:-
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. It's only function is to help complete a hand.
|2,3,4,5,6,7 or 8 of any suit||2||4|
|1 or 9 of any suit||4||8|
|Any Wind or Dragon||4||8|
|2,3,4,5,6,7 or 8 of any suit||8||16|
|1 or 9 of any suit||16||32|
|Any Wind or any Dragon||16||32|
|For the pair completing the hand|
|Pair of any Dragon||2|
|Pair of Player's own Wind||2|
|Pair of the Wind of the Round||2|
All other pairs do not score anything.
Each Special Honour in a hand scores 4 points.
The above scores apply to all hands.
These apply only to the hand of the player who went Mah Jong.
|For going Mah Jong||20|
|Winning piece drawn from the wall||2|
|Winning with only possible piece||2|
|Winning a 'Standing Hand'||100|
|For having no Chows in hand||10|
|For having no scoring value in hand||10|
|Winning with last piece from the Wall||10|
|Winning with a Loose Tile||10|
Once each player has calculated their score, and the player who went Mah Jong has added any applicable bonuses, the players should check to see if they are eligible to double their score.
The following apply to all hands:
|Pung or Kong in Player's own Wind||Double score once|
|Pung or Kong in the Wind of the Round||Double score once|
|Pung or Kong in any Dragon||Double score once|
|Player's own Season or Flower||Double score once|
|Set of four Seasons or four Flowers||Double score three times|
The following apply to the winner's hand only:
|Snatching a Kong to go Mah Jong||Double score once|
|Hand of one suit except for Winds and/or Dragons||Double score once|
|Hand of ones and nines with Winds and/or Dragons||Double score once|
|Hand entirely of one suit||Double score three times|
|Original Hand||Double score three times|
|Hand entirely Winds and Dragons||Double score three times|
Doubling of scores is cumulative as follows:
|Multiply score by|
You get the idea!
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
- Hand having Pungs or kongs of three Winds, pair of the other Wind, and any Chow, Pung or Kong
- Hand having Pungs or Kongs of all three Dragons
Limit hands for the player who went Mah Jong:
- Hand of all Winds and Dragons
- An original hand
- Hand winning with East Wind's first discard
- Hand of all ones and nines
- Hand of concealed Pungs or Kongs
- The Thirteen Odd Majors Hand
- The Calling Nine Tile Hand
- East Wind's thirteenth consecutive Mah Jong
Once the players have calculated their scores it is time to pay up. The player who went Mah Jong recieves their score from each of the other players. The other players then pay or recieve the difference between each others scores. East Wind always pays or recieves 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 rules especially scoring both in the West and China and 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 quote 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 Box.4
It was just like a game of rummy.
Some Tips on Tactics
Mah Jong is quite a simple game. The most important tactic to keep in mind is to go Mah Jong before someone else does. The person who goes Mah Jong always scores, although sometimes not a great deal. It is worth remembering that it is easier to go Mah Jong by collecting the 3 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 going Mah Jong before you.