A game of Mahjong being played in Hangzhou, China
|Alternative Chinese name|
|Age range||4 years and older|
|Setup time||1-5 minutes|
|Playing time||Dependent on variation and/or house/tournament rules|
|Skill(s) required||Tactics, observation, memory, teamwork|
Mahjong ( listen (help·info)), also spelled majiang, mah jongg, and numerous other variants, is a game that originated in China. It is commonly played by 4 players (with some 3-player variations found in South Korea and Japan). The game and its regional variants are widely played throughout Eastern and South Eastern Asia and have a small following in Western countries. Similar to the Western card game rummy, Mahjong is a game of skill, strategy, and calculation and involves a degree of chance.
The game is played with a set of 144 tiles based on Chinese characters and symbols, although some regional variations use a different number of tiles. In most variations, each player begins by receiving 13 tiles. In turn players draw and discard tiles until they complete a legal hand using the 14th drawn tile to form 4 groups (melds) and a pair (head). There are fairly standard rules about how a piece is drawn, how a piece is stolen from another player and thus melded, the use of simples (numbered tiles) and honors (winds and dragons), the kinds of melds, and the order of dealing and play. However, there are many regional variations in the rules; in addition, the scoring system and the minimum hand necessary to win varies significantly based on the local rules being used.
- 1 Name
- 2 History
- 3 Old Hong Kong Mahjong
- 3.1 Game Pieces and Accessories
- 3.2 Choosing table positions and first dealer
- 3.3 Hands, rounds, and matches
- 3.4 Dealing tiles
- 3.5 Rules
- 3.6 Scoring
- 4 Variations
- 5 Competition
- 6 Superstitions
- 7 Unicode
- 8 See also
- 9 References
- 10 External links
In Chinese, the game was originally called 麻雀 (pinyin: máquè)—meaning sparrow—which is still the name most commonly used in some southern Chinese varieties such as Cantonese and Min Nan, as well as in Japanese. However, most Mandarin-speaking Chinese now call the game májiàng (麻將). In Northern Wu Chinese (Shanghainese and its relatives), it is pronounced as 麻將 [mo tsiaŋ], but in actuality, 麻將 is the diminutive form of 麻雀, written as 麻雀兒 [mo tsiaʔ ŋ], due to an erhua event. It is through the Wu Chinese pronunciation of 麻雀兒 that the diminutive form of 麻雀 in Northern Wu became known as 麻將 in both Mandarin and Wu.
Mahjong is based on draw-and-discard card games that were popular in 18th and 19th century China and some are still popular today. They were played with a stripped deck of money-suited cards. Each deck is divided into 3 suits of Cash or coins, Strings of cash, and Myriads of strings. There are 9 ranks in each suit. In addition, there are 3 wild cards: Red flower, White flower, and Old thousand. Depending on the game, there are multiple copies of each card.
Games scholar David Parlett has written that the Western card games Conquian and Rummy share a common origin with Mahjong. All these games involve players drawing and discarding tiles or cards to make melds. Khanhoo is an early example of such a game. The most likely ancestor to Mahjong was pènghú (碰和) which was played with 120 or 150 cards. During the late 19th century, pènghú was used interchangeably with máquè in both card and tile form.
It is not known when the conversion from cards to tiles took place precisely but it most likely occurred in the middle of the 19th century. The earliest surviving tile sets date to around 1870 and were acquired in Fuzhou, Shanghai, and Ningbo. These sets differ from modern ones in several ways. In the Glover sets, there were no "flower" and fā ("green dragon") tiles. In their place were "king" tiles for heaven, earth, man, and harmony and also for each of the 4 "winds" which may have acted as bonus tiles. In the contemporaneous Himly set, there were no zhōng ("red dragon") tiles either. Instead there were the wild cards known as Cash Flower, String Flower, and Myriad Flower plus an additional tile, the king of everything. These early jokers are still found in the Vietnamese and Thai sets. They may have been removed as the tiles share the same titles as the leaders of the Taiping Rebellion (1850-1864). For example, Hong Xiuquan was the self-styled "Heavenly King of Great Peace" and his top subordinates were called east king, south king, west king, and north king.
The ban on gambling after the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949 led to a decline in playing. The game itself was banned during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). Today, it is a favorite pastime in China and other Chinese-speaking communities.
Mahjong in the West
In 1895, British sinologist William Henry Wilkinson wrote a paper which mentioned a set of cards known in central China by the name of ma chioh, literally, hemp sparrow, which he maintained was the origin of the term Mahjong. He did not explain the dialect of the originator or region specific etymology of this information. By 1910, there were written accounts in many languages, including French and Japanese.
The game was imported to the United States in the 1920s. The first Mahjong sets sold in the U.S. were sold by Abercrombie & Fitch starting in 1920. It became a success in Washington, D.C., and the co-owner of the company, Ezra Fitch, sent emissaries to Chinese villages to buy every Mahjong set they could find. Abercrombie & Fitch sold a total of 12,000 Mahjong sets.
Also in 1920, Joseph Park Babcock published his book Rules of Mah-Jongg, also known as the "red book". This was the earliest version of Mahjong known in America. Babcock had learned Mahjong while living in China. His rules simplified the game to make it easier for Americans to take up, and his version was common through the Mahjong fad of the 1920s. Later, when the 1920s fad died out, many of Babcock's simplifications were abandoned.
The game has taken on a number of trademarked names, such as "Pung Chow" and the "Game of Thousand Intelligences". Mahjong nights in America often involved dressing and decorating rooms in Chinese style. Several hit songs were recorded during the Mahjong fad, most notably "Since Ma Is Playing Mah Jong" by Eddie Cantor.
Many variants of Mahjong developed during this period. By the 1930s, many revisions of the rules developed that were substantially different from Babcock's classical version (including some that were considered fundamentals in other variants, such as the notion of a standard hand). The most common form, which eventually became "American Mahjong", was most popular among Jewish women. Standardization came with the formation of the National Mah Jongg League (NMJL) in 1937, along with the first American Mahjong rulebook, Maajh: The American Version of the Ancient Chinese Game, written by NMJL's first president and co-founder, Viola L. Cecil.
Many consider the modern American version a Jewish remake, as many American Mahjong players are of Jewish descent. The NMJL was founded by Jewish players and is considered a Jewish organization. In 1986, the National Mah Jongg League conducted their first Mah Jongg Cruise Tournament, in conjunction with Mah Jongg Madness. In 2010, this large scale seagoing event hosted its 25th Silver Anniversary Cruise, with players from all over the States and Canada participating.
In 1999, a second organization was formed, the American Mah Jongg Association. The AMJA currently hosts tournaments all across North America, with their signature event being at the Trump Taj Mahal Casino Resort in Atlantic City, New Jersey.
British author Alan D. Millington revived the Chinese classical game of the 1920s with his book The Complete Book of Mah-jongg (1977). This handbook includes a formal rules set for the game.
There are many governing bodies which often host exhibition games and tournaments for modern and traditional Mahjong gaming.
Mahjong, as of 2010, is the most popular table game in Japan. As of 2008, there were approximately 7.6 million Mahjong players in Japan and an estimated 8,900 Mahjong parlors did ¥300 billion in sales. Many devotees there believe the game is losing popularity and have taken efforts to revive it. There are several manga and anime (e.g. Saki and Akagi) devoted to dramatic and comic situations involving Mahjong. Since the 1980s, hundreds of different Mahjong arcade machines in Japanese video arcades have been created, including strip versions. Newer units can connect with other arcade machines across the Internet.
Mahjong culture is still deeply ingrained in the Chinese community. Sam Hui wrote Cantopop songs using Mahjong as their themes, and Hong Kong movies have often included scenes of Mahjong games. Many gambling movies have been filmed in Hong Kong, and a recent subgenre is the Mahjong movie.
Prolonged playing of Mahjong may trigger epileptic seizures according to a 2007 study. To date there are 23 reported cases of Mahjong-induced seizures in the English medical literature. Some doctors speculate that this may be due to stress and complex manual movement correlated with intense brain function similar to playing chess or card games such as poker.
Studies by doctors have also shown in Hong Kong that the game is beneficial for individuals suffering from dementia or cognitive memory difficulties, leading to the development of Mahjong therapy.
Old Hong Kong Mahjong
Old Hong Kong Mahjong uses the same basic features and rules as the majority of the different variations of the game. This form of Mahjong starts with a large portion of the standardized tiles and has a relatively simple scoring system.
Game Pieces and Accessories
Hong Kong Mahjong is played with a set of Mahjong tiles (though cards may be used). Sets often include counters (to keep score), dice (to decide how to deal) and a marker to show who the dealer is and which round is being played. Some sets include racks to hold the tiles, especially if they are larger/smaller than standard tiles or have an odd shape.
A set of Mahjong tiles usually has at least 136 tiles (most commonly 144). Although, sets originating from the United States or Southeast Asia will probably have more. Mahjong tiles are split into 3 categories: Suits, Honors, and Bonuses.
There are 3 different groups of suits, numbered from 1 to 9. Ranks 2 to 8 are called "simple" tiles while 1s and 9s are called "terminal" tiles. They are: bamboos (also called bams or sticks), circles (also called wheels, stones or dots), and characters (also called numbers, thousands, coins, characks, myriads, cracks or wan) There are 4 identical copies of each suit tile totaling 108 suit tiles.
There are 2 different sets of Honors tiles: Winds and Dragons (called Arrows 箭 or Elemental 元 tiles in Chinese). The Winds are East, South, West and North. The Dragons are Red, Green and White. The white tiles are known as 白板 (bái ban, white board) and are occasionally depicted with a blue frame on its face. These were found in the earliest sets but most likely existed only as replacement tiles. The red character 中 (zhōng, center or middle) started off as a fifth Wind. The green character 發 (fā, wealth) represents 發財 (fā cái, get rich) entered the set by 1890. These tiles have no numerical sequence and each Honors tile has 4 copies in a standard Mahjong set. (i.e. 4 Green Dragon tiles and 4 East Wind tiles)
There are 2 sets of bonus tiles: Flowers and Seasons. The flower and season tiles are unique in the fact that each one has a different artistic rendering of a specific type of flower or season and that each design has only one tile in the whole set making a total of 4 flower tiles and 4 season tiles altogether. These tiles are not drawn into a player's hand but are set aside (kept near the player's other tiles for scoring purposes should they win the hand) when drawn and an extra tile is drawn in replacement of the bonus tile.
Choosing table positions and first dealer
The dealer is chosen by various means, either by throwing dice (the highest total takes the east wind), by placing one of each wind face down and having each player randomly select one of these tiles or other house rule variations. Each player sits down at their respective position (called the wind position) at the table in positions of an inverted compass: East is dealer, the right of the dealer is South, across is West and the left is North. The order essentially is counter-clockwise.
Hands, rounds, and matches
A match consists of 4 rounds, each representing a "prevailing wind," starting with East. Once the first round is completed, a second round begins with South as the prevailing wind, and so on. Wind position is significant in that it affects the scoring of the game. A Mahjong set with Winds in play will usually include a separate prevailing wind marker (typically a die marked with the Wind characters in a holder).
In each round at least 4 hands are played, with each player taking the position of dealer. In the first hand of each round, player 1 (winner of the dice toss) is East and therefore dealer. In the second hand player 2 takes the East position, shifting the seat winds amongst the players counterclockwise (though players don't physically move their chairs). This continues until all 4 players have been East (dealer). A marker is used to mark which player is East and often the round number. (In sets with racks, a rack may be marked differently to denote the dealer.)
Whenever a player in the East position (dealer) wins a hand, or if there is no winner (a draw or "goulash hand"), an extra hand is played with the same seating positions and prevailing wind as in the previous hand. This means that a match may potentially have no limit to the number of hands played (though some players will set a limit of 3 consecutive hands allowed with the same seat positions and prevailing wind).
Example of Games:
|Hand Number||Prevailing Wind||Player 1||Player 2||Player 3||Player 4||Comment|
|7||South||West||North||East (dealer)||South||no one wins (goulash)|
|extra hand||South||West||North||East (dealer)||South||(repeat of seat positions)|
|15||North||West||North||East (dealer)||South||(east wins hand)|
|extra hand||North||West||North||East (dealer)||South||(repeat of seat positions)|
All tiles are placed face down on the table and are shuffled. By convention all players should participate in shuffling using both hands moving the pieces around the table, loudly, for a lengthy period. There is no fixed rule on how to deal or how to treat tiles which flip over during shuffle, though possible solutions include turning back over the pieces at the moment they are seen, turning over all revealed pieces at intervals or doing so at the end of the shuffling and forming of the wall.
Each player then stacks a row of 18 tiles 2 tiles high in front of them (for a total of 36 tiles). Players then push each side of their tiles together to form a square wall.
The dealer throws 3 dice and sums up the total. Counting counterclockwise so that the dealer is 1 (or 5, 9, 13, 17), so that south is 2 (or 6, 10, 14, 18), etc., a player's quarter of the wall is chosen. Using the same total on the dice, the player then counts the stacks of tiles from right to left. Starting from the left of the stacks counted, the dealer takes 4 tiles to himself, and players in counterclockwise order take blocks of 4 tiles until all players have 12 tiles, so that the stacks decrease clockwise. Each player then takes one last tile to make a 13-tile hand. Dealing does not have to be this formal and may be done quite differently based on house rules.
Each player now sets aside any Flowers or Seasons they may have drawn and takes replacement piece(s) from the wall.
The dealer takes the next piece from the wall, adds it to his hand. If this does not complete a legal hand, he then discards a piece (throwing it into the middle of the wall with no particular order in mind).
Each player takes a turn picking up a tile from the wall and then discarding a tile by throwing it into the center and, if desired, announcing out loud what the piece is. Play continues this way until one player has a legal winning hand and calls out Mahjong while revealing their hand. There are 4 different ways that this order of play can be interrupted.
During play, the number of tiles maintained by each player should always be thirteen tiles (meaning in each turn a tile must be picked up and another discarded). Not included in the count of thirteen tiles are Flowers and Seasons set to the side and the 4th added piece of a Kong. If a player is seen to have more or less than thirteen tiles in their hand outside of their turn they are penalised.
A winning hand consists of 14 tiles (the thirteen tiles in the hand plus the additional tile picked up from the wall or stolen when a player discards a tile needed to complete a hand). The first is called winning from the wall, the second is called winning by a discard.
The winning hand is made of 4 melds (a specific pattern of 3 pieces) and the eyes (a pair of 2 identical pieces). The exception to this rule are the special hands listed below.
Most players play with a table minimum, meaning a winning hand must score a minimum number of points (which can be seen in the scoring section). In Hong Kong Mahjong the most common point set is 3.
- Pong (Chinese: 碰, Japanese: ポン) is a set of 3 identical tiles. For example:
You may form a Pong with any tile (except Flowers or Seasons because they are bonus tiles which are set aside and there are not 3 identical bonus tiles). The tiles must be identical (you cannot mix suits).
- Kong (Chinese: 槓, Japanese: カン) is a set of 4 identical tiles. For example:
Consider a Kong the same as a Pong/ Pung with an additional tile to make a set of 4. There are 3 ways to form a Kong.
- Before discarding a player who has all 4 matching tiles in their hand may declare a Kong. They do so by revealing the meld and placing 2 pieces in the middle face up and 2 pieces on the ends face down. This is called a concealed or hidden Kong (Chinese: 暗槓, Japanese: アンカン).
- If a player can use a discarded tile to compliment 3 matching tiles in their hand, they can take the piece and reveal a "Kong by discard" or "melded Kong". The player reveals his 3 pieces face up and places the stolen discard on top of the middle tile.
- If a player has already stolen (melded) a piece to make a Pong and then later in the game draws the 4th piece from the wall, he or she may announce (then or later in the game) a Kong by placing the 4th tile on top of the middle piece of the melded Pong. If a Pong has been melded a player cannot steal the 4th piece if another player discards it.
Whenever a Kong is formed, that player must draw an extra tile from the end of the wall and then discard a tile. The 4th piece of the Kong (not Flowers/Seasons) is not considered as one of the 13 tiles a player must always have in their hand. Kongs are worth collecting to score more points and/or deprive opponents of obtaining specific tiles.
- Chow (Chinese: 吃 (Mandarin, Minnan)/上 (Cantonese), Japanese: チー) is a meld of 3 suited tiles in sequence. For example:
The meld must be in absolute numerical sequence. Players cannot skip numbers or meld from the 8 or 9 to 1 or 2. The sequence must also be in the same suit. Honors, Flowers and Seasons cannot be used to make chows because they have no numerical value. A player can steal a discard to form a chow from the player whose turn was immediately before theirs if no one else needs the tile to make Pongs/Pungs, Kongs or win (go Mahjong).
- Eyes (also known as a pair) are 2 identical tiles which are an essential part of a legal winning hand. A piece cannot be stolen (melded) to form a pair of eyes unless the player simultaneously completes a legal winning hand.
Interruption of play
Flower or Season
Whenever a player draws a flower or season, it is announced and then placed to the side (it is not considered a part of the hand but the player with the winning hand will earn a bonus point for them) and the last tile of the wall is drawn as a replacement tile so that the player has the 14 pieces needed before their discard. This may happen successively in a player's turn.
Melding another player's discard
When a player discards a tile, other players may steal the tile to complete a meld. Stealing tiles has both advantages (quickly forming a winning hand and scoring extra points) and disadvantages such as revealing part of ones hand to other players and not being able to change the meld once declared.
When a meld (Pong, Kong or Chow) is declared through a discard, the player must state the type of meld to be declared and place the meld face up. The player must then discard a tile, and play continues to the right. If the player who melds a discard is not directly after the discarder (in order of play), one or 2 players essentially miss their turn as play continues to the player after the one who declared the meld.
When 2 or more players call for a discarded tile, a player taking the tile to win the hand has precedence over all others. Otherwise a player who can form a Pong or Kong takes precedence over a player who claims a Chow. Players may only call for a Chow from the discard of the player immediately prior to them, unless the tile is the final one required to complete the hand, but may call for a Pong or Kong from any player. A player may also take the tile to win the hand from any other player.
If at any point in the game a player can use another player's discard to complete a legal hand (and with the agreed minimum points), they yell out Mahjong (Chinese: 和, Japanese: ロン), take the piece and reveal their hand, with the way of calling it out depending on variations. This ends the hand, and scoring commences. If 2 or 3 players need the piece to win, there are 2 ways to resolve the issue depending on agreed table rules: Either the players compete to see who would have a better hand in terms of scoring, or simply the player closest to the discarder in order of turn wins the game.
Alternatively, a player may also win by drawing the tile required to complete a legal hand on his turn (Chinese: 自摸, Japanese: ツモ). This usually results in more points scored than if the player were to use another player's discard.
Extra points are also scored if the dealer draws a winning hand right at the beginning of the game (Chinese: 天和), or if another player uses the dealer's first discard to complete a winning hand (Chinese: 地和).
Robbing a Kong
A rarely occurring and high scoring feature of Hong Kong Mahjong is a move called robbing the Kong. If a player declares a Kong (by melding it or adding a 4th piece to a Pong to form a Kong or declaring a concealed Kong) and another player(s) can use that piece to complete a hand (which by logic could not be used to form a Pong or Kong as 2 players cannot make a Pong out of the same tile) a player may steal that piece from that player when declaring the Kong and go Mahjong (win the hand).
Example winning hands
Below are examples of winning hands. A winning hand must consist of 4 melds (Pongs, Kongs and/or chows) and a pair (eyes) and must also score the agreed table minimum.
Hand formed with 4 Pongs and the eyes (pair) of East wind. Only bamboo is used (no other simples), scoring extra points (clean hand). No chows are used (an all Pong/Kong hand scores extra points).
A high scoring hand formed using only circles, known as a pure hand. Hand is made of chows, Pongs and the eyes of circles.
Most players include table variations in their games, of which some non-standard are included. The hands of 7 different pairs and thirteen orphans are examples which do not have 4 melds and the eyes. They are described in more detail below.
Calling out Mahjong
In Western Classical variants, this is known as creating a Mahjong, and the process of winning is called going Mahjong. Calling a Mahjong without having a legal hand or with the minimum points is usually penalized via points or with the player having to play the rest of the hand with his tiles shown to the other players face up.
Turns and rounds
If the dealer wins the hand, s/he will remain the dealer and an extra hand is played in addition to the minimum 16 hands in a match. The same occurs if there is no winner.
The dealer position is significant in that s/he owes or is owed double their score.
Extra points are also scored if their hand is composed of pieces that match their seat wind and or the prevailing wind.
Flowers and Seasons are also scored as bonus points to the winner depending on their seat position.
Rhythm of play
Amongst players, there is an agreed amount of time allowed to make a call for a discarded tile, before the next player takes their turn, known as "window of opportunity" is explicitly stated in the rules; whereas in other variants, it is generally considered that when the next player's turn starts, i.e., the tile leaves the wall, the opportunity has been lost.
Old Hong Kong scoring involves adding up the fan value (the value of a hand) of the winner's hand and paying the winner the appropriate sum/points:
- Only the winner calculates (scores) his or her hand. The winners fan value is based on:
- individual melds
- the composition of the entire hand
- how the hand was won
- bonus tiles
- special patterns
- and a few other special criteria.
- In order to win, a player needs to have at least the minimum fan value agreed in advance (often 3). Bonus tiles and a few other elements are not included in the minimum fan value a player needs to form a legal winning hand. (i.e. having a flower in one's hand does not contribute to the 3 minimum fan points a player needs in a typical game).
- When a player wins their fan value is calculated. The other players do not need to count their hands.
- Players then pay the winner (in money or when not gambling with "points") based on 3 factors:
- the fan value of the hand (converted into base points)
- if the player won from the wall (doubles the points)
- if the player was the dealer or not (doubles the points)
Basic fan value
A winning hand must include an agreed minimum amount of fan value (often 3)
|A Pong/Kong of Dragons||1|
|A Pong/Kong of Seat wind or Round wind||1|
|All chows and a pair of simples||1|
|Only Pongs/Kongs and any pair (Pong hand)||3|
|Only bamboos with Honors, only circles with Honors or only characters with Honors (clean hand)||3|
|3 unmelded (hidden) Pongs/Kongs||3|
|7 pairs (special pattern)||4|
|Pure hand (of only one suit and no Honors: pure circles, pure bamboos or pure characters)||6|
|Little Dragons (2 Pongs of dragons and a pair of the 3rd dragon)||12|
|Little Winds (3 Pongs of winds and a pair of the 4th wind)||12|
|Winning from the wall||1|
|Robbing the Kong||1|
|Winning on the last tile from the wall or its subsequent discard||1|
|No Flowers or Seasons tiles in hand||1|
|Having Own flower (seat flower)||1|
|Having Own season (seat season)||1|
|All 4 Flowers||2 (plus 1 for own flower)|
|All 4 Seasons||2 (plus 1 for own season)|
|All 8 Flowers and Seasons (exceedingly rare)||Automatic win with maximum payment|
A player only scores a bonus fan for Flowers or Seasons if it is their own flower or season (East=1, South=2, West=3 and North=4) or if the player has all 4 Flowers or all 4 Seasons (scoring 5 fan in total).
The fan value of a hand is converted into base points which are then used to calculate the money (or "points") the losers pay the winner.
If a player has 3 fan then his hand is worth one base point. A winning hand with 9 fan is worth 4 base points. The base points are doubled for the following (if 2 criteria apply, the base payment is doubled and then redoubled):
- If the winner wins from the wall the base payment is doubled.
- If the hand was won by discard, the discarder doubles the amount he owes the winner
- If the winner is east he or she receives double the payment from each player. If east player is not the winner, he pays double the points to the winner.
|East (dealer)||1 (base payment) x2 (doubling for winning from wall) x2 (doubling for being east) = -4|
|South||1 (base payment) x2 (doubling for winning from wall) = -2|
|West||4 (from east) + 2 (from south) 2 (from north) = +8|
|North||1 (base payment) x2 (doubling for winning from wall) = -2|
|East (dealer)||2 (base payment) x2 (doubling for being east) = -4|
|South||2 (base payment) x2 (discarding winning piece) = -4|
|West||2 (base payment) = -2|
|North||4 (from east) + 4 (from south) 2 (from west) = +10|
|East (dealer)||16 (from south) + 32 (from west) + 16 (from north) = +64|
|South||8 (base payment) x2 (paying to east) = -16|
|West||8 (base payment) x2 (paying to east) x2 (discarding winning piece) = -32|
|North||8 (base payment) x2 (paying to east) = -16|
Hong Kong Mahjong is essentially a payment system of doubling and redoubling where winning from the wall adds great value to the final payment and where the dealer is highly rewarded or penalized if he or she wins or loses.
There are a series of "limit hands". Table rules dictate if these rare and special hands are allowed, which ones, and the limit for scoring. A common scoring limit is 64 points, which is the highest base points doubled twice. A winner receives the scoring limit from each player without any doubling.
In some cases it is expected that the hand is achieved without calling any sets, except when winning, and or that it must be won from the wall.
Some groups also play with the "great Flowers" rule. If a player picks up all 4 Flowers and all 4 Seasons during their hand, they instantly wins the hand and receives the maximum points from all of the players. This is exceptionally rare.
|Heavenly Hand||The dealer draws a winning hand at the beginning of the game.|
|Earthly Hand||A player completes a winning hand with the dealer's first discard.|
|Thirteen Orphans||Player has 1 and 9 of each simple suit, one of each wind, one of each dragon and in addition one extra piece of any of those thirteen elements|
|Heavenly Gates||Player has 1112345678999 of any simple suit and one extra piece of numbers 1 to 9. This hand always has 4 melds and the eyes.|
|Hidden Pong Hand||4 concealed Pongs|
|Kong Hand||Player has 4 Kongs|
|Honors Hand||Player has all Honors in the hand (only winds and dragons)|
|Pearl Dragon||3 circle Pongs/Kongs and a pair of circles (eye) with a Pong/Kong of the White dragon (no chows).|
|Ruby Dragon||3 character Pongs/Kongs and a pair of character (eye) with a Pong/Kong of the Red dragon (no chows).|
|Jade Dragon||3 bamboo Pongs/Kongs and a pair of bamboo (eye) with a Pong/Kong of the Green dragon (no chows).|
|Great Dragons||3 Pongs of all 3 dragons|
|Great Winds||4 Pongs of all 4 winds|
Examples of high-scoring hands
All-Pong hand (Chinese: 對對糊)
Kong hand / 18 Arhats hand (Chinese: 十八羅漢)
Clean hand (Chinese: 混一色)
Pure hand (Chinese: 清一色)
Great winds hand (Chinese: 大四喜)
Great dragons hand (Chinese: 大三元）
Thirteen orphans hand (Chinese: 十三幺)
Variations may have far more complicated scoring systems, add or remove tiles, and include far more scoring elements and limit hands.
In many places, players often observe one version and are either unaware of other variations or claim that different versions are incorrect. Many variations today differ only by scoring:
- Chinese classical Mahjong is the oldest surviving variety of Mahjong and was the version introduced to America in the 1920s under various names. It has a small, loyal following in the West, although few play it in Asia. All players score and it is possible to score higher than the winner.
- Hong Kong Mahjong or Cantonese Mahjong is possibly the most common form of Mahjong, differing in minor scoring details from the Chinese Classical variety. It does not allow multiple players to win from a single discard.
- Competition Mahjong is an international standard founded by All-China Sports Federation in July 1998 that some Mahjong societies have adopted for competition play and in some cases for all play.
- Sichuan Mahjong is a growing variety, particularly in southern China, disallowing chi melds, and using only the suited tiles. Play continues until a loser is decided or a draw. It can be played very quickly.
- Wuhan Mahjong is growing rapidly and become popular in southern China. It's different from other parts of China in a way that 1) it has a tile that can be used as everything, called Laizi (赖子), and 2) you have to have a set of special 2 tiles, namely 2, 5, 8, as prerequisite for winning. Another variation has become the new trend, it's called 红中赖子杠. Special tiles need to be discarded (红中和赖子).
- Tianjin Mahjong using normally 7 jokers, with special scoring such as joker-free, joker-waiting-pair, catch-5, dragon, joker-suited-dragon.
- Shenyang Mahjong using 13 hands in a game, and Shenyang Mahjong has a really fast speed on playing, which is matching the personality of North-east people in China. Also in Shenyang Mahjong, the player must to have Bamboos, Characters, Circles and number one or 9 in his hand. In addition, the players have to Pong before they Chow, so there is no chance to win even if some players win at the first time they have their hands in hand.
- Taiwanese Mahjong is the variety prevalent in Taiwan and involves hands of 16 tiles (as opposed to the 13-tile hands in other versions), features bonuses for dealers and recurring dealerships, and allows multiple players to win from a single discard.
- Filipino Mahjong, 16 tile hands. Certain tiles can be wild. Honors are treated as bonuses.
- Fujian Mahjong, 13 tile hands. Certain tiles can be wild. No dragons. Winds are treated as bonuses.
- Shanxi Mahjong, or Lisi (Raise 4; zh:太原立四麻将), the players must win with the first 4 blocks drawn which are placed separately in front of other. These 4 blocks cannot be touched until the player has a ready hand.
- Singaporean Mahjong is a variant similar to the Cantonese Mahjong played in Malaysia. Unique elements of Singaporean/Malaysian Mahjong are the 4 animal tiles (cat, mouse, cockerel, and centipede) as well as certain alternatives in the scoring rules, which allow payouts midway through the game if certain conditions (such as a kang) are met.
- South African Mahjong is a variant of Cantonese Mahjong. It is very similar in terms of game play and follows most of the rules and regulations of Cantonese Mahjong. However, there are some minor differences in scoring, e.g. the limit on the maximum points a hand can be rewarded is 3 or 4 fan depending on the house rules. A chicken hand (gai wu) is normally considered a value hand. Depending on the house rules Flowers may also be used to boost scoring.
- Thai Mahjong has 8 specialized jokers with 8 extra flowers and 8 animals for a total of 168 tiles.
- Vietnamese Mahjong has the same 8 specialized jokers but with only 8 different extra flowers for a total of 160 tiles. Modern variant triplicates or quadruplicates the jokers for a total of 176 or 184 tiles.
- Japanese classical Mahjong is still used in tournaments. It is closer to the Chinese classical scoring system but only the winner scores.
- Japanese Mahjong is a standardized form of Mahjong in Japan and is also found prevalently in video games. In addition to scoring changes, the rules of rīchi (ready hand) and dora (bonus tiles) are unique highlights of this variant. In addition, tile discards are specifically arranged in front of each player by discard order, to take discarded tiles into account during play. Some rules replace some of number 5 tiles with red tiles so that they can eventually get more value.
- Korean Mahjong is unique in many ways and is an excellent version for 3 players. One suit is omitted completely (usually the Bamboo set or 2-8 of bamboo) as well as the Seasons. The scoring is simpler and the play is faster. No melded chows are allowed and concealed hands are common. Riichi (much like its Japanese cousin) is an integral part of the game as well.
- Pussers bones is a fast-moving variant developed by sailors in the Royal Australian Navy. It uses an alternative vocabulary, such as Eddie, Sammy, Wally, and Normie, instead of East, South, West, and North respectively.
- Western classical Mahjong is a descendant of the version of Mahjong introduced by Babcock to America in the 1920s. Today, this term largely refers to the "Wright-Patterson" rules, used in the U.S. military, and other similar American-made variants that are closer to the Babcock rules.
- American Mahjong is a form of Mahjong standardized by the National Mah Jongg League and the American Mah-Jongg Association. It uses joker tiles, the Charleston, plus melds of 5 or more tiles, treats bonus tiles as honors, and eschews the Chow and the notion of a standard hand. Legal hands are changed annually. Purists claim that this makes American Mahjong a separate game. In addition, the NMJL and AMJA variations, which differ by minor scoring differences, are commonly referred to as Mahjongg or mah-jongg (with 2 Gs, often hyphenated).
- Mah Jongg Card Game by Winning Moves is a card game variant based on the basic Mah Jongg game.
3 player Mahjong (or 3-ka) is a simplified 3-person Mahjong that involves hands of 13 tiles (with a total of 84 tiles on the table) and may use jokers depending on the variation. Any rule set can be adapted for 3 players; however, this is far more common and accepted in Japan, Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines. It usually eliminates one suit entirely, or tiles 2-8 in one suit leaving only the terminals. It needs fewer people to start a game and the turnaround time of a game is short—hence, it is considered a fast game. In some versions there is a jackpot for winning in which whoever accumulates a point of 10 is considered to hit the jackpot or whoever scores 3 hidden hands first. The Malaysian and Korean versions drop one wind and may include a seat dragon. Korean Japanese 3 player variant.
There are variations that feature specific use of tiles. Some 3 player versions remove the North Wind and one Chinese provincial version has no honors. Korean Mahjong removes the bamboo suit or at least its numbers 2–8 so that terminals can be used. Japanese Mahjong rarely uses Flowers or Seasons. The Seasons are removed in Korean Mahjong, while many Southeast Asian sets have more flower series. Joker tiles are used in some versions. Some variations use counting sticks while others use chips, and some use pencils and paper for score keeping. Wind indicators come in various formats such as cubes, discs, or cylinders. All varieties of mahjong use two or three dice, traditionally but not necessarily Chinese dice with red one and four pips. Japanese mahjong also uses four yakitori markers to indicate which players have not won a hand yet. Mahjong tables are square and small enough to be within arms-length of all equipment. The edges are raised to prevent tiles from sliding off and the surface is covered in felt to limit wear on the tiles. More expensive tables, like those found in tournaments, are able to shuffle tiles, build walls, and randomize dice.
Wild cards and jokers
Some players accept wild cards (Chinese: 混儿，hùnr) when playing Mahjong. The wild cards are decided at the beginning of the game. The wild card can be the next tile after spreading tiles to all players or separately decided by a dice toss. Wild cards are not allowed to be discarded and can replace any tiles in Chows. Wildcards can't replace any tiles in Pongs and Kongs. For example, if a character 4 taken out, then character 4 and the next number 5 can be used as wild cards in this round (When the tile showed, the tiles of the same pattern left only 3, so the next tile in the suit will be used as wild cards as well, adding to 7 wild cards for 4 players). Also, if a tile numbered 9 is chosen, then the number 9 and 1 are wild cards.
Also, if the chosen tile is not in the suited tiles, the wild cards are decided in rules:
|Wild card tile chosen||Another wildcard|
|Red Dragon||Green Dragon|
|Green Dragon||White Dragon|
|White Dragon||Red Dragon|
The bonus tiles are not available for wild cards.
A feature of several variations of Mahjong, most notably in American mahjong, is the notion of some number of Joker tiles. They may be used as a wild card: a substitute for any tile in a hand, or, in some variations, only tiles in melds. Another variation is that the Joker tile may not be used for melding. Depending on the variation, a player may replace a Joker tile that is part of an exposed meld belonging to any player with the tile it represents.
Rules governing discarding Joker tiles also exist; some variations permit the Joker tile to take on the identity of any tile, and others only permit the Joker tile to take on the identity of the previously discarded tile (or the absence of a tile, if it is the first discard).
Joker tiles may or may not affect scoring, depending on the variation. Some special hands may require the use of Joker tiles (for example, to represent a "fifth tile" of a certain suited or honor tile).
In American Mahjong, it is illegal to pass Jokers during the Charleston.
Japanese rule sets discourage the use of Flowers and Seasons. Korean rules and 3-player Mahjong in the Korean/Japanese tradition use only Flowers. In Singapore and Malaysia an extra set of bonus tiles of 4 animals are used. The rule set includes a unique function in that players who get 2 specific animals get a one-time immediate payout from all players. In Taiwanese Mahjong, getting all 8 Flowers and Seasons constitutes an automatic win of the hand and specific payout from all players.
The other 4 flower tiles (or season tiles) represent Seasons:
All tiles are placed face down and shuffled. Each player then stacks a row of tiles 2 tiles high in front of him, the length of the row depending on the number of tiles in use:
- 136 tiles: 17 stacks for each player
- Suits of circles, bamboos, and characters + winds + dragons
- 144 tiles: 18 stacks for each player
- 148 tiles: 19 stacks for dealer and player opposite, 18 for rest
- 152 tiles: 19 stacks for each player
In the American variations it is required that, before each hand begins, a Charleston be enacted. In the first exchange, 3 tiles are passed to the player on one's right; in the next exchange, the tiles are passed to the player opposite, followed by 3 tiles passed to the left. If all players are in agreement, a second Charleston is performed; however, any player may decide to stop passing after the first Charleston is complete. The Charleston is followed by an optional pass to the player across of one, 2, or 3 tiles. The Charleston, a distinctive feature of American Mahjong, may have been borrowed from card games such as Hearts.
Japanese and Korean Mahjong have some special rules. A player cannot win by a discard if that player had already discarded that piece, where players' discards are kept in neat rows in front of them. Players may declare ready, meaning that they need one tile to win, cannot change their hand and win extra points if they win. Some rules may replace some of the number 5 tiles with red tiles, as they can earn more points. Korean Mahjong does not allow melded (stolen) chows. Taiwanese Mahjong adds 3 tiles to a hand requiring a 5th set to be formed, making a clean hand or all Pong hand very difficult to procure. American Mahjong has distinctive game mechanics and the article on American Mahjong details these. Some differences include many special patterns, a different scoring system and the use of jokers and 5 of a kind.
Many variations have specific hands, some of which are common while some are optional depending on regions and players. One example is the Pure Green hand made of chows or Pongs using 2, 3, 4, 6, 8 of bamboo and green dragon.
When a hand is one tile short of winning (for example: , waiting for: , , or , as can be the eyes), the hand is said to be a ready hand (Traditional Chinese: 聽牌; Simplified Chinese: 听牌; Japanese: tenpai 聴牌), or more figuratively, "on the pot". The player holding a ready hand is said to be waiting for certain tiles. It is common to be waiting for 2 or 3 tiles, and some variations award points for a hand that is waiting for one tile. In 13-tile Mahjong, the largest number of tiles for which a player can wait is 13 (the thirteen wonders, or thirteen orphans, a nonstandard special hand). Ready hands must be declared in some variations of Mahjong, while other variations prohibit the same.
Some variations of Mahjong, most notably Japanese and Korean ones, allow a player to declare rīchi (立直?, sometimes known as reach, as it is phonetically similar). A declaration of rīchi is a promise that any tile drawn by the player is immediately discarded unless it constitutes a win. Standard requirements for rīchi are that the hand be closed or have no melds declared (other than a concealed Kong) and that players already have points for declaration of rīchi. A player who declares rīchi and wins usually receives a point bonus for their hand directly, and a player who won with rīchi also has the advantage to open the inner dora (ドラ?, from "dra"gon) which leads to higher possibilities to match such a card, thus has more chance to grant additional bonus. However, a player who declares rīchi and loses is usually penalized in some fashion. Declaring a nonexistent rīchi is also penalized in some way.
In some variations, a situation in which all 4 players declare a rīchi is an automatic drawn game, as it reduces the game down to pure luck, i.e., who gets their needed tile first.
If only the dead wall remains (or if no dead wall exists and the wall is depleted) and no one has won, the hand is drawn (流局 liú jú, 黃莊 huáng zhuāng, Japanese ryūkyoku), or "goulashed". A new hand begins, and depending on the variant, the Game Wind may change. For example, in most playing circles in Singapore, if there is at least one Kong when the hand is a draw, the following player of the dealer becomes the next dealer; otherwise, the dealer remains dealer.
Japanese Mahjong has a special rule called sanchahō (三家和?), which is, if 3 players claim the same discard in order to win, the hand is drawn. One reason for this is that there are cases in which bars of 1,000 points for declaring rīchi cannot be divided by 3. The rule is treated the same as "abortive draws".
In Japanese Mahjong, rules allow abortive draws to be declared while tiles are still available. They can be declared under the following conditions:
- Kyūshu yaochūhai tōhai (九種么九牌倒牌?): On a player's first turn when no meld has been declared yet, if a player has 9 different terminal (also known as major) or honor tiles, the player may declare the hand to be drawn (for example, , but could also go for the nonstandard thirteen wonders hand as well).
- Sūfontsu rentā (四風子連打?): On the first turn without any meld declarations, if all 4 players discard the same Wind tile, the hand is drawn.
- Sūcha rīchi (四家立直?): If all 4 players declare rīchi, the hand is drawn.
- Sūkan sanra (四槓算了?): The hand is drawn when the 4th Kong is declared, unless all 4 Kongs were declared by a single player. Still, the hand is drawn when another player declares a fifth Kong.
Scoring in Mahjong involves points, with a monetary value for points agreed upon by players. Although in many variations scoreless hands are possible, many require that hands be of some point value in order to win the hand.
While the basic rules are more or less the same throughout Mahjong, the greatest divergence between variations lies in the scoring systems. Like the rules, there is a generalized system of scoring, based on the method of winning and the winning hand, from which Chinese and Japanese base their roots. American Mahjong generally has greatly divergent scoring rules, as well as greatly divergent general rules.
Because of the large differences between the various systems of scoring (especially for Chinese variants), groups of players will often agree on particular scoring rules before a game.
Points (terminology of which differs from variation to variation) are obtained by matching the winning hand with different criteria scoring different values. The points obtained may be modified into scores for each player using some (typically exponential) functions. Some criteria may be also in terms of both points and score.
In many variations the dealer receives no scoring bonus and does not maintain his/her turn by winning or a dead hand.
In classical Mahjong all players score points. Points are given for sets and hand composition and winning bonuses, doubled and redoubled for basic patterns. Sometimes a loser may score more points than a winner. Japanese Mahjong has a complex scoring system with several stages of scoring, rules and exceptions, evening out scores and bonus points at the end of a match. Korean Mahjong has a simple scoring system where only winner scores without any form of doubling.
Some variations give points for concealed hands, in which case no melds are made except by winning on a discard.
In Old Hong Kong Mahjong:
- Only the winner scores points.
- Winning hands are scored by totaling the point value of each element in the hand. Points are distinct from the actual payment received from each player.
- The winner receives points (also known as faan among some players) for:
- individual melds,
- the composition of the entire hand,
- how the hand was won,
- bonus tiles,
- special patterns,
- and a few other special criteria.
- In order to win, a player needs to have at least the minimum points agreed in advance (often 3).
- Bonus points are separate from the minimum points a player needs to win.
- If a player goes Mahjong with a legal and minimum hand, his/her hand is scored by adding his/her points and bonus points together.
- The payment received from each player depends on 3 factors:
- the point value of the hand,
- if the player won from a discard or from the wall, and
- if the player was the dealer or not.
|Variation||Hong Kong||Competition||Japanese||Three player||HK New||Taiwan||American||Classical||Korean||Singapore||Sichuan|
|Minimum Points (in variations units)||3f||8||1y||3+||5f||7/10t||Varies||3f||2p||2u||Varies|
In 1998, in the interest of dissociating illegal gambling from Mahjong, the China State Sports Commission published a new set of rules, now generally referred to as Chinese Official rules or International Tournament rules (see Guobiao Majiang). The principles of the new, wholesome Mahjong are no gambling, no drinking, and no smoking. In international tournaments, players are often grouped in teams to emphasize that Mahjong from now on is considered a sport.
The new rules are highly pattern-based. The rulebook contains 81 combinations, based on patterns and scoring elements popular in classic and modern regional Chinese variants; some table practices of Japan have also been adopted. Points for flower tiles (each flower is worth one point) may not be added until the player has scored 8 points. The winner of a game receives the score from the player who discards the winning tile, plus 8 basic points from each player; in the case of zimo (self-drawn win), he receives the value of this round plus 8 points from all players.
The new rules were first used in an international tournament in Tokyo, where, in 2002, the first World Championship in Mahjong was organized by the Mahjong Museum, the Japan Mahjong Organizing Committee, and the city council of Ningbo, China. One hundred players participated, mainly from Japan and China, but also from Europe and the United States. Mai Hatsune, from Japan, became the first world champion. The following year saw the first annual China Mahjong Championship, held in Hainan; the next 2 annual tournaments were held in Hong Kong and Beijing. Most players were Chinese; players from other nations attended as well.
In 2005, the first Open European Mahjong Championship was held in the Netherlands, with 108 players. The competition was won by Masato Chiba from Japan. The second European championship in Copenhagen(2007) was attended by 136 players and won by Danish player Martin Wedel Jacobsen. The first Online European Mahjong Championship was held on the Mahjong Time server in 2007, with 64 players, and the winner was Juliani Leo, from the U.S., and the Best European Player was Gerda van Oorschot, from the Netherlands. The Third Open European Mahjong Championship 2009 at Baden/Vienna, Austria, was won by Japanese player Koji Idota, while runner-up Bo Lang from Switzerland became European Champion. There were 152 participants.
In 2006, the World Mahjong Organization (WMO) was founded in Beijing, China, with the cooperation of, amongst others, the Japan Mahjong Organizing Committee (JMOC) and the European Mahjong Association (EMA). This organization held its first World Championship in November 2007 in the Chinese town of Chengdu, attended by 144 participants from all over the world. It was won by Li Li, a Chinese student at Tsinghua University. The next World Championship took place in Utrecht, the Netherlands, 27 to 29 August 2010.
Western or American-style mah jongg tournaments are held in virtually every state—the largest is in Las Vegas, Nevada twice a year, and in Atlantic City, New Jersey, by Mah Jongg Madness; and the annual cruise hosted by the National Mah Jongg League and Mah Jongg Madness (MJM). MJM tournaments host between 150 and 500 participants at these larger events; and there are several smaller scale, but equally successful tournaments held annually by other hosts. Prize pools are based on the number participating. Rules are based on the National Mah Jongg League standard rules.
Some superstitious rituals in Mahjong can involve things from not counting one's wins and losses, to changing one's underwear after a loss.
Mahjong tiles were added to the Unicode Standard in April, 2008 with the release of version 5.1.
The Unicode block for Mahjong tiles is U+1F000–U+1F02F:
Official Unicode Consortium code chart (PDF)
- Games played with Mahjong equipment
- Mahjong video game
- Singaporean Mahjong scoring rules
- Chinese playing cards
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