A game of mahjong being played in Hangzhou, China
|Alternative Chinese name|
|Age range||4 years and older|
|Setup time||2-5 minutes|
|Playing time||Dependent on variation and/or house/tournament rules|
|Skill(s) required||Tactics, observation, memory|
Mahjong, also spelled majiang, mah jongg, and numerous other variants, is a game that originated in China. It is commonly played by four players (with some three-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 four 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 Equipment
- 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 Special meaning and history of tiles
- 7 Superstitions
- 8 Unicode
- 9 See also
- 10 References
- 11 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 varietes 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.
One of the myths of the origin of mahjong suggests that Confucius, the Chinese philosopher, developed the game in about 500 BC. The three dragon (cardinal) tiles also agree with the three cardinal virtues bequeathed by Confucius. Hóng Zhōng (紅中 , red middle), Fā Cái (發財 , prosperity), and Bái Bǎn" (白板 , white board) represent benevolence, sincerity, and filial piety, respectively.
The myth also claims that Confucius was fond of birds, which would explain the name "mahjong" (máquè 麻雀 = hemp sparrow).
Many historians believe it was based on a Chinese card game called Mǎ diào (馬吊) (also known as Ma Tiae, hanging horse; or Yèzí [葉子], leaf) in the early Ming dynasty. This game was played with 40 paper cards similar in appearance to the cards used in the game Ya Pei. These 40 cards are numbered 1 to 9 in four different suits, along with four extra flower cards. This is quite similar to the numbering of mahjong tiles today, although mahjong only has three suits and, in effect, uses four packs of Ya Pei cards.
During the early 19th century and perhaps as early as 18th century, there was a Chinese card game with principle of drawing and discarding with a view to melding and is in fact essence of mahjong.
There is still some debate about who created the game. One theory is that Chinese army officers serving during the Taiping Rebellion created the game to pass the time. Another theory is that a nobleman living in the Shanghai area created the game between 1870 and 1875. Others believe that two brothers from Ningbo created mahjong around 1850, from the earlier game of Mǎ diào.
This game was banned by the government of People's Republic of China when it took power in 1949. The new Communist government forbade any gambling activities, which were regarded as symbols of capitalist corruption. After the Cultural Revolution, the game was revived, without gambling elements, and the prohibition was revoked in 1985. Today, it is a favorite pastime in China and other Chinese-speaking communities.
Mahjong in the West
The game was mentioned in Portuguese Jesuit accounts from the beginning of the 17th century. 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 state the specific Chinese variety of his informant. 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 remake of a Jewish game, 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 recent years, a second organization has 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.
Games scholar David Parlett has written that the Western card games Conquian and Rummy were derived from Mahjong. All these games involve players drawing and discarding tiles or cards to make melds.
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.
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.
Type of game
Old Hong Kong mahjong
Old Hong Kong mahjong uses most of the standardised tiles, utilizes the basic features in common with most variations of the game and has a relatively simple scoring system.
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 is dealer and which round is being played. Some sets include racks to hold tiles (if they are shaped small or differently).
A set of mahjong tiles usually has at least 136 tiles (most commonly 144), although sets originating from America or Japan will have more. Mahjong tiles are split into these categories: suits, honor, and flowers.
There are three different suits numbered 1 to 9, which are called simple tiles. They are bamboo (bams), characters (or myriads or cracks), and circles (or dots).
There are four identical copies of each number of each suit giving 108 simple tiles (3x9x4).
Honors and bonus tiles
There are two different honor suits: the winds and the dragons. The winds are east, south, west and north, and the dragons are Red, Green and White. They have no numerical sequence and there are four identical tiles of each wind and dragon (e.g. four Red dragon tiles, four Green dragon tiles etc.)
There are eight bonus tiles: four flowers and four seasons. Each flower and season tile is unique without three matching pieces as per simple tiles and honour tiles. These tiles are not part of a player's hand but are set to the side when drawn and an extra tile is drawn in lieu 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 four rounds of which each round represents a "prevailing wind" starting with East. In each round at least four 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 counter clockwise (though players don't physically move their chairs). A marker is used to mark which player is east and often the round number. This continues until all four players have been east (dealer).
Once the first round is completed, a second round begins with the prevailing wind of "south". Player 1 deals the first hand and player two deals the second hand etc. There are four rounds which represent all four prevailing winds.
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 players repeating the same position as the previous hand.
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)|
If the dealer wins a hand or if there is a draw (no winner), then an extra hand is played and the seating and prevailing wind remains the same. This may mean that a match would have no limit to the number of hands played (though some players will set a limit to three consecutive hands allowed with the same seat positions and prevailing winds).
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) and a pointer that can be oriented towards the dealer to show Player Game Wind. In sets with racks, a rack may be marked differently to denote the dealer.
Wind position is significant in that it affects the scoring of the game.
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 two 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 three 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 four tiles to himself, and players in counterclockwise order take blocks of four 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 four 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 fourth 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 fourteen 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 four melds (a specific pattern of three pieces) and the eyes (a pair of two 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 three.
- Pong (Chinese: 碰, Japanese: ポン) is a set of three identical tiles. For example:
You can form a pong with any tile (except flowers as they are bonus tiles set to the side when drawn from the wall). The tiles must be identical (you cannot mix suits).
- Kong (Chinese: 槓, Japanese: カン) is a set of four identical tiles. For example:
Consider a Kong the same as a Pong/ Pung with an additional tile to make a set of four. There are three ways to form a Kong.
- Before discarding a player who has all four matching tiles in their hand may declare a kong. They do so by revealing the meld and placing two pieces in the middle face up and two pieces on the ends face down. This is called a concealed or hidden kong.
- If a player can use a discarded tile to complement three matching tiles in their hand, they can take the piece and reveal a "kong by discard" or "melded Kong". The player reveals his three 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 fourth piece from the wall, he or she may announce (then or later in the game) a kong by placing the fourth tile on top of the middle piece of the melded pong. If a pong/pung has been melded a player cannot steal the fourth piece if another player discards it.
In any case, whenever a Kong is formed, the player must draw an extra tile from the end of the wall and then discard a tile. The fourth 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 a specific tile.
- Chow (Chinese: 吃 (Mandarin, Minnan)/上 (Cantonese), Japanese: チー) is a meld of three suited tiles in sequence. For example:
The meld must be in absolute numerical sequence. There is no skipping of numbers, nor does 9 loop around to 1. The sequence must be in the same suit. Honours, flowers and seasons cannot be used to make chows. A player can steal a discard to form a chow from the player prior to them in order if no one else needs the tile to make pongs/ pungs or kongs or win (go mahjong).
- Eyes, also known as a pair, are two identical tiles which are an essential part of a legal winning hand. A piece cannot be stolen (melded) to form the 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 as a part of the hand but can earn a bonus points if part of the winning hand) and the last tile of the wall is drawn as a replacement tile so that the player has the fourteen 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, any other player 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 two players essentially miss their turn as play continues to the player after the one who declared the meld.
When two 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.
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: 糊, 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 two or three players need the piece to win, there are two 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: 天糊), or if a player uses the dealer's first discard to complete a winning hand (Chinese: 地糊).
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 fourth 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 two 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 four melds (pongs, kongs and/or chows) and a pair (eyes) and must also score the agreed table minimum.
Hand formed with four 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 seven different pairs, thirteen orphans and heavenly gates are examples which do not have four 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 three). 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 three 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 three 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 honours, only circles with honours or only characters with honours (clean hand)||3|
|Three unmelded (hidden) pongs/kongs||3|
|Seven pairs (special pattern)||4|
|Pure hand (of only one suit and no honours: pure circles, pure bamboos or pure characters)||6|
|Little Dragons (two pongs of dragons and a pair of the 3rd dragon)||12|
|Little Winds (three 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 four flowers||2 (plus 1 for own flower)|
|All four 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 four flowers or all four seasons (scoring five 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 three fan then his hand is worth one base point. A winning hand with nine fan is worth four base points. The base points are doubled for the following (if two 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 penalised 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 his/her hand, s/he instantly wins the hand and receives the maximum points from all of the players. This is exceptionally rare.
|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 four melds and the eyes.|
|Hidden Pong Hand||Four concealed pongs|
|Kong Hand||Player has four kongs|
|Honours Hand||Player has all honours in the hand (only winds and dragons)|
|Pearl Dragon||Three circle pongs/kongs and a pair of circles (eye) with a pong/kong of the White dragon (no chows).|
|Ruby Dragon||Three character pongs/kongs and a pair of character (eye) with a pong/kong of the Red dragon (no chows).|
|Jade Dragon||Three bamboo pongs/kongs and a pair of bamboo (eye) with a pong/kong of the Green dragon (no chows).|
|Great Dragons||Three pongs of all three dragons|
|Great Winds||Four pongs of all four winds|
Examples of high-scoring hands
Pure honor hand
Thirteen orphans hand
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 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.
- 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.
- Sichuan mahjong is a growing variety, particularly in southern China, disallowing chi melds, and using only the suited tiles. It can be played very quickly.
- 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 nine 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.
- Fujian mahjong, with a Dàidì joker 帶弟百搭.
- Shanxi mahjong, or Lisi (Raise Four; zh:太原立四麻将), the players must win with the first four blocks drawn which are placed separately in front of other. These four blocks cannot be touched until the player has a ready hand.
- Guobiao Majiang a rule of Mahjong founded by All-China Sports Federation in July 1998.
- 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.
- 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 five or more tiles, and eschews the Chow and the notion of a standard hand. 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 two Gs, often hyphenated).
- Singaporean/Malaysian mahjong is a variant similar to the Cantonese mahjong played in Malaysia. Unique elements of Singaporean/Malaysian mahjong are the four 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.
- Vietnamese mạt chược, with 16 different kinds of jokers for a total of 160 tiles. Modern variant include more jokers for a total of 176 tiles.
- Thai mahjong, includes the older Vietnamese tiles with another eight for a total of 168 tiles.
- Filipino mahjong, with the Window Joker.
- Korean mahjong is unique in many ways and is an excellent version for three 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.Korean Rules
- 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.
- Three player mahjong (or three-ka) is a simplified three-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 three 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 three hidden hands first. The Malaysian and Korean versions drop one wind and may include a seat dragon. Korean Japanese three player variant.
- Mah Jongg Card Game by Winning Moves is a card game variant based on the basic Mah Jonng game.
There are variations that feature specific use of tiles. Some three 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 Singapore/Malaysian mahjong has a third set of bonus tiles called animals and even a fourth called vehicles. 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.
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 three 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.
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 three 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.
Some players accept wildcards (Chinese: 混儿，hunr) when playing Mahjong. The wildcards are decided at the beginning of the game. The wildcard can be the next tile after spreading tiles to all players or separately decided by a dice toss. Wildcards 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 wildcards 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 wildcards as well, adding to 7 wildcards for 4 players). Also, if a tile numbered 9 is chosen, then the number 9 and 1 are wildcards. Also, if the chosen tile is not in the simples, the wildcards are decided in rules:
|Wildcard tile chosen||Another wildcard|
|Red Dragon||Green Dragon|
|Green Dragon||White Dragon|
|White Dragon||Red Dragon|
The bonus tiles are not available for wildcards.
|Variation||Hong Kong||HK New||CO||Classical||Japanese||Korean||Taiwan||Malaysia/Singapore||Three player mahjong J/K||American|
|Bamboo||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes||No or only terminals||Yes||Yes||No or only Terminals||Yes|
|Minimum Points (in variations units)||3f||5f||8||3f||1y||2p||7/10t||2u||3+||Varies|
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.
Japanese rule sets discourage the use of flowers and seasons. Korean rules and three-player mahjong in the Korean/Japanese tradition use only flowers. In Singapore and Malaysia an extra set of bonus tiles of four animals are used. The rule set includes a unique function in that players who get two specific animals get a one-time immediate payout from all players. In Taiwanese mahjong, getting all eight flowers and seasons constitutes an automatic win of the hand and specific payout from all players.
The other four flower tiles (or season tiles) represent seasons:
Number of tiles
All tiles are placed face down and shuffled. Each player then stacks a row of tiles two 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 dots, 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, three tiles are passed to the player on one's right; in the next exchange, the tiles are passed to the player opposite, followed by three 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, two, or three tiles. The Charleston, a distinctive feature of American mahjong, may have been borrowed from card games such as Hearts.
A feature of several variations of mahjong, most notably American variations, 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 have an impact on 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.
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 two or three 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 four 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 three 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 three. 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 nine 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 four players discard the same Wind tile, the hand is drawn.
- Sūcha rīchi (四家立直?): If all four players declare rīchi, the hand is drawn.
- Sūkan sanra (四槓算了?): The hand is drawn when the fourth Kong is declared, unless all four Kongs were declared by a single player. Still, the hand is drawn when another player declares a fifth Kong.
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 two 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.
Special meaning and history of tiles
The suits of the tiles are money-based. In ancient China, the copper coins had a square hole in the center; people passed a rope through the holes to tie coins into strings. These strings are usually in groups of 100 coins, called diào (弔, or variant 吊), or 1000 coins, called guàn (貫). Mahjong's connection to the ancient Chinese currency system is consistent with its alleged derivation from the game named mǎ diào (馬弔).
In the mahjong suits, the coppers represent the coins, the ropes are actually strings of 100 coins, and the character myriad represents 10,000 coins or 100 strings. When a hand receives the maximum allowed winning of a round, it is called mǎn guàn (滿貫, literally, "full string of coins").
- Dragon tiles: (🀄) Red Dragon, Green Dragon, and White Dragon. The term dragon tile is a Western convention introduced by Joseph Park Babcock in his 1920 book introducing mahjong to America. Originally, these tiles are said to have something to do with the Chinese Imperial examination.
The red tile ("中"榜, zhōngbǎng) means passing the examination to clear the way to officialdom. The green tile ("發"財, fācái, literally "get rich") means wealth. The white tile (白板, báibǎn, literally "clean slate") means freedom from corruption. It usually has a blue border to distinguish from replacement tiles and prevent alterations.
In the original Chinese mahjong, these pieces are called jiàn (箭), which represents archery, and the red "中" represents a hit on the target. In ancient Chinese archery, one would put a red "中" to signify that the target was hit. White "白" represents failure, and green "發" means that one will release the draw.
- Stones (alternatively wheels, dots or circles): one through nine (🀙🀚🀛🀜🀝🀞🀟🀠🀡). Named as each tile consists of a number of circles. Each circle is said to represent can (筒, tóng) coins with a square hole in the middle.
- Bamboos: one through nine (🀐🀑🀒🀓🀔🀕🀖🀗🀘). Named as each tile consists of a number of bamboo sticks. Each stick is said to represent a string (索, suǒ) that holds a hundred coins; 1 Bamboo is an exception: it has a bird sitting on a bamboo, to prevent alteration. The numbers 2, 3, 4, 6, and 8 are traditionally marked entirely green (without red) and along with the green dragons, which can be used to construct the traditional limit hand Imperial Jade.
- Characters (alternatively numbers): one through nine (🀇🀈🀉🀊🀋🀌🀍🀎🀏). Named as each tile represents ten thousand (萬, wàn) coins, or one hundred strings of one hundred coins.
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)
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