Jack is a volunteer at the CCNY Archives. Before retiring, he worked at IBM for over 28 years. His articles have over 120,000 views.
Mahjong is a great board game from ancient China. It takes four players and it uses a set of defined tiles 144 in total. There is an American version which is played by a totally different set of rules. What this article is about is to explain the Chinese version to the best I can deduce.
Mahjong is a game of luck and skills and strategy and can be a great way to exercise both your mind and your finger dexterity. It is played by old people and young. It is a great activity for social gathers and it takes about 3 hours of time per round. You can play for money which makes it even more interesting and motivating.
It is based on chance and probabilities but also on skill and memory and knowing what to do to maximize your chances of winning and minimize your chance of losing.
- Oct. 2020
- A set of Mahjong tiles
- A poker table
- Table cloth
- 3 dices
- poker chips
- plastic guide sticks (optional)
Identifying the Tiles
The tiles of 144 consist of the following unique designs.
- a suit of Pie (1-9), 4 of each = 36
- a suit of bamboo (1-9), 4 of each = 36
- a suit of Wan Kanji (1-9), 4 of each = 36
- four winds symbol (E, W, S, N), 4 of each = 16
- three symbols (jong, bai, fa), 4 of each = 12
- wild tiles = 8
The Complete Set of 144 Tiles
Setting Up The Game
At the start of each game, the tiles are turned down on the table and all four players gets to mix up the tiles in a circular fashion. After a few seconds, each player will gather the tiles into two rows of 18 tiles and stack one on top of the other. The 4 racks are place in front in the shape of a square.
A random person throws the dice and that number is used to count around the table clockwise until it stops. That person is designated East, and the others around the table are designated South, West and North. This sequence is important for a few reasons which will be apparent when the rest of the rules are explained.
Once the position is set, a marker is place at his location with East as the marker. This will track the number of rounds that are played and will also determine who is the current Chuan. Each person in turn will become Chuan.
Starting from right to left, the count from the dice is used to select the starting location where the tiles will be drawn. Each person will draw 4 tiles at a time in sequence till they have accumulated 16 tiles. After that, the chuan will pick an additional tile and that starts the game. He will throw out one tile that he does not want...and the game begins.
When each game is complete, the next person throw the dice and when all 4 has played, the marker is changed to the next wind. After all four rounds are played, that constitute a match. A match consist of usually 16 games. Sometimes, when a group plays fast, and they have the time, a second match is played before settling the score.
When there is a draw, or when someone wins consecutively, it adds to the total number of games and extends the playing time.
The Winning Hand
The goal of the game is to arrange the tiles to a winning hand. There are many combination of a winning hand and not all hands are equal. Some are worth more than others. The harder it is to obtain that combination, the higher the winning is awarded. The other consideration is time. It takes longer to get the higher winning hands and strategies have to be developed to optimize the play.
The basic winning hand consists of 5 sets of 3 and a pair. This will add up to 17 tiles.
The tiles at hand are 16, you can win either when someone throws out a tile you need or you draw the tile when it is your turn.
The set of 3s can be of two main groups. Either 3 tiles in sequence of the same suit, or 3 of the same kind.
There are two main method you can get a tile to complete your set of 3s. There is pon, which is to complete a pair and make it into 3 of a kind. The other method is called chi or (eat), which is completing 3 tiles in sequence of the same suit. The restriction with chi is you are only allowed to do it from the person before you. Also, the pon overrides a chi. If a tile is needed by pon, that person has priority.
Another possibility is that the same tile threw out can be the winning hand for two or three people. In that case, the person who threw out the tile will need to pay all the other winners.
If a person drew the winning tile, it is called "Chi Mau", which will incur payment from the other three people.
A Special Case - Gunn
A gunn is when you have 3 of a kind in your hidden set and the forth is thrown out by another person. This makes it 4 of a kind if you choose to pon. You exposed this and draw a tile from the end of the rack. There are times, you may not want to pon, because you have a better hand with the rest of the tiles are considered. One advantage of the gunn is it adds an extra fan. A "fan" is the basic unit of counting when you win a hand.
Another way you can get gunn is when you already have 3 of a kind revealed due to a previous pon and you draw the last tile to complete the gunn. In this case, you place the tile down next to the 3 already exposed and you must draw another tile from the end of the rack. A gunn tile is added to the 17 to win.
If you have 4 of a kind from the initial draw or when a later draw made a 4 of a kind, you must announce this to the group on the next time around and place the 4 tiles faced down. This is called a hidden gunn. You still must drawn another tile from the end of the rack. What this does is let others be aware that there is a possibility that the tile they need may not be available. This may forces them to change their strategy and make sure they have more than one chance to win.
A special case of a win is when you draw from the end rack due to a gunn and it turned out to be the winning tile. In this case, you get an extra fan.
The Counting of A Winning Hand
This is one area with a lot of variations. Depending on who you play with, people have come up with different amounts for the various winning hands.
The general rule is the simplest hands will get you a minimum win, while the more difficult combination will win more accordingly.
A typical MahJong game starts with $10 of chips. Each chip is worth various denominations depending on color. A red chip is worth $5. A green chip is worth $1 and a white chip is worth 10 cents.
The start of the game. each person is given 1 Red chip, 4 green chips and 10 white chips.
You can scale this up for higher stakes...
Once you lose all your chips, you can continue to play without payment till the end of the match. The maximum amount you may lose is $10.
To rate the hand:
A simple win hand is any combination of 3s and the pair. This will win 1 "fan".
Typically, a kicker is added to make it more interesting. In typical fashion, a kicker is 3 chips. So 1 fan will win you 4 white chips.
You get an extra fan if you are the chuan and you win the hand.
You get 1 extra fan if you did not pon or chi, or called "Men Ching." Translate into door is clean.
You get 3 extra fan added if you win twice in a row. Also known as "lian chuan" meaning continue being the chuan.
You get 5 extra fan if you win thee times in a row.
However, if someone win against a person who have won several times in a row, that person will get extra bonus payout. This is called "Dra chuan" or catch the chuan.
You also get an extra fan if the tile you need to win is the only chance.
For example, if you have 2 and 4 of wan and you needed 3 to complete the set, that gives you an extra fan if you win. Alternatively, if you have 2 and 3 wan, you can win with either a 1 or 4, then you don't get the extra fan.
When you win continuously, you get to throw the dice and also the counting of rounds is suspended until you lose. The same goes for a draw. When no one wins, with 8 stacks of tiles left, the game ends. It is a do over.
Note: The counting of "fan" is additive in some cases. That is to say, when each condition is met, you add that number of fan. It is possible to win much more fan because of the combinations.
For example, if you have a hand that is all from the same suit, that is 10 fan. With the kicker makes it 13. But, if you also win because you are the chuan, that adds 1, to make 14. Then, if you also have too sets of 3 of a kind, that adds 2 additional fan to 16. And if you also have gunn that makes it 17. And if you win as a result of the gunn and drawing of a tile from the end of the rack, that adds another fan to 18. See how this can add up...your chips.
Special Cases...and Value of a Winning Hand
One special case is called 8 and a half pair. This is the unique case where you have 7 pairs of any tiles and a three of a kind. This is very hard to get and will count as 20 fan.
Another very difficult hand is if all 17 tiles are of the same suit. This will get you 10 fan.
If all your hand is consisted of a pair and 3 of a kinds, that is worth 10 fan.
A hand consist of only one suit and other special tiles of the 4 winds, will win 5 fan.
A hand of "Ping Hu" is if you have no wild tiles, no 4 winds and no others, and your hand consists of only 5 set of 3s with sequences and the pair. This hand is worth 5 fan.
A hand with two sets of triple pairs in your hidden set will add 2 fan.
A hand with three sets of triple pairs in your hidden set will add 5 fan.
Any special tiles set of three exposed or hidden, each counts as 1 fan.
If you have all three of the (jong bai fa), that adds 5 fan.
If you have all four of the winds, that adds 10 fan.
Playing Mahjong Etiquette
- pay attention, and don't delay
- do not draw tiles out of sequence, a big no no
- do not speculate on what others may have out-loud
- once you make a mistake like miscounting tiles, you forfeit your chance to win
- always put out and show your tiles before picking up the other tiles you want or needed to win
- pay as soon as possible and don't delay till later, if necessary exchange with others to get the denomination you need.
- no cheating
- if you are a spectator, you can only help one person at a time.
- When you win a hand, you should announce it verbally and yell out "hou la". This lets other know to stop analyzing their own hand.
Wild Tiles - Explained
The older mahjong sets do not contain any wild tiles. It is a modern invention. By adding 8 additional wild tiles, this speeds up the game a bit and also increases the payout. The way wild tiles are played is simple. Every-time you get them either in the initial draw, or later, you put the tile out and replace with a tile from the end of the rack.
You continue to play with the regular rules as prescribed. When the game ends, you add the wild tile as an additional fan. If you have one, you get 1 extra fan, 2 you get 2 additional fan, and so on... when you get a set of 4 with the same color that adds even more fan.
These set of basic rules should get you started on the game of Mahjong. To learn to play is not hard. To master this game takes a lifetime. There are so many combinations that at times can be confusing. Depending on what you have on hand, it is not always easy to pick the tile to dispose. Also, sometimes you may not see the winning hand because the same tiles can be arranged in a different fashion. This takes experience and knowledge to recognize.
Good luck and enjoy the game of Mahjong.
The added benefit of playing Mahjong is that it may prevent or delay dementia.
Some Simple Strategies...
Always arrange the tiles by suits and in ascending order. Any special tiles or single tile out of the sequence should be put aside to be thrown away. The priority of the order to be thrown out depends on what others have also thrown out. It is generally "safe" to throw out tiles that others have already discarded. In the course of the game, pay attention to what is thrown away from the people above you. More than likely, they will throw out the similar suits. You may want to use that to your advantage.
When you have an equal chance of deciding which tile to discard, check the field of the tiles already exposed on the table. They may give you hint as to which is a better one to keep. Always check to see how many tiles are on the table exposed and if the one you need is there and how many. Remember, there are only 4 of each kind. If all 4 tiles are exposed already, you have zero chance to win. Better change your strategy.
My Personal Experience
I did not play mahjong in my youth. I always see adults like my parents and uncles and aunts play for fun and entertainment especially on holidays. I knew the rules of the game but not the intricacies and certainly not how to count the results. It was in my later years, when I would visit my two aunts every few weeks in Queens, that we started to play seriously. They needed the distraction and we were there to provide some companionship. It was a great way to spend a few hours, sitting and playing and chatting while playing. This was when I learned all the details of this game. There is so much more than meets the eye. It is also a skill that not many can master. It requires more than being lucky. The strategies and skills and mathematical probabilities and knowledge that comes from years of playing comes through loud and clear. It is one of those games that skill usually win. Luck can only get you so far.
One of my aunt is an expert at mahjong. She played almost everyday of her adult life. She lives in Taiwan and have a group of 4 regulars. They have variable skills but close enough to make it competitive. It was also a social event where they meet and have a meal and play seriously for two matches and can usually make it home by dinner.
Some people compared this game to poker or bridge but I don't think so. It is much more sophisticated. The variations are so extensive. It can be unpredictable and one hand could turn a loss to a huge win. If you saw the movie "Crazy Rich Asian", you remember the scene near the end when the main character played a game of Mahjong with the mother of her fiancé. She was a math professor at NYU, and she used her skills in game theory to beat her opponent - or in this specific case, lose deliberately to make a point.
She not only had the winning hand but decided to demonstrate her greater ability by giving her opponent the tile she needed to win. This is just mastery.
You might think this is all for show and make a good story but I have witnessed games where high level players would deliberately hold on to a tile which they knew was the winning tile of another player and it was a big deal, while sacrificing their own chance to win. Not only the player was keeping track of his own tiles, he was memorizing the tiles of his opponents and deducing what was in their pile that they must need a certain tile to win.
To draw an analogy from the sport of fencing. This is perhaps fencing at the highest level where you are not just fencing with 2nd intention but with 3rd or 4th intentions, not just against one opponent but 3 others.
Some Related Info
- Game Theory 101: Explaining the Mahjong showdown in Crazy Rich Asians
We can better understand the Mahjong scene in Crazy Rich Asians by discussing a concept you use in your life every day: game theory.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2020 Jack Lee