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Encyclopedia > Mah jongg
This article discusses the four-player game of Chinese origin. For the tile-matching game, see Mahjong Solitaire.
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A game of Mahjong in progress.

Mahjong is a gambling game for four players that originated in China. In Chinese, Mahjong is most commonly written 麻將, which is romanized as májiāng in pinyin, and ma-chiang in Wade-Giles, and literally means "hemp general." In Cantonese an alternate writing, 麻雀, is more common (the same kanji are used in Japanese). In Cantonese this literally means "sparrow" and is pronounced ma4 jeuk3, while in Japanese it means "hemp sparrow," and is pronounced mā-jan.


In English, in addition to Mahjong, the name of the game is variously written as Mah Jong, Mahjongg or Majong; there are other, less common variations as well. The spelling "Mah-Jongg" was trademarked by Joseph Park Babcock in 1920.


The closest Western analogue is probably the card game gin rummy. Both games involve selecting or discarding units (tiles in one case, cards in the other) to score points by forming groups or runs of similar units.


The game pieces (tiles) and scoring rules used in the game are slightly different depending on regional variations. The game play in general are very similar in all versions, as players compete to build sets including the highest point value.


The object of the game is to build suits (usually of threes) from either 13 or 16 tiles. The first person to achieve this goal is said to have won the game. The winning tile completes the set of either 14 or 17 tiles.

Contents

Origins and History

Mahjong is thought to have evolved from existing Chinese card and domino games sometime around 1850. Some historians believe it was based on a card game called Ma Diao (馬吊) in the early Ming dynasty. There is still a healthy debate about to whom the creation of the game should be attributed. One theory is that Chinese army officers serving during the Tai Ping Rebellion created the game to pass the time. Another theory is that a noble living in the Shanghai area created the game between 1870 and 1875.


By 1895, an American anthropologist named Stewart Culin wrote a paper in which Mahjong was mentioned. This is the first known written account of Mahjong in any language other than Chinese. By 1910, there were written accounts in many languages including French and Japanese. An important English book was Joseph Park Babcock's 1920 simplified Rules of Mah-Jongg that was simply known as the "red book". Although this was the version Babcock had introduced to America, many of Babcock's simplifications are not used nowadays. Babcock's book would introduce many similar English language rulebooks, with a large number (including those of the National Mah Jongg League, the governing body of American Mahjong) making the patently false claim that Mahjong had originated in ancient China in order to bring an air of mystique into the game. Ironically, many of these patently false claims about Mahjong's ancient origins are used today in much the same way for Mahjong solitaire, a much newer game.


The game was a sensation in America when it was imported from China in the 1920s, with the same mahjong game taking on a number of trademarked names, such as Pung Chow or the Game of Thousand Intelligences. Part of Mahjong nights in America were to decorate rooms in Chinese style and dress like Chinese (see Bill Bryson's Made in America, Chapter 16). Several hit songs was also recorded during the mahjong fad, most notably Since Ma is Playing Mah Jong.


American mahjong, which was mainly played by women during the time, grew from this craze, and in the 1930s, after many revisions of the rules (including some that were considered fundamentals in other variants, such as the notion of a standard hand) led to the formation of the National Mah Jongg League in 1937, along with the first American mahjong rulebook, Maajh: The American Version of the Ancient Chinese Game. Despite it being Chinese in origin and accepted by players of all racial backgrounds when first introduced by Babcock, American Mahjong is considered a Jewish game, as many American mahjong players are of Jewish descent, and the NMJL was founded by Jewish players and considered a Jewish organization.


Today, the popularity and demographic of players of Mahjong differs greatly from country to country. In America, most players of American mahjong are women. In Japan, there has been a much greater emphasis on gambling before other legal public gamblings were devised and the gender of the players is much less divided. There are also many governing bodies of Mahjong, many of them hosting exhibition games and tournaments. In Japan, video arcades have introduced Mahjong arcade machines that can be connected to others over the internet, as well as video games that allow a victorious player to view pictures of women in varying stages of undress.


Main Variations

Thare are not one, but many variations of mahjong. In many places, players observe one version, and are either often unaware of other variations, or claim that other variations are incorrect. Although many variations today differ only by scoring, there are several main variations of Mahjong.

  • Chinese Classical Mahjong is the oldest variety of Mahjong, and was the version introduced to America in the 1920s under various names.
  • Hong Kong Mahjong is the most common form of Mahjong, differing in minor scoring details with the Chinese Classical variety.
  • Japanese Mahjong is a standardized form of Mahjong in Japan, found prevalently in video games. In addition to scoring changes, the rules of riichi and dora are unique highlights of Japanese Mahjong.
  • Western Classical Mahjong is a descendant of the version of Mahjong introduced by Babcock to America in the 1920s. The evolution of Mahjong in America led to American Mahjong. Today, this term largely refers to the Wright-Patterson rules, used in the US 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 that has the greatest divergence from traditional Mahjong, with the introduction of Joker tiles, the Charleston, as well as melds of five or more tiles, and eschewing the Chow and the notion of a standard hand. Because of this divergence, the NMJL and AMJA variations (which differ from each other by minor scoring differences) is commonly referred to as Mahjongg (with two Gs, possibly hyphenated). Purists of Mahjong claim that the divergence from standard Mahjong makes American Mahjong not a "true Mahjong", and thus should be considered a separate game in and of itself.

Various attempts have been made to standardize the rules of Mahjong for international competition, but they have largely failed. However, the various attempts had a common thread that the rules were to be based largely on the traditional rules, with the riichi rule from Japanese Mahjong, while completely eschewing the concepts of American Mahjong altogether.


Equipment

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Mahjong is a game that is generally played with a set of Mahjong tiles. Many common sets have 144 tiles.

Mahjong can be played either with a set of Mahjong tiles, or less commonly, a set of Mahjong playing cards. Playing cards are often used when travelling as it reduces space and is lighter than their tile counterparts, but are of a lower quality in return. In this article, "tile" will be used to denote both playing cards and tiles.


Many Mahjong sets will also include a set of chips or bone tiles for scoring, as well as indicators denoting the dealer and the wind of the round. Some sets may also include racks to hold tiles or chips (although in many sets the tiles are generally sufficiently thick so that they can stand on their own), with one of them being different to denote the dealer's rack.


Computer implementations of Mahjong are also available: these allow you to play against computer opponents, or against human opponents over the internet.


Setting up the board

The following sequence is for setting up a standard Hong Kong (or Singapore) game. Casual or beginning players may wish to proceed directly to gameplay.


Prevailing Wind and Game Wind

To determine the Player Game Wind (門風 or 自風), each player throws three dice (two in some variants) and the player with the highest total is chosen as the dealer (also called the banker). The dealer's Wind is now East, the player to the right of the dealer has South wind, the next player to the right has West and the fourth player has North. Game Wind changes after every round, unless the dealer wins. In some variations, the longer the dealer remains as the dealer, the higher the value of each hand.


The Prevailing Wind (場風) is always set to East when starting. It changes after the Game Wind has rotated around the board, that is, after each player has lost as the dealer.


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.


These winds are also significant as winds are often associated with a member of a Flower tile group, typically 1 with East, 2 with South, 3 with West, and 4 with North.


Dealing tiles

All tiles are placed face down and shuffled. Each player then stacks a row of tiles two deep in front of him, the length of the row depending on the number of tiles in use:

  • 136 tiles: 17 tiles for all players
  • 144 tiles: 18 tiles for all players
  • 148 tiles: 19 tiles for dealer and player opposite, 18 for rest
  • 152 tiles: 19 tiles for all players

The dealer throws three dice and sums up the total. Counting counterclockwise so that the dealer is '1', a player's row is chosen. Starting at the right edge, 'sum' tiles are counted and shifted to the right.


The dealer now takes a block of 4 tiles to the left of the divide. The player to the dealer's right takes 4 tiles to the left, and players (counterclockwise) take blocks of 4 tiles (clockwise) until all players have 12 tiles for 13-tile variations and 16 for 16-tile variations. In 13-tile variations, each player then takes one more tile to make a 13-tile hand. In practice, in order to speed up the dealing procedure, the dealer often takes one extra tile during the dealing procedure to start their turn.


The board is now ready and new tiles will be taken from the wall where the dealing left off, proceeding clockwise. In some special cases discussed later, tiles are taken from the other end of the wall, commonly referred to as the back end of the wall. In some variations, a group of tiles at the back end, known as the dead wall, is reserved for this purpose instead. In such variations, the dead wall may be visually separated from the main wall, but it is not required.


Unless the dealer has already won (see below), the dealer then discards a tile.


Note: The dealing process with tiles is ritualized and complex to prevent cheating. Casual players, or players with Mahjong playing cards, may wish to simply shuffle well and deal out the tiles with less ceremony.


Charleston

In the American variations, it is required that before each hand begins, three tiles are passed to each opponent. This move is called the Charleston, and is a distinctive feature of American-style Mahjong that may have been borrowed from card games.


Gameplay

Each player is dealt either 13 tiles for 13-tile variations or 16 tiles for 16-tile variations.


A turn consists of a player drawing a tile from the wall (or draw pile) and placing it in his hand. He then discards a tile to the table, which signals the end of his or her turn, and the player to the right plays next. It is good etiquette to announce the name of the discarded tile out loud. Many variations require that discards be placed in an orderly fashion in front of the player, and some may require that discarded tiles be placed face down.


Flower Tiles

Flower tiles, when dealt or drawn, must be immediately replaced by a tile from the dead wall, or if no dead wall exists, the back end of the wall. They are immediately exposed (placed in view on the table on front of the player's tiles). At the start of each round, where two or more players may have flower tiles, flower tiles are replaced starting with the dealer and moving to the right. Flower tiles may or may not have point value, and in some variations, possession of all the flower tiles wins the round regardless of the actual contents of the hand.


In American Mahjong, however, Flower tiles are not instantly exposed and replaced, as they may be melded with other Flower tiles in the same group (in essence, they are treated as if they were another set of honor tiles) or be used as a requirement of a winning hand. Early versions of American Mahjong used Flower tiles as Joker tiles.


Joker Tiles

A feature of several variations, most notably American variations of Mahjong, is the notion of wild card or Joker tiles. They may be used as a substitute for any tile in a hand (or, in some variations, only tiles in melds). 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.


Melds

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A pong or pung is a set of three identical tiles.
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A kong is a set of four identical tiles. American Mahjong also has terms for melds of five or more identical tiles.
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A chow is a set of three suited tiles in sequence.

When a player discards a tile, any other player may "call" or "bid" for it in order to complete a meld (a certain set of tiles) in his or her own hand. The disadvantage of doing this is that the player must now expose the completed meld to the other players, giving them an idea of what type of hand he or she is creating. This also creates an element of strategy, as in many variations, discarding a tile that allows another player to win the game causes the discarding player to lose points (or pay the winner more in a game for money).


Most variants (again, with the notable exception of American Mahjong) allow three types of melds. When a meld is declared through a discard, the player must state the type of the meld to be declared and place the meld face-up. The player must then discard a tile, and play continues to the right. Because of this, turns may be skipped in the process.

  • Pong or Pung (碰 pinyin peng, Japanese pon) - A pong or pung is a set of three identical tiles. In American Mahjong, where it is possible to meld Flower tiles, a pong may also refer to a meld of three of the four flower tiles in a single group. American Mahjong may also have hands requiring a knitted triplet - three tiles of identical rank but of three different suits. The name pong or pung is often used rather than the correct (ie. hanyu pinyin) peng, as it was the term introduced by Babcock to America in the 1920s.
  • Kong (槓/杠 pinyin gang, Japanese kan) - A kong is a set of four identical tiles. Because all other melds contain three tiles, a Kong must be immediately exposed when explicitly declared. If the fourth tile is formed from a discard, it is said to be an exposed Kong (明槓/明杠, pinyin ming gang). If all four tiles were formed in the hand, it is said to be a concealed Kong (暗槓/暗杠, pinyin an gang). It is also possible to form a Kong if the player has an exposed Pung and draws the fourth tile. In any case, a player must draw an extra tile from the back end of the wall (or from the dead wall, if it exists) and discard as normal. Play then continues to the right. Once a Kong is formed, it cannot be split up (say, if you wanted to instead use one tile as part of a Chow), and thus, it may be advantageous not to immediately declare a Kong. American Mahjong may also have melds of higher numbers of identical tiles. Like the pong, kong is often used rather than the correct gang because it was the term introduced by Babcock to America.
  • Chow (吃 chi, in some versions 上 shang) - A chow is a meld of three suited tiles in sequence. Unlike other melds, an exposed Chow may only be declared off the discard of the player on the left. American Mahjong does not have a formal chow (that is, you cannot declare chows), but some hands may require that similar sequences be constructed in the hand. Some American variations may also have the knitted sequence, where the three tiles are of three different suits. Sequences of higher length are usually not permissible (unless it forms more than one meld). Again, chow is used over chi generally because it was a term introduced by Babcock.
  • Eye (將 jiang, in some versions 眼 yan, also Pair) - The pair, while not a meld (and thus, cannot be declared or formed with a discard), is the final component to the standard hand. It consists of two identical tiles.

It is to note that American mahjong hands may have tile constructions that are not melds, such as "NEWS" (having one of each wind). As they are not melds, they cannot be formed off discards, and in some variations, cannot be constructed in part or in whole by Joker tiles.


When two or more players call for a discarded tile, a player taking the tile to win the hand has precedence over all others, followed by pong or kong declarations, and lastly chows. In American Mahjong, where it may be possible for two players needing the same tile for melds, the meld of a higher number of identical tiles takes precedence. If two or more players call for a meld of the same precedence (or to win), the player closest to the right wins out (but the game may be declared an abortive draw if two or more players call a tile for the win, again depending on the variation). In particular, if a call to win overrides a call to form a Kong, such a move is called robbing the Kong, and may give a scoring bonus.


There is generally an informal convention as to the amount of time allowed to make a call for a discarded tile before the next player takes its turn. In American Mahjong, this "window of opportunity" is explicitly stated in the rules, where in other variants, it is generally viewed that when the next player's turn starts (ie. the tile leaves the wall), the opportunity has been lost.


Ready Hands

When a hand is one tile short of winning, the hand is said to be a ready hand. 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 most amount of tiles that you can wait for is 13 (the thirteen terminals, a nonstandard special hand).


Some variations of Mahjong, most notably Japanese variations, allow a player to declare riichi (立直 - sometimes known as reach as it is phonetically similar). A declaration of riichi is a promise that any tile drawn by the player is immediately discarded unless it constitutes a win. A player who declares riichi and wins usually receives a point bonus for their hand, while a player who declares riichi and loses is usually penalized in some fashion. When four players declare a riichi, the game is a draw. Declaring a nonexistent riich is penalized.


Draws

If only the dead wall remains and no one has won, the round is drawn (流局 liu ju, Japanese Ryuukyoku) or goulashed. A new round begins, and depending on the variant, game wind may change.


Abortive Draws

In some variations, abortive draws (draws where the game is declared drawn while tiles are available) are possible.


Japanese Mahjong

In Japanese Mahjong, abortive draws can be declared under the following conditions:

  • 九種幺九倒牌 (kyuu shu yao kyuu tou pai): If, on a player's first turn, and with no melds declared, a player has nine different terminal or honor tiles, the player may declare the round to be drawn (but could also go for the nonstandard thirteen terminals hand as well).
  • 三家和 (san ka agari): If three players claim the same discard in order to win the round, the round is drawn.
  • 四風子連打 (suu fontsu renda): If, on the first turn without any meld declarations, all four players discard the same wind tile, the hand is drawn.
  • 四家立直 (suu ka riichi): If all four players declare riichi, the round is drawn.
  • 四槓流れ (suu kan nagare): The round is drawn when the fourth kong is declared, unless all four kongs were declared by a single player. In this case, the round is drawn when another player declares a kong.

Winning

A player wins the round (胡, hu) by creating a standard mahjong hand (in Western Classical variants, this is known as creating a Mahjong, and the process of winning is called going Mahjong) which consists of a certain number of melds, four for 13-tile variations and five for 16-tile variations, and a pair. Some variations may also require that winning hands be of some point value.


Variations may also have special nonstandard hands that a player can make (in this sense, American Mahjong is a variant where only special hands exist).


Turns and Rounds

If the dealer wins the game, they will stay as the dealer. Otherwise, the player to the right becomes dealer and the player's wind becomes the Game Wind, in the sequence East-South-West-North.


After the wind returns to East (ie. each player has been the dealer), a round is complete and the Prevailing Wind will change, again in the sequence East-South-West-North. A full game of mahjong ends after 4 rounds, ie. when the North Prevailing Wind round is over.


Scoring

Main article: Scoring in Mahjong


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 round.


While the basic gameplay is more or less the same throughout mahjong, the greatest divergence between variations lies in the scoring systems. Like the gameplay, there is a generalized system of scoring, based on the method of winning and the winning hand, from which Chinese and Japanese (among notable systems) base their roots. American mahjong generally has greatly divergent scoring rules (as well as greatly divergent gameplay 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. Like with gameplay, many attempts have been made to create an international standard of scoring, but most are not widely accepted.


Points (terminology of which differs from variation to variation) are obtained by matching the winning hand and the winning condition with a specific set of criteria, with different criteria scoring different values. Some of these criteria may be subsets of other criteria (for example, having a meld of one Dragon versus having a meld of all of them), and in these cases, only the most general criteria is scored. The points obtained may be translated into scores for each player using some (typically exponential) function. When gambling with mahjong, these scores are typically directly translated into sums of money. Some criteria may be also in terms of both points and score.


Trivia

Little known to most players, 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 diao (弔 or variant 吊) or 1000 coins called guan (貫). Mahjong's connection to the ancient Chinese currency system is consistent with its alleged derivation from the game named ma diao (馬吊).


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 received the maximium allowed winning of a round, it is called man guan (滿貫 lit. full string of coin.)


Related articles

External links

  • One can try the game (American version) on line at http://games.yahoo.com.
  • Mahjong FAQ (http://www.sloperama.com/mjfaq.html) of newsgroup news://rec.games.mahjong
  • Rules of Singapore Mahjong (http://sky116688.tripod.com/mahjong/rules.html)
  • National Mah-Jongg League (http://www.nationalmahjonggleague.org/)
  • Guide to Japanese Mahjong arcade games (http://mahjonginmame.nm.ru/)
  • http://www.geocities.com/gracefiles/mahjong.html - How To Play Mah Jong (Easy Guide)
  • How to Play the Japanese Three Player Mahjong Variation on the Standard 4-Player Game (http://www.hirohurl.net/mahjong/3pmjintro.html)
  • Japanese Mah Jong Rules (http://www.delfosse.com/mahjong.html) Description of game play, rules, exceptions, hands listings.
  • Nan's Mah Jong Notes (http://www.xs4all.nl/~korntner/mahjong/nanette/nan_notes.html)

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