Mahjong, aka Mah Jongg, is a popular Chinese game played with sets of tiles. Like many popular games, Mah Jongg has a small infinity of regional variations, from the Chinese prevailing wind system to the American Mahjong with special bingo-like scoring cards.
How to play Mahjong
Mahjong is a Chinese game invented near the beginning of the 20th Century that requires skill and strategy. This article explains the basic rules of Mahjong, but there are many variations, so make sure that all players are aware of which version you’re playing before you begin.
Part 1: Overview of Mahjong
The goal of Mahjong is to clear the board by removing all the tiles from the original layout and setting them up into four sets and one pair (a “Mahjong”)[
- The four sets are called Pung, Sheung or Kong sets.
- Pung is a set of three identical tiles from any set
- Sheung is a run of three tiles from a suit — for example, you could hold a 4, 5, and six of bamboos
- Kong is four identical tiles from any set
- Ngan is a pair of the same tiles and is also needed to get Mahjong
The game uses 136 tiles. These tiles have 36 characters, 36 bamboos, 36 circles, 16 wind tiles, and 12 dragon tiles. The groups of 36 tiles are each divided into 4 sets of numbers 1-9.
There is also a dice that is rolled in order to decide how the tiles are dealt.
Part 2: Setting Up The Game
Start with four players. Because of the number of tiles, Mahjong is a game played by strictly four players.
Choose a starting dealer. This person will deal out the first set of tiles to all the players.
Go over the rules with all the players. You will want to set the maximum number of points and the hand that represents it.
- The maximum number of points (called the Fan) must be held by the winning hand.
Set up stands for each player, which will keep the wall of tiles in place.
Part 3: Playing The Game
The dealer shuffles the four wind tiles and deals them to the players. The four tiles represent different directions and will determine how the players sit.
- The wind tiles are North, South, East and West and the players should sit accordingly around the table.
The dealer then shuffles all the tiles on the table face down.
Each player takes 34 tiles and keeps them face down.
Players then should stack their tiles in a “wall” that is 17 tiles across and two tiles high. They should remain face down and players cannot look at the walls in front of them.
The dealer rolls the dice. Whatever number the dealer rolls, he or she counts that many tiles from the right edge of the wall and begins dealing tiles from the left of that spot.
The dealer deals tiles in a clockwise fashion to each player. Each player will receive 13 tiles except for the dealer, who will have 14 tiles.The dealer starts by discarding a tile. When you discard a tile, place it face up in the middle of the square of walls face up so that all the players can see it.
- Players can look at their tiles but should not show them to others.
The dealer starts by discarding a tile. When you discard a tile, place it face up in the middle of the square of walls face up so that all the players can see it.
The next player discards a tile. The player to the right of the dealer (East) then discards one of their tiles and can either pick up one of the face up tiles or pick one up from the wall.
- The idea is to pick up tiles that will help you reach your Mahjong hand -so for example if the face up tile combines with one of the tiles in your hand to create a pair, you would want to pick it up.
Then the player to that person’s right (South) should discard a tile face up and either pick one up from the discarded tiles or from the wall.
Continue discarding and picking up a tile with each player in a clockwise fashion.
The players should continue until someone wins by declaring Mahjong or all the tiles are used up.
Calculate the score at the end. Make sure that the winner has a combination of four sets and one pair. If all the tiles are used and no one has declared Mahjong, then there is no winner.
Mahjong is generally considered a game of luck but there is actually a fair amount of strategy that can be incorporated into the game.
- When tiles are first received, a player’s hand should be evaluated. A player must count how many tiles they are away from a victory, in the quickest possible method. If four or less tiles are needed, then a player should expect to win within 9 moves and should try and play to win. If five tiles are needed, a player needs to hope to have luck and to draw good tiles. If six or more tiles are needed, a player should give up and play defensively, hoping for a draw.
- In order to play to win, a player needs to take some chances. He should discard any tiles that are not needed, even lucky tiles. After six or seven tiles, a Chow or Pong can be declared.
- If playing not to lose, then a player should discard cautiously. If after four draws, only three tiles are needed, then a player should try to go for a win.
- When playing for a draw a player should not be the first to discard a dragon or a wind, except their own. A player should not play for doubles and should not claim tiles for a triplet. A player should keep their hand concealed and not go for a Chow or Pong.
Discarding should be done in the following order:
- Isolated Early Winds – these are worthless to a player and also to the opponents, unless they already hold some. These should be discarded very early before they are able to Pong. Unless the player is the dealer, he should start with East and then discard the wind of the player on the left. This should be followed by the player opposite and then on the right.
- Terminals – If a player holds 1,6 and 9, what is discarded first? If a 2-3 is taken then the 1 can be used. If a 7-8 is taken then the 6 can be used, and the nine is not needed. So the 9 should be discarded first.
- Dragons – These should be discarded earlier, rather than later, in order to stop opponents from calling a Pong. Pairs should be kept but a player should discard isolated ones straight after the winds, or not at all.
- Special Winds – The prevailing wind is a wanted tile by all the players. This tile should be discarded early, but a player’s own wind should be kept until it has been discarded twice by other players. After turn 9 or 10, a player should be aware that their wind might be used as a pair by another player. A player’s double wind is very useful so it should be kept as late as possible in the game.
- Simples – 4, 5 and 6 are very valuable tiles and should be kept as long as possible. Tactics can be changed after turn 10 and a player should keep note what other players are collecting. After turn 10, winds, terminals and dragons are very dangerous, as are simples.
A player forfeits a game and stops to make plays, causing an abandoned game.
To make a play – Pong, Chow or Kong.
One of the three suits.
A game of Mahjong played without the basic tiles.
The four flower tiles and the four season tiles, also known as optional tiles. These cannot be kept in a player’s hand and must be revealed or declared on a turn.
Breaking the Wall
A process used to decide the area of the wall from which tiles are dealt to the players.
Building the Wall
After the shuffling process, players each build a wall with their 17 or 18 tiles, stacked two tiles high. The structures are pushed towards each other to form a square known as the Mahjong wall.
One of the three suits – also known as a wan.
Chinese word for a sequence of three consecutive tiles of the same suit – also known as a Chow.
The lowest scoring hand, containing mixed suits and a combination of Chows, Pongs and Kongs.
A sequence of three consecutive tiles in the same suit, also known as Chi.
One of the three common suits.
Claim a Discard
To pick up a tile which was discarded by another player.
To match up tiles to form a group of three or more tiles.
108 tiles comprised of the four sets of the same suit, with each tile numbered from 1 – 9 in three different suits – circles, bamboo and character.
A winning hand made up of at least 14 tiles.
A complete hand which is not revealed to other players until a win is declared.
Pongs or Kongs that are formed by being dealt to the player or by picking a tile from the wall.
A discarded tile that can not longer be played. Once a tile is discarded, it cannot be recalled by the discarder. If it is not picked up by another player at the next turn, it becomes a dead tile – unusable.
A section of the Mahjong wall from which players receive replacement tiles for Kongs and bonus tiles.
The player chosen to begin the game by breaking the wall.
A player must reveal or declare their bonus tiles to the opponents at the beginning of their turn.
When a player removes a tile from his hands and places it, face up, into the discard area or well.
The section of the Mahjong table in the middle of the wall where unwanted tiles are discarded.
One of the honor tiles. There are three types of dragon tiles – red, white and green.
When the game ends after all the tiles in the live wall have been used and there is no winner.
One of the wind directions used to determine the direction of play and who the dealer is at the beginning of the game.
A hand made up of one or more sets that have been revealed during the course of the game.
A Pong, Kong or Chow made up from discarded tiles.
A matching pair of tiles, which is generally needed to complete a Mahjong hand and declare a win, along with four matching sets of three or four tiles.
The bonus tiles which feature a picture of a flower.
The four winds symbolize the seating arrangements: East, West, North and South. A player who is the East Wind, gets to be the dealer and starts the game.
A game is a set of plays between four players, starting with the East Wind. A game ends when a player goes Mahjong or a draw is declared.
The end of the game when someone goes Mahjong or a draw is called.
The term used when a player has completed his hand with the required sets and has won the game.
A set of four identical tiles, most often referred to as a Kong.
Great Wall of China
The four lines of players’ tiles which are pushed together to form a square, or Mahjong wall.
The set of tiles held by a player during the game.
Hong Kong Rules
The most common set of rules used in Mahjong.
The Wind and Dragon tiles are elevated from the common suit tiles and bonus tiles.
A set of four identical tiles – also known as a Gong.
Kong, Robbing the..
Taking the fourth tile of an exposed Kong from another player, resulting in a win.
The dealer performs this ritual when all the tiles are being distributed from the wall. The dealer does not wait until all the players have 13 tiles before selecting his first tile to play.
The section of the wall from which the tiles are dealt and the players select their tiles during the game.
Replacement tiles that are picked from the dead wall as a replacement for bonus tiles or a fourth tile used in a Kong.
A winning hand combination of tiles with a combination of Pongs, Kongs or Chows and a pair. To go Mahjong means to call the winning hand.
Two identical tiles, also known as the eyes.
A set of tiles which make up a Chow Pong or Kong.
A Chow, Pong or Kong – a set of matched tiles.
To combine tiles into sets of three or more to form a Pong, Kong or Chow.
A hand which consists of sets of tiles from more than one suit.
One of the wind directions used to determine seating arrangements at the start of play.
The Flower tiles or the Season tiles.
A player’s wind direction.
A set of two identical tiles, also known as eyes.
Penalties are sometimes granted when a player makes errors in play.
To select a tile from the live wall or from the discard area and to put it in your hand.
A move made by a player.
A set of three identical tiles.
A hand that is one tile short of winning.
Tiles picked from the dead wall in order to replace bonies tiles or tiles laid down with a Kong.
To turn a tile face up on the table so other players’ viewing.
A hand containing one or more sets of revealed tiles.
Matching sets that are revealed to the opponents during the game.
A set of consecutive numbered tiles made up from the common suits.
The total number of points gained at the end of the hand.
Four bonus or optional tiles depicting the seasons of the year.
A group of matching tiles – Chow, Pong or Kong; and eyes.
When a player selects a tile from the wall.
Three tiles in consecutive order, also known as a Chow.
A Chow, Pong or Kong, or pair.
Suit tiles from numbers 2-8.
One of the wind directions used to indicate seating arrangements.
One of the three symbols displayed on the common tiles – bamboos, characters or circles.
The 108 tiles numbered 1- 9 in the bamboo, character or circle suits.
Suit tiles numbered 1 or 9.
The structure made from the tiles at the beginning of play. When all four walls are pushed together, they form the Great Wall of China .
Another name for the character suit.
One of the wind directions used to determine seating arrangements.
One of the honor tiles indicating a compass direction.
A special disk and name plate combination that indicates the players’ seating positions – East, West, South and North.
A complete hand used to call a Mahjong.