Learning Mahjong and Its Crazy Complexities

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Four retired women sit around a card table casually sipping mint juleps. Before them are a multitude of small rectangular tiles with strange symbols etched onto their bright white faces. These steadfast friends take turns tossing tiles into the center of the table while shouting out foreign-sounding phrases at a pace more commonly seen in much younger crowds. One says “Three Bam.” Another offers up “Green Dragon.” When the third woman announces “Seven Dot,” the fourth snatches a tile from the third adorned with seven oddly-oriented dots on its face and proudly proclaims, “Mahjong.” Those of us oblivious to the rules look on in confusion and perhaps even a bit of incredulity. Why is this seemingly outlandish game so popular with our grandmothers?

Well, it turns out it’s popular with far more than just a bunch of beloved bubbes. Mahjong is played by countless millions worldwide with nearly 8 million players in Japan alone. As a board game enthusiast, I must admit a distant fascination with the game. Like Bridge, it’s a game that I always planned to investigate but never seemed to get around to — until just about 10 days ago. My family broke out a tile set, and we sat around learning some basic rules. It was strange to be sure, but oddly captivating with much the same fascination one gets watching a cat play inside a box.

After that first half-digested game, I was curious enough to start doing some research. Little did I know that my modest intention of simply “learning the rules” would take on such monumental proportions. I would later find out that what I was introduced to was the American variant of the game. It turns out that Mahjong has nearly as many variations as Baskin-Robbins has ice cream flavors. Each one has its own rules, scoring, accessories and even tile sets. In fact, I would quickly come to learn that the rules are so fluid that a variant of the same name played by people in one home could be vastly different than the one being played right next door. So how the heck did such a chaotic hobby become so popular? I had to find out.

Mahjong Table and TilesA Brief Description

At the heart of every flavor of Mahjong is a core game that shares an ancestry with Rummy-based card games. In fact, Mahjong was itself a card game at one time before evolving into a tile game somewhere in the latter half of the 19th Century. As long as you don’t mind holding a hand of roughly 14 cards, the game can be just as easily played with cards today. I should mention that this game has very little to do with the solitaire tile-matching game also called Mahjong that many people are first exposed to.

Players take turns drawing tiles from a larger supply arranged in what’s known as The Wall. Their “hand” of tiles depends on the variant, but the goal remains fairly consistent — draw a new tile from the wall and try to use it to make sets of related tiles. When a player is done, they discard a single unwanted tile. That discarding process is what drives much of the strange language we hear from old Aunt Gert and friends. Players announce the tile that they’re discarding so that the other players can decide if they want to steal it. The wording identifies the rank (most tiles have one) and its suit. There are three main suits made up of Characters, Dots and Bamboo (or Bam for short). The suits range from a value of 1 to 9 so a discard of a Bamboo three gets us the call of “Three Bam” I mentioned previously. Each of the three main suits includes four copies of each tile, so there are four 7 of Bamboo tiles, four 6 of Dots tiles and so on.

Most variants require a player to amass a few sets of related tiles along with a pair to complete a winning hand. For example, in Japanese Mahjong (and many others), a typical final hand might have a 1, 2 and 3 of Characters; a 7, 8 and 9 of Dots; a 9, 9 and 9 of Bams; a 1, 1 and 1 of Bams; and a 1 and 1 of Dots. In total, Mahjong tile sets range from roughly 130 tiles to over 160 tiles depending on the type of Mahjong played. The American version includes many additional tiles (like Jokers) not used in other versions. Several Asian variants also include the use of Dragon tiles and Wind tiles.  A player with a complete hand scores points based on its complexity, and everyone’s points are adjusted accordingly. After several hands, the winner is the player with the most points.

The description of Mahjong that I just provided is about as complete as suggesting that, if you’ve visited my neighborhood, you’ve seen all that the world has to offer. The depth and options can be quite mind-boggling to say the least.

Politics, Politics, Everywhere

One of the very first conundrums that I encountered on my journey of discovery was the polarization of the Mahjong community. Political parties would stand in awe at the vitriol that I’ve seen offered up from proponents of one variation of Mahjong toward another. It seems that everyone everywhere knows the very best way to play this game and none of them agree on what that is. The obvious one for me to start with was the most surprising. The American game seems incredibly popular anywhere in America and almost nowhere outside of it. Even within the country there are clear lines drawn on generational fronts. The few younger players tend to prefer other more Asian versions, while older players swear by the American version. It’s not until you delve into the details that you realize why.

American Mahjong is so distinct that the larger Mahjong community won’t even refer to it as Mahjong. It has now become known as Mah Jongg. There are also two main ruling bodies that oversee the rules for the game. The largest is the National Mah Jongg League (NMJL for short). These two organizations produce new scoring sheets that literally change the rules of the game every single year. Players pay the league $8 or $9 (2016 pricing for regular and large-print cards) and receive scoring cards filled with a myriad of tiny printed characters outlining the various official winning hands for that year. If they all agree, players can use cards from any past year, but more serious players update yearly. This assures that they’ll be playing the same game as their peers. The stunning part of all of this is that the company behind it charges that fee for every single card. Thus, four large-print cards cost a whopping $36 plus shipping costs — for a single piece of paper with some printing on it. Seriously?! I’ve heard vague rumors that the organization donates the proceeds to charities or that they use it to host tournaments, but the entire affair just seems sordid to me. It also makes sense that this only seems to appeal to seniors. Why? They’re retired, can invest the time to play more often than anyone else and new rules essentially keep the game fresh. In my humble opinion, it also drives off the vast majority of people who might be interested in it. It’s one thing to learn some house rules for Monopoly, but imagine if those rules changed every year and you had to buy a new copy just to be able to play with your friends.

In Asian communities, there’s a huge divide between the more popular Hong Kong variant and the Japanese variant known as Riichi (or Reach in English). The latter variant is the one most often used in gambling-based Mahjong video games. Online Internet play generally focuses on Asian varieties, especially because of the legal copyright issues surrounding the American game. The main draw of these versions is that the rules and scoring are static (aside from any local house rules). If you learn Hong Kong Mahjong, you’ll pretty much be able to learn all of the nuances and play that game for the next 50 years.

The Devil is in the Details

Anyone curious enough, or perhaps brave enough, to give the game a shot would be best advised to prepare for an overload of detail and complexity beyond almost any other game of which I’m aware with the possible exception of Bridge. First, new players will have to be okay with learning entirely foreign terminology. Some of the variants pretty much depend upon it to stand any chance of playing beyond a single game or two. Second, scoring of many variants is so incredibly complex that countless scoring applications can be found on every type of phone, tablet and computer. Here’s a typical example from the Japanese game.

In order for your winning hand to count, it must have “yaku.” Yaku defines different types of combinations of tiles. It’s not enough to just get sets of tiles. They have to be the right sets of tiles to count. One yaku involves collecting four sets of three related tiles all of the same suit plus a pair of that same suit. Another involves collecting identical sequences of each suit (the 3, 4 and 5 of each of the three suits, for example) plus any pair, but it only counts if you build the hand using only the tiles that you draw and not any tiles stolen from other player’s discards. Some more complex hands are called “yakuman” hands. Each of these yaku are worth different levels of points called “han.” Easier yaku are worth one or two han, while more complex yaku can be worth much more. Sound confusing? Well, that’s just one part of the puzzle.

Scoring a valid winning hand involves a mathematical equation that would scare away almost any new player (thus explaining the popularity of scoring apps). There are subpoints called “fu” that add to your score. Just winning a hand gets you 20 fu. You’ll get 2 fu if you draw your own final winning tile. The kind of tile that you need to go out also will determine additional fu. Once you add up the fu, you round it up to the nearest 10, so 28 fu becomes 30 fu. At that point, a player applies this equation to the score — fu × 2(2+han). Yeah, you just read that right, and you’re still not done. That number is rounded up to the nearest 100 and multiplied by another number based on which player went out and how. For example, when the dealer goes out by drawing their own final tile, the three other players pay the winner 2 times the last point total. I just know that you’re dying to find out what happens when a non-dealer player goes out the same way. In that case, the dealer pays the winner 2 times those points, while the other players each pay the winner the regular value. A typical Riichi hand will score in the single-digit thousands.

Rain Sucks Unless You Like Singing in It

It’s enough to literally make your head spin. Despite all of this, I chose to tackle Riichi because it reminded me most of my favorite card game, Tichu. Tichu isn’t the easiest game to pick up, either, but once you do, it’s absolutely wonderful to play. It makes most other card games seem almost silly by comparison, so I hoped that I might find the same payoff waiting for me at the conclusion of learning Riichi. It’s been 10 days, and I still don’t have even a loose grip on the game. It’s clear that the endeavor could take me years to get comfortable with, yet I’m absolutely addicted already. Remember that there are four players involved and hands can end in draws. This means that the best players will go out roughly 20% of the time or, better stated, not win 80% of the hands. The sheer anticipation of building a hand, changing your mind, going for something else, coming within a single tile and then watching another player go out before you is absolutely without equal to any other game that I’ve played. Likewise, the euphoria you feel when you finally do draw that last tile is exhilarating. Pulling off a major hand? Priceless.

Perhaps the most stupefying part of learning any form of Mahjong is the speed at which seasoned players play. New players can take minutes to figure out what to do and longer to consult their NMJL player cards and list of 30-plus Japanese yaku to decide what tile to draw. Watch Grandma play, and you’ll think that someone juiced her julep for sure.

If You Decide to Dance in the Puddles

For those of you who still think that this game might be for you despite all of the complexity — I really hope that some of you do — there are countless wonderful resources all over the Internet to help you get started, including thriving online communities filled with great people who are eager to help you learn. There are also a slew of great apps out there to help you along your way should you want to learn in a more solo environment at your own pace. I highly recommend the following sites and resources to get started.

If you want to play on your Android phone against computer players or even real people online, then try out Maujong. For Windows PCs, I recommend Four Winds. It’s a bit dated, but it boasts incredible support and the ability to play almost any major variant of Mahjong. The full version costs $30, but it’s well worth it. If you want to try out something free, give GameDesign‘s online Japanese game a shot.

I also recommend posting any questions that you might have to the wonderful mahjong subreddit. You’ll also be amazed at how thorough and respected the Wikipedia articles are on all of the different types of Mahjong and their rules. It includes countless detailed pages on history, scoring, rules and much more. You can get started here.

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2 Comments

  1. I am an avid mah jongg player, using the National Mah Jongg League rules. I have no desire to try the Asian versions, as they seem much more complicated. Yes, the National Mah Jongg League does give money to charities. Any group that orders at least 35 cards at a time gets a donation. Having a new card every year (not new rules, just new hands) makes the game much more interesting. If someone plays a lot, he or she is ready for new hands to try after a year. I hate to admit it, but I am a senior citizen.

    • Ella, thanks for the comments. I totally get the interest and the benefit of new cards for people playing continually. It makes total sense. However, speaking with potentially new players gives a completely different view. It drives many of them away keeping this game from growing into something everyone can enjoy.

      First what it’s worth, many people in speak with about the Asian variants find the American version to be the most complicated way to play. They argue, as I mentioned, that once you learn the hands they’re learned.

      I also am just fundamentally against the costs the NMJL charge. As a game designer myself I do not see where the costs are in line with the effort. In seeing just a few years of hands I already see lots a repeat hands showing up. Everyone is, of course, free to pay whatever they want and I’m sure the player gets a lot of value for that minimal investment. It’s a great game and I just want to see it enjoyed by far more people.

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