How to Learn to Play Mah-Jong

By Jason Belasco

Most people think of mah-jong as "that Chinese game with the noisy tiles." And they'd be right. The game is also known as mah-jongg, ma-diao, mah-cheuck, baak-ling and pung-chow, and playing it can be as complicated as figuring out what to call it; but it's also exciting, challenging and a great gambling alternative to poker. But just because mah-jong can be intense doesn't make it impossible. In fact, you can learn the basics of how to play mah-jong simply by reading this eHow. But take heed: You'll never be as good as us. (By the way, we chose to use the modern spelling of "mah-jong" because it's the easiest to say without completely botching the pronunciation--how do you pronounce "jongg" with two g's, anyway?)

Learning the Basics

A brief history of mah-jong

The history of mah-jong dates back 4,000 years to a time when Chinese aristocrats were the only people on the planet to play the game. The ruling class was so snobby about keeping the game to themselves that they kept the rules a secret from the Chinese peasants. Mah-jong only became public knowledge when China became a republic in 1911.

The game was subsequently introduced to the United States in 1920, quickly gaining popularity and spreading across the country. Since the rules came from across an ocean and had to be translated from Chinese, most Americans played with whatever rules they managed to grasp and made up the rest of them. As a result, several different sets of rules emerged. Fortunately, a standardized set of rules was set up in 1925. Today, the official rules of American mah-jong are determined by the National Mah-Jong League.

The basic concept of mah-jong

You will discover when you get into the rules of mah-jong that the game is actually just a version of gin rummy, albeit much more complicated. It's about grouping tiles (in place of cards) by either suits or sequences. So if you know how to play gin rummy, you're 95 percent there.

Mah-jong must be played with four players. A player's basic goal is to discard and claim tiles to form combinations, until all of her tiles fit a certain pattern. Just like with cards, a mah-jong player's set of tiles is called a "hand," and the game goes around in a circle so that each player gets a turn to organize his tiles into a winning hand.

Points are involved in mah-jong, so it often happens that gambling is involved. But before you slap your paycheck on the table, realize that, while mah-jong is mostly about practice, precision and proficiency, there is also quite a bit of luck involved. (A lot of your success depends on the tiles you draw at the beginning of the game.) But just as in poker, in the long run, better players tend to win more often.

Buying the Game

Before we go any further, it's a good idea to get yourself a set of mah-jong tiles so you can see what we're babbling about as you learn the rules of the game. As a beginner, there's not much to worry about; just get yourself a cheap set. Nonetheless, here's some potentially useful information:

* A mah-jong set consists of 144 tiles: 108 suit tiles, 28 honor tiles and 8 bonus tiles. Most sets come with three dice, four racks and a handy carrying case. The racks are long, flat boards for you to put your tiles on. They're just like Scrabble tile-holders. Some sets also include score-keeping paraphernalia.

* While about half of the tiles will have dots or lines on them, the other half will have little pictures of Chinese characters. Under the assumption that you don't know how to read Chinese, you have two options: 1. Learn the characters (most follow a pattern or are color coded to help you). 2. Buy a set of Americanized tiles that have numbers on the corner of each tile to help you "read" them. This is the recommended route for Chinese illiterates/mah-jong beginners (i.e., you).

* The price of a mah-jong set varies wildly, depending on the material from which the tiles are created and the size of the tiles.

In the United States, mah-jong cards are also sold, but our advice is to stay away from them. It just ain't mah-jong unless you hear the rapid and noisy clattering of the tiles as you shuffle them around. In fact, the words "mah" and "jong" refer to the sound of birds chattering and plants' leaves "clicking" as they sway in the wind. Spiritual, eh? If you completely disregard this intrinsically poetic aspect of the game, you might as well sit down for a game of rummy with a bunch old men.

Understanding the Tiles

Now here's the hardest part of learning to play mah-jong: getting to know the tiles and what each of them means. This is a difficult step, because it involves some foreign-language skills--and, for readers under the age of 4, some counting.

There are three different tile categories: suits, honors and bonuses. We'll go over each one in detail.

Suit tiles

Just as there are four suits in a deck of cards, there are three suits in mah-jong: dots, lines and characters. (Some people call the dots "balls" or "circles" and the lines "bam" or "bamboos.") Each suit has tiles that go from 1 to 9, and there are four tiles of each number in the mah-jong set. Add it all up, and you'll discover that there are 108 suit tiles in all (9 x 4 = 36 dot tiles, 9 x 4 = 36 line tiles, and 9 x 4 = 36 character tiles).

You can calculate the numeric value each suit tile holds by counting the number of dots or lines on the tile. This is just like normal playing cards, where there are five little diamonds on the "five of diamonds" card. The only exception to this is the tile ONE LINE: It does not depict one line, but the image of a bird. But the game will take forever if you sit around and count the number of lines or dots each time you come upon a new tile, though, so familiarize yourself with each number's pattern before playing a real game. Either that, or get the set with the numbers in the corner.

This entire counting system collapses when it comes to the character suit. The character suit consists of the numbers 1 through 9 written out in Chinese characters. Here is where you, as a beginner, should rely on the little numbers on the tiles.

Don't worry about what everything is worth yet. Just realize that, because there are so many suit tiles, they're worth less than the rarer honor tiles. However, because there are so many suit tiles, they're also easier to work with when you're looking to make combinations.

Honor tiles

The honor tiles consist of three colored dragons (white, red and green) and four directional winds (east, south, west and north). There are four of each honor tile in the mah-jong set, leading to a grand total of 28 honor tiles in a set.

* Incongruously, the three types of dragon tiles (again, there are 3 x 4 = 12 dragon tiles total) don't have pictures of dragons on them. Instead, the white dragon has a picture of a rectangle or nothing at all, and the red and green dragons depict Chinese characters. Fortunately, this wacky system is saved by the fact that the red dragon character is written entirely in red and the green dragon is entirely green, so unless you're color blind, there should be no confusion.

* The four directional wind tiles (4 x 4 = 16 in a complete set) depict the Chinese characters for east, south, west and north. But the fact that you don't speak Chinese means that you'll need to use the little "E - S - W - N" hints on the corners of the tiles. If it's any consolation, after learning the characters, chances are that you'll never get lost in the woods in China, even if you have a Chinese compass.

The honor tiles are rarer than the suit tiles, and are therefore worth more. Again, a discussion of scoring will come later.

Bonus tiles

There are eight bonus tiles in a mah-jong set, and each tile depicts a fancy-looking flower or drawing and a number from 1 to 4, so they're easy to pick out.

Bonus tiles are different from suit and honor tiles in that their purpose is to add bonus points onto the total score; they aren't included in the actual playing hand. In fact, when a player draws a bonus tile, he must turn it face up and keep it on his side of the table and draw another tile to replace it. So basically, getting a bonus tile is a good thing that is completely based on luck. You get the bonus points, and you get to go again.

Still with us? If you're just barely there, take some time out now to look over your tiles and really learn what each one is all about before moving on. If you're already getting discouraged, just remember that learning the tiles is the hardest part of the game-- everything after this will be a breeze (or should we say, "a directional wind"?).

Playing the Game

Mah-jong is played at a table--any shape of table will do, as long as players can't peek at one another player's tiles. Exactly four people must play at a time, so gather three of your friends and make the rest study Step 3 as they wait for their turn.

Seating

  1. Sit everyone down.

  2. Have each player roll the dice.

  3. The highest roll gets to be East, the dealer. (If there's a tie, have a "roll-off.")

  4. Going counterclockwise from East is North, then West and finally South. The wind direction that is assigned to each player will matter later when points are totaled. But for now, the only direction of importance is East.

  5. East is the dealer of the first round, which means that he gets to begin the game. East also becomes the prevailing wind of the round, which will also affect scoring later on.

  6. Unless the East player wins the round, the next round will be dedicated to the South wind, where South is the dealer and South is the prevailing wind.

  7. The "dealer" role shifts counterclockwise with each round, unless the current dealer wins the round, in which case he gets to keep the dealer status until he loses.

Building the walls

Now here comes the fun part. Dump all the mah-jong tiles on the table (face down) and start mixing them all around. Everyone should get her hands, arms and elbows into the pile and mix the tiles around enthusiastically until they're all completely mixed up.

The next step is to build four "walls" of tiles:

  1. Have each player arrange one long row of 18 tiles (face down) in front of his own rack.

  2. Then have each player add another row right on top of the first one (also face down), to make a long wall of 36 tiles total. Yes, this means that you have a row of 18 tiles across, two tiles tall. Once each player has 36 tiles, there should be no more tiles left in the middle.

  3. The racks will come in handy for neat wall-building: Push the tiles against the rack to make your tile row nice and even.

  4. Next, carefully push the four walls together to form a square with an empty playing space in the middle.

Dealing

  1. The dealer (East, in the first round) begins the game by rolling all three dice onto the middle of the table.

  2. Use the number rolled to count counterclockwise, starting with the dealer.

  3. The wall on which the final count lands is to be dismantled first.

  4. From the right of the wall, count the number rolled starting at the right in the stacks of tiles. Here's an example: If the dealer rolled the three dice and got a 5, 3 and 2, the total would be 10.

    Going counterclockwise starting with East as 1, the North would be dismantled first. So North would look at his stack of tiles (18 across, two deep), and starting on his right, count across 10.

  5. Here is where East begins dealing the tiles. East starts by grabbing the first two stacks (four tiles) to the right of the counted stack from the chosen section of the wall. So in our example, the East would reach over and take stacks 11 and 12 and put them in front of his rack.

  6. Then going counterclockwise (as always), North is given the next two stacks to the left of the empty space, then West the next two stacks, then West, then South, then East again.

  7. This is repeated until it has been done three times each. When the dealer gets to the end of a row, he just continues taking stacks from the next wall. At the end, each player should have a total of 12 tiles.

  8. The dealer then draws two more tiles (one stack) for himself, making his total number of tiles 14.

  9. Next, the dealer deals one tile to North, one to West and one to South. (Draw the tiles in the order of top, bottom, next stack top, bottom, and so on.) Now each of the players who is not dealing should have 13 tiles, and East should have 14.

Arranging the tiles

  1. After all of the tiles have been distributed, players may turn their own tiles to face themselves and arrange the tiles in a neat row in front of them. Make sure no one else sees your tiles!

  2. Bonus tiles are immediately turned face up for all the players to see and placed to the right of the player's hand.

  3. After everyone's bonus tiles are exposed, East replaces all of his bonus tiles by drawing tiles from the "dead wall," which is the portion of the wall to the right from where the tiles were dealt. So in our example, you start replacing the bonus tiles from the North's pile (starting at the 10), and moving toward his right.

  4. After East has drawn all of his replacement tiles, North goes next, then West, then South.

  5. If a player has no bonus tiles to replace, just skip him.

  6. It is a good idea at this point for each player to arrange his tiles in some sort of order. When you play cards, you put all the same suits together, and probably in order from 1 to 9; similarly, you should arrange your tiles so all the suits are together and in numerical order. Stick the honor tiles together at one end of the row.

Game Terminology

You are finally ready to begin the game. First we're going to explain what it is you're trying to do with your tiles; we'll then explain the procedure for getting (and discarding) tiles. Also, keep in mind that there are tons of variations on the rules, so we're going to give you the simplest set possible.

The goal of mah-jong is to organize your hand into a pattern consisting of three combinations of chows, pungs and/or kongs, and one pair. Here's a translation:

* Pung: Three-of-a-kind of the exact same tile. So this can be three white dragon tiles, three "five lines" tiles, three "eight characters" tiles, or whatever else you like. Pungs made up of honor tiles are worth more than suit-tiles pungs. When you get three of the exact same tile with suit tiles, it's called a suit pung. When you do it with honor tiles, it's called an honor pung.

* Chow: Three consecutive tiles of the same suit (dots, lines, characters). One-two-three character tiles is a chow, as is 6-7-8 line tiles. While we'll get into the scoring in Step 6, realize now that chows are worth 0 points; they're used only to help complete a hand.

* Kong: Four-of-a-kind of the exact same tile. So four green dragon tiles make a kong, as do four "six dots" tiles. Because it's difficult to collect all four members of a certain tile, they're worth a lot. If another player discards a tile that you pick up to make a kong, you must draw an extra tile from the dead wall to replace it.

* Pair: Pairs are two of a kind of the exact same tile. It can be a pair of suits or honors. They are worth nothing unless they are a pair of dragons, a pair of the prevailing wind or a pair of your own wind. To complete your hand, you must have one (and only one) pair of tiles.

A note about the dead wall: The only times you ever take tiles from the dead wall are when you replace bonus tiles and when you get a kong.

Now for the procedural rules:

  1. Remember how East has 14 tiles, when everybody else has 13? Well East begins the game by discarding any tile that doesn't fit in with the rest. For instance, he might have a nine-dots tile, but also two four-dots and one five-dots. So since the nine-dots isn't looking like a useful tile, he'll discard it. The discarded tile is placed face up in the center of the square walls.

  2. The next player (counterclockwise, so South) has the choice of picking up the tile discarded by East, but only if it completes a chow. If not, the South must draw a tile from the wall (the side from which tiles were dealt, not the dead side).

  3. If South decides to take in East's discarded tile, South must turn over his other two tiles that complete the chow and put the three tiles face-up on the table. The chow tiles get placed to the right of South's hand. South must also discard a tile of his own. So South started with 13 tiles, and after putting his two tiles from his rack that complete the chow, and after discarding a tile of his own, South would have only 10 tiles left on his rack.

  4. Chows can only be claimed by the player who follows a player who just discarded a tile. For example, if West tosses out a "five-dots" that goes with the four-dots and six-dots that North conveniently has, South may pick it up to form the chow. But if it's North that has the four- and six-dots, he may not touch the tile if West threw it out. The only exception is when a player is one chow away from winning the game. In that case, the player can jump in after anyone lays down a useable tile and claim it.

  5. If South decides to draw a tile, after he takes it, he has to discard a tile. And yes, South can discard the tile he just drew if he so chooses.

  6. Anytime a tile is discarded and any another player sees that it completes a pung or kong for his hand, the player should call out "PUNG!" and turn his pair of the same discarded tile face-up to complete the pung. The pung gets placed to the right of the player's hand. The player then discards a tile, and the game continues counterclockwise from him.

  7. Now comes the question: What if someone discards a tile and more than one person wants to use it (say, the person on the right wants to use it as a chow, but someone else wants to use it as a pung)? Then the rule goes as follows: Pungs and kongs take precedence over chows. So if South was about to claim West's discarded tile as a chow, but North calls pung or kong, North gets to claim the tile to complete his combination. Another situation arises if more than one person wants to use a tile as a chow (specifically, the person to the right of the discarder wants to use it, but someone else also wants to use it as her last combination to win the game). In such a case, priority goes to the person who needs the tile to win the game. If both players can use the tile to win the game, priority goes counterclockwise around the table.

  8. Let's say North discards a tile, and South calls out "PUNG!" and uses the discarded tile for his own combination. It would then be the player to South's right who goes next. In other words, West loses his turn. The point is that, if someone ever makes a pung or kong combination, after she does so, the game continues counterclockwise from whoever laid the combination, not whoever discarded the tile.

  9. To win, you must have three combinations and a pair. The three combinations could be anything--two pungs, one kong; one pung, one chow, one kong; three chows--you get the point. The combinations can be achieved by collecting discarded tiles (these combos must be turned face-up and exposed to the rest of the players), or by drawing tiles from the wall (these combos can be kept concealed within the hand).

Keeping Score

In mah-jong, the point is not simply to win--it's to win big. There are several different ways to calculate points at the end of a game. We will be teaching you the "traditional" method because it's the simplest. So here are the rules of scoring:

* Only the winner of a round calculates the point value of his tiles. The three losers of the game win nothing and only stand to lose points. And it doesn't matter how close anybody else is; it's all or nothing.

* If the winner draws the winning tile from the wall, all players must pay the winner the total point value of the winner's tiles. If the winner's final combination is formed with a discarded tile, only the player who discarded the tile is the loser and must pay. The other two players are neither winners nor losers.

* Here's another fun part of the scoring: Whenever the dealer wins, he gets double. If you're playing for money, if the dealer loses, he must pay double.

* Refer to this chart to calculate how much a winning hand is worth:

Chow: 0 points Pair of suits: 0 points Pair of own winds: 2 points Pair of prevailing winds: 2 points Pair of dragons: 2 points Pung of suits: exposed: 2 points; concealed: 4 points Pung of honors: exposed: 4 points; concealed: 8 points Kong of suits: exposed: 8 points; concealed: 4 points Kong of honors: exposed: 16 points; concealed: 8 points Bonuses: 4 points each

  A complete game of mah-jong lasts for at least 16 rounds (giving each player a chance to be the dealer at least four times, and accommodating players who win a round that he happened to deal).

So good luck on your game! And may the prevailing winds guide you to generous winnings.

About the Author

Steve Schneider is an award-winning critic, columnist and humorist with two decades of experience in print and online journalism. He holds a Master's degree in media, culture and communication from New York University.