How to Play Chinese Mahjong

By Mandi Rogier

Mahjong is an ancient Chinese game that dates back to the mid-nineteenth century, and which gained great popularity in the 1920s. The name is roughly translated as “chattering sparrow” and is thought to refer to the sound of clacking tiles that ensues when a serious game is underway. Mahjong is a combination of skill and luck, similar to many American card games, and is now a popular pastime around the world. Here are steps for game play.

Assemble your mahjong set. You should have 144 tiles, three dice and four racks for holding your tiles. You will also need four players to play a game of mahjong.

Familiarize yourself with the suit tiles. These comprise the majority of the mahjong tiles, as there are 108 suit tiles. In mahjong there are three suits--dots, lines and characters. Each suit has numbers from one through nine, and contains four of each number. The dot tiles will represent the number with the number of dots on the tile. The line tiles represent the number with the number of lines, with the exception of the number one which is represented by a bird. The character tiles represent the numbers with Chinese symbols. For these, it is helpful to get tiles with the American number written in the corner.

Identify the honor tiles. There are 28 honor tiles in the game. There are three types of dragon tiles, with four of each dragon for a total of 12 tiles. These dragons are represented by Chinese symbols for the red, green and white dragons. You can identify them by the color of the symbols which will be red, green, and white or blank. Next are the directional wind tiles. There are four of each tile--East, West, North and South. These will have a Chinese symbol on them, but should also have "E," "W," "N" or "S" in the corner. Last are the bonus tiles. These are eight tiles with intricate flowers on them. They will also be numbered from one through eight. No two bonus tiles look alike.

Have each player roll the dice to determine who will go first. The player with the highest number will go first. This player is East. From there, the play will progress counterclockwise, with the next player being North followed by West and South.

Place all the mahjong tiles on the table, face down. All four players should then move the tiles randomly around the table until they are completely mixed up. Once the tiles have been mixed, each player should arrange a row of 18 tiles, two tiles deep, face down, in front of their rack. There should now be an empty playing space in the middle of the table, surrounded by four neat “walls” of tiles.

Have the East player roll all three dice at once. Add up the number represented by these dice and count each player counterclockwise around the circle until you reach that number. The side that the number lands on will determine the first wall to be demolished.

Begin demolishing this wall by again counting to the number determined by the three dice. For example, if three twos were rolled, the East player would count across to the sixth tile of the row. The East player will then take the two piles to the right of this row (four tiles in total).

Move counterclockwise around the circle, dealing four tiles to each player. After East takes four tiles, North will take the next four tiles to the right of the space made by the first tiles that were taken. When the end of one wall is reached, continue to the right and begin demolishing the next wall. Continue around until each player has had three turns and possesses a total of 12 tiles.

Complete the dealing sequence by having the East player draw one more stack of tiles (two tiles total) from the next section of the wall, giving this player a total of 14 tiles. East should then deal one tile to each of the other players, continuing to take them in sequence from the wall. The other players should now have 13 tiles each.

Place your drawn tiles on the rack so that they face you and no one else can see them. If you have any bonus tiles, these must be revealed to all the players and placed face up to the right of your rack. Instruct all other players to assemble their tiles in this way as well. Any time a bonus tile is drawn, it should be immediately revealed, and another tile drawn to replace it.

Draw replacement tiles for any bonus tiles that you had in your hand. The East player will do this first, now working in the opposite direction from the gap created by dealing the tiles. Continue around until each player has draw additional tiles to replace any bonus tiles.

Review your tiles for possible sets. The goal of the game is to complete three sets and one pair. These sets consist of pungs, chows and kongs. A pung is three of the exact same tile. If the three tiles are suit tiles, you have a suit pung. If they are honor tiles you have an honor pung. A chow is three consecutive tiles in the same suit. A kong is four of the exact same tile. Pairs are two of the exact same tile.

Begin game play. The East player must place one tile face up in the center of the table. Moving counterclockwise, the next player can either pick up the tile discarded by the previous player or draw a tile from the side of the wall from which the tiles were first dealt. However, the discarded tile can only be picked up if the player is using it to complete a chow.

Place completed chows on the table face up, to the right of the player. After completing a chow, the player must then discard one of their tiles. If the player did not complete a chow, but instead drew from the wall, he must then discard a tile, placing it face up in the center of the table. You can discard the tile you just drew if you choose.

Watch carefully for discarded tiles that will complete a pung or kong. If a player sees a tile laid down that completes one of these, that player must call out “pung” or “kong.” The player then takes that tile to complete the set, placing the whole set face up to his right. Then, the player must discard one tile, and play will continue counterclockwise from him.

Watch your hand for a winning set. To win, a player must have three combinations and one pair. Any combinations or pairs that are made by drawing tiles from the wall can be kept concealed in the player’s hand. When a player meets these requirements, he can announce his win.

About the Author

Mandi Rogier is a freelance writer who enjoys writing about a wide range of topics. As a previous employee of Walt Disney World, she enjoys writing travel articles that make use of her extensive knowledge of Orlando theme parks.