How to Play the Mahjong Card Game

By Tanya Gonzalez
Examples of the original mahjong tiles

Mahjong is an ancient Chinese card game, originally played with tiles, that requires great skill, concentration and memory. It is played by four people, using a deck of 144 cards, which are classified as Suits, Honors or Bonuses. There are three Suit cards, ranging in numeric value from 1 through 9: Bamboo (sticks), Circles (dots) and Characters (symbols). Honor cards are divided into two categories: Winds (East, South, West and North) and Dragons (red, green and white). There are four copies of each Suit and Honor card. Bonus cards consist of four different Seasons and four different Flowers. There is only one copy of each. The goal of the game is to eliminate all the cards from the board by creating sets of similar cards.

Setting up the Game

Choose a dealer for the game, who will be represented by the East Wind card, either by throwing the dice (highest roll wins dealer position) or by placing the Wind cards face down and randomly selecting a card. The player who draws the East card becomes the dealer, and the players sit according to the direction of the Wind cards they selected.

Take your seat. Seats are assigned counterclockwise, with players sitting in a square formation. To the right of the dealer sits the player that drew the South card, then West and finally North. Players also take their turns in this order.

Shuffle the cards and place them face down on the table. Each player picks 36 cards and places them on the table in two stacks of 18 cards. Move the cards forward to form a square called the “Wall.”

Break the Wall. The dealer rolls the dice to determine where the Wall will be broken. Each player is assigned numbers that correspond to dice rolls (total of 12 numbers), starting with East as number 1, South as 2, and so on until each player has his numbers. For example, East will be numbers 1, 5 and 9.

If the dealer rolls a 6, for instance, the Wall will be broken on the side where the South (second) player sits. Then, starting from the right side of the player’s wall, the dealer counts off 6 cards counterclockwise that will be sectioned off and considered “Dead.” The remaining cards are “Live.”

Playing Mahjong

Begin the round by choosing your cards, starting with the dealer. The dealer takes two stacks of cards (four cards total) from the Live Wall where the initial break occurred, beginning on the left hand side. Players continue to take cards in counterclockwise order until everyone has 12 cards. The remaining five cards are distributed by giving two to the dealer and one each to the remaining players. The dealer will have a total of 14 cards, and all other players will have 13.

Discard one card by placing it face up in the center of the wall, beginning with the dealer. The next player may pick up the card (called “stealing”) or draw a card from the wall. Once a card is chosen, another must be discarded. Each player places his discarded cards in a pile in front of him.

Example of a pung of bamboo

Create sets with your cards to win a round. A winning hand is comprised of a pattern of four melds (three or four cards each) and eyes (pair of identical cards). Melds can be formed with different sets of cards in the following manner:

Pung – Set of three identical cards Kong – Set of four identical cards Chow – Set of three suited cards in numerical sequence within the same suit.

Point values are as follows:

4 Pungs – 6 points 4 Chows – 2 points Dragon Pung or Kong – 2 points Two Dragon Pungs – 6 points Pung or Kong of Winds that match the round or seat – 2 points Bonus Cards – 1 point

Declare “Mahjong” if you are the first player to make four sets of melds and a pair to win the game, then write down your score. Only the winner of each hand is able to score.

Move on to the next round. With each new round, a player changes her seating position, taking the seat to her right. Usually, a Mahjong game consists of eight rounds. Tally up points at the end of the eighth round. The player with the highest score wins.

Things Needed

  • Set of Mahjong cards
  • Two dice
  • Dealer button
  • Scoring card

About the Author

Tanya Gonzalez graduated from the University of Miami in 2008 with a bachelor's degree in English and international relations. She has been writing since 2005, working as a writer and copy editor for several firms and institutions such as Florida International University, Digital Age Marketing Group, Miami Web Design and Carnival Cruise Lines.