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Rules for Mah-Jongg

Mah-jongg players in the process of building a wall

Mah-jongg is a four-player tile game that has been traced back to 19th-century China. Much like the game of rummy, the object of mah-jongg is to collect sets of tiles according to the patterns on each tile. Players receive points for each set they make before the first player declares mah-jongg, meaning he has run out of tiles. There are many variations, but the object of the game is to earn the most points over the game session.


Mah-jongg is played with a set of 144 tiles, each decorated with one of a variety of designs. Of the 144 tiles, there are 36 tiles each in the circle, bamboo and character suits. The remaining 36 tiles consist of the honor tiles, which include 16 wind tiles and 12 dragon tiles, and the bonus tiles consisting of four flower tiles and four season tiles. Players will also need two dice.


To determine game positions, each player draws one of the four shuffled and face-down wind tiles, North, East, South and West. Players take a seat at the mah-jongg table according to the direction of their selected tile. Because it is considered the prevailing wind, the player who chose the East tile goes first, plays twice and amasses twice the points. Positions can change at the end of each round, which occurs when a player declares mah-jongg. If the East player declares mah-jongg, the positions remain the same. But if a player of another position declares mah-jongg, the game rotates, with the South becoming the prevailing wind first and then the West and the North. A mah-jongg session is considered completed once every player has served as the North wind.

Building and Breaking the Wall

Also known as "the twittering of the sparrows," each player builds a face-down, two-tile by 18-tile wall from the 36 tiles they've been dealt by the East. These walls are then pushed together to form a tight square that symbolizes the Great Wall of China. To determine who breaks the wall, the East throws the dice. The East then counts counterclockwise the total number thrown on the dice around the table. The chosen player then throws the dice, and using the total number of throw, counts in a clockwise direction. The player then takes the arrived-at, stacked pair of tiles and places the top tile face-up on top of the first set of tiles in the counterclockwise direction and the bottom tile face-up on top of the set of tiles two tiles further counterclockwise. These face-up tiles are referred to as loose tiles.

Dealing Tiles

Continuing clockwise from the break, each player is dealt four tiles in turn. Then, the direction is reversed, and each player is dealt eight more tiles. Next, the first and third top tiles are dealt to the East, the first bottom tile is dealt to the South, the next tile on the top row is dealt to the West, and the next bottom tile is dealt to the North, completing the deal. The East should have 14 tiles, and the other players should have 13.

Playing the Game

The East starts the game by discarding one tile face-up inside the remaining wall in an area called the Kong Box. For the following plays, each player's turn consists of taking a tile from the Kong Box or the wall, laying down tile sets, and discarding a tile in the Kong Box at the end of the turn. Basic tile sets consist of a pung (three identical tiles), a kong (four identical tiles) and a chow (three or more tiles of the same suit). Players can also play special hands such as The Wriggling Snake, which consists of a pair of ones and a run from two to nine of the same suit. A pung can become a kong but only from tiles drawn from the wall. Also, tiles that have been discarded at the end of a turn can only be drawn during the following turn. If not selected, these tiles are considered dead. Players' turns are not always determined by any sort of order; instead, turns are often dictated by the previous players' actions and the other players' tiles. For instance, if a player discards a tile at the end of her turn, that allows another player to make a pung, kong or mah-jongg, that player can take a turn by declaring so and laying down that tile set. If no declarations are made, game play continues counterclockwise until a player declares mah-jongg.


Mah-jongg scoring depends on many factors, including the number of tiles in a played set and the number on the tiles. Players can earn double the points depending on in their table position and whether the played set was concealed, meaning it was completed by drawing a tile from the wall rather than from declaring it and drawing it from the Kong Box. Players earn extra points for declaring mah-jongg and can earn even more by how they declared mah-jongg; for instance, if the mah-jongg hand was achieved by drawing the last wall tile, the player earns double the points for the set. Additional scoring also applies to special hands. Players often play to a set point limit, such as 2,000 points. The first player to reach that limit wins.

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