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Mahjong

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This article discusses the four-player game of Chinese origin. For the tile-matching game, see Mahjong Solitaire.

Mahjong (Chinese: 麻將, pinyin: m├íjiāng, Wade-Giles: ma-chiang, lit. hemp general or 麻雀 Cantonese: ma4 jeuk3, literal meaning: "sparrow") (occasionally written as Mah Jong, Mahjongg or Majong; Mah-Jongg was trademarked by Joseph Park Babcock in 1920) is a Chinese gambling game for 4 players. The game pieces (tiles) and scoring rules used in the game are slightly different depending on regional variations. The game play in general are very similar in all versions, as players compete to build sets including the highest point value.

The closest Western analogue is probably the card game gin rummy. Both games involve selecting or discarding units (tiles in one case, cards in the other) to score points by forming groups or runs of similar units.

The object of the game is to build suits (usually of threes) from either 13 or 16 tiles. The first person to achieve this goal is said to have won the game. The winning tile completes the set of either 14 or 17 tiles.

Table of contents
1 Origins and History
2 Main Variations
3 Equipment
4 Setting up the board
5 Gameplay
6 Scoring
7 Trivia
8 Related articles
9 External links

Origins and History

Mahjong is thought to have evolved from existing Chinese card and domino games sometime around 1850. There is still a healthy debate about to whom the creation of the game should be attributed. One theory is that Chinese army officers serving during the Tai Ping Rebellion created the game to pass the time. Another theory is that a noble living in the Shanghai area created the game between 1870 and 1875.

By 1895, an American anthropologist named Stewart Culin wrote a paper in which Mahjong was mentioned. This is the first known written account of Mahjong in any language other than Chinese. By 1910, there were written accounts in many languages including French and Japanese.

The game was a sensation in America when it was imported from China in the 1920s. Part of Mahjong nights in America were to decorate rooms in Chinese style and dress like Chinese (see Bill Bryson's Made in America, Chapter 16).

Today, the popularity and demographic of players of Mahjong differs greatly from country to country. In America, most players are women. In Japan, there is a much greater emphasis on gambling, and the gender of the players is much less divided. In Japan most of the electronic arcade versions feature stripping women.

Main Variations

Although many variations today differ only by scoring, there are several main variations of Mahjong.

Various attempts have been made to standardize the rules of Mahjong for international competition, but they have largely failed. However, the various attempts had a common thread that the rules were to be based largely on the traditional rules, with the riichi rule from Japanese Mahjong, while completely eschewing the concepts of American Mahjong altogether.

Equipment

Mahjong can be played either with a set of Mahjong tiles, or less commonly, a set of Mahjong playing cards. Playing cards are often used when travelling as it reduces space and is lighter than their tile counterparts, but are of a lower quality in return. In this article, "tile" will be used to denote both playing cards and tiles.

Many Mahjong sets will also include a set of chips or bone tiles for scoring, as well as indicators denoting the dealer and the wind of the round. Some sets may also include racks to hold tiles or chips (although in many sets the tiles are generally sufficiently thick so that they can stand on their own), with one of them being different to denote the dealer's rack.

Setting up the board

The following sequence is for setting up a standard Hong Kong (or Singapore) game. Casual or beginning players may wish to proceed directly to gameplay.

Prevailing Wind and Game Wind

To determine the Player Game Wind (門風 or 自風), all players throw 3 dice (two in some variants) and the player with the highest total is chosen as the dealer (also called the banker). The dealer's Wind is now East, the player to the right of the dealer has South wind, the next player to the right has West and the fourth player has North. Game Wind changes after every round, unless the dealer wins. In some variations, the longer the dealer remains as the dealer, the higher the value of each hand.

The Prevailing Wind (場風) is always set to East when starting. It changes after the Game Wind has rotated around the board, that is, after each player has lost as the dealer.

A Mahjong set with Winds in play will usually include a separate Prevailing Wind marker (typically a die marked with the Wind characters in a holder) and a pointer that can be oriented towards the dealer to show Player Game Wind. In sets with racks, a rack may be marked differently to denote the dealer.

These winds are also significant as winds are often associated with a member of a Flower tile group, typically 1 with East, 2 with South, 3 with West, and 4 with North.

Dealing tiles

All tiles are placed face down and shuffled. Each player then stacks a row of tiles two deep in front of him, the length of the row depending on the number of tiles in use:

The dealer throws three dice and sums up the total. Counting counterclockwise so that the dealer is '1', a player's row is chosen. Starting at the right edge, 'sum' tiles are counted and shifted to the right.

The dealer now takes a block of 4 tiles to the left of the divide. The player to the dealer's right takes 4 tiles to the left, and players (counterclockwise) take blocks of 4 tiles (clockwise) until all players have 12 tiles for 13-tile variations and 16 for 16-tile variations. In 13-tile variations, each player then takes one more tile to make a 13-tile hand. In practice, in order to speed up the dealing procedure, the dealer often takes one extra tile during the dealing procedure to start their turn.

The board is now ready and new tiles will be taken from the wall where the dealing left off, proceeding clockwise. In some special cases discussed later, tiles are taken from the other end of the wall, commonly referred to as the back end of the wall. In some variations, a group of tiles at the back end, known as the dead wall, is reserved for this purpose instead. In such variations, the dead wall may be visually separated from the main wall, but it is not required.

Unless the dealer has already won (see below), the dealer then discards a tile.

Note: The dealing process with tiles is ritualized and complex to prevent cheating. Casual players, or players with Mahjong playing cards, may wish to simply shuffle well and deal out the tiles with less ceremony.

Charleston

In the American variations, it is required that before each hand begins, three tiles are passed to each opponent. This move is called the Charleston, and is a distinctive feature of American-style Mahjong that may have been borrowed from card games.

Gameplay

Each player is dealt either 13 tiles for 13-tile variations or 16 tiles for 16-tile variations.

A turn consists of a player drawing a tile from the wall (or draw pile) and placing it in his hand. He then discards a tile to the table, which signals the end of his or her turn, and the player to the right plays next. It is good etiquette to announce the name of the discarded tile out loud. Many variations require that discards be placed in an orderly fashion in front of the player, and some may require that discarded tiles be placed face down.

When a player discards a tile, any other player may "call" or "bid" for it in order to complete a meld (a certain set of tiles) in his or her own hand. The disadvantage of doing this is that the player must now expose the completed meld to the other players, giving them an idea of what type of hand he or she is creating. This also creates an element of strategy, as in many variations, discarding a tile that allows another player to win the game causes the discarding player to lose points (or pay the winner more in a game for money).

Flower Tiles

Flower tiles, when dealt or drawn, must be immediately replaced by a tile from the dead wall, or if no dead wall exists, the back end of the wall. They are immediately exposed (placed in view on the table on front of the player's tiles). At the start of each round, where two or more players may have flower tiles, flower tiles are replaced starting with the dealer and moving to the right. Flower tiles may or may not have point value, and in some variations, possession of all the flower tiles wins the round regardless of the actual contents of the hand.

In American Mahjong, however, Flower tiles are not instantly exposed and replaced, as they may be melded with other Flower tiles in the same group (in essence, they are treated as if they were another set of honor tiles) or be used as a requirement of a winning hand. Early versions of American Mahjong used Flower tiles as Joker tiles.

Joker Tiles

A feature of several variations, most notably American variations of Mahjong, is the notion of wild card or Joker tiles. They may be used as a substitute for any tile in a hand. Depending on the variation, a player may replace a Joker tile that is part of an exposed meld belonging to any player with the tile it represents.

Rules governing discarding Joker tiles also exist: some variations permit the Joker tile to take on the identity of any tile, and others only permit the Joker tile to take on the identity of the previously discarded tile (or the absence of a tile, if it is the first discard).

Joker tiles may or may not have an impact on scoring, depending on the variation. Some special hands may require the use of Joker tiles (for example, to represent a "fifth tile" of a certain suited or honor tile).

In American Mahjong, it is illegal to pass jokers during the Charleston.

Allowed melds

In general, these are the allowed melds in Mahjong:

Pong or Pung (碰 pinyin peng, Japanese pon): 3 identical tiles. Can be created using any player's discarded tile; if formed with one, the player must say Pong and show the resulting set. The player can form a Pong at any time, after which he must discard a tile and the turn moves to the player's right.

Kong (槓 pinyin gang, Japanese kan): 4 identical tiles. Can be created using a discarded tile and always shown when formed. If a player forms the Kong from a discard, it is said to be an exposed Kong (明槓). If instead a player forms a Kong from four tiles in their hand, it is said to be a concealed Kong (暗槓). In either case, the player then draws from the other end of the wall and discards as normal. Note that once a Kong is formed, it cannot be split up (say, if you wanted to instead use one tile as part of a Chow). Sometimes it is advantageous to not declare a Kong if you have four identical tiles for this reason.

Chow (吃 chi, in some versions 上 shang): 3 tiles in sequence (circles, bamboos or numbers only). Can be created using a discarded title only during the player's own turn, ie. if the tile was discarded by the previous (left) player. Another player's Pong has priority over a Chow.

Eye (將 jiang, in some versions 眼 yan, also Pair): 2 identical tiles. Only one set allowed (and required), cannot be created with discarded tiles.

Note: Any discarded tile can be taken immediately at any time for any reason if doing so will win the game, and such a move has priority over any other claims. If a call to win overrides a call to form a Kong, such a move is called Robbing the Kong and may entail a scoring bonus.

Ready Hands

When a hand is one tile short of winning, the hand is said to be a ready hand. The player holding a ready hand is said to be waiting for certain tiles. It is common to be waiting for two or three tiles, and some variations award points for a hand that is waiting for one tile. In 13-tile Mahjong, the most amount of tiles that you can wait for is 13 (the 13 Terminals hand).

Some variations of Mahjong, most notably Japanese variations, allow a player to declare riichi (立直 - sometimes known as reach as it is phonetically similar). A declaration of riichi is a promise that any tile drawn by the player is immediately discarded unless it constitutes a win. A player who declares riichi and wins usually receives a point bonus for their hand, while a player who declares riichi and loses is usually penalized in some fashion.

Draws

If only the dead wall remains and no one has won, the round is drawn (流局 liu ju) or goulashed. A new round begins, and depending on the variant, game wind may change.

Abortive Draws

In some variations, abortive draws (draws where the game is declared drawn while tiles are available) are possible.

Japanese Mahjong

In Japanese Mahjong, abortive draws can be declared under the following conditions:

Winning

A player wins the round (胡) by creating a "Mahjong", the definition of which varies from region to region. With few exceptions, a standard Mahjong hand consists of a certain number of melds, four for 13-tile variations and five for 16-tile variations, and a pair. Some variations may also require that winning hands be of some point value.

Turns and Rounds

If the dealer wins the game, they will stay as the dealer. Otherwise, the player to the right becomes dealer and the player's wind becomes the Game Wind, in the sequence East-South-West-North.

After the wind returns to East (ie. each player has been the dealer), a round is complete and the Prevailing Wind will change, again in the sequence East-South-West-North. A full game of mahjong ends after 4 rounds, ie. when the North Prevailing Wind round is over.

Scoring

Mahjong is scored with points. To play for money, ie. gamble, a monetary value for points is agreed on. Although in many variations scoreless hands (皮胡 pi hu, sometimes 雞胡 ji hu) are possible, many require that hands be of some point value in order to win the round.

While the basic gameplay is more or less the same throughout mahjong, the scoring systems vary widely and the Chinese, Japanese and American systems of scoring are completely incompatible. There are also large differences between the various types of Chinese mahjong, and individual groups of players will often agree on the particular rules in effects before a game. Only the modern Singapore style of scoring is covered in detail here.

Basic Hands

Many variations of Mahjong have common combination of tiles and special conditions that will score "points". The terminology for a "point" differs from variation to variation. Chinese variants will use the term 翻 (pinyin: fān) while Taiwanese variants will use 台 (pinyin: tāi). American variations will tend to use double. Some of the most common are summarized below (note that the English interpretation need not be the actual meaning of the Chinese Phrase):

Chinese Phrase English Interpretation Meaning
將 (jiang) Special Pair Winning the round where the winning hand contains a pair of twos, fives, or eights.
缺五 (que wu) No Fives Winning the round where the winning hand does not contain a five.
獨聽 (du ting) One-Shot Win Looking for one tile to win the hand (for example, the middle tile in a Chow), and it was used to win the round.
自摸 (pinyin:zi mo, Japanese tsumo) Self-Pick Winning the round by drawing the necessary tile (as opposed to picking off an opponent's discard.
門清 (men qing) Pure Hand Winning the round without taking a discarded tile to form a meld.
斷么 (duan yao) No Terminal Hand Winning the round where the winning hand does not contain terminal or honor tiles.
槍槓 (qiang gang, Japanese chan kan) Robbing the Kong Winning the round off a discard when another player wishes to use the tile to form a Kong.
槓上開花 (gang shang kai hua) Extra Tile Win Winning the round from the extra tile drawn from declaring a Kong.
七對子 (qi dui zi) Seven Pairs Winning the round with seven pairs. Only applicable in 13-tile games.
八對半 (ba dui ban) Eight and a Half Pairs Winning the round with eight pairs and a 17th tile that matches any of the eight paired tiles (ie. seven pairs and a concealed pong). Only applicable in 16-tile games.
半求 (ban qiu) Half-Begging Winning the round where every meld in the winning hand is formed from a discarded tile, and the winning tile was drawn.
全求 (quan qiu) All-Begging Winning the round where every meld in the winning hand is formed from a discarded tile, and the winning tile is picked off an opponent.
門風 (men feng) Seat Wind Winning the round where one meld is of the winner's seat wind.
圈風 (quan feng) Prevailing Wind Winning the round where one meld is of the prevailing wind.
紅中 (hong zhong) Red Dragon Winning the round where one meld is of the red dragon.
青發 (qing fa) Green Dragon Winning the round where one meld is of the green dragon.
白板 (bai ban) White Dragon Winning the round where one meld is of the white dragon.
五門齊 (wu men qi) All Category Hand Winning the round where all five kinds of tiles (suits, winds, and dragons) are part of the winning hand.
一條龍 (yi tiao long) Complete Sequence Winning the round where three Chows form all the numbers from one to nine in a single suit.
平胡 (ping hu) Sequence Hand Winning the round where every meld is a Chow. Some variations make further restrictions that the eye must not be of an honor tile, and that it is not scored with Pure Hand or Self-Pick.
對對胡 (dui dui hu, Japanese 対々和 toitoi hō) Triplets Hand Winning the round where every meld in the winning hand is either a Pong or Kong.
槓上槓 (gang shang gang) Kong-on-Kong Winning the round from the extra tile drawn from declaring a Kong, which was itself made from the extra tile drawn from declaring another Kong.
小三元 (xiao san yuan, Japanese shō sangen) Three Lesser Scholars Winning the round with Pongs or Kongs in two of the three dragons and a pair of the third dragon.
大三元 (da san yuan, Japanese dai sangen) Three Great Scholars Winning the round with Pongs or Kongs of all three dragons.
小四喜 (xiao si xi, Japanese shō sūshī) Four Small Blessings Winning the round with Pongs or Kongs in three of the four winds and a pair of the fourth wind. Some variations further restrict this by disallowing the use of the prevailing wind or the seat wind as the pair.
大四喜 (da si xi, Japanese dai sūshī) Four Great Blessings Winning the round with Pongs or Kongs in all four winds.
混一色 (hun yi se, sometimes 湊一色 cou yi se, Japanese hon'ichi) Mixed One Suit Winning the round with honor tiles and tiles from one suit.
清一色 (qing yi se Japanese chin'ichi) Pure One Suit Winning the round with every tile in one suit, or with a hand entirely made of honor tiles.
混么九 (hun yao jiu) Mixed Terminals Winning the round with every tile being a terminal or honor tile.
清么九 (qing yao jiu) Pure Terminals Winning the round with every tile being a terminal.
十三么 (pinyin: shi san yao, Japanese 国士無双 kokushimusō) Thirteen Terminal Hand Winning the round with one of each one, nine, wind, and dragon, and a fourteenth tile that matches any of the other thirteen. Naturally, this applies only in 13-tile variations.
九蓮寶燈 (jiu lian bao deng, Cantonese 九子連環 gaau zhi lin wan) Nine Gates Winning the round with a ready hand consisting of 1-1-1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9-9-9 suited, with all tiles concealed. Careful analysis shows that such a hand is waiting for another tile of that suit, and will always have four sets and a pair. Some variations will relax this by allowing any variation thereof, as long as it contains 1-1-1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9-9-9 and a 14th tile. This is only applicable in a 13-tile game.
十八羅漢 (shi ba luo han) Four Kongs Winning the round with four kongs. Only applicable in 13-tile games.
天胡 (tian hu, Japanese 天和 ten hō) Heaven's Victory As the dealer, winning the round on the first turn (ie. with the tiles given after dealing and flower replacement)
地胡 (di hu, Japanese 地和 chi hō) Earth's Victory Winning the round by picking off the dealer's first discard. Sometimes also includes any player other than the dealer winning on their first turn.

Scoring Limits

Some variations may impose a scoring limit - an upper bound of points that can be earned for a given hand. This aids in scoring unorothodox hands such as the Thirteen Terminals or the Seven Pairs. In many cases where upper bounds exist, scoring is implemented with a "point-and-double" system, where one scores points for some essential combinations up to this limit, which is then doubled and redoubled as many times as necessary for larger and more rare combinations.

In other cases, a scoring limit may be more of a gambling incentive: for example, if a six-point hand was a form of a lower bound and a nine-point hand was an upper bound, a seven- or eight-point hand would be worth the same as a six-point hand, which may be an incentive for players to go for nine-point hands.

High-Risk Discards

Many variations may also impose penalties for discards that are considered to be "high risk" when the size of the wall is winding down. If a player wins from a high-risk discard, the player who discards the winning tile often must suffer an additional scoring penalty. It is interesting to note that the winner is not usually affected by a high-risk discard, and frequently the other two losing players are "off the hook".

Chinese Classical Scoring

Scoring in the Chinese Classical system is a "point-and-double" system. At the end of each round, points are tallied up for all individuals (not only the player with the winning hand) and doubled if necessary. Afterwards, each losing player pays the winner the difference between the point totals between the two players. Traditionally, the dealer must pay or receive double such a difference, but many players play with the rule that the player who discards the winning tile pays double (or, if the win was by self-pick, all losing players paying double).

Many variations of such a scoring system exist: for example, variations exist where losing players may "gain back" lost score from other losing players with smaller point totals.

Hong Kong Scoring

The Hong Kong scoring system, or the Cantonese scoring system, is one of the most popular scoring systems, as scoring tends to be low and the relation between points and actual score are very much separated.

In this scoring system, only the winner scores points, based on the contents on the winning hand. Then, a system to translate between points and actual score is applied, and this score is paid from each losing player to the winning player, with the player who discards the winning tile paying double. (In case of a win by self-pick, all players pay double).

Common point-to-score translation systems are having a flat score for a zero-point hand and increasing by another score for each point and having a flat amount for a one-point hand with each successive point doubling the score.

Because zero-point hands are common, many players insist that a winning hand have some point value, often anywhere between one and five points, with three being the most common.

Shanghai Scoring

In contrast, the scoring system used in the Shanghai variant is high, due to the number of scoring combinations and inflated values for rarer hands such as the 13 Terminals. Again, there is little relation between the point value for a hand and the actual score of each player.

Singapore Scoring

Doubles

In Singapore mahjong scoring, players can accumulate doubles, each of which doubles the points. For example, winning with five doubles ("5D", the typical maximum) and would result in each player paying the winner 32 points. In addition, if a player wins with a discarded tile, the person who discarded the winning tile has to pay twice what others pay, in this case 64 points. In some games, both wins to and losses from the dealer are also doubled.

For Singapore mahjong, the standard list of doubles is:

Scoring Moves

The following moves earn points immediately when performed. Payment is immediate and the player does not need to win the game to keep them.

A player exposing all four Black Flowers would thus receive 4 points from each player -- a total of 12. In Singaporean mahjong, which uses animals instead of seasons, the following are also scoring moves:

Paying For All Players

High-risk discards are also an element of Singapore-style scoring, with the player making such a discard paying for the other two losing players, in addition to their own (the other two losing players are vindicated - they do not pay anyone anything). High-risk scenarios only occur when a player is visibly near victory, with that player winning because of a high-risk discard.

The following is a typical list of high-risk scenarios:

American Scoring

Some variations, such as the American variations, have scoring systems that are not so formulaic. When the Babcock version of Mahjong was becoming popular in the 1920s with American players, a side effect of the scoring system (a variation of the Chinese Classical system) was that many players frequently sought after limit hands rather than hands of smaller value. Because of this, the common hands were eventually abandoned, and the only way one could win was to match a hand from a list of hands.

Today, in the American variations, players use a card that define a small set of hands that are the only valid winning hands, with a point value given for each hand. This system is used by the two major governing bodies of Mahjong in the United States, the National Mah Jongg League and the American Mah-Jongg Association, with new cards that define the valid winning hands released annually.

Trivia

Little known to most players, the suits of the tiles are money-based. The coppers represent the coins; the ropes are actually strings of 100 coins; and the character myriad represents 10 thousand coins or 100 strings.

Related articles

External links