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A game of mahjong being played in Hangzhou, China
|Alternative Chinese name|
A game of mahjong being played in Hangzhou, China
|Alternative Chinese name|
|Age range||4 years and older|
|Setup time||2-5 minutes|
|Playing time||Dependent on variation and/or house/tournament rules|
|Skill(s) required||Tactics, observation, memory|
Mahjong, also spelled majiang, mah jongg, and numerous other variants, is a game that originated in China. It is commonly played by four players (with some three-player variations found in Korea and Japan). The game and its regional variants are widely played throughout Eastern and South Eastern Asia and have a small following in Western countries. Similar to the Western card game rummy, mahjong is a game of skill, strategy, and calculation and involves a degree of chance.
The game is played with a set of 144 tiles based on Chinese characters and symbols, although some regional variations use a different number of tiles. In most variations, each player begins by receiving 13 tiles. In turn players draw and discard tiles until they complete a legal hand using the 14th drawn tile to form four groups (melds) and a pair (head). There are fairly standard rules about how a piece is drawn, stolen from another player and thus melded, the use of simples (numbered tiles) and honours (winds and dragons), the kinds of melds, and the order of dealing and play. However there are many regional variations in the rules; in addition, the scoring system and the minimum hand necessary to win varies significantly based on the local rules being used.
In Chinese, the game was originally called 麻雀 (pinyin: máquè)—meaning sparrow—which is still the name most commonly used in some southern Chinese languages such as Cantonese and Min Nan, as well as in Japanese. However, most Mandarin-speaking Chinese now call the game májiàng (麻將). In Northern Wu Chinese (Shanghainese and its relatives), it is pronounced as 麻將 [mu tsiaŋ], but in actuality, 麻將 is the diminutive form of 麻雀, written as 麻雀兒 [mu tsiaʔ ŋ], due to an erhua event. It is through the Wu Chinese pronunciation of 麻雀兒 that the diminutive form of 麻雀 in Northern Wu became known as 麻將 in both Mandarin and Wu.
One of the myths of the origin of mahjong suggests that Confucius, the Chinese philosopher, developed the game in about 500 BC. The three dragon (cardinal) tiles also agree with the three cardinal virtues bequeathed by Confucius. Hóng Zhōng (紅中 , red middle), Fā Cái (發財 , prosperity), and Bái Bǎn" (白板 , white board) represent benevolence, sincerity, and filial piety, respectively.
The myth also claims that Confucius was fond of birds, which would explain the name "mahjong" (maque 麻雀 = sparrow).
Many historians believe it was based on a Chinese card game called Mǎdiào (馬吊) (also known as Ma Tiae, hanging horse; or Yèzí [葉子], leaf) in the early Ming dynasty. This game was played with 40 paper cards similar in appearance to the cards used in the game Ya Pei. These 40 cards are numbered 1 to 9 in four different suits, along with four extra flower cards. This is quite similar to the numbering of mahjong tiles today, although mahjong only has three suits and, in effect, uses four packs of Ya Pei cards.
There is still some debate about who created the game. One theory is that Chinese army officers serving during the Taiping Rebellion created the game to pass the time. Another theory is that a nobleman living in the Shanghai area created the game between 1870 and 1875. Others believe that two brothers from Níngpō created mahjong around 1850, from the earlier game of Mǎdiào.
This game was banned by the government of People's Republic of China when it took power in 1949. The new Communist government forbade any gambling activities, which were regarded as symbols of capitalist corruption. After the Cultural Revolution, the game was revived, without gambling elements, and the prohibition was revoked in 1985. Today, it is a favorite pastime in China and other Chinese-speaking communities.
The game was mentioned in Portuguese Jesuit accounts from the beginning of the 17th century. In 1895, British Sinologist William Henry Wilkinson wrote a paper which mentioned a set of cards known in central China by the name of ma chioh, literally, sparrow, which he maintained was the origin of the term mahjong. He did not state the specific Chinese language or dialect of his informant. By 1910, there were written accounts in many languages, including French and Japanese.
The game was imported to the United States in the 1920s. The first mahjong sets sold in the U.S. were sold by Abercrombie & Fitch starting in 1920. It became a success in Washington, D.C., and the co-owner of the company, Ezra Fitch, sent emissaries to Chinese villages to buy every mahjong set they could find. Abercrombie & Fitch sold a total of 12,000 mahjong sets.
Also in 1920, Joseph Park Babcock published his book Rules of Mah-Jongg, also known as the "red book". This was the earliest version of mahjong known in America. Babcock had learned mahjong while living in China. His rules simplified the game to make it easier for Americans to take up, and his version was common through the mahjong fad of the 1920s. Later, when the 1920s fad died out, many of Babcock's simplifications were abandoned.
The game has taken on a number of trademarked names, such as "Pung Chow" and the "Game of Thousand Intelligences". Mahjong nights in America often involved dressing and decorating rooms in Chinese style. Several hit songs were recorded during the mahjong fad, most notably "Since Ma Is Playing Mah Jong" by Eddie Cantor.
Many variants of mahjong developed during this period. By the 1930s, many revisions of the rules developed that were substantially different from Babcock's classical version (including some that were considered fundamentals in other variants, such as the notion of a standard hand). The most common form, which eventually became "American mahjong", was most popular among Jewish women. Standardization came with the formation of the National Mah Jongg League (NMJL) in 1937, along with the first American mahjong rulebook, Maajh: The American Version of the Ancient Chinese Game.
Many consider the modern American version a remake of a Jewish game, as many American mahjong players are of Jewish descent. The NMJL was founded by Jewish players and is considered a Jewish organization. In 1986, the National Mah Jongg League conducted their first Mah Jongg Cruise Tournament, in conjunction with Mah Jongg Madness. In 2010, this large scale seagoing event hosted its 25th Silver Anniversary Cruise, with players from all over the States and Canada participating.
In recent years, a second organization has formed, the American Mah Jongg Association. The AMJA currently hosts tournaments all across North America, with their signature event being at the Trump Taj Mahal Casino Resort in Atlantic City, New Jersey.
British author Alan D. Millington revived the Chinese classical game of the 1920s with his book The Complete Book of Mah-jongg (1977). This handbook includes a formal rules set for the game.
Games scholar David Parlett has written that the Western card games Conquian and Rummy were derived from Mahjong. All these games involve players drawing and discarding tiles or cards to make melds.
France swept an international Mahjong tournament, taking the gold, silver, and bronze.
There are many governing bodies which often host exhibition games and tournaments for modern and traditional mahjong gaming.
Mahjong, as of 2010, is the most popular table game in Japan. As of 2008, there were approximately 7.6 million Mahjong players in Japan and an estimated 8,900 Mahjong parlors did ¥300 billion in sales. Many devotees there believe the game is losing popularity and have taken efforts to revive it. There are several manga and anime (e.g. Saki and Akagi) devoted to dramatic and comic situations involving mahjong. Since the 1980s, hundreds of different mahjong arcade machines in Japanese video arcades have been created, including strip versions. Newer units can connect with other arcade machines across the Internet.
Mahjong culture is still deeply ingrained in the Chinese community. Sam Hui wrote Cantopop songs using mahjong as their themes, and Hong Kong movies have often included scenes of mahjong games. Many gambling movies have been filmed in Hong Kong, and a recent sub-genre is the mahjong movie.
Studies by doctors have also shown in Hong Kong that the game is beneficial for individuals suffering from dementia or cognitive memory difficulties, leading to the development of mahjong therapy.
Old Hong Kong mahjong uses most of the standardised tiles, utilizes the basic features in common with most variations of the game and has a relatively simple scoring system.
Hong Kong Mahjong is played with a set of mahjong tiles (though cards may be used). Sets often include counters (to keep score), dice (to decide how to deal) and a marker to show who is dealer and which round is being played. Some sets include racks to hold tiles (if they are shaped small or differently).
A set of mahjong tiles usually has at least 136 tiles (most commonly 144), although sets originating from America or Japan will have more. Mahjong tiles are split into these categories: suits, honor, and flowers.
There are three different suits numbered 1 to 9, which are called simple tiles. They are bamboo (bams), characters (or myriads or cracks), and circles (or dots).
There are four identical copies of each number of each suit giving 108 simples tiles (3x9x4).
There are two different honor suits: the winds and the dragons. The winds are east, south, west and north, and the dragons are Red, Green and White. They have no numerical sequence and there are four identical tiles of each wind and dragon (e.g. four Red dragon tiles, four Green dragon tiles etc.)
There are eight bonus tiles: four flowers and four seasons. Each flower and season tile is unique without three matching pieces as per simple tiles and honour tiles. These tiles are not part of a player's hand but are set to the side when drawn and an extra tile is drawn in lieu of the bonus tile.
The dealer is chosen by various means, either by throwing dice (the highest total takes the east wind), by placing one of each wind face down and having each player randomly select one of these tiles or other house rule variations. Each player sits down at their respective position (called the wind position) at the table in positions of an inverted compass: East is dealer, the right of the dealer is South, across is West and the left is North. The order essentially is counter-clockwise.
A match consists of four rounds of which each round represents a "prevailing wind" starting with East. In each round at least four hands are played with each player taking the position of dealer. In the first hand of each round player 1 (winner of the dice toss) is east and therefore dealer. In the second hand, player 2 takes the east position shifting the seat winds amongst the players counter clockwise (though players don't physically move their chairs). A marker is used to mark which player is east and often the round number. This continues until all four players have been east (dealer).
Once the first round is completed, a second round begins with the prevailing wind of "south". Player 1 deals the first hand and player two deals the second hand etc. There are four rounds which represent all four prevailing winds.
Whenever a player in the east position (dealer) wins a hand or if there is no winner (a draw or "goulash hand") an extra hand is played with the players repeating the same position as the previous hand.
Example of Games (assuming the player who is dealer in each hand does not win the hand)
|Hand Number||Prevailing Wind||Player 1||Player 2||Player 3||Player 4||Comment|
|7||South||West||North||East (dealer)||South||no one wins (goulash)|
|extra hand||South||West||North||East (dealer)||South||(repeat of seat positions)|
|15||North||West||North||East (dealer)||South||(east wins hand)|
|extra hand||North||West||North||East (dealer)||South||(repeat of seat positions)|
If the dealer wins a hand or if there is a draw (no winner), then an extra hand is played and the seating and prevailing wind remains the same. This may mean that a match would have no limit to the number of hands played (though some players will set a limit to three consecutive hands allowed with the same seat positions and prevailing winds).
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.
Wind position is significant in that it affects the scoring of the game.
All tiles are placed face down on the table and are shuffled. By convention all players should participate in shuffling using both hands moving the pieces around the table, loudly, for a lengthy period. There is no fixed rule on how to deal or how to treat tiles which flip over during shuffle, though possible solutions include turning back over the pieces at the moment they are seen, turning over all revealed pieces at intervals or doing so at the end of the shuffling and forming of the wall.
Each player then stacks a row of 18 tiles two tiles high in front of them (for a total of 36 tiles). Players then push each side of their tiles together to form a square wall.
The dealer throws three dice and sums up the total. Counting counterclockwise so that the dealer is 1 (or 5, 9, 13, 17), so that south is 2 (or 6, 10, 14, 18), etc., a player's quarter of the wall is chosen. Using the same total on the dice, the player then counts the stacks of tiles from right to left. Starting from the left of the stacks counted, the dealer takes four tiles to himself, and players in counterclockwise order take blocks of four tiles until all players have 12 tiles, so that the stacks decrease clockwise. Each player then takes one last tile to make a 13-tile hand. Dealing does not have to be this formal and may be done quite differently based on house rules.
Each player now sets aside any flowers or seasons they may have drawn and takes replacement piece(s) from the wall.
The dealer takes the next piece from the wall, adds it to his hand. If this does not complete a legal hand, he then discards a piece (throwing it into the middle of the wall with no particular order in mind).
Each player takes a turn picking up a tile from the wall and then discarding a tile by throwing it into the center and, if desired, announcing out loud what the piece is. Play continues this way until one player has a legal winning hand and calls out mahjong while revealing their hand. There are four different ways that this order of play can be interrupted.
During play, the number of tiles maintained by each player should always be thirteen tiles (meaning in each turn a tile must be picked up and another discarded). Not included in the count of thirteen tiles are flowers and seasons set to the side and the fourth added piece of a kong. If a player is seen to have more or less than thirteen tiles in their hand outside of their turn they are penalised.
A winning hand consists of fourteen tiles (the thirteen tiles in the hand plus the additional tile picked up from the wall or stolen when a player discards a tile needed to complete a hand). The first is called winning from the wall, the second is called winning by a discard.
The winning hand is made of four melds (a specific pattern of three pieces) and the eyes (a pair of two identical pieces).
Most players play with a table minimum, meaning a winning hand must score a minimum number of points (which can be seen in the scoring section). In Hong Kong Mahjong the most common point set is three.
You can form a pong with any tile (except flowers as they are bonus tiles set to the side when drawn from the wall). The tiles must be identical (you cannot mix suits).
Consider a Kong the same as a Pong/ Pung with an additional tile to make a set of four. There are three ways to form a Kong.
In any case, whenever a Kong is formed, the player must draw an extra tile from the end of the wall and then discard a tile. The fourth piece of the kong (not flowers/seasons) is not considered as one of the 13 tiles a player must always have in their hand. Kongs are worth collecting to score more points and/or deprive opponents of obtaining a specific tile.
The meld must be in absolute numerical sequence. There is no skipping of numbers, nor does 9 loop around to 1. The sequence must be in the same suit. Honours, flowers and seasons cannot be used to make chows. A player can steal a discard to form a chow from the player prior to them in order if no one else needs the tile to make pongs/ pungs or kongs or win (go mahjong).
Whenever a player draws a flower or season, it is announced and then placed to the side (it is not considered as a part of the hand but can earn a bonus points if part of the winning hand) and the last tile of the wall is drawn as a replacement tile so that the player has the fourteen pieces needed before their discard. This may happen successively in a player's turn.
When a player discards a tile, any other player may steal the tile to complete a meld. Stealing tiles has both advantages (quickly forming a winning hand and scoring extra points) and disadvantages such as revealing part of ones hand to other players and not being able to change the meld once declared.
When a meld (Pong, Kong or Chow) is declared through a discard, the player must state the type of meld to be declared and place the meld face up. The player must then discard a tile, and play continues to the right. If the player who melds a discard is not directly after the discarder (in order of play), one or two players essentially miss their turn as play continues to the player after the one who declared the meld.
When two or more players call for a discarded tile, a player taking the tile to win the hand has precedence over all others. Otherwise a player who can form a Pong or Kong takes precedence over a player who claims a Chow.
If at any point in the game a player can use another player's discard to complete a legal hand (and with the agreed minimum points), they yell out Mahjong, take the piece and reveal their hand, with the way of calling it out depending on variations. This ends the hand, and scoring commences. If two or three players need the piece to win, there are two ways to resolve the issue depending on agreed table rules: Either the players compete to see who would have a better hand in terms of scoring, or simply the player closest to the discarder in order of turn wins the game.
A rarely occurring and high scoring feature of Hong Kong Mahjong is a move called robbing the kong. If a player declares a kong (by melding it or adding a fourth piece to a pong to form a kong or declaring a concealed kong) and another player(s) can use that piece to complete a hand (which would only logically happen by making a chow) a player may steal that piece from that player when declaring the kong and go mahjong (win the hand).
Below are examples of winning hands. A winning hand must consist of four melds (pongs, kongs and/or chows) and a pair (eyes) and must also score the agreed table minimum.
Hand formed with four pongs and the eyes (pair) of East wind. Only bamboo is used (no other simples), scoring extra points (clean hand). No chows are used (an all pong/kong hand scores extra points).
A high scoring hand formed using only circles, known as a pure hand. Hand is made of chows, pongs and the eyes of circles.
Most players include table variations in their games, of which some non-standard are included. The hands of seven different pairs, thirteen orphans and heavenly gates are examples which do not have four melds and the eyes. They are described in more detail below.
In Western Classical variants, this is known as creating a mahjong, and the process of winning is called going mahjong. Calling a mahjong without having a legal hand or with the minimum points is usually penalized via points or with the player having to play the rest of the hand with his tiles shown to the other players face up.
If the dealer wins the hand, s/he will remain the dealer and an extra hand is played in addition to the minimum 16 hands in a match. The same occurs if there is no winner.
The dealer position is significant in that s/he owes or is owed double their score.
Extra points are also scored if their hand is composed of pieces that match their seat wind and or the prevailing wind.
Flowers and seasons are also scored as bonus points to the winner depending on their seat position.
Amongst players, there is an agreed amount of time allowed to make a call for a discarded tile, before the next player takes their turn, known as "window of opportunity" is explicitly stated in the rules; whereas in other variants, it is generally considered that when the next player's turn starts, i.e., the tile leaves the wall, the opportunity has been lost.
Old Hong Kong scoring involves adding up the fan value (the value of a hand) of the winner's hand and paying the winner the appropriate sum/points:
A winning hand must include an agreed minimum amount of fan value (often 3)
|A pong/kong of Dragons||1|
|A pong/kong of Seat wind or Round wind||1|
|All chows and a pair of simples||1 point more|
|Only pongs/kongs and any pair (pong hand)||3|
|Only bamboos with honours, only circles with honours or only characters with honours (clean hand)||3|
|Three unmelded (hidden) pongs/kongs||3|
|Seven pairs (special pattern)||4|
|Pure hand (of only one suit and no honours: pure circles, pure bamboos or pure characters)||6|
|Little Dragons (two pongs of dragons and a pair of the 3rd dragon)||12|
|Little Winds (three pongs of winds and a pair of the 4th wind)||12|
|Winning from the wall||1|
|Robbing the Kong||1|
|Winning on the last tile from the wall or its subsequent discard||1|
|No flowers or seasons tiles in hand||1|
|Having Own flower (seat flower)||1|
|Having Own season (seat season)||1|
|All four flowers||4 points extra|
|All four seasons||4 points extra|
|All 8 flowers and seasons (exceedingly rare)||Automatic win with maximum payment|
A player only scores a bonus fan for flowers or seasons if it is their own flower or season (East=1, South=2, West=3 and North=4) or if the player has all four flowers or all four seasons (scoring five fan in total).
The fan value of a hand is converted into base points which are then used to calculate the money (or "points") the losers pay the winner.
If a player has three fan then his hand is worth one base point. A winning hand with nine fan is worth four base points. The base points are doubled for the following (if two criteria apply, the base payment is doubled and then redoubled):
|East (dealer)||1 (base payment) x2 (doubling for winning from wall) x2 (doubling for being east) = -4|
|South||1 (base payment) x2 (doubling for winning from wall) = -2|
|West||4 (from east) + 2 (from south) 2 (from north) = +8|
|North||1 (base payment) x2 (doubling for winning from wall) = -2|
|East (dealer)||2 (base payment) x2 (doubling for being east) = -4|
|South||2 (base payment) x2 (discarding winning piece) = -4|
|West||2 (base payment) = -2|
|North||4 (from east) + 4 (from south) 2 (from west) = +10|
|East (dealer)||16 (from south) + 32 (from west) + 16 (from north) = +64|
|South||8 (base payment) x2 (paying to east) = -16|
|West||8 (base payment) x2 (paying to east) x2 (discarding winning piece) = -32|
|North||8 (base payment) x2 (paying to east) = -16|
Hong Kong mahjong is essentially a payment system of doubling and redoubling where winning from the wall adds great value to the final payment and where the dealer is highly rewarded or penalised if he or she wins or loses.
There are a series of "limit hands". Table rules dictate if these rare and special hands are allowed, which ones, and the limit for scoring. A common scoring limit is 64 points, which is the highest base points doubled twice. A winner receives the scoring limit from each player without any doubling.
In some cases it is expected that the hand is achieved without calling any sets, except when winning, and or that it must be won from the wall.
Some groups also play with the "great flowers" rule. If a player picks up all 4 flowers and all 4 seasons during his/her hand, s/he instantly wins the hand and receives the maximum points from all of the players. This is exceptionally rare.
|Thirteen Orphans||Player has 1 and 9 of each simple suit, one of each wind, one of each dragon and in addition one extra piece of any of those thirteen elements|
|Heavenly Gates||Player has 1112345678999 of any simple suit and one extra piece of numbers 1 to 9. This hand always has four melds and the eyes.|
|Hidden Pong Hand||Four concealed pongs|
|Kong Hand||Player has four kongs|
|Honours Hand||Player has all honours in the hand (only winds and dragons)|
|Pearl Dragon||Three circle pongs/kongs and a pair of circles (eye) with a pong/kong of the White dragon (no chows).|
|Ruby Dragon||Three character pongs/kongs and a pair of character (eye) with a pong/kong of the Red dragon (no chows).|
|Jade Dragon||Three bamboo pongs/kongs and a pair of bamboo (eye) with a pong/kong of the Green dragon (no chows).|
|Great Dragons||Three pongs of all three dragons|
|Great Winds||Four pongs of all four winds|
All pong hand
Pure honor hand
Thirteen orphans no
Variations may have far more complicated scoring systems, add or remove tiles, and include far more scoring elements and limit hands.
In many places, players often observe one version and are either unaware of other variations or claim that different versions are incorrect. Many variations today differ only by scoring:
There are variations that feature specific use of tiles. Some three player versions remove the North Wind and one Chinese provincial version has no honors. Korean mahjong removes the bamboo suit or at least its numbers 2–8 so that terminals can be used. Japanese mahjong rarely uses flowers or seasons. The seasons are removed in Korean mahjong, while Singapore/Malaysian mahjong has a third set of bonus tiles called animals and even a fourth called vehicles. Joker tiles are used in some versions. Some variations use counting sticks while others use chips, and some use pencils and paper for score keeping.
Japanese and Korean mahjong have some special rules. A player cannot win by a discard if that player had already discarded that piece, where players' discards are kept in neat rows in front of them. Players may declare ready, meaning that they need one tile to win, cannot change their hand and win extra points if they win. Some rules may replace some of the number 5 tiles with red tiles, as they can earn more points. Korean mahjong does not allow melded (stolen) chows. Taiwanese mahjong adds three tiles to a hand requiring a 5th set to be formed, making a clean hand or all pong hand very difficult to procure. American mahjong has distinctive game mechanics and the article on American mahjong details these. Some differences include many special patterns, a different scoring system and the use of jokers and 5 of a kind.
Scoring in mahjong involves points, with a monetary value for points agreed upon by players. Although in many variations scoreless hands are possible, many require that hands be of some point value in order to win the hand.
While the basic rules are more or less the same throughout mahjong, the greatest divergence between variations lies in the scoring systems. Like the rules, there is a generalized system of scoring, based on the method of winning and the winning hand, from which Chinese and Japanese base their roots. American mahjong generally has greatly divergent scoring rules, as well as greatly divergent general rules.
Because of the large differences between the various systems of scoring (especially for Chinese variants), groups of players will often agree on particular scoring rules before a game.
Points (terminology of which differs from variation to variation) are obtained by matching the winning hand with different criteria scoring different values. The points obtained may be modified into scores for each player using some (typically exponential) functions. Some criteria may be also in terms of both points and score.
In many variations the dealer receives no scoring bonus and does not maintain his/her turn by winning or a dead hand.
In classical mahjong all players score points. Points are given for sets and hand composition and winning bonuses, doubled and redoubled for basic patterns. Sometimes a loser may score more points than a winner. Japanese mahjong has a complex scoring system with several stages of scoring, rules and exceptions, evening out scores and bonus points at the end of a match. Korean mahjong has a simple scoring system where only winner scores without any form of doubling.
Some variations give points for concealed hands, in which case no melds are made except by winning on a discard.
In Old Hong Kong Mahjong:
Some players accept wildcards (Chinese: 混儿，hunr) when playing Mahjong. The wildcards are decided at the beginning of the game. The wildcard can be the next tile after spreading tiles to all players or separately decided by a dice toss. Wildcards are not allowed to be discarded and can replace any tiles in Chows. Wildcards can't replace any tiles in Pongs and Kongs. For example, if a character 4 taken out, then character 4 and the next number 5 can be used as wildcards in this round (When the tile showed, the tiles of the same pattern left only 3, so the next tile in the suit will be used as wildcards as well, adding to 7 wildcards for 4 players). Also, if a tile numbered 9 is chosen, then the number 9 and 1 are wildcards. Also, if the chosen tile is not in the simples, the wildcards are decided in rules:
|Wilcard tile chosen||Another wildcard|
|Red Dragon||Green Dragon|
|Green Dragon||White Dragon|
|White Dragon||Red Dragon|
The bonus tiles are not available for wildcards.
|Variation||Hong Kong||HK New||Classical||Japanese||Korean||Taiwan||Malaysia/Singapore||Three player mahjong J/K||American|
|Bamboo||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes||No or only terminals||Yes||Yes||No or only Terminals||Yes|
|Minimum Points (in variations units)||3f||5f||3f||1y||2p||7/10t||2u||3+||Varies|
Many variations have specific hands, some of which are common while some are optional depending on regions and players. One example is the Pure Green hand made of chows or pongs using 2, 3, 4, 6, 8 of bamboo and green dragon.
Japanese rule sets discourage the use of flowers and seasons. Korean rules and three player mahjong in the Korean/Japanese tradition use only flowers. In Singapore and Malaysia an extra set of bonus tiles of four animals are used. The rule set includes a unique function in that players who get two specific animals get a one time immediate payout from all players. In Taiwanese mahjong, getting all eight flowers and seasons constitutes an automatic win of the hand and specific payout from all players.
The other four flower tiles (or season tiles) represent seasons:
All tiles are placed face down and shuffled. Each player then stacks a row of tiles two tiles high in front of him, the length of the row depending on the number of tiles in use:
In the American variations it is required that, before each hand begins, a Charleston be enacted. In the first exchange, three tiles are passed to the player on one's right; in the next exchange, the tiles are passed to the player opposite, followed by three tiles passed to the left. If all players are in agreement, a second Charleston is performed; however, any player may decide to stop passing after the first Charleston is complete. The Charleston is followed by an optional pass to the player across of one, two, or three tiles. The Charleston, a distinctive feature of American mahjong, may have been borrowed from card games such as Hearts.
A feature of several variations of mahjong, most notably American variations, is the notion of some number of Joker tiles. They may be used as a wild card: a substitute for any tile in a hand, or, in some variations, only tiles in melds. Another variation is that the Joker tile may not be used for melding. 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.
When a hand is one tile short of winning (for example: , waiting for: , , or , as can be the eyes), the hand is said to be a ready hand (Traditional Chinese: 聽牌; Simplified Chinese: 听牌; Japanese: tenpai 聴牌), or more figuratively, "on the pot". 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 largest number of tiles for which a player can wait is 13 (the thirteen wonders, or thirteen orphans, a nonstandard special hand). Ready hands must be declared in some variations of mahjong, while other variations prohibit the same.
Some variations of mahjong, most notably Japanese and Korean ones, allow a player to declare rīchi (立直?, sometimes known as reach, as it is phonetically similar). A declaration of rīchi is a promise that any tile drawn by the player is immediately discarded unless it constitutes a win. Standard requirements for rīchi are that the hand be closed or have no melds declared (other than a concealed kong) and that players already have points for declaration of rīchi. A player who declares rīchi and wins usually receives a point bonus for their hand directly, and a player who won with rīchi also has the advantage to open the inner dora (ドラ?, from "dra"gon) which leads to higher possibilities to match such a card, thus has more chance to grant additional bonus. However, a player who declares rīchi and loses is usually penalized in some fashion. Declaring a nonexistent rīchi is also penalized in some way.
In some variations, a situation in which all four players declare a rīchi is an automatic drawn game, as it reduces the game down to pure luck, i.e., who gets their needed tile first.
If only the dead wall remains (or if no dead wall exists and the wall is depleted) and no one has won, the hand is drawn (流局 liú jú, 黃莊 huáng zhuāng, Japanese ryūkyoku), or "goulashed". A new hand begins, and depending on the variant, the Game Wind may change. For example, in most playing circles in Singapore, if there is at least one Kong when the hand is a draw, the following player of the dealer becomes the next dealer; otherwise, the dealer remains dealer.
Japanese mahjong has a special rule called sanchahō (三家和?), which is, if three players claim the same discard in order to win, the hand is drawn. One reason for this is that there are cases in which bars of 1,000 points for declaring rīchi cannot be divided by three. The rule is treated the same as "abortive draws".
In Japanese mahjong, rules allow abortive draws to be declared while tiles are still available. They can be declared under the following conditions:
In 1998, in the interest of dissociating illegal gambling from mahjong, the China State Sports Commission published a new set of rules, now generally referred to as Chinese Official rules or International Tournament rules (see Guobiao Majiang). The principles of the new, wholesome mahjong are no gambling, no drinking, and no smoking. In international tournaments, players are often grouped in teams to emphasize that mahjong from now on is considered a sport.
The new rules are highly pattern-based. The rulebook contains 81 combinations, based on patterns and scoring elements popular in classic and modern regional Chinese variants; some table practices of Japan have also been adopted. Points for flower tiles (each flower is worth one point) may not be added until the player has scored 8 points. The winner of a game receives the score from the player who discards the winning tile, plus 8 basic points from each player; in the case of zimo (self-drawn win), he receives the value of this round plus 8 points from all players.
The new rules were first used in an international tournament in Tokyo, where, in 2002, the first World Championship in Mahjong was organized by the Mahjong Museum, the Japan Mahjong Organizing Committee, and the city council of Ningbo, China. One hundred players participated, mainly from Japan and China, but also from Europe and the United States. Mai Hatsune, from Japan, became the first world champion. The following year saw the first annual China Mahjong Championship, held in Hainan; the next two annual tournaments were held in Hong Kong and Beijing. Most players were Chinese; players from other nations attended as well.
In 2005, the first Open European Mahjong Championship was held in the Netherlands, with 108 players. The competition was won by Masato Chiba from Japan. The second European championship in Copenhagen(2007) was attended by 136 players and won by Danish player Martin Wedel Jacobsen. The first Online European Mahjong Championship was held on the Mahjong Time server in 2007, with 64 players, and the winner was Juliani Leo, from the U.S., and the Best European Player was Gerda van Oorschot, from the Netherlands. The Third Open European Mahjong Championship 2009 at Baden/Vienna, Austria, was won by Japanese player Koji Idota, while runner-up Bo Lang from Switzerland became European Champion. There were 152 participants.
In 2006, the World Mahjong Organization (WMO) was founded in Beijing, China, with the cooperation of, amongst others, the Japan Mahjong Organizing Committee (JMOC) and the European Mahjong Association (EMA). This organization held its first World Championship in November 2007 in the Chinese town of Chengdu, attended by 144 participants from all over the world. It was won by Li Li, a Chinese student at Tsinghua University. The next World Championship took place in Utrecht, the Netherlands, 27 to 29 August 2010.
Western or American-style mah jongg tournaments are held in virtually every state—the largest is in Las Vegas, Nevada twice a year, and in Atlantic City, New Jersey, by Mah Jongg Madness; and the annual cruise hosted by the National Mah Jongg League and Mah Jongg Madness (MJM). MJM tournaments host between 150 and 500 participants at these larger events; and there are several smaller scale, but equally successful tournaments held annually by other hosts. Prize pools are based on the number participating. Rules are based on the National Mah Jongg League standard rules.
The suits of the tiles are money-based. In ancient China, the copper coins had a square hole in the center; people passed a rope through the holes to tie coins into strings. These strings are usually in groups of 100 coins, called diào (弔, or variant 吊), or 1000 coins, called guàn (貫). Mahjong's connection to the ancient Chinese currency system is consistent with its alleged derivation from the game named mǎ diào (馬弔).
In the mahjong suits, the coppers represent the coins, the ropes are actually strings of 100 coins, and the character myriad represents 10,000 coins or 100 strings. When a hand receives the maximum allowed winning of a round, it is called mǎn guàn (滿貫, literally, "full string of coins").
The red tile ("中"榜, zhōngbǎng) means passing the examination to clear the way to officialdom. The green tile ("發"財, fācái, literally "get rich") means wealth. The white tile (白板, báibǎn, literally "clean slate") means freedom from corruption. It usually has a blue border to distinguish from replacement tiles and prevent alterations.
In the original Chinese mahjong, these pieces are called jiàn (箭), which represents archery, and the red "中" represents a hit on the target. In ancient Chinese archery, one would put a red "中" to signify that the target was hit. White "白" represents failure, and green "發" means that one will release the draw.
Some superstitious rituals in Mahjong can involve things from not counting one's wins and losses, to changing one's underwear after a loss.
Mahjong can be played online through websites or downloading programs in various languages for fun or for money.
Mahjong tiles were added to the Unicode Standard in April 2008 with the release of version 5.1.
The Unicode block for mahjong tiles is U+1F000–U+1F02F. Grey areas indicate non-assigned code points.
Unicode.org chart (PDF)
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