Mahjong is a tile-based game normally played with four players. Said to have been developed during the qing dynasty, it spread throughout the world since the early 20th century.
Called 麻雀, meaning “sparrow” as the clacking of the tiles sounded like the chattering of the sparrows, whilst its origins are not completely clear, one theory suggests that it was adapted from an earlier game called 馬吊, madiao, a card game. Locals have also been know to refer to playing as––“dry swimming” (游乾水)––because of the movement your hands make when you shuffle the tiles.
A game of strategy, luck and skill, here, we're listing everything you need to start out, from general rules, to gameplay and how to win.
General rules & how to play
There are different geographic variations of Mahjong (ie. American Mahjong, Taiwanese Mahjong, Japanese Mahjong, etc.) and equally as important, there are house rules. It is important at the beginning of the game to ensure all players are aware of the style, any house rules added, and if money will be involved and how much is the monetary value.
In Hong Kong, the most common style is the Hong Kong Mahjong/Cantonese Mahjong which is the style in most of the Hong Kong Mahjong movies from the '90s. A great one to watch with English subtitles is called Fat Choi Spirit with Andy Lau, available on Netflix. Another style that has gained a lot of popularity in the last few decades is the Hong Kong Taiwanese style, which is what a lot of my aunties and locals play nowadays. For the sake of this guide, we will be concentrating on the game play and strategy for the Hong Kong/Cantonese style.
- Hong Kong/Cantonese style Mahjong tiles (144 tiles)
- A mahjong table
Number of players:
You will need four players. You can adapt the game to three people, but it's more fun with four people. To play mahjong, we call it “open table” (開枱), so if you can only find three people, we refer as we are “a table missing a leg” (少隻腳) or three missing one (三缺一 ).
How long is Mahjong?
A session of Mahjong is three rounds––the East, South, West and then North round and each player takes turns being the dealer for each round; therefore, it is at least 16 games before a session of Mahjong is completed and that takes around two hours. Also, we don’t usually sit down to play just one session, we will most likely play eight or 12 rounds in one gathering.
You start out with your own pot of chips which would be equivalent to a monetary amount, if you’re playing with money. If you win a hand, you get rewarded with chips, and if you give someone their winning tile, then you pay with your chips. The objective at the end of your session of Mahjong is for your pot of chips to be even or above what you started with.
The game is played with 144 tiles and they comprise of:
- Three suits (36 tiles in each suit; 108 suit tiles total). The circles, bamboo and character suit numbered 1-9 with four tiles of each.
- Honour tiles (28 tiles total). Honour tiles are spilt into 1) Dragons––Green, Red and White with four tiles of each and 2) Winds––East, South, West, and North with four tiles of each.
- Eight flowers (eight tiles). There are flour flowers and flour seasons, but it’s generally collectively referred to as just flowers.
Everybody starts with 13 tiles upright and concealed in their own hand, and they take turns counterclockwise, drawing their 14th tile from the tile wall and discarding one tile face up into the discard pile until their hand is in order to “call or wait”, meaning all 13 tiles are in order.
How to win:
If your 13 tiles are in order then that means you’re waiting for your winning tile (which would either complete a set or your eye) and there are two ways to win! Winning by discard means that another player discards your winning tile and only they would need to pay you for the win; however, if you win by self-pick, meaning that you draw your own winning tile, then everybody has to pay you (you lucky duck!). When you win, you can call out “sik-wu!” (食糊!), which literally translates to “eat congee!”.
Tips, tricks & strategy
- It’s said that wearing red will increase your luck so you can either wear red on the inside or outside or both. For those that like to be a bit more discreet, red coin purses are a popular choice.
- Know your probabilities. If you are trying to decide on how to win your hand, count your chances. For example, if you need 1) to complete a chow of two and three with a one or a four, you will have eight chances; versus if 2) to complete a pong of two and two with another two, you will have only two chances, then the chow is better.
- Just have fun. It is just a game and it is supposed to bond the players together so take it easy and do not take it so seriously. If your elders clean the floor with you, they will say that you are just “paying your school fee” (交學費). This saying originated from Mahjong Parlours as they are not part of the Gambling ordinance; therefore, any losses incurred in parlours are called “school fees”.
What not to do
- Lose your temper––they say that your attitude and deposition on the Mahjong table is a direct reflection of your character so keep this in mind.
- Gambling debts must be paid. All gambling debts need to be paid or it else it will supposedly give you bad luck. Also, any debts from last year needs to be cleared off before Chinese New Year.
- Never pat a Mahjong player on the shoulders during a game. It is considered very bad luck and some may take a huge offense to it.
Mahjong becomes popular pastime for Americans
Mahjongg has evolved to become a popular American pastime since it was first introduced to the U.S. in early 1920s. This tile game actually has played an important role in developing American culture.
Both Jewish American and Chinese American communities were built around mahjongg during the 20th century, according to the research by Annelise Heinz when he was a doctoral candidate in Stanford's Department of History in 2013.
Unlike other leisure games in which "high-stakes partner relationships" pit players against one another, Heinz said that mahjongg requires cooperation and strategy between players, which creates an "ideal forum for interaction between people."
In many cases, mahjongg also became an important way of navigating the internal, gender and generational divides within Chinatown. Mahjongg, Heinz asserts, offered the opportunity for people of different backgrounds to sit down and play together, creating a shared heritage and helping retirees build new friendship.