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Mahjong Rules

With ancient roots back to the time of Confucius, Mah Jongg (Maajh or mahjong) is a game steeped in history and pride. It has been the most popular game in China and in the whole of the Orient for many years, surviving countless game hybrids, an American fad in the 1920’s and even a banishment at the hands of the People’s Republic of China. Considering the vast amount of rule varieties (or rather, variations on scoring), to say their is a standard set of mahjong rules would not be entirely accurate. However, since a vast majority of the rules are common throughout all of the varieties of Mahjong, when China declared Mahjong an official sport in 1998, it became clear that it was necessary to develop an international set of rules – One that could be condensed down and used as an official set for the Mahjong World Championship, which began in 2002. This put into motion a two year collaboration amongst mahjong researchers on how exactly to reduce 440 hands down to 81, which is how many hands fit within a game of mahjong governed by international rules today. And with the first ever World Series of Mahjong scheduled for 2007, the need for a standard set of international rules has never been more important.

In the following explanation we present the Classical Chinese version, which will likely be found at websites offering online skill games as mahjong grows in popularity amongst the international online gambling community. The international version may catch on as well, but is more likely to be found governing mahjong tournaments.

The objective of mahjong is to gain a complete hand of fourteen tiles through drawing and discarding a single tile at a time out of a batch of 13 initially dealt tiles (16-tile variations exist as well). A completed mahjong hand of tiles consists of four sets of three pieces each that are either three identical pieces or three pieces of the same suit in consecutive sequence (12 tiles total), and a pair of identical tiles, referred to as “The Head”. When a player completes their hand, they will call “Mah-Jongg”, scores are tabulated, all the pieces are turned facedown, re-shuffled and dealt again (13 per player) for the next hand. Normally, a complete game of mahjong consists of four rounds of four completed hands each round, although it is possible to end a game after the completion of any hand. The player with the highest score at the end of the game wins.

Twittering the Sparrows…

Four players participate in a game of mahjong, and are each given the name of a Wind (i.e. “East Wind” corresponds to the dealer) in order to designate the player’s seating position. Using a total of 136 out of 144 tiles (eight Flower/Season tiles are usually removed prior), at the beginning of play, each player collects 34 tiles and arranges them in a double-stack of two 17-tile rows (one on top of the other) and slides them to the middle of the table where all four double stacks are arranged to form a large double-stacked square. This process is called the “Twittering of the Sparrows”.

Breaking the Wall…

The “East Wind” player will then roll the dice to begin the process of breaking the wall. Once the number is rolled, the dealer will count the player to his/her right as number 2 and proceed to each player in a counter-clockwise motion until the dice number is reached. The tile stack in front of the player who corresponds to the rolled dice number will be the starting point from where tile wall is broken and tiles are divulged. Beginning from the far right corner of the tile stack in front of the designated player, the dealer will count tiles from right to left, stopping on the value rolled by the dice. At this spot, he will take 2 double-stacked tiles (4 tiles total), followed by the player to his right and repeating until all players have collected twelve tiles each. Next, one individual tile is drawn by each player, beginning with the East Wind (dealer), thus giving all players a total of thirteen tiles. (If the flowers were left in the stack, seven double-stacks are removed (14 tiles) and put to the side, before all players receive their initial tiles. These will serve as the flower stack and will be used for exchanging flower tiles. Players must remove any flower tiles from their stack, and must be turned face up and removed to the right-hand-corner of the table. Replacement tiles are then drawn from the previously removed flower stack. 2 points are earned for retired flower tiles).

The Game Begins…

When all players are holding thirteen tiles (with no flowers), the dealer will select a fourteenth tile, and must decide whether to discard it or use it to replace another tile in his hand. If the dealer decides the fourteenth tile does not help his hand, he will discard it into the middle of the wall formation, face up. All players will follow in suit, going around the table in a counterclockwise direction. At any time, players may draw from any of the discarded tiles in the middle of the wall formation to complete a three-tile sequence. When a player does so, he must first declare “chow”, “pung” or “kong”, corresponding to the type of sequence being completed. “Chow’s” are any numerical sequence of the same suit. “Pung’s” are three identically suited tiles. “Kong’s” are four identically suited tiles. All completed sequences are then retired from the player’s chip stack. The first player to complete four triplet sequences and a pair (called an eye) or a quadruplet, two triplets and a pair will have mahjong and win the hand.

Here is a winning Gay Woo hand, composed of a mixture of “pungs” and “chows”:


At this time, it is necessary to describe the different tiles and their suits:

Bamboo, Numbers and Circle Suits – 108 tiles make up these three suits (36 tiles each). Each suit ranges from 1-9, composed of four identical tiles per number. In other words, there are four identical cards for each number of each suit.

Honor Suits – Dragon suits and Wind Suits are deemed honor suits. There are 12 Dragon Tiles total (three unique tiles – Red Dragon, Green Dragon and White Dragon – each with four identical copies). A Dragon Suit is one of each. There are 16 Wind Tiles total (four unique tiles – East Wind, West Wind, North Wind and South Wind – each with four identical copies). A Wind Suit can be four of the same Wind Tiles or one of each.

Flower Suit– There are eight flower tiles total (which for the Classic Chinese version, consists of 4 Flowers and 4 Seasons). These are taken out of play, but are still used to award points. For versions in which suits can be made, these are the Black Flower Suit and the Red Flower Suit, which are quadruplets of cards numbered 1 to 4. The numbers are either red or black and correspond to either the red or black suit.

Animal Suit – There are four animal tiles total. These are not played in the Classic Chinese version, but are for other mahjong varieties. An Animal Suit is composed of the four animal cards.

As for the Scoring…

As for Scoring, this is where things can become a little hairy, depending on the version of mahjong being played. We advise players to consult a scoring chart for the version being played. Typically, 20 points are awarded to the player who has mahjong. Depending on whether a combination has been retired (exposed) or is held in one’s hand when mahjong is obtained, points will vary. Four-card Honor Suits are worth the most (16 points each for retired hands and 32 points each for on-hand sequences), quadruplets are worth 16 points (on hand) and 8 points (retired), three of any wind, one’s, nine’s, or dragon suits are worth 8 points (on hand) and 4 points (retired), triplets are worth 2 points (retired) and 4 points (on hand), a pair of prime’s are worth 2 points for being retired and on-hand, and a retired flower is worth 2 points.


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