How To Play Mahjong: A Beginner's Guide
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.
You’ll need four sets plus one pair of eyes to win, which equals 14 tiles to win.
Sets are normally three tiles––either 1) three of a kind called a “pong!”, or 2) three tiles in a run/straight called a “chow”! If you get four of a kind, we call that a “kong!” and kongs have to be shown face up and an extra tile has to be drawn into your hand. Eyes are two of a kind.
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!”.
A faan is a point and in Hong Kong/ Cantonese style, it is usually three faans minimum to win, meaning you can only win if you are able to count at least three faans in your hand. You can get a faan from drawing your own lucky flower, pong-ing any one of the dragons, self-picking your winning tile, etc. These variables are hard to control, therefore, players will create Mahjong hands that already have a minimum base value of three faan and then count whatever extra faans accumulated.
Here are two hands that have a base value of three faan:
Pong Pong Hand:
Four sets of pongs plus one pair of eyes. The pongs and eyes can be made from any suit or honor tile.
Mixed one suit:
Honour sets plus one suit sets plus one pair of eyes. Your entire hand can be a mixture of pongs and chows; however, it can only be made from honour tiles and one suit only. The eyes will have to follow the same constraint, and it can only be a two of a kind from either honour tiles or the suit that you’ve chosen.
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.
- When counting the probability of your tiles, do not forget to count the discard pile and everybody else’s garden, your own included, where the revealed tiles are laid down.
- As you can only chow from the person to your left, it is ideal if you do a different suit than them, and similarly, it would be ideal if you were to do the same suit as the person to your right as they then, will not be able to use your discards.
- Some players are quite strict in the sense that if you call pong, you have to pong, even if you change your mind; therefore, if a tile you may want is thrown out, halt game play by saying “one moment please” just to double check it really is the one you want.
- Do not be so ambitious at the beginning by only trying to win by self-pick or purposefully breaking up your three faan hands for seven faan hands. Luck is very important in Mahjong and you want to accumulate good vibes and luck and winning small frequently at the beginning will increase your luck for bigger hands later on.
- Know when to give up. It is hard to give up your hand; however, if you know that you will not be completing your hand anytime soon, be sure not to give out the winning tile by only throwing out tiles that are already out in the discard area. Also, if you know someone is making a really big seven faan hand, calculate the faans of your own hand to see if it is worth it for you to throw out risky tiles.
- A session of Mahjong consists of at least 16 games. It's similar to poker, which means that you do not have to go all-out each game. It’s a marathon, not a sprint, so feel free to play defense on some games, and charge full throttle on others when you have an awesome hand.
- Feeling sad that you haven’t not won? Don’t be. If you haven’t won, it also means you haven’t lost either. The only loser is the one that throws out the winning tile as it is only that person that has to pay so technically your pot has not decreased. And if someone wins on a self-pick, it is still cheaper of a payout than if you were to throw the winning tile to them directly.
- Ask questions––especially to the seasoned pros and the veterans as everybody has their own strategy and their advice is worth their weight in gold.
- 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”.
See also: Hong Kong Mahjong Masters Share Their Winning Strategies
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.
If you’re interested in learning more about Mahjong or getting lessons, Humid with a Chance of Fishballs Tours’ Virginia has launched their own private Mahjong classes. Classes are available for both Hong Kong Cantonese style and Hong Kong Taiwanese style. For more information head to the website.