Mah Jong is a Chinese game, very much similar to rummy. It is an exciting game requiring four players. Some variations can be played by three. Playing the game requires strategy, skills, calculations and luck. The game is very popular in Asia as gambling game. In western countries, the game was introduced as a hobby game to while away free time. In a typical game, you get 13 or 16 tiles and you have to make four groups, also known as ‘melds’, and a pair or ‘head’ before other players to win the game.
There are many theories regarding the origin of the game. Some believe that the renowned philosopher Confucius invented the game in 500 BC. However, the first evidence of the game as we know it has been found as late as 1850, though forms of the game have been known to be played in China for centuries. The game was banned in China in 1949 by the newly formed Communist government, which forbade gambling activities. After the Cultural Revolution in China, the game was revived and soon became popular in other neighboring countries like Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong, too. Mah Jong was introduced into America in the 1920s. It soon became very popular. Joseph Park Babcock wrote a book of rules for Mah Jong, which later became popular as the ‘Red Book’. Today, there are many organizations around the world, which hold world tournaments for the game and have varying rules.
The game was very popular in Asia, and America as a hobby and gambling game. Now all countries also play the game with many variations. Apart from the Chinese Classical Mah Jong, the other popular forms are Hong Kong/Cantonese Mahjong, Sichuan Mah Jong, Taiwanese Mah Jong, Japanese Mah Jong, Western Classical Mah Jong, American Mah Jong (it is very different from the original one), 3-player Mah Jong, Singapore Mah Jong and so on. The Chinese government is trying to popularize the game, and is putting in all efforts to make the game popular as a friendly and social activity. The game was converted into a “healthy sport” (without gambling) in 1998 with the introduction of Chinese Official Rules, also known as International Tournament rules.
The game might seem to be quite difficult on the onset as it involves quite a bit of calculations and skills. However, once you become used to it, it becomes quite easy and entertaining. The basic equipments of a game of Mah Jong are dice, chips and tiles. It also includes bone tiles for scoring and indicator tile denoting the dealer and prevailing wind. In present times, Internet friendly computer versions of the game have come up where you can play against the computer or a person online. The set of Mah Jong tiles differs from place to place, numbering 136 or more and divided into 3 categories namely honor, suits and flowers.
There are three types of suits namely Dots, Characters and Bamboos. Numbered from 1 to 9 each suit has four tiles of the same number. Thus, each suit has 36 tiles. Ones and nines are known as terminals and are considered as most valuable tiles of every suit. Honor tiles constitute of four types of wind tiles and three types of Dragon tiles. Wind tiles are namely East, West, North and South, each wind having four tiles coming to 16 tiles. Dragon tiles are namely Red Green and White, which once again have four tiles each coming up to 12 tiles. Seasons or Flower tiles are used optionally in a game of Mah Jong. The four seasons (spring, summer, autumn and winter) and Flowers (Plum, Orchid, Chrysanthemum and Bamboo) are matched to East, South, West and North respectively.
In order to decide the prevailing wind and the dealer of the game, each player throws three dice. The player who has highest score becomes the dealer and has East wind. Player sitting on his right has South wind, the next player on the right has West wind and the remaining player on dealer’s left has North wind. Unless the dealer wins, game wind changes to the next player following every round. The prevailing wind changes and moves from left to right after each player has lost one game as a dealer.
All the tiles are placed face down and shuffled. Each player then has to stack a row that is two tiles high, length depending upon the number of tiles to be used. Each player has 17-stack row for 136 tiles game, 18-stack row for 144 tiles, 19-stack row for 152 tiles and 19 stacks for dealer and player opposite to him and 18 stacks in a 148 tiles game. The dealer then throws three dice and the sum total is found. A player’s stack is chosen and the ‘sum’ tiles from the right edge are shifted to the right hand side. The dealer then takes four tiles from the left hand side. Moving counterclockwise, each player takes a block of four tiles from the row until each player has 12 or 16 tiles for 13-tile or 16-tile variations of the game. For the 13-tile variation, each player takes one more tile.
The game is ready to be played and each player has to draw tiles in clockwise manner from where the drawing was left off. The dealer starts the game by drawing a tile and discarding an unwanted one. Then the player on his right makes a move. In different variation, the player has to either declare the name of the discarded tile or place it face down. Players who have flower tiles should immediately replace it with tiles from the remaining stacks. Joker tiles are a significant part of the American variation of the game. Rules vary from one version to the other regarding the use of joker or wild card tiles.
Each player has to make a certain combination of tiles called melds or groups and an identical pair before other players to win the game. If a player wants to use a discarded tile by other player to complete a meld he/she has to show the meld to other players. Most variations of the game have three types of melds, the American version being an exception. The three melds are Pung, Kong and Chow. Pung is a set of three identical tiles, Kong is a set of four identical tiles and Chow is a sequence of three tiles of the same suite. The pair of identical tiles is known as an Eye.
If multiple players call for a discarded tile then the player who needs it to win, the hand/round gets precedence over others. The order of precedence is then decided by Pung, Kong and lastly Chow declarations. If two players have same declaration then the player closest to the right of the player discarding the tile gets the tile. When a player is said to have a hand with jus 1 tile to finish the hand it is called the ‘ready hand’. The player who first completes the required number of melds and an Eye is said to be the winner.
A great diversity can be seen in the scoring system in different variations of the game, though the gameplay is more or less the same. Many attempts have been made to establish internationally recognized standards but have failed. Points not only depend upon the wining hand but also upon the wining condition, which has many sets and subsets of criteria. Points are translated to scores. When gambling, these scores are directly translated to money.
This must have provided you with a fair idea of the ancient Chinese game Mah Jong. So, what are you waiting for? Once you have unraveled your brains and have the pungs, kongs and chows sorted out, get the tiles, start plying Mah Jong, and make it your favorite hobby.