Mahjong (麻將 pinyin: ma2 jiang1 lit. hemp general or 麻雀 Cantonese: ma4 jeuk3, literal meaning: "sparrow") (occasionally written as Mah Jong, Mahjongg or Majong; Mah-Jongg was trademarked by Joseph Park Babcock in 1920) is a Chinese gambling game for 4 players. The game pieces (tiles) and scoring rules used in the game are slightly different depending on regional variations. The game play in general are very similar in all versions, as players compete to build sets including the highest point value.

The closest Western analogue is probably the card game gin rummy. Both games involve selecting or discarding units (tiles in one case, cards in the other) to score points by forming groups or runs of similar units.

Table of contents
1 Origins and History
2 Playing Mahjong
3 Setting up the board
4 Gameplay
5 Scoring
6 Tile Construction
7 Trivia
8 External links

Origins and History

Mahjong is thought to have evolved from existing Chinese card and domino games sometime around 1850. There is still a healthy debate about to whom the creation of the game should be attributed. One theory is that Chinese army officers serving during the Tai Ping Rebellion created the game to pass the time. Another theory is that a noble living in the Shanghai area created the game between 1870 and 1875.

By 1895, an American anthropologist named Stewart Cullin wrote a paper in which Mahjong was mentioned. This is the first known written account of Mahjong in any language other than Chinese. By 1910, there were written accounts in many languages including French and Japanese.

The game was a sensation in America when it was imported from China in the 1920s. Part of Mahjong nights in America were to decorate rooms in Chinese style and dress like Chinese (see Bill Bryson's Made in America, Chapter 16).

Today, the popularity and demographic of players of Mahjong differs greatly from country to country. In America, most players are women. In Japan, there is a much greater emphasis on gambling, and the gender of the players is much less divided. In Japan most of the electronic arcade versions feature stripping women.

Playing Mahjong

A Mahjong "set" is usually composed of 144 tiles. They can be categorized by suit as follows:

Tile set variants

Hong Kong mahjong (common in southern China and Singapore), the seasons are replaced with four animals (rooster, centipede, cat and mouse). There are also two sets of four flowers, the Red and Black sets, each numbered from 1 to 4 and corresponding with the winds (1 East, 2 South, 3 West, 4 North), for a total of 148 tiles.

In the American version of Mahjong, eight joker tiles are added to the set for a total of 152. Jokers are "wild" tiles that can count for any missing tile in a hand.

In some regional variants, the season and flower tiles are not used, leaving 136 tiles.

Setting up the board

The following sequence is for setting up a standard Hong Kong (or Singapore) game. Casual or beginning players may wish to proceed directly to gameplay.

Prevailing Wind and Game Wind

To determine the Player Game Wind, all players throw 3 dice and the player with the highest total is chosen as the dealer (also called the banker). The dealer's Wind is now East, the player to the right of the dealer has South wind, the next player to the right has West and the fourth player has North. Game Wind changes after every turn, unless the dealer wins.

The Prevailing Wind is always set to East when starting. It changes after the Game Wind has rotated around the board.

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.

Note: Wind affects only certain scoring doubles. Prevailing Wind tiles and the player's Game Wind tiles are lucky; if the two coincide, that wind is double lucky.

Dealing tiles

All tiles are placed face down and shuffled. Each player then stacks a row of tiles two deep (36 tiles) in front of him, the length of the row depending on the number of tiles in use:

The dealer throws three dice and sums up the total. Counting counterclockwise so that the dealer is '1', a player's row is chosen. Starting at the right edge, 'sum' tiles are counted and shifted to the right.

The dealer now takes a block of 4 tiles to the left of the divide. The player to the dealer's right takes 4 tiles to the left, and players (counterclockwise) take blocks of 4 tiles (clockwise) until all players have 12 tiles. The dealer now takes the first top tile, skips one, and takes the third top tile, giving him 14. Other players take one more each, giving them 13.

The board is now ready and new tiles will be taken from the wall where the dealing left off, proceeding clockwise. In some special cases discussed later, tiles are taken from the other end of the wall, known as the dead wall.

The dealer now starts the game by discarding his 14th tile.

Note: The dealing process is ritualized and complex to prevent cheating. Casual players may wish to simply shuffle well and dole out 13 tiles with less ceremony.


In most regional variants, each of the four players is dealt 13 tiles (16 in a few variants). If the player has flower, season or animal tile, these are placed in view on the table and the player takes a new tile from the dead wall.

A turn consists of a player drawing a tile from the wall (or draw pile) and placing it in his hand. He then discards a tile to the table, which signals the end of his or her turn, and the player to the right plays next. It is good etiquette to announce the name of the discarded tile out loud. For added difficulty, in some Chinese variants the tile is placed face down.

Note: If a flower, season or animal is drawn, the player must expose it (place it on the table in front of his tiles) and draw another tile from the dead wall.

When a player discards a tile, any other player may "call" or "bid" for it in order to complete a meld (a certain set of tiles) in his or her own hand. The disadvantage of doing this is that the player must now expose the completed meld to the other players, giving them an idea of what type of hand he or she is creating. This also creates an element of strategy, as in many versions, discarding a tile that allows another player to win the game causes the discarding player to lose points (or pay the winner more in a game for money).

Allowed melds

When using standard Hong Kong rules, the allowed melds are:

Pong (also Pung): 3 identical tiles. Can be created using any player's discarded tile; if formed with one, the player must say Pong and show the resulting set. The player can form a Pong at any time, after which he must discard a tile and the turn moves to the player's right.

Kong: 4 identical tiles. Can be created using a discarded tile and always shown when formed. The player does not discard a tile.

Chow: 3 tiles in sequence (circles, bamboos or numbers only). Can be created using a discarded title only during the player's own turn, ie. if the tile was discarded by the previous (left) player. Another player's Pong has priority over a Chow.

Eye (also Pair): 2 identical tiles. Only one set allowed (and required), cannot be created with discarded tiles.

Note: Any discarded tile can be taken immediately at any time for any reason if doing so will win the game, and such a move has priority over any other claims.

Robbing the Kong

If a player has already exposed a Pong and he draws a fourth matching tile (using a discard is not permitted), he can choose to convert the Pong to a Kong and draw a new card. In this case (and only in this case), the fourth tile can be taken ('robbed') by another player to win the game with a scoring bonus.


A player wins the game by creating a "Mahjong", the definition of which varies from region to region. Standard Hong Kong mahjong requires that a player's hand consist of one Eye and four groups (a total of 14 tiles), consisting of any combination of Pongs, Kongs and Chows. Additionally, the player may be required to possess at least one double (see Scoring).

13 Wonders

Hong Kong rules also allow the player to win with a special (and very rare) set of tiles: the so-called 13 Wonders, consisting the 1 and 9 of each of the circle, bamboo and number suits (6 tiles), one each of the winds (4 tiles) and one each of the dragons (3 tiles). The 14th tile must match any of the others, forming the Eye.

Turns and Rounds

If the dealer wins the game, they will stay as the dealer. Otherwise, the player to the right becomes dealer and the player's wind becomes the Game Wind, in the sequence East-South-West-North.

After the wind returns to East (ie. each player has been the dealer), a round is complete and the Prevailing Wind will change, again in the sequence East-South-West-North. A full game of mahjong ends after 4 rounds, ie. when the North Prevailing Wind round is over.


Mahjong is scored with points. To play for money, ie. gamble, a monetary value for points is agreed on. Winning a round earns one point, and the winner of each round will then receive (at least) one point from each player.

While the basic gameplay is more or less the same throughout mahjong, the scoring systems vary widely and the Chinese, Japanese and American systems of scoring are completely incompatible. There are also large differences between the various types of Chinese mahjong, and individual groups of players will often agree on the particular rules in effects before a game. Only the modern Chinese (Hong Kong) style of scoring is covered in detail here.


In Chinese mahjong scoring, players can accumulate doubles, each of which doubles the points. For example, winning with five doubles ("5D", the typical maximum) and would result in each player paying the winner 32 points. In addition, if a player wins with a discarded tile, the person who discarded the winning tile has to pay twice what others pay, in this case 64 points. In some games, both wins to and losses from the dealer are also doubled.

For Hong Kong mahjong, the standard list of doubles is:

Scoring Moves

The following moves earn points immediately when performed. Payment is immediate and the player does not need to win the game to keep them.

  • Exposing a Kong (2 point)
  • Exposing cat and mouse, or centipede and chicken (2 point)
    • 4 points may be awarded if both tiles are in the initial 13 tiles.
  • Exposing both Flowers that match Player Game Wind number (2 points)
    • 4 points may be awarded if both tiles are in the initial 13 tiles.
  • Exposing all four tiles in Animal set (4 points)
  • Exposing all four tiles in either Flower set (4 points)

A player exposing all four Black Flowers would thus receive 4 points from each player -- a total of 12.

Paying For All Players

In certain uncommon situations, discarding a tile so it leads to a player's victory (player A) will result in the discarding player (player B) paying for all winnings, ie. discarding player pays 3 times usual amount and other players play nothing. Typically, the scenarios occur when player A is visibly already near victory, and player B throws out a 'dangerous' tile with a high risk of helping player A.

The scenarios are complex and the rules may vary, the following is a typical set.

Dragon Tile Set Scenario

Player A has two Dragon Pongs or Kongs exposed. Player B discards a third Dragon and the Player A is able to Pong/Kong it, forming a third set of Dragons. If Player A wins the game with Player B's discard or his own tile, Player B pays all winnings.

Wind Tile Set Scenario

Same as Dragon Tile Set Scenario, but requires three exposed Wind sets and completing a fourth with a discard.

Double Limit Scenario

Player A has the maximum number of doubles (typically 5) exposed. Player B discards a Dragon tile, a Prevailing Wind or a Player Game Wind that is taken by A. If Player A wins the game with Player B's discard or his own tile, Player B pays all winnings.

Full Color Scenario

Player A has 3 or 4 sets of the same suit (bamboo, number, character) exposed. If Player B discards a tile of the same suit and Player A uses it to win, Player B pays all winnings.

Fresh Discard Scenario

There are less than 7 tiles remaining in the wall. If Player B discards a fresh tile (one not previously discarded) and Player A wins with it, Player B pays all winnings.

American Scoring

On the other end of the spectrum are variants like the American version. In the American version, players use a card that define a small set of hands that are the only valid winning hands. The National Mah Jongg League, the major governing body of organized play in the United States, issues new cards each year to keep the hands fresh.

Tile Construction

Mahjong tiles have been constructed from various materials throughout the years. Traditionally, mahjongg tiles were constructed from ivory or bone, often backed with bamboo. Bone, and to a lesser extent, ivory tiles are still available but most modern sets are constructed from various plastics such as bakelite, celluloid, and more recently nylon. Regardless of the material used to construct the tiles, the symbols on them are almost always engraved or pressed into the material. It is said that some expert players can determine the face value of their tiles without actually looking at them by feeling these engravings with their fingers.


Little known to most players, the suits of the tiles are money-based. The coppers represent the coins; the ropes are actually strings of 100 coins; and the character myriad represents 10 thousand coins or 100 strings.

Mahjong tiles are also used for a computerised solitaire matching game called Shanghai solitaire, or occasionally computerised Mahjong. While this game could be played with real tiles, the electronic setup makes it quick and simple to play.

External links

copyright 2004