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This is Everything You Need to Know to Play Mahjong

How to play and maybe even win.
2019-09-23 11:13:04
Photos: Brandon McGhee
How To: From the directly and minutely useful to information on living your best self in the world. How To is our regular column on how to accomplish things in the city.

The national holiday is nearly upon us. If you’re spending any time with a Chinese family, three things are almost guaranteed: mooncakes, alcohol and mahjong. We can’t help you to ganbei your way through the evening, but mahjong? We can do that.
Here’s how to bluff your way through the ubiquitous national diversion.

The Game

Mahjong has come a long way from its Qing Dynasty origins. The game of tiles originated in northern China and worked its way south, with transformations at every major city and province. Today, there are at least 20 different ways to play (not including Microsoft rules), and upgrade possibilities ranging from self-shuffling tables to dedicated extractor fan lights and novelty tile sets.

Cantonese and Hong Kong style are now among the most popular, and Shanghainese is very similar; during World War II, lots of people traveled between Shanghai and Hong Kong, so the styles mingled.

Some styles are very different, though, especially the variant common in Sichuan. We’ll note important differences as we go.

Although mahjong is played at lots of different family gatherings, it’s most often associated with the Spring Festival – plenty of time to practice if it you don’t manage to win in autumn. Families in southern China will often play mahjong for the full fifteen days. Young people are often taught by their grandparents and, although some play with friends, this is more common among the older generations. Mahjong was a form of entertainment for housewives and female friends back in the day.

The Basics

There’s no way around this, HSK haters: in order to play, you need to be able to read some Chinese and pronounce numbers in Mandarin, plus a few extra words to name the suits and announce your actions. The tiles are all named and you say them as you lay them: the number at the top plus the symbol at the bottom, in that order, just like naming playing cards (er, not liang, for two).

There are three main suits in mahjong: the bamboo or stick (tiao), the circle (tong) and the ten-thousand symbol (wan). There are also the winds (feng) tiles, which come in four directions: north (bei), east (dong), south (nan) and west (xi). Maybe practice reading out Shanghai street signs to learn the symbols if you don’t already know them.

There are a couple of curve balls in the pack, too. If you get the bird, it represents yi tiao (one bamboo).

The MM is made up of eight sticks, so it’s also a bamboo: ba tiao.

The symbol that isn't a direction is pronounced fa, as in fortune.

For the red one representing the character zhong (middle), say hongzhong. The white rectangle is baibanr.

Tiles are called pai (the same as the word for card). Normally, 144 tiles are used for Shanghainese mahjong, which is what we’re focusing on here. If you’re playing in the north of China, you’ll probably only have 136 tiles. The difference is that southerners use a few extra season (or flower) tiles if they’re playing for money (which they definitely won’t be, because gambling is illegal in China, so playing cards are often used as a proxy for cash).

If you get one, you can put it in the corner of the table (face up) for the end, and use it if you win to get more points. Or, ahem, playing cards.

Starting a Game

Four is the best number of players, but fives or threes are fine. Our teacher assured us that it’s hardest to win with only three players, so probably not the best option for beginners. You also have to pretend there’s a fourth player when dealing and taking tiles, which complicates things a little.

Next – the table. If you’re sat at one of those fancy, self-shuffling tables (see above), you can skip the complicated set-up described in the next paragraph. If not, you’ll be expected to pitch in and help.

Each player should have a stack (dui) of 36 tiles in front of them, arranged into two rows of 18, one on top of the other. All of the tiles can be shuffled by hand, face-down, in the middle of the table, and then arranged at random into the stacks (sometimes idiomatically referred to as “building the Great Wall”, or jianzao changcheng).

If the tiles and cards weren’t enough, there should also be a pair of dice on the table. They’re often used to decide who’s the designated dealer – highest roller gets it (although some families play it so the first person who sat down at the table is the dealer, so don’t sit down first unless you’re confident). After the first game, you can either take turns or decide that whoever wins is the next dealer.

You need to start by taking 13 tiles. The above-mentioned dice are used to decide which 'wall'/stack you’ll all start taking tiles from. Roll the dice, then count the number shown from the dealer around the table in an anti-clockwise direction, one number per player, including the empty place if you only have three players. Whichever stack you land on is your starting stack.

You then need to choose which tile will be drawn first. The smallest number of the two dice is the number of tiles you need to count along from the end of the stack (the player's right). The dealer takes first. Everyone takes four tiles at a time (as a block, not a row), taking turns to take sets of four, until you have twelve tiles. Everyone then takes one more, and the dealer takes one last tile at the end. If you get any flowers/seasons, put these to one side in the corner of the board and take a replacement from the end of the tiles (i.e. the tile right before the first tile that was taken).

Keep your 13 tiles standing upright, defended by your “Great Wall”, so your opponents can't see them.

Playing a Game

Play continues in an anti-clockwise direction around the table. Whenever it’s your turn, you first take the next available new tile from whichever stack is being used (zhua pai), and then you choose a tile to chu pai (discard). You should have 13 tiles at the beginning and end of each turn.

You can also chi (literally to eat), which means taking the tile discarded by the person immediately to your left. To do this, say chi, show the tiles you're putting it with (and leave them lying down), then discard a tile yourself as normal. However, you can only do this to complete a run (see below). You also can't change this run once you’ve laid it down – it’s fixed until the end of the game.

Similarly, there's also peng. You can say this very satisfying word and take a tile discarded by anyone at any time – but only to make a set of three identical tiles. In some versions, you can also shout gang if you’re peng'ing but creating a set of four identical tiles. You might make someone skip a turn with these moves, too, since play continues from you around the table. Fierce!

Winning a Game

First game or fifty-thousandth, everyone playing mahjong is aiming to hu, or win. One of the first key phrases our teacher taught us was wo hu le – the cry of the victor.
Different places have different patterns but some are universal. Essentially you’re looking for sets, but only in very specific combinations. It’s a little like rummy, or an extended remix of poker. These are the most commonly accepted:

  • Three “runs” of three consecutive numbers in the same suit, plus one set of three of the same tile, plus a pair.

  • Four sets of three identical tiles, plus any pair.

  • Seven pairs (easiest to remember – if you forget all the others, this is your best shot).

  • The “seven winds” (plus any other seven tiles).

Note that you can’t have a “run” or a set of more than three tiles. Also, the rules are very different in Sichuan. For example, you can only have three different suits in a winning hand. There’s also the 'fight in blood' (xue zhan dao di) rule whereby the remaining players keep playing even after someone else has won. Death or glory.

If you’ve shouted wo hu le, congratulations! Bask in pride. It’ll have to come from within, though, because generally people don't congratulate the winner. It’s more common to decry your own poor luck – wo jiu cha is “I was so close!” You can also wail “shou tai chou le” if you keep getting bad hands. A typical remedy for consistently poor mahjong luck is to ask to shake hands with the more successful players at the table. It’s a real bonding experience, mahjong.

Winning More Than One Game

If you're playing several games but you’re a law-abiding expat and, therefore, not playing for money, you can play for points instead. (If you’re playing for money, the amounts are normally tiny anyway – maybe ten points for yi mao or similar.) The standard rules are that the winner gets:

  • One point for everyone they’ve beaten (and they each lose one).
  • One point from the person who gave them their winning tile if they chied, penged or ganged their way to victory (and that person loses one).
  • One point from everyone they’ve beaten (and everyone else loses another one) if they won without stealing the winning tile from someone else.
  • One point from the dealer if they didn't win (plus the dealer loses one).
  • One for every flower/season tile if you’re playing with a southern set (plus everyone else normally loses one).

Becoming a Mahjong Master

Practice, practice, practice. They say mahjong takes ten minutes to learn, but a lifetime to master – or ten thousand hours, or something. It’s a lot, anyway. Experienced players can tell which tile they’ve drawn without even looking, just by running a thumb over the inscription. Some can even guess your tiles from the back. Terrifying.

Practicing in Shanghai is possible, although some venues are more “friendly” than others. There are some public mahjong clubs, for example, but our teacher told us that the environment isn’t great; most Shanghainese people, especially young people, wouldn’t go.

Many universities have mahjong clubs, although these are normally only for students. There are also a number of language schools offering cultural evenings, including regular games nights. Some are only open to members, but many will allow non-members to attend for a fee; try GoEast or Hutong, for example.

There’s always the DIY option, too. You can buy a set of mahjong tiles on Taobao; prices start at super-cheap levels, but you can get a decent set for around 200rmb. Once you’ve invested in the hardware, all you need is a group of willing opponents and an easy, step-by-step guide to teach them how to play. We can help with one of those things, at least.