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How To Play Mahjong (So I've learned)

Mahjong is known primarily as a computer game, where pairs are matched to remove them from a stacked pile of tiles; that’s if it’s known at all. It is, in fact, a much older game. It is similar to the card game of rummy, but it is played with tiles and filled with Chinese ideas and imagery. This is a rundown of how the game is played; pretty much stereo instructions here. I've seen a few variations (Chinese Vs. American rules, other variations) on the scoring methods and use of bonuses, so forgive me if these rules are slightly (or greatly) different from what you might know.

The Game Set

The tiles that are used in the game are composed of:

Three suits (each suit made up of 9 numbers, 4 tiles each number, totaling 36 tiles each suit, 108 tiles)

  • Strings, aka: Bamboo, Sticks

  • Coins, aka: Balls, Plates

  • Wan, aka: 10,000, Cracks

Honor tiles (consisting of 4 tiles each; 16 winds, 12 dragons, totaling 28 tiles)

  • 4 Winds: East, South, West, North

  • 3 Dragons: Red (Chong), Green (Fa), White (Bai)

Bonus tiles (each set has 4 and only 1 tile each, totaling 8 tiles)

  • Seasons: Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter

  • Flowers: Plum Flower, Orchid, Chrysanthemum, Bamboo

The Honor tiles and the 1’s and 9’s of the suits are called the major tiles.

The 2-8’s of the suits are called the minor tiles.

Some sets come with sticks or chips for betting purposes. A set will often have 2-3 die along with a marker to designate the current prevailing wind of the game.

A hand will consist of 13 tiles, looking to draw a 14th tile to win. The (main) goal is to create four sets of three and a pair: a mahjong. The sets of three may be as runs of the same suit (called chows) or made of the three of the same tile (called a pung). A pung can ultimately become a four of a kind (called a kong). There are also special hands that can win the game that don’t consist of the four sets of three and a pair hand.


Set up actually starts by choosing the wind directions of each player to start the game, with the wind directions being ordered as East, South, West, and North, and seated in a counterclockwise direction. Dice can be cast to choose this, or it can be chosen by mixing up the four wind tiles and each player choosing a tile to find their position. The games have a wind direction associated with them; this is called the prevailing wind and starts with East for at least the first four games.

After positions have been chosen, the set up continues with turning all tiles face down and washing them; this is the process of mixing them up by swirling them around on the table. Each player then creates a wall of tiles two high,18 tiles long. These walls are pushed together in the middle of the table, with overlapping of the right side as seen in the image below.

The player in the East position then rolls the dice twice (I usually play with two die, but some sets come with three). The first roll decides which side of the wall begins the deal; this number added to the second roll will determine which tile of the wall will begin the deal. When East rolls a 7 in the first roll, the count goes counterclockwise starting with themselves as 1, South as 2, West as 3, North as 4 on through to 7 landing on West's side of the wall, where the deal will start. East’s second roll is an 8, so beginning on the right side of the wall and now counting clockwise (to the left), East will count over 15 tile to the left (7 + 8), and there, “break the wall” by removing those tiles. One is placed on top of the tile 3 to the right, one is placed on the tile 6 to the right. This section is then separated from the rest of the wall one more tile to the right. This set of 16 tiles is called the Kong Pile, or dead wall, and used for bonuses.

East then begins the deal from the live wall by taking the first four tiles to the left of the break, followed by South, West, and North. Player direction moves counterclockwise while the wall is dealt and played in a clockwise direction. After each player takes 3 sets in the same manner (totaling 12 tiles), each person removes 1 more tile (for a total of 13), with East taking yet 1 more final tile (East will have 14 tiles after the deal).

If the sum of the rolls is greater than 18, just continue counting to the next side of the wall, where the break will occur.

Game play

East, having 14 tiles after the draw, first places any bonus tiles face up drawn during the deal. A replacement tile is then picked from the kong pile. Now with 14 tiles, East discards

their first unwanted tile (called a dirty tile), calling it out when placed in the center of the wall. South is next and will start by showing any bonuses and replacing all from the bonus pile. Then, they can either pick up the dirty tile if needed to complete a chow, pung, or kong, otherwise they pick from the live wall. South then discards an unwanted tile and play moves to West, then North, and back to East. After a discarded tile is passed over once, it is no longer available for the game.

During play, if a bonus tile is drawn from the wall, it is placed face up and replaced with a bonus tile from the kong pile. A discarded/dirty tile can be called by anyone (again, only the one time after being discarded) at the table if needed for: mahjong, kong, or pung (only the next player can pick up a discarded tile for a chow, unless that chow completes a mahjong), representing the order of priority if being called. If South discards a tile North needs for a pung or kong, North has priority, even if West needs it for a chow. If East needs that same tile to complete mahjong by completing a chow or a pair, East would have priority over North's pung/kong and West's chow (unless the chow would complete mahjong for West as well).

When a player calls a dirty tile, the completed chow, pung, or kong is placed face up on the table and is considered exposed. If a set is completed by picking a tile from the wall, it is held in the hand and is concealed.

A kong is created when someone is already holding a pung. A concealed pung can become a kong by either drawing the fourth tile from the wall (concealed kong) or from the discard pile (exposed kong). An exposed pung can only become an exposed kong if the fourth tile is drawn from the wall; an exposed set can only have 1 dirty tile in it. When a player has a concealed kong, they will need to place those tiles face up on the table (but flipping one to represent it is concealed). After a player gets a kong, they will take a bonus tile from the kong pile before discarding their play.

When a player needs only one tile to complete their set, they are “waiting.” When the last title needed is pulled from the wall, or is taken from a discarded tile, the person calls mahjong and lays their concealed tiles down showing their mahjong hand.

If someone other than East wins, the next game is set up in the same fashion, but the winds move one position to the right (South becomes East, West to South, North to West, East to North). The prevailing wind remains East until the original East is East again, and then the prevailing wind becomes South, which means there are at least 16 games in a match (you don't have to play 16 games). If East wins the game, directions stay the same, as does the prevailing wind, only moving wind directions when South, West, or North win.

Scoring the game

The easy and quick way to score is to just play for the mahjong. The next level is to follow the scoring system you can download at the bottom of the page (The cards are set up to be printed on 4x6 index cards; Jenni and I laminated our score cards and use dry-erase markers, works great). A game limit should be chosen at the beginning of the game, usually 1000 points. When scoring, there are points that can be had by all the players, and there are some points that only the winner can count.

The first step is for each player to add up the points gained in a round. Everyone scores points for pungs and kongs, while chows do not score points. Individual points are scored for pairs of dragons, own wind, or prevailing winds in the hand. There are also points for bonus tiles. The player that goes mahjong also has points for winning, as well as other aspects of their hand.

The second step is to figure out any bonuses you have in your hand. There are some bonuses only for the winner, and there are some available for any of the players. Bonuses are awarded for pungs/kongs of dragons, own winds, or prevailing wind. The winner gets a bonus for things like winning with no chows, or with an all concealed hand. Bonuses double the score from step 1 and are cumulative! If a player has 50 points and gets 5 bonuses, this would double the score 5 times: 50->100->200->400->800->1600. However, the player would end up with the game limit, which would be 1000 points.

Another reason for the limit is because there are some hands that don’t get scored in the traditional way; these are called special hands. Some of the special hands can only be made by pulling from the wall (except for the final mahjong tile); an example is the wriggly snake, which consists of 1 through 9 of the same suit and 1 of each wind, with any of those tiles paired up. There are some limit hands formed like a normal hand; an example being the Imperial Jade, which is a mahjong hand with 4 sets of 3 and a pair but has all green tiles (2-4, 6, 8 bamboo, and green dragon). Since we lost our book with the list of special hands, when Jenni and I play, we say that if you have a compelling argument to call a hand special, you get it. Here is list of some of the traditional and expanded special hands.

Mahjong Scorecard
Download PDF • 58KB

Feeling Lucky, the Score Will Tell

If your are betting, everyone evens up at the end of each round. The person with the highest score gets paid by each player the difference in their scores, the next highest score gets paid by the lowest two, and the third highest score gets paid by the lowest score.

The winner doesn’t pay out to anyone, and the lowest score pays out to everyone. And, when playing like this, it’s not always the person who goes mahjong that has the highest score.

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