Strategy, Skill and a Little Luck

Though once banned by the Chinese government in the 1940s, mahjong was eventually reinstated and has since gained worldwide popularity.

Mahjong is a tile game that originated in China and dates back to the Qing dynasty (in power from 1644 to 1912). The game eventually made its way into Japan in 1907 and took off in popularity when it was introduced to America in the 1920s. Because it has been around for so long and has been played in so many countries there are many different variations and rules for playing, but the most common are the Chinese version and the British version.

Mahjong involves strategy, skill and a little luck; it can be fast paced and very competitive. It’s said to have begun with cards. This idea was short-lived, however, as the cards would easily blow away in the wind on ships. So, heavier tiles — traditionally made from bone or ivory, but today are made from plastic — were created.

At its base, mahjong is similar to the card game, rummy. Both require players to draw and discard during their turn, with the goal of completing a full hand. Mahjong is usually a four-player game, but there are some versions that allow for three players. The game consists of 144 tiles based on Chinese symbols and characters. Each set of tiles is grouped by suit, honour and flower. There are three suits that include bamboo, circles or dots and characters.

There are 36 tiles of each suit, containing four sets of tiles numbered one through nine. The honour tiles consist of 16 wind tiles, which have four tiles for each of the four winds (North, South, East and West). There are also 12 dragon tiles, including four red dragons, four green dragons and four white dragons. The flower tiles are considered bonus tiles and there are eight of them; four flower tiles that are usually plum, orchid, chrysanthemum and bamboo; and four season tiles depicted as a fisher, woodcutter, farmer and scholar. The bonus tiles are worth more points.

To start the game, all the players will sit around a square table, each signifying the North, South, East and West. The tiles are turned upside-down and shuffled in the middle of the table. Once shuffled, the tiles are neatly stacked upside-down on top of each other to create four walls. Each wall has 34 tiles that are two tiles high and 17 tiles long.

The four walls are then pushed together to form a square, representing and symbolizing the Great Wall of China. This is where players will draw tiles from. The process of setting up the game is very detailed and was originally put in place to avoid cheating when gambling was involved.

Once the tiles have been shuffled and organized, players take turns rolling a set of dice to determine who plays first. The player who rolls the highest number will be the first player. Four tiles are dealt to each player until each player has 13 tiles. The player who goes first will draw one extra tile to kick off the game.

Players take turns to draw tiles from either the tile walls or from other player’s discarded tiles. Drawing one tile and discarding one tile at each turn. In order to win Mahjong one will need to collect four sets of three and a pair. The three different types of sets are called “Chow” “Pung,” and “Kong.” Chow is a sequence of three tiles of the same suit. Pung is a set of three identical tiles and Kong is a set of four identical tiles. A pair consists of two of the same tiles.

If all the tiles from the walls are drawn and there is not a winner, the game is declared a draw and no scores are made. The game then restarts.

It’s not difficult to find mahjong games and apps online, as well as regional tournaments (currently mainly offered in virtual form).