Mahjong (also called mah-jongg by the American association, Traditional Chinese: 麻將; Pinyin: májiàng) is a game for four players that originated in China. Mahjong involves skill, strategy, and calculation, as well as a certain degree of chance. Depending on the variation which is played, luck can be anything from a minor to a dominant factor in success. In Asia, mahjong is also popularly played as a gambling game. In the game, each player is dealt either thirteen or sixteen tiles in a hand (depending on the variation being played). On their turn, players draw a tile and discard one, with the goal of making four or five melds (also depending on the variation) and one pair, or "head". Winning comes "on the draw", by drawing a new or discarded tile that completes the hand. Thus a winning hand actually contains fourteen (or seventeen) tiles.
One of the myths of the origin of Mahjong suggests that Confucius, the great Chinese philosopher, had developed the game in about 500 BC. This assertion is likely to be apocryphal. According to this myth, the appearance of the game in the various Chinese states coincided with Confucius' travels at the time he was teaching his new doctrines. The three dragon (Cardinal) tiles also agree with the three Cardinal virtues bequeathed by Confucius. Hóng Zhōng (中 , lit. middle) the Red, Fā Cái (發 , lit. prosperity) the Green, Bái Pi (白 , lit. white) the White represent Benevolence, Sincerity, and Filial piety respectively, again under this myth. In fact, the "middle" is likely a reference to 中国 (zhōngguó) — China's name in Chinese.
Also, this myth claims that Confucius was fond of birds, which would explain the name "Mahjong" (sparrow). However, there is no evidence of Mahjong's existence before the Taiping era in the 19th century, which eliminates Confucius as a likely inventor.
Many historians believe it was based on a Chinese card game called Mǎdiào (馬吊) (also known as Ma Tiae, lit. Hanging Horse; or Yèzí (葉子), lit. Leaf) in the early Ming dynasty. This game was played with 40 paper cards similar in appearance to the cards used in the game Ya Pei. These 40 cards, numbered 1 to 9 in four different suits along with four extra flower cards, are quite similar to the numbering of Mahjong tiles today. Although Mahjong only has three suits and, in effect, uses four packs of Ya Pei cards.
There is still a healthy debate about who created the game. One theory is that Chinese army officers serving during the Taiping 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. Others believe that around 1850 in the city of Níngpō two brothers had created Mahjong from the earlier game of Mǎdiào.
This traditional Chinese game was banned in its homeland in 1949, when the People's Republic of China was founded. The new Communist government forbade any gambling activities, which were regarded as symbols of capitalist corruption. After the Cultural Revolution, the game was revived, and once again Mahjong has become a favorite pastime of the Chinese, as well as in Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan and elsewhere.
By 1895, Stewart Culin, an American anthropologist, 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. In 1920, Abercrombie & Fitch became the first ever American brand to introduce the game. It became a success in New York, and owner of the Company, Ezra Fitch, sent emissaries to Chinese villages to buy every set of Mahjong they could find. In the end, Abercrombie & Fitch sold a number of 12,000 sets. Later, an important English book was Joseph Park Babcock's Rules of Mah-Jongg, which, simplified in 1920, was simply known as the "red book". Although this was the earliest version of Mahjong that had been introduced to America, many of Babcock's simplifications were abandoned when the 1920s fad died out.
The game was a sensation in America when it was imported from China in the 1920s, as the same Mahjong game took on a number of trademarked names, such as Pung Chow or the Game of Thousand Intelligences. Part of Mahjong nights in America was to decorate rooms in Chinese style and dress like Chinese. Several hit songs were also recorded during the mahjong fad, most notably "Since Ma is Playing Mah Jong" by Eddie Cantor.
American Mahjong, which was mainly played by women during the time, grew from this craze. By the 1930s, many revisions of the rules developed that were substantially different from Babcock's classical version (including some that were considered fundamentals in other variants, such as the notion of a standard hand). Standardization came with the formation of the National Mah Jongg League (NMJL) in 1937, along with the first American mahjong rulebook, Maajh: The American Version of the Ancient Chinese Game.
While Mahjong was accepted by U.S. players of all ethnic backgrounds during the Babcock era, many consider the modern American version a Jewish game, as many American Mahjong players are of Jewish descent. (Also, the NMJL was founded by Jewish players and considered a Jewish organization.) In addition, players usually use the American game as a family-friendly social activity, not as gambling.
British author Alan D. Millington revived the Chinese Classical game of the 1920s with his book, The Complete Book of Mah-jongg (1977). This handbook includes a formal rules set for the game. Many players in Western countries consider Millington's work authoritative.
In Japan, there is a traditional emphasis on gambling and the typical player is male. Many devotees there believe the game is losing popularity and have taken efforts to revive it. In addition, Japanese video arcades have introduced Mahjong arcade machines that can be connected to others over the Internet.
Mahjong culture is still deeply ingrained in the Chinese community: Sam Hui wrote Cantopop songs, using Mahjong as their themes. Hong Kong movies have often included scenes of Mahjong games. Gambling movies have been filmed time and again in Hong Kong, and a recent sub-genre is the Mahjong movie.
Due to the solid form of the tiles, Mahjong is sometimes classified as a 'domino game'. This is unrealistic as the tiles are not double-headed like a western domino. Mahjong is more similar to western-style card games such as rummy with the unusual extra characteristic of having a 'hard' card.
There are many variations of mahjong. In many places, players often observe one version – and are either unaware of other variations or claim that different versions are incorrect. Although many variations today differ only by scoring, there are several main varieties:
Other variants include Fujian Mahjong (with Dàidì Joker 帶弟百搭), Vietnamese Mahjong (with 16 different kinds of joker), and Filipino Mahjong (with the Window Joker). In addition, Pussers Bones is a fast-moving variant developed by sailors in the Royal Australian Navy; it uses a creative alternative vocabulary, such as Eddie, Sammy, Wally, and Normie instead of East, South, West, and ''North.'
In 1998, in the interest of changing mahjong from an illegal gambling game to an approved 'healthy sport', the China State Sports Commission published a new set of rules, now generally referred to as Chinese Official rules or International Tournament rules. The principles of the new, ‘healthy’ mahjong are: no gambling – no drinking – no smoking. In international tournaments, players are often grouped in teams to emphasize that mahjong from now on is considered a sport.
The new rules are highly pattern-based. The rulebook contains 81 combinations, based on patterns and scoring elements popular in both classic and modern regional Chinese variants. Some table practices of Japan have also been adopted. Points for flower tiles (each flower is worth 1 point) may not be added until the player has scored 8 points. The winner of a game receives the score from the player who discard the winning tile, plus 8 basic points from each player; in the case of zimo (self drawn win), he receives the value of this round plus 8 points from all players.
The new rules were used in an international tournament first in Tokyo, where in 2002 the first World Championship in Mahjong was organized by the Mahjong Museum, the Japan Mahjong Organizing Committee and the city council of Ningbo, China, the town where it is believed mahjong most likely originated. One hundred players participated, mainly from Japan and China, but also from Europe and the United States. Miss Mai Hatsune from Japan became the first world champion. The following year saw the first annual China Majiang Championship, held in Hainan. The next two annual tournaments were held in Hong Kong and Beijing. Most players were Chinese, but players from other nations attended as well.
In 2005 the first Open European Mahjong Championship was held in the Netherlands, with 108 players. The competition was won by Masato Chiba from Japan. The second European championship, in Copenhagen, Denmark, 2007, with 136 players, was won by Danish player Martin Wedel Jacobsen. First Online European Mahjong Championship was held on MahjongTime server in 2007 with 64 players and the winner was Juliani Leo from USA and the best European Player was Gerda van Oorschot from Netherlands. The next European Championship will be held in Austria, 2009.
In 2006, the World Mahjong Organisation (WMO) was founded in Beijing, China, with the cooperation of, amongst others, the Japan Mahjong Organizing Committee (JMOC) and the European Mahjong Association (EMA). This organization held its first World Championship in November 2007 in the Chinese town of Chengdu, which was won by Li Li, a Chinese student of Tsinghua University. There were 144 participants, from all over the world.
Critics say that the new rules are unlikely to achieve great popularity outside of tournaments. They argue that regional versions are too well-entrenched, while the Mahjong Competition Rules use many unfamiliar patterns. The new mahjong's advocates claim that it meant to be a standard for international events, not to replace existing variations.
Mahjong, can be played either with a set of Mahjong tiles, or a set of Mahjong playing cards (sometimes spelled 'kards' to distinguish them from the list of standard hands used in American mahjong); one brand of Mahjong cards calls these Mhing. Playing cards are often used when travelling as it reduces space and is lighter than their tile counterparts, but are of a lower quality in return. In this article, "tile" will be used to denote both playing cards and tiles.
Many Mahjong sets will also include a set of chips or bone tiles for scoring, as well as indicators denoting the dealer and the Prevailing Wind of the round. Some sets may also include racks to hold tiles or chips (although in many sets the tiles are generally sufficiently thick so that they can stand on their own), with one of them being different to denote the dealer's rack.
A set of Mahjong tiles will usually differ from place to place. It usually has at least 136 tiles, most commonly 144, although sets originating from America or Japan will have more. Mahjong tiles are split into these categories: suits, honor and flowers.
The 4 tiles below are seasonal tiles that represent spring, summer, autumn, and winter.
The suits of the tiles are money-based. In ancient China, the copper coins had a square hole in the center. People passed a rope through the holes to tie coins into strings. These strings are usually in groups of 100 coins called diào (弔 or variant 吊) or 1000 coins called guàn (貫). Mahjong's connection to the ancient Chinese currency system is consistent with its alleged derivation from the game named mǎ diào (馬吊).
In the mahjong suits, the coppers represent the coins; the ropes are actually strings of 100 coins; and the character myriad represents 10,000 coins or 100 strings. When a hand received the maximum allowed winning of a round, it is called mǎn guàn (滿貫, lit. full string of coin.)
The Prevailing Wind (場風) is always set to East when starting. It changes after the Game Wind has rotated around the board, that is, after each player has lost as the dealer.
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. In sets with racks, a rack may be marked differently to denote the dealer.
These winds are also significant as winds are often associated with a member of a Flower tile group, typically 1 with East, 2 with South, 3 with West, and 4 with North.
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 for 13-tile variations and 16 for 16-tile variations. In 13-tile variations, each player then takes one more tile to make a 13-tile hand. In practice, in order to speed up the dealing procedure, the dealer often takes one extra tile during the dealing procedure to start their turn.
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, commonly referred to as the back end of the wall. In some variations, a group of tiles at the back end, known as the dead wall, is reserved for this purpose instead. In such variations, the dead wall may be visually separated from the main wall, but it is not required.
Unless the dealer has already won (see below), the dealer then discards a tile. The dealing process with tiles is ritualized and complex to prevent cheating. Casual players, or players with Mahjong playing cards, may wish to simply shuffle well and deal out the tiles with fewer ceremonial procedures.
A turn involves a player drawing a tile from the wall (or draw pile) and then placing it in his or her hand. The player then discards a tile onto the table. This signals the end of his or her turn, prompting the player to the right to make his or her move. As a form of courtesy, each player is encouraged to announce loudly the name of the tile being discarded. Many variations require that discarded tiles be placed in an orderly fashion in front of the player, while some require that these be placed face down.
During gameplay, the number of tiles maintained by each player should always be the same, ie. 13 or 16. A player must discard a tile after picking up one. Failure to do so rules that player effectively out of winning (since a winning combination could never be built with one extra tile or fewer), but he or she is obliged to continue until someone else wins.
When three players drop the West tile, the fourth player will usually avoid discarding another West the following turn. This is caused by a superstition that, when all the players discard a West ("西") together, all players will die ("歸西") or be cursed with bad luck (see Tetraphobia). During the West Prevailing Wind Round, players will also avoid throwing in the One Circle during the first move because One Circle sounds like "together" in mandarin.
In American Mahjong, however, Flower tiles are not instantly exposed and replaced, as they may be melded with other Flower tiles in the same group (in essence, they are treated as if they were another set of honor tiles) or be used as a requirement of a winning hand. Early versions of American Mahjong used Flower tiles as Joker tiles.
Rules governing discarding Joker tiles also exist: some variations permit the Joker tile to take on the identity of any tile, and others only permit the Joker tile to take on the identity of the previously discarded tile (or the absence of a tile, if it is the first discard).
Joker tiles may or may not have an impact on scoring, depending on the variation. Some special hands may require the use of Joker tiles (for example, to represent a "fifth tile" of a certain suited or honor tile).
In American Mahjong, it is illegal to pass jokers during the Charleston.
Most variants (again, with the notable exception of American Mahjong) allow three types of melds. When a meld is declared through a discard, the player must state the type of the meld to be declared and place the meld face-up. The player must then discard a tile, and play continues to the right. Because of this, turns may be skipped in the process.
For example:; ; ; .
For example: ;
For example: ; ; ;
are the eyes of this completed set of tiles.]]
Note that American mah-jongg hands may have tile constructions that are not melds, such as "NEWS" (having one of each wind). As they are not melds, they cannot be formed off discards, and in some variations, cannot be constructed in part or in whole by Joker tiles. (also, in Chinese official and several other rulesets, there are oddball hands such as Seven Pairs, which is what it sounds like)
When two or more players call for a discarded tile, a player taking the tile to win the hand has precedence over all others, followed by pong or kong declarations, and lastly chows. In American Mahjong, where it may be possible for two players needing the same tile for melds, the meld of a higher number of identical tiles takes precedence. If two or more players call for a meld of the same precedence (or to win), the player closest to the right wins out (but the game may be declared an abortive draw if two or more players call a tile for the win, again depending on the variation). In particular, if a call to win overrides a call to form a kong, such a move is called robbing the Kong, and may give a scoring bonus.
There is generally an informal convention as to the amount of time allowed to make a call for a discarded tile before the next player takes their turn. In American Mahjong, this "window of opportunity" is explicitly stated in the rules, whereas in other variants, it is generally considered that when the next player's turn starts (i.e. the tile leaves the wall), the opportunity has been lost.
Some variations of Mahjong, most notably Japanese variations, allow a player to declare riichi (立直 - sometimes known as reach as it is phonetically similar). A declaration of riichi is a promise that any tile drawn by the player is immediately discarded unless it constitutes a win. A player who declares riichi and wins usually receives a point bonus for their hand, while a player who declares riichi and loses is usually penalized in some fashion. Declaring a nonexistent riichi is also penalized in some fashion.
In some variations, a situation in which all four players declare a riichi is an automatic drawn game, as it reduces the game down to pure luck (ie. who gets their needed tile first).
A player wins the round (Chinese: 胡, hú，Japanese:アガリ, agari or 和了, hoora) by creating a standard mahjong hand (in Western Classical variants, this is known as creating a Mahjong, and the process of winning is called going Mahjong) which consists of a certain number of melds, four for 13-tile variations and five for 16-tile variations, and a pair. Some variations may also require that winning hands be of some point value. If a player declares victory but is discovered to not be holding a winning hand, he or she suffers a penalty of having to pay all the opposing players (called a 詐胡 jaa woo in Cantonese, or literally translated as "fake hand").
If the player wins by drawing a tile from a wall during his turn, a special name is given to this type of win in Chinese and Japanese (Chinese: 自摸 zìmō, Japanese: ツモ tsumo). If the player wins by taking a tile cast off by another player, in Japanese it is called ロン (ron). Variations may also have special nonstandard hands that a player can make (in this sense, American Mahjong is a variant where only special hands exist).
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. It is often regarded as an unlucky act to stop the gameplay at the West round, as West has a similar sound to death in Chinese.
It is also generally considered poor etiquette to touch the shoulders of someone during the game as this is said to give bad luck to the player.
However, the Japanese variation differs in that the game starts on the East round, where a special table wind is assigned to all games in that round. The dealer is also always considered East seat, so when the dealership passes to the next player, it reassigns all the seat winds to the next player (although nobody actually moves around). After every player has been East at least once, the East round is over, and the South Round begins. Play usually ends after the South Round, however, if none of the players has above a certain amount, usually 30,000, then play will continue to West, and possibly even North Rounds.
While the basic gameplay is more or less the same throughout mahjong, the greatest divergence between variations lies in the scoring systems. Like the gameplay, there is a generalized system of scoring, based on the method of winning and the winning hand, from which Chinese and Japanese (among notable systems) base their roots. American mahjong generally has greatly divergent scoring rules (as well as greatly divergent gameplay rules).
Because of the large differences between the various systems of scoring (especially for Chinese variants), groups of players will often agree on particular scoring rules before a game. As with gameplay, many attempts have been made to create an international standard of scoring, but most are not widely accepted.
Points (terminology of which differs from variation to variation) are obtained by matching the winning hand and the winning condition with a specific set of criteria, with different criteria scoring different values. Some of these criteria may be subsets of other criteria (for example, having a meld of one Dragon versus having a meld of all of them), and in these cases, only the most general criterion is scored. The points obtained may be translated into scores for each player using some (typically exponential) functions. When gambling with mahjong, these scores are typically directly translated into sums of money. Some criteria may be also in terms of both points and score.