Traditional Mah-Jong game, which is played by advanced players, is quite complicated. There are several versions with various winning patterns. Here, we will play an easy way for non-Chinese speaking beginners. We will use the term “card”, instead of “tile”, and we will say the Four Winds cards and Three Dragons cards in English, i.e. East, Red Dragon, etc. Also, we will say Number 1, Number 2, etc. for those cards with “Ten-Thousand” character.
We will play 144 cards with each player holding 16 cards. The counting or the turn is always in counter-clockwise direction, and the game is limited to 4 persons. The players take their seats at random. After 144 cards have been shuffled with facing down, each player builds a straight wall: two rows of 18 cards and put one row on the top of another row. Then, four walls are put together to form a big square. (18 cards x 2 rows x 4 sides = 144 cards) The big square made of 144 cards can be played either for 16 cards or 13 cards.
Before the game begins, 4 players need to agree the points that a winner will receive. For example: If you are the first one to complete a winning pattern by drawing the particular card yourself, you will get 10 points from each of other players. If you take the particular card which is thrown out by other player to complete a winning pattern, you will get 5 points from each of other players.
The advanced players use 2 dices and Four Winds cards to decide who is the dealer for the first game. The winner for the current game will be the dealer for the next game. Here, we use a dice and a simple way. Each player takes turn to throw the dice. The player with a highest score will be the dealer for the first game. For example: You get a highest score of 6, you, the dealer, will proceed the following:
(1) Opening the wall: Decide which side of the wall to begin. It may be any side, except your own side. (2) From the wall you choose, count to 6 from the beginning in counter-clockwise direction and put the 6th heap (one card on the top of another is a heap, totaling 2 cards) on the top of the 5th heap (the previous one). It is the rear pile (or back pile) cards. (3) Take 2 heaps (the 7th and 8th heaps, totaling 4 cards) for yourself. (4) The player on your immediate right side wil take the next 2 heaps (9th and 10th heaps). (5) The other two players will do the same to complete the first round. (6) Repeat the same process until each player has 16 cards in hand, i.e. each player takes 2 heaps (4 cards) 4 times.
Each player organizes his/her 16 cards, with cards standing up, facing himself/herself, and forming a straight wall. Put the cards with the same suit together in proper sequence. I am a right-hander. Here is my way of doing it. If you already have a good set in hand, such as 3 of a kind, or 3 consecutive cards within the same suit, you put it on the extreme left side of your wall. Put the bad cards that have no connection on right side. If you are a left-hander, you may arrange your hand in the opposite way.
The game begins: you, the dealer, draws a new card from the front cards (opposite of the rear pile cards) and throw out/discard a bad card in hand. If your new card allows you to build a good set, put it to the left side of your wall. The player on your immediate right side will be the next one to do the same. Each player takes the turn, in clockwise direction, to draw a new card and throw out a bad card in hand. It is a courtesy that each player says what kind of card is discarded, such as 5 Bamboo, Number 7, Red Dragon, North, etc., to alert other players not to miss any good card needed to build a good set.
If the player on your immediate left side throws a card that allows you to build a set (3 consecutive cards within the same suit), you will claim loudly “CHAO” (like eating chao mein). Then, you will take that particular card and discard a bad card in hand. And, you need to display this particular set facing up on your left side. The player on your immediate right side continues the game.
You can take a card that is thrown out by any other player (even when it is not your turn), if that particular card allows you to build a set of 3 of a kind within the same suit. In this case, you will claim loudly ‘PONG” (like playing a drum). Then, you will take that particular card and discard a bad card in hand. And, you need to display that particular set facing up on your left side. The player on your immediate right side will be the next one to continue the game.
The rules for “PONG” and “KANG” (like hitting a metal bowl) are the same. The difference between “PONG” and “KANG” is that “PONG” is for 3 of a kind within the same suit, and “KANG” is for 4 of a kind within the same suit. A “KANG” has a higher priority than “PONG.”
During the game, if you claim ‘CHAO” and another player claims “PONG” for the same card. The “PONG” has the priority over the “CHAO” to take that particular card. Remember, you can “PONG” or “KANG” a card from any player even when it is not your turn, but you can only “CHAO” a card from the player on your immediate left side when it is your turn. When it is your turn, you can either draw a new card, or take the card that is thrown out by the player on your immediate left side to build a set. Either way, you need to discard a card in hand.
The priority of taking a card from other players is as follows: (1) MAH-JONG: You take a card from any player to complete a winning pattern. (2) KANG (4 of a kind within the same suit, or N E W S); (3) PONG (3 of a kind within the same suit); (4) CHAO (3 consecutive cards within the same suit, or N E W, or 3 dragons) from your left side player when it is your turn to play. If you have a KANG, you need to draw an additional card from the rear pile cards, and you still need to discard a card in hand. Remember: A good set may consist of 3 or 4 cards, and you need 5 sets plus one pair to win.
As the game progresses, the wall with front cards to be drawn becomes shorter and shorter, and it is necessary to properly rearrange its location so all players can reach it easily.
It does happen that the game ends without a winner. The last rear pile card has been taken and there is still no winner. In this case, it is likely that 2 players are holding the same cards.
If you discard a card that allows other two players to complete a winning pattern, the player who is most close to your right side has the right to take your card. Remember, the order is from right to left.
If you complete a winning pattern by yourself without outside help, i.e. no “CHAO” no “PONG,” except the last winning card, you will receive extra points.
During the game, when there is no winner yet, and you are waiting for a particular card to complete a winning pattern, you can take that particular card that is thrown out by any player, even if it is not your turn. When you are the first one to complete a winning pattern, you will claim loudly “Mah-Jong” to inform other players that you are the winner. And, you need to display your hand to show other players your winning pattern. You should have 17 cards in hand and you do not need to discard a card. The game begins with each player holding 16 cards, and ends up with a winner holding 17 cards (or 18 cards if there is a KANG).
If you play 13 cards, instead of 16 cards, the popular winning pattern is 4 sets plus one pair, and the winner will have 14 cards in hand.
(1) C B F (Three Dragons): Red Dragon (C), White Dragon (B) and Green Dragon (F).
(2) N E W (Three Winds): North (N), East (E) and West (W).
(3) N E W S (Four Winds): North (N), East (E), West (W) and South (S).
Above (1) and (2) are treated like CHAO, and (3) is treated like KANG.
Extra Points For Following Advanced Winning Patterns (16 cards):
(1) “One” through “Nine” within the same suit (called a dragon, 3 sets), plus 2 more sets and one pair.
(2) Seven pairs, plus one set.
(3) Five sets of PONGs (each set consists of identical cards), plus one pair of dragon cards.
(4) Five sets of CHAOs (each set consists of 3 consecutive cards), plus one pair of dragon cards.
(5) All five sets are in the same suit (i.e. all circle cards, or all bamboo cards, or all character cards), plus one pair (one of the Four Winds or Dragon cards). The type of suit can be PONG and/or CHAO.
You and your Mah-Jong pals may want to add a little spice to the game, and agree to play the advanced versions. All of you can set your own rules, such as how many extra points for certain kind of winning patterns that are hard to complete.
For example: You are the first one who completes a winning pattern. You will receive a total of 15 points from each of other players if (b) (c) and (d) also applied.
(a) Five (5) Points: You claim Mah-Jong with a winning pattern.
(b) Five (5) Points: You draw the winning card yourself.
(c) Two (2) Points: You complete the winning pattern without outside help, i.e. no “PONG” no “CHAO.”
(d) Three (3) Points: Your winning pattern is one of the above advanced winning patterns.
What’s the big deal with Mah-Jong? The joy of drawing the winning card, the pleasure of building a winning pattern, or the warm glow of winning money?
In most people’s experience, for a happy game of Mah-Jong you need the combination of right time, place and participants. The players should be good friends or associates prepared to observe the proper etiquette, such as: Don’t boast when playing, don’t speak angrily when losing, don’t be greedy on a winning streak, and don’t blame others on a losing streak. Although luck plays a major role, all players have a roughly equal chance of winning.
Mah-Jong is just a pastime, but if you sit back and just play by luck it will become a dull game. Many players take care to play their hands for all its worth, memorizing what cards have been discarded by other players, and trying to work out what’s in their hands. A good player knows what cards other players are waiting to win, and trying not to discard the card they need to win.
Today, Mah-Jong is a universally popular game. Some people play Mah-Jong purely for mental relaxation. Some enjoy playing the game with their good friends and each card they discard means another worry off their shoulders. Other people turn to Mah-Jong at times of grief or distress because their Mah-Jong pals help them ease the pain.
Recently, some young generation encourage their elderly parents to play Mah-Jong, both for its social side and because shuffling and drawing the cards stimulate the nerves in the fingertips and helps exercise the brain cells. But, a word of warning — never sit in the Mah-Jong table for a long time, and be sure that you are able to deal with much excitement.
Have fun and enjoy your Mah-Jong game.