Clearing a Suit At “Mahjong”

Something about Penalties and the Preliminary Skirmish for Position

By R. F. Foster, Copyright, 1924, by R. F. Foster

If you do not play the straight Mah Jong game, four sets and a Pair, no matter what the sets are or how you get them, the choice must be made between two other styles of game: the one-double and the cleared-suit.

In one respect, both these depend largely on the cleared-suit idea. The conditions of the one-double game are that any set that is a doubling set under the rules for any style of play, shall qualify for a Woo, such as Dragons; own Wind or Dominating Wind; or any complexion of hand that entitles the holder to a double, such as only one suit, with or without Winds and Dragons, a hand that is all Terminals or one that is all counts.

Doubles for such things as winning on the original hand or on a loose-tile draw, getting the moon from the bottom of the sea or plucking a plum-blossom on the roof, or on account of holding certain Seasons, are not admitted as qualifications in the one-double game. The so-called “limit hands,” which are sometimes played in connection with the straight game, are also barred, unless they contain an actual double. Many persons make the mistake of showing such hands as “The Thirteen Odds” or “The Heavenly Twins” for a Woo, regardless of the fact that they do not contain a double of any kind. Such freaks belong strictly to the straight game.

There are two important points that must always be decided before play begins at either the one-double or the cleared-suit game. The first is whether players shall be allowed to draw clear to the end of the Wall or shall call the game a draw if no one Woos before reaching the last fourteen barred tiles. If the game is stopped when there are only fourteen tiles left in the Wall, it is astonishing how many times it will result in a draw, since the average number of tiles left is usually between 20 and 30, according to the class of players engaged. It is to avoid too much rebuilding of walls that so many agree to go to the end of the Wall in both the one-double and the cleared-suit game. The other and much more important question is whether or not the rule about discard penalties shall be enforced. As a rule, women are averse to penalties of all kinds in all games, regardless of the fact that without them many games become a joke, Mah Jong among them. Men are often equally opposed to wholesome restraint.

The discard rule applies to three situations. If any player has grounded three sets in the same suit, such as all Characters or all Terminals or all Honors, and another player discards a tile that enables the player with three sets down to Woo with a three-double hand, the player who makes the discard pays the winner, not only for himself but for the two others, and the hands are abandoned without any settling of the minor differences between the hands that did not Woo. This is to prevent a player with a big count from purposely putting out the three-double hand, in the hope of recouping himself by what he collects from the others. The only excuses allowed to remit the penalty are that the player had nothing else left in his hand but that suit or that he was set, or calling, for a three-double hand himself – a case in which the two losers would probably have had to pay one or the other of the two three-double hands anyway.

Attention should be called to the mistake frequently made by players at this style of game in confusing three-double hands of any kind with the three special hands that lead to the penalty. For example: a player may have grounded a Pung, a set of Dragons and a set of his own Wind. It is evident that any discard might complete his hand for another Pung or a Pair, and that he would then have a three-double hand, but he does not incur a penalty for putting out such a hand, since it does not come under the rule – three sets, all of the same suit, or Terminals or Honors.

It is perhaps hardly necessary to say that, if the player who goes out on the discard turns out not to have a three-double hand, there is no penalty. Many players take a chance either that the tile they discard will not be the one wanted or that there are tiles of another suit in the hand, so that there will be only one or two doubles. The safest plan is to study the previous discards, or rejected tiles, and to arrive by elimination at the tiles not wanted. This method takes a little time and requires a good memory and sound judgement, but it is in this critical end game that about the only opportunity for the display of any skill is found.

The discard penalty should be very strictly enforced. The Chinese make no excuses except the one: that the player had nothing else left in his hand to discard but that suit and that he found his hand in that condition after drawing from the Wall, and not after taking a discard. Without the penalty, the game at once degenerates into a scramble to complete one’s own hand without any regard to the others, with the natural result that each player has a free path, drawing and discarding without paying the slightest attention to the danger-signals ahead of him. What intellect is required in the cleared-suit game is employed in the preliminary skirmish for position and in the last few discards. Take away these two elements by remitting the discard penalty, and you might as well take to drawing beans out of a bag and call it a game.

If the six combinations or sets that will supply the required qualification for a Woo in the one-double game are examined, it will be evident that three of them are pure luck and two of the remaining three, rare and therefore difficult to obtain. Hence all that is left to be easily and constantly played for is the cleared suit. Though the all-count hands are included by some persons, they are very unsatisfactory if not completed, since without a double they will not average more than a dozen points or so, exclusive of Seasons. If a double turns up, such hands can be immediately abandoned in favor of the straight game.

The constant object, therefore, is to play for the double that goes with the cleared suit. Since the same tactics are followed in both forms of the game, a study of the principles that govern the cleared-suit game will answer pretty well for both that and the one-double game.

If you are playing for a cleared suit, you are permitted considerable jockeying for certain tactical positions with regard to the other players. Since hands containing nothing but Honors or Terminals are too exceptional to be seriously considered as contenders, there are practically only three suits to be divided among the four players. So at least two of them must be trying for the same suit. The greatest advantage you can secure is to have a suit to yourself, and one of the most important points in the defensive game is to prevent your opponent from having that advantage. Probably the next best tactical position is to be playing for the same suit as the person on your right. Conversely, the worst is to have such a player on your left. It will then be impossible for you to get anything you want except through a Pung, because he will keep all he draws in that suit, whether it then fits into his hand or not. Another and even worse position but fortunately rather rare, is to have two players keeping your suit, the one opposite you and the one on your left. Even if you are fortunate enough to get a Pung or two, the player on your right, who has the choice of two suits and has either of them all to himself, will usually turn out to be an early winner, frequently with a big hand. A common situation is for the opposite players to be trying to clear the same suit. This makes it difficult for the two that sit between them, because either can use any discards from the player on the left and both can use them for Pungs.

Since the selection of an advantageous position is invaluable to a player and since that selection depends on what his opponents are doing, he does not need a very long experience with the game to see that he has given the others the whip-hand if he discloses his objective before they disclose theirs. The next thing he learns is that he will have the best of it if they betray their objective before he openly makes his selection. He may have begun to play for a certain suit, of course, but if he has not grounded a set, he is not yet committed to it. What he must avoid, therefore, is the discarding of two different suits, which would indicate that he is going to try for the third, although this is not always the case.

Some shrewd players will purposely throw the others off the scent by discarding one of the suit they intend to play for, if they have enough of it, and then throwing away several of the tiles in a second suit. Figure 1 shows an example of it from an actual game. Mr. L. L. Harr, Jr.; who is a past master of this sort of thing, sat S.

For brevity in notation, the suits are marked by their initials, B, C, D; the Winds the same way, E, S, W, N; the Dragons R, G, O, the O being for White, to avoid confusion with W Wind. The H stands for the Honors suit. If the reader will sort out the actual tiles and will lay out, face down, six more in the order D6, W, G, D1, O, C9, which is the order of the tiles drawn, he will find it easier to follow the play.

E discarded W. S drew D6 and discarded C9. W drew W and shed N, so as not to betray his hand by discarding the same suit as S. N drew G and discarded C7. E drew D1 and discarded S, still waiting to see what others would do. S drew O and discarded D5, as if he were going for Bamboos. N punged the D5 and discarded the B5. E was now in a bad tactical position with regard to the Dots suit, with N over him. S was, apparently, marked as going for Bamboos. It therefore seemed to E that he could have the Characters suit to himself, or at least share it with W, who, having lost his second turn, had not declared himself yet. But the Characters suit was very short and the Bamboo Pungs looked alluring. Since a suit opposition in Bamboos over S, with a Pung offered and a Pair in hand, looked promising, E took the B5 and discarded C7. S drew the C9 and proceeded thereafter to shed his Dots, none of which N could use. When S finally discarded the B8, E found that he was in suit opposition with W and that S had the Characters suit to himself. N had a bit the worst of the luck, since W took his B9 and 8 and E took his B7; but S ran out unexpectedly with two Pungs and a Kong in hand, showing a cleared suit and all counts, 4 doubles of 52, or 832 points, and winning 3,300 on the hand. N was the big loser – on the minor settlements.

The error into which beginners usually fall in playing for cleared suits is in being in too great a hurry to take what offers. Haste militates against their success in two ways. Unless the set is valuable, it betrays the game too early and gives the other players an opportunity to choose the most advantageous position for their play against the disclosed hand. It also cramps the player in the end game, especially if the first set is a Chow, because it will often turn out that, if he had kept his tiles in hand until he got the whole plan of play developed, he could have used those grounded tiles to make up sets that have become hopeless because the duplicates of the grounded set are already in the discards.

The usual idea of playing cleared suits is that, if you have a superiority in numbers in one suit and get a chance to add to it, you also get an opportunity to discard some other suit and advance your hand just so much toward clearing. Players carry this erroneous idea of the game so far that they will take from the discards tiles that they really do not want, just to get a discard. Figure 2 shows an example. This hand was held by W, with E the Dominating Wind. The first discard by E was N. Then S drew and discarded the D3, which W took for a Chow, although he already had the sequence in his hand. His idea was to get a quick discard of the B1 and later of the three Characters. N drew and discarded the D8, which W could not take, but which he would have drawn had he not been in such a hurry. Two or three turns later he found S in suit opposition over him, and at the end he had to pay E double for a 288 hand and lost over 200 more to N and S.

Beginners commonly make another mistake in taking Chows when they have in their hands the makings of Triplets. One Chow on the table does not amount to much, and further Chows are uncertain. If these are not taken, and especially if a player has secured a good playing position in the preliminary jockeying, he does not need any great amount of luck to get some Pairs and to turn one or two of them into Triplets, some or all of which may be concealed in the hand. If you will watch an expert at this style of game, you will soon perceive that he does not put anything down until pretty close to the end of the play; but when he does put things down, they are worth something.

Sometimes you need a little courage to abandon a promising suit just because you find you are in a bad position for playing it. The beginner seems not to see this disadvantage in its true light and will continue to pull for his longest suit, trusting, probably or apparently, to having more luck than his adversary. The better plan is to take stock of the hand again and see what alternative it offers.

In this connection it must not be forgotten that the cleared suit is required only of the player that Woos. The others have the whole gamut of the scorecard to play with. In view of the number of hands that are hopeless for a cleared suit, owing to want of opportunities to pung or to getting sequences ready too late, after the tiles you want are buried in the discards, or to finding yourself in a bad tactical position, attention must be turned to what is still open. With some Dragons or your own Wind in hand, there is a chance to double something, and, if the Seasons are in the set, they may add to the other things that can be doubled. In such cases, it will often pay the player to abandon all hope of a Woo very early in the game an devote all his attention to gathering Triplets, with the chance of Kongs.

I sat behind the hand shown in Figure 3 the other day and watched with interest the way the player handled it. S held it, with S the Dominating Wind. E’s first discard was an N, and S drew the D9, discarding N. W drew and discarded the C1, which N took for a Pung, discarding the B9, which E took for a Kong, discarding the third N, of which he must have held a Pair originally. S immediately dropped his intention of playing for the Bamboos, with E over him in that suit, and upon drawing E, discarded B6 and later B8, hoping to find he had the Dots suit to himself. But in the development he gathered two more of his own Wind and then devoted all his attention to counts. N went out in Characters, with only one double, and S paid him 60. Then S collected from the others with a hand of 52 points and two doubles.