The Rage of Mahjong

An Introduction to the Ancient Game of China which Has Taken America by Storm

By R. F. Foster

The Chinese have given western civilization many things, some of them of the greatest importance in their influence upon our comfort and progress. In clothing, we are indebted to China for silk; in food stuffs, for tea; in war, for gunpowder; and in displays of celebrations for fireworks. It now looks as if we were about to add permanently to out stock of domestic amusements by adopting the Chinese national game, Mahjong.

The game has been gradually approaching New York from the West. As far back as last April it had taken a firm hold on the Pacific coast, where it is still all the rage, having largely superseded bridge. Spreading across the continent, it has reached Boston and Maine, taking in New York on its way. There are to-day more than a dozen persons teaching the game in New York city along.

There is a certain amount of glamour and romance about the history of Mah Jong. They say it has been played in China for so long that its origin long antedates history.

Implements of the Game

Mahjong is played with 136 pieces, which closely resemble dominoes in size and appearance. The imported pieces which, in America, are sometimes called “cards”, are made of wood and bone, or wood and ivory, back to back, the denominations being on the bone faces. The present American sets are like small glazed tiles, rather thin, and liable to fall and expose the hand. The imported pieces are lighter, more convenient to play with, as they stand up better, especially on shipboard; but the wooden backs are easily soiled, and when soiled can be identified, which renders the whole set valueless for close play.

The three principal suits in the Chinese game of Mahjong, represented by circles, by lines and by Chinese figures. They are known respectively as “Dots”, “Bamboos”, and “Characters”

The 136 pieces are divided into five suits. The three principal suits have nine pieces in each, numbered from 1 to 9, and each of these numbers has four duplicates in the same suit, making 36 pieces to a suit; or 108 in the three. It is much as if one took four packs of cards, threw out one suit entirely and took from the ace to the nine in each of the others, to make up a pack.

These three suits are known respectively as “Dots”, “Bamboos”, and “Characters”. They are represented by circles, by lines, and by Chinese characters.

The fourth suit contains only 16 pieces; 4 duplicates of the four “Winds”, N. S. E. and W. The fifth suit contains 12 pieces; 4 red dragons, 4 green dragons, and 4 white dragons. When one has played the game for a year or two, 8 jokers may be added, which are called flowers and seasons, and act as multipliers. They are not popular, and seldom used, as they greatly reduce the value of technical skill as compared to luck.

There are a number of preliminaries at Mah Jong which have little or nothing to do with the actual play, but they give the game a sort of Oriental atmosphere, settling some of the details in a leisurely and ceremonious manner – not particularly calculated for catching a train. Any one who starts a game should have at least half an hour to spare, although it may be finished in five minutes.

First of all, each player makes a throw with two dice, and the highest throw becomes the banker, with the title of “East Wind”. This is no empty honor, because he gets double pay when he wins. The next higher throw sits on his right, which is the Chinese position for the “South Wind”. There is no apparent reason for this reversal of the points of the compass, and it does not in any way affect the game. The others follow in the order of their throws, to the right.

The players having taken their seats, the 136 pieces are thoroughly shuffled, face down, and each player draws 34 at random. These he builds in a long wall, 17 pieces long and 2 high, all face down. All four players simultaneously push their respective walls toward the center of the table, where they meet at the corners, forming a hollow square.

The East Wind now takes the two dice, mutters a few incantations in Chinese, somewhat similar to those used in shooting craps, and cast them on the table, inside the square. He then starts with his own wall, and counts one for each wall from left to right, as many walls as there are pips face up on the two dice. If the throw comes 7 or 11, it would carry the count completely round, once or twice, and finish on the west wall, which is presided over by the player known as the West Wind.

This wall having been located, it is known as the wall to be broken. The next thing is to decide which of its vertebra shall be removed. The player upon whose wall the curse has fallen takes the dice and throws them again. He adds the number to the number previously thrown by the East Wind, and counts along the 17 pieces of his own wall, from right to left. Where the count stops, he takes those two pieces, and lays them on the top of the wall to the right of the opening. These two pieces are known as “loose tiles”.

Having settled all these little details, the East Wind begins by taking 4 pieces from the wall at the left of the opening. The South Wind, on his right, takes the next 4; the West Wind the next 4 and so on round, 4 pieces at a time until each has 12. They then take one each, and finally the East Wind takes one more. This gives the East Wind 14, and the others 13 each. Each player then stands his pieces on end, facing him, and sorts them into suits. They are now ready for the play.

The object of the game is to combine pieces of equal denomination in the same suit, so as to make triplets of fours; or to form sequences of three pieces in the same suit. Sequences cannot go beyond three; but there may be several of them in the same suit.

As the East Wind has one piece more than the others, he starts the play by discarding any piece he pleases. If that piece can be used by the player on his right to complete a sequence, he says “Chow” and takes it, laying the sequence of three on the table, and then discarding anything he likes, face up, to reduce his hand to thirteen pieces again. It is now the turn of the player on his right.

If a piece discarded with fill out a triplet or four of a kind for any player, no matter where he sits, he calls “Pung”, and lays the combination on the table, face up, discarding a piece. It is now the turn of the player on his right.

If the discarded piece is not claimed by chow, no other player can chow it, and it remains in the discards. Pung takes precedence of chow in calling, if two players want the same piece. If a piece claimed by pung is not taken by the player immediately to the right of the one who discarded it, the intermediate player or players lose their turn to play.

If a discarded piece is not claimed by either chow or pung, the player whose turn it is draws one piece from the end of the wall to the left of the opening, and puts it in his hand without showing it. Then he discards. If a player shows four of a kind, he takes one of the loose tiles, and then discards. He now has 14 pieces, the others 13 only. After both loose tiles have been drawn, two more are put up, from the right-hand side of the opening. Combinations which are found in the original hand, or which are completed by drawing from the wall, are not placed on the table until the end of the game, unless they are four of a kind.

How the Game Is Won

To win the game, a player must show that he can use every piece in his hand by forming four groups of some kind, and a pair. Only one pair is allowed. This might be four sequences and a pair; or two fours, two triplets and a pair. The moment the hand is complete, the player calls “Mahjong”, and shows his hand, keeping separate the pieces in hand from those already shown on the table. Those which have not been shown are worth double those that have been made up from table discards.

The call of Mah Jong wins the game. He is the only player that can count a pair as worth anything, but he must have a pair. Every player pays the winner, but he pays no one. The others then settle between themselves for the differences in their respective scores.

So far, the game seems to be simply a variant, or the origin, or conquian, or rummy; but in those games everything is of equal value, and nothing counts but going out first. The chief interest, and the basis of all the scientific play in Mah Jong hinges upon the difference in values. It is not so much in getting all the dominos down, as what the combinations in them are worth. It is not in playing to get any sort of runs or triplets or fours, but to get those that count high in settling up. One can play all evening without making Mah Jong once, yet win all the money on the table.

To begin with the combinations, or “groups”. Sequences are of no value whatever, except to fill out the hand for calling Mah Jong. This is sometimes important, because the winner gets paid by all, and pays none, no matter how big a score another player may have run up, and will show after Mah Jong is called.

Triplets or fours made with the top or bottom dominos of the suits, aces or nines, are worth twice as much as any others, and those in the hand or drawn from the all are worth twice as much as those shown on the table, built from discards.

A player who holds, among other things, three or four dragons, or three or four of his own wind, doubles the count of his entire hand. A player can double his score three times under any of the following conditions: Holding only one suit. Holding only dragons and winds. Calling Mah Jong on his original hand, without drawing a piece. Suppose his score is 64; doubling this three times would make it 516. These big scores are the things aimed at by the expert, even at the risk of scoring nothing.

The player who calls Mahjong adds 20 bonus for so doing, and he always has the first count. Whatever he has, each of the others pays him. If he is East Wind, as well as the winner, they all pay him double. If he is the winner, but not East Wind, then East Wind must pay him double.

The winner having been paid, each of the others pays or takes from each of the others according to the difference in their scores, but the East Wind wins or loses double in each case. Suppose N is the winner; S has 64, W 12, and E 16. W pays S 52, and twice 4, or 8, to E. Now E pays twice 48, or 96 to S.

When one first takes up this game, it appears to be rather a simple proposition, and one is apt to regard it as little better than rummy; but the longer one plays and the deeper one gets into it, the greater respect one gets for the subtlety and science of the game. In the first place, it requires a good memory, noting carefully the suits certain players discard and take, as indicating the suits they are probably playing for, or clearing out. When it looks as if a player was going to show only one suit in his hand, and score about a thousand, to win, and call Mahjong is then the only thing that will save you; therefore you should go for it at any cost.

Close attention to the discards is essential, so as to know what combinations are impossible, to yourself or to others, and what are more probable than others. To illustrate: A player has in his hand the 2 and 4 of Dots; the 5 and 7 of Bamboos, and has to discard one of those four cards. Among the discards on the table, face up, are two 3’s of Dots; no 6 of Bamboos. It is clearly impossible for any player to make a group of 3 Dots in triplet or fours, and sequences are of no value, so that a 3 Dot will very likely be discarded. If you can draw or chow it, you fill your sequence. On the other hand, two players may each be holding up Bamboos, perhaps to make a group of 6’s; so your chance to fill that sequence is very slight.

If you observe that two or three players are discarding the same suit, such as Bamboos, the chances for filling Bamboo groups in your own hand are much better. In filling sequences, it is always better to keep ace-deuce-trey, than deuce-trey-four; or seven-eight-nine, rather than six-seven-eight, because the aces and nines might be valuable to an adversary if discarded.

Owing to the limitless possibilities of making a big count by the aid of multipliers, the scores sometimes run into large figures among experts, who are always working for such big hits. For this reason it is usually wise to set a limit to the stakes, fixing the maximum amount that shall be won on a single hand. I have seen one of the gentlemen from whom I took lessons in this game. Wang ma-Lin, win on his original hand, without drawing a piece, holding three of his own denominating East Wind, three North Winds, and eight dragons. With Mah Jong and no sequences, this gave him 64 points, which he doubled ten times for his triplets; having only dragons and winds; and winning on the original hand. Total, 65,536. As each of the three others had to pay him double for East Wind, and again for dominating wind, it cost them about two hundred thousand apiece, and he won about six hundred thousand on the hand. They were still looking for a mistake in the score when I left.

When a Mah Jong player in China holds a hand like that, he is a marked man for life, if he gets safely home with the cash. He enjoys as much fame as if he belonged to the Hole-in-one Club in this country.

While the game is nominally for four persons, it can be played by only two or three, as any one can throw the dice for the unoccupied wall.