In Chinatowns throughout the country, mah jong is played regularly and often associated with gambling and serious competition. For those who simply love games, mah jong can be played with the same enthusiasm and competitive spirit for "bones" or "chips" signifying points. It is with the "friendly play" viewpoint that these notes are offered. One warning, however: you may become hooked! You may begin to want to play all the time, and will spend your free time searching for different types of sets to collect. Beware! At 'Windy Chows' money is NOT played for, only points.
The game resembles playing card games like rummy. Many assert that playing cards are derived from the ancient tile game of mah jong. In the absence of the beautiful sets, often made of bone and bamboo, the game may also be played with special cards.
The literal translation of "Mah Jong" is "flax/hemp" "sparrow clattering." Those who play the game love the sound of the tiles as they are mixed together prior to the start of each hand. Listening carefully, players hear the sound of the flax blowing in the wind and the sparrows clattering.
These notes should help the novice learn to play the game of mah jong. Ideally, four interested players should study the notes together, and find their way through a few hands. Before long, you will be playing with certainty and confidence, and enjoying this game of skill and luck.
There are three suits: the dots (also called circles or balls), the bamboos (also called bams or sticks), and the characters (also called characks, cracks, or wan). The suit tiles are numbered 1 through 9, and in any given suit, there are four of each number. Suit tiles may be either simple or terminal. Terminal tiles, 1s and 9s, are more valuable in winning, than simples, 2s through 8s. Most American sets have English numbers on each tile in addition to the correct number of symbols (dots or bamboos). In the character suit, instead of the corresponding number of symbols on the tile, the Chinese numeral character appears above the character signifying 10,000. A "one crack" then would have the Chinese character for the number one, above the Chinese character for the number 10,000 -- signifying "one ten-thousand" or one "wan." If a set does not have the English numbers on the tiles, the Chinese characters for 1 through 9 must be memorized. A true Chinese set will not have any other numbers appearing on the tiles. The 1 bamboo is usually a bird.
There are two types of honor tiles: the winds (East, South, West, and North) and the dragons (Red, Green, and White). Just as there are four of each suit number, there are four of each wind and four of each dragon. As with the character tiles, the wind tiles usually have the corresponding English letter on the tile. If the set does not have these letters, players must memorize the Chinese symbol for each of the directions.
The dragons appear on some sets as dragons in the colours in red, green and white. On more traditional sets, the red has the Chinese character (in red) for Cheung -- meaning centre of the four directions. Some sets will have a "C" on the red dragon character tile. Similarly, in traditional sets, the green dragon is not really a dragon, but a green imprinted Chinese character, Fa (or Fa Choy), meaning "commence" or "begin good luck." The green dragon will often have an "F" appearing on the tile.
The white dragon (also known as white board, soap, bak board, or pak board) may have a rectangle on the tile. In some sets, a "P" or "B" appears as well.
The flower and season tiles differ in nature from the suit and
honour tiles. There are only 4 flowers (1, 2, 3, and 4) and only 4 season tiles
(1, 2, 3, and 4). Some versions of the game call for exclusion of the flower
and season tiles. In most Chinese-American circles, they are used however.
Their use is somewhat like that of the joker in card games. When drawn,
they are declared and a substitute tile is drawn. They are not collected
for scoring, but as will be described later, the flower(s) or season(s)
corresponding with the winning player's wind may double the winning score
one or more times.
(Seasons are sometimes depicted by people or animals)
A full game consists of 16 hands of play, falling within 4 rounds. The rounds are named after the four directions: East, South, West, and North. The first 4 hands are the East round; the South round follows (second 4 hands); the West round is next (third round of 4 hands); last is the North round (last four hands). In each hand, each of four players is assigned a wind or direction. The first player (the dealer) is always East. To her right is South; to the right of South is West (across from East), and to the right of West is North (to the left of East). The order of play, beginning with East, therefore, is counter clockwise. Note that the Chinese compass (placement of the directions) is not the same as the English compass.
W (3) N (4) S (2) E (1)East Round
S (2) W (3) E (1) N (4)South Round
E (1) S (2) N (4) W (3)West Round
N (4) E (1) W (3) S (2)North Round
In the traditional game, only the winner scores points.
A SET is: a sequence of three consecutive suit tiles (same suit) (CHOW) or a triplet (three identical tiles) (PUNG) or a set of four (KONG) -- when drawing four of a kind, a supplemental tile is drawn from the dead wall..
Discards are thrown, face-up, to the middle, and declared by the discarder. Eg. "One Character"
Players may only take a discard at the time it is discarded, and it must be used at that time. Players may not collect discards for future use. Once play has continued after a discard, that tile may not be drawn.
A CHOW: a player can take a discard to form a sequence, only if that discard comes from the player to one's left. (Therefore, a chow can only be done when it is that player's turn.) When a set is formed with a discard, this is a melded set, and must be placed face up in front of the player, with the discarded tile placed at a right angle to the adjacent tile(s).
A KONG: four of a kind. There are three ways to get a kong:
Players must always have 13 playable tiles in hand (or more with kongs) including sets already formed, so that to go out, one will have 4 sets and a pair.
A sacred discard occurs if a player discovers that a previously discarded tile (by that player) would permit the player to go out. This tile is a sacred discard and should be declared. If another player discards an identical tile, the "ready" player may not use it unless she has drawn from the wall at least once after their own discard.
A "draw" occurs if no one goes out by the time the wall is exhausted. The hand stops. The deal passes and a new hand begins.
Dealers Extra Hand -- occurs when East wins. She keeps the deal, and this hand is played in addition to the four hands of that round. No limit exists on the number of extra hands a dealer may play.
At the end of the hand, the score is calculated and the loser(s) pays the winner. Deal passes to the right (unless East wins), and a new dealer assumes the name East, with other players assuming new directions accordingly. The dice are placed upon the dead wall in front of the dealer as a marker of where the dead wall and dealer are.
A double wind occurs when a player's own wind coincides with the prevailing wind. This situation has special value to a winning player when the score is tallied.
Max score is 5000 points AFTER DOUBLING (the limit is the highest final score after doubling).
Refer to our scoring sheet.
Refer to our own "Windy Chows" manual for all handsStrategy: OJ ZU, meaning skillful -- one who knows how to adapt to one's luck. Play defensively, watching others' discards and seeing what opponents are collecting so as not to discard and allow a win. Try not to arrange the tiles in front of you. If you do, don't separate and keep honours to one side, or arrange the same way each time. It isn't always wise to collect high-scoring hands. Sometimes the quick, though smaller in value hand is the best way to win consistently. Have fun! May the winds prevail in your direction!
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