Learn How to Play Mahjong

Maddy Marcus / July 15, 2020

Sometimes referred to as Chinese dominoes, Mahjong is a Chinese tile game developed during the Qing dynasty (1644 to 1912) that spread throughout the world. Typically, it requires four players but there are three-player variations in South Korea, Japan and Southeast Asia. It is a game of skill and finesse.

A mahjong set has 136 to 152 tiles. Like most games, there are many varieties, including the Chinese prevailing wind style and American mahjong, which has scoring cards like bingo. Learn how to set up and play mahjong as well as what it takes to win.

How to Play Mahjong

Before each player takes their turn, other players have time to claim the last discarded tile. Priority goes to the player who can use the tile to complete a mahjong. When this happens, the player has to show their hand of 14 matching tiles.  A player who can do this claims the tile, then reveals the winning hand of 14 tiles.

If no one has mahjong, a winning hand, anyone else can claim the tile by calling "pung" and showing two tiles that match the one they wish to claim. For example, if someone discards a 7 of bamboo, and you have two bamboo 7s on your rack, you call "pung." Then, you turn the pung of three bamboo 7s face-up, discard a tile, and play moves to the player on your right.

If no one takes the discarded tile, you can pick it up if it completes a run in your hand. To do so, wait for your turn and say "chow." Turn the tiles making up the run face-up. For example, a 5, 6 and 7 of bamboo would create a chow. You then give up a tile and the next player takes their turn. 

If a discarded tile doesn't complete any set, you draw a tile from the wall. Unless this gives you mahjong, you discard a tile from your rack. You can only claim the most recently discarded tile.

Kong

Some players also use a "kong," or four of the same tile (similar to a pung). Any player who gets a kong draws an extra tile before throwing one away. 

Hand End

When a player has four sets and a pair, they call mahjong and reveal their hand. If the wall of tiles runs out before anyone declares mahjong, the game is a draw.

Setup

Mahjong sets have 136 to 152 tiles, with each tile measuring 30 x 20 x 15mm. Traditional tiles were made of ivory or bone but modern sets use plastic. 

A set of 144 includes the following tiles:

  • 36 Circle tiles (4 sets of 1-9) decorated with the appropriate number of circles
  • 36 Character tiles (4 sets of 1-9) decorated with Chinese number characters
  • 36 Bamboo tiles (4 sets of 1-9) decorated with an appropriate amount of bamboo. The one of bamboos often has a sparrow or ricebird on it. Some bamboos have red and green bamboos, others are just green. 
  • 16 Wind tiles comprised of 4 sets of 4 wind tiles.
  • 12 Dragon tiles comprised of 4 Red dragons, 4 Green dragons and 4 White dragons denoted by a blank tile or a capital 'P' for 'Pai' (white).
  • 4 Flower tiles numbering 1 to 4. If used, they give you bonus points.
  • 4 Season tiles numbering 1 to 4, also optional, which give you bonus points if you draw them. 

Suits include characters, circles and bamboos, with numbers 2 to 8 representing minor tiles. Tiles 1 and 9 are major tiles and wind and dragon tiles are honor tiles. 

Two die are cast by the dealer to determine how the wall of unused tiles is set up for the hand. On Chinese dice, the 1 and 4 are red and the other numbers are black.

Mahjong Rules

A game begins by each player rolling the dice or drawing wind cards. The person with the highest roll of the dice or the player drawing the east wind is the dealer. Play starts with the dealer, or east wind, and moves counterclockwise around the board. 

The position of dealer shifts to the right after each round. Next, the tiles are shuffled and each player takes 36 of them to make a wall of tiles (18 sets of two tiles). The players push their tile walls to the center to form a square. The center of the square is used to discard tiles. 

The dealer rolls three dice and begins dealing from the tile equaling the sum of the dice. Each player takes four tiles at a time and one last one until they have 13 tiles on their racks. 

To begin, the dealing takes a tile from the pile and discards another. 

A winning hand consists of fourteen tiles (13 original plus the drawn tile that gives you mahjong). When drawing for your turn, you will only ever have thirteen tiles. 

To win, you organize your hand into the following groupings:

Pungs  – three of a kind

Kongs  – four of a kind

Chows – a run of three consecutive tiles in the same suit

‘A pair’ – rounds out the winning hand

During a round, you draw from the wall. If you cannot use the tile to get a winning grouping, you discard it. Another player can claim it to complete a set. Play moves counterclockwise until someone wins. 

The winning player calls "mahjong" when they draw the winning tile. 

Scoring

It the simplest scoring system, the winner of each round gets a point. Games consist of 16 rounds but the players can also decide when to stop playing. The winner is the player who won the most hands. 

More complex scoring varies by region. Bonus points may be assigned if you win the hand with a drawn tile, not a discarded one. Bonus points may also be awarded for winning with the last tile or collecting a dragon pung. 

Exponential scoring gives each pung 2 points, which double if you didn't reveal the pung, the pung had ones or nines, or a pung has four of a kind.

Game End

Play continues for 16 rounds or to a predetermined score.

American Mahjong

In American mahjong, players use racks (Chinese traditional versions do not). There is also a joker. 

You use a scorecard similar to a bingo game. It also consists of four players around a table.

Tiles are shuffled, the dice are rolled and players take their tile, similar to Chinese mahjong. In Chinese mahjong, the winner of a round doesn't have to say "mahjong." However, the American version requires it. 

There are, like its Chinese counterpart, many variations of the game.

Strategies

Here are some tips and tricks to help you develop your game strategy. 

Scoring Elements

Make sure you understand the scoring rules for the style you are playing. You can always ask for details but the faster you remember the rules, the easier it will be for you to win. Understand which patterns can net you the most points and how you win a hand. Study the potential combinations before making a decision to take a discarded tile. Additionally, expect your initial plan to change with the luck of the draw as you pull new tiles from the wall. 

Stay Alert to Discards

Try to guess what other players are holding by which tiles they discard and which discards they claim. Pay attention to the player on your right who can chow on you. It's essential to understand the bonus point system to maximize each hand you win.

You could throw away the winning tile and give you opponents the tile they need to call mahjong. That spells disaster and no points in this winner takes all game. There are usually clues of what players might throw away that you can use. Watch the player on your left for opportunities.

Don't Form Melds Right Away

Committing to certain matches early in the game may not make sense at first. Why shouldn't you take whatever pung, chow or kong you can get? If you chow or pung everything you draw, you may end up with tiles that are hard to match. 

Also, you run the risk of exposing your tiles early and leaving your hand open to attack from savvier players. If other players know what you need, they will try to avoid giving you the tiles you need to win. An advanced player keeps his hand flexible until the second half of each hand when the tiles are dwindling away. If you meld pairs and runs early, your options are limited and you may not be maximizing your total points.

Conclusion

If you like dominoes, bingo or card games, you may also enjoy a rousing game of mahjong. Now you know how to play mahjong and can try the digital version of Deluxe Mahjong or Classic Mahjong available on Cool Math Games.