Mahjong facts for kids
- The Set-Up
- Old Hong Kong Mahjong
- Game pieces and accessories
- Choosing table positions and first dealer
- Hands, rounds, and matches
- Dealing tiles
- Images for kids
A Mahjong game is played at a square table (four sides all the same length). The dealer is called the "east" player and everyone else is called a different direction because of where they are sitting - so the person to East's left is South, the person across from East is West, and the person to East's right is North. If East wins, he is the dealer again for the next round; if he does not, the dealer is the person to his right (North). That person then becomes East. A game of Mahjong ends when every player has been the dealer four times, or when they have played the number of rounds they said they would play before they started.
Old Hong Kong Mahjong
There are many highly varied versions of mahjong both in rules and tiles used. "Old Hong Kong Mahjong" uses the same basic features and rules as the majority of the different variations of the game. This form of Mahjong uses all of the tiles of the most commonly available sets, includes no exotic complex rules and has a relatively small set of scoring sets/hands with a simple scoring system. For these reasons Hong Kong mahjong is a suitable variation for the introduction of game rules and play and is the focus of this article.
Game pieces and accessories
Old Hong Kong Mahjong is played with a standard set of Mahjong tiles (though cards may be used). Sets often include counters (to keep score), dice (to decide how to deal) and a marker to show who the dealer is and which round is being played. Some sets include racks to hold the tiles, especially if they are larger/smaller than standard tiles or have an odd shape.
A set of Mahjong tiles usually has at least 136 tiles (most commonly 144). Although, sets originating from the United States or Southeast Asia will probably have more. Mahjong tiles are split into 3 categories: Suits, Honors, and Bonuses.
There are 3 suits of simples and in each suit the tiles are numbered from 1 to 9. The suits are: bamboos, dots and characters. There are 4 identical copies of each simples tile totaling 108 simples tiles.
There are two different sets of Honors tiles: Winds and Dragons. The Winds are East, South, West and North. In Mahjong East (not North) is the beginning. The Dragons are Red, Green and White. The white dragon has a blue or black frame on the face of the piece or in some sets is entirely blank. These tiles have no numerical sequence like the simples (for example the bamboo pieces number 1 to 9).
There are two sets of bonus tiles: Flowers and Seasons. The flower and season tiles are unique not only in playing different roles in the mechanics of the game, but also in their being represented by only one tile, rather than four copies: there are a total of four flower and four season tiles in the set. The tiles have a different artistic rendering of a specific type of flower or season. These tiles are not drawn into a player's hand but are set aside (kept near the player's other tiles for scoring purposes should they win the hand) when drawn and an extra tile is drawn in replacement of the bonus tile.
While it is not necessary to know the names of the bonus tiles (only its number) the flowers are named: 1. Plum, 2. Orchid, 3. Chrysanthemum, 4. Bamboo. There is no relation between the bonus tiles "bamboo" flower and the set of simple tiles (ex. 2 bamboo). The seasons are named 1. Spring, 2. Summer, 3. Autumn, 4. Winter. In traditional Chinese culture, the plum, orchid, chrysanthemum and bamboo are collectively known as the Four Gentlemen and are regarded as the respective representative plants of Winter, Spring, Autumn and Summer.
Choosing table positions and first dealer
The dealer is chosen by various means. For example each player throws dice with the highest count taking the dealer position, second highest taking south etc. Or one player may place one tile of each wind face down and shuffle them. Each player randomly select one of these tiles and these tiles dictate their wind position. Each player sits down at their respective position (called the wind position) at the table in positions of an inverted compass: East is dealer, the right of the dealer is South, across is West and the left is North. The order of play is traditionally counter-clockwise..
Hands, rounds, and matches
A match consists of four rounds, each representing a "prevailing wind," starting with East. Once the first round is completed, a second round begins with South as the prevailing wind, and so on. Wind position is significant in that it affects the scoring of the game. A Mahjong set with Winds in play will usually include a separate prevailing wind marker (typically a die marked with the Wind characters in a holder).
In each round at least four hands are played, with each player taking the position of dealer. In the first hand of each round, Player 1 (winner of the dice toss) is East and therefore dealer. In the second hand, Player 2 takes the East position, shifting the seat winds amongst the players counterclockwise (though players don't physically move their chairs). This continues until all four players have been East (dealer). A marker is used to mark which player is East and often the round number. (In sets with racks, a rack may be marked differently to denote the dealer.)
Whenever a player in the East position (dealer) wins a hand, or if there is no winner (a draw or "goulash hand"), an extra hand is played with the same seating positions and prevailing wind as in the previous hand. This means that a match may potentially have no limit to the number of hands played (though some players will set a limit of three consecutive hands allowed with the same seat positions and prevailing wind).
Example of games:
|Hand Number||Prevailing Wind||Player 1||Player 2||Player 3||Player 4||Comment|
|7||South||West||North||East (dealer)||South||no one wins (goulash)|
|extra hand||South||West||North||East (dealer)||South||(repeat of seat positions)|
|15||North||West||North||East (dealer)||South||(east wins hand)|
|extra hand||North||West||North||East (dealer)||South||(repeat of seat positions)|
All tiles are placed face down on the table and are shuffled. By convention all players should participate in shuffling using both hands moving the pieces around the table rigorously and loudly for a lengthy period. Tiles may get flipped up during this process and players should flip them facing down as soon as possible to avoid identifying the location of the revealed tiles.
Each player then stacks a row of 18 tiles, two tiles high in front of them (for a total of 36 tiles). Players then push each side of their stack together to form a square wall.
Regular players usually place their stacks in a slightly diagonal position (about 20 to 30 degrees anti-clockwise); the right end of their stack is pushed slightly further in to the centre of the table to meet almost the middle of the stack of the player on the right. This creates a smaller square wall the length of about half of each stack, with walls extended away from each corner of the square. The diagonally positioned stacks and a smaller square creates a bigger space for players' tiles and also makes an ergonomic position for drawing tiles from the stack.
The dealer throws three dice in the square wall and sums up the total. Counting anti-clockwise so that the dealer is 1 (or 5, 9, 13, 17), so that south (player to the right) is 2 (or 6, 10, 14, 18), etc., a player's quarter of the wall is chosen. Some house rules may use only two dice but have double throws to increase randomness. In the case of double throws, the player of the chosen wall makes the second throw.
Using the same total on the dice (or the total of the two throws), the player whose wall is chosen then counts the stacks of tiles from right to left. (For double throws, the count may extend to the left side player's stack.) This determines the location where the 'deck' of tiles is cut. Starting from the left of the stacks counted, the dealer draws four tiles for himself, and players in anti-clockwise order draw blocks of four tiles until all players have 12 tiles, so that the stacks decrease clockwise. Each player then draws one last tile to make a 13-tile hand.
Dealing does not have to be strictly this way and may be done quite differently based on house rules. Tiles may flip over when being dealt and players should agree in advance on how to deal with the problem. Solutions include having the dealer penalised points, shuffling the turned over piece back into the wall somehow, allowing the player who the tiles were dealt to take the piece or not (meaning the dealer must take it as his/her 14th piece) or other house rules.
Each player now sets aside any Flowers or Seasons they may have drawn and takes turns to draw replacement piece(s) from the wall in the anti-clockwise direction. If a player gets any Flowers or Seasons tiles in the replacement draw, the players must wait for the next turn to draw replacement tiles.
The dealer draws a piece from the wall in clockwise direction, adding it to his hand. If this does not complete a legal hand, he then discards a piece (throwing it into the middle of the wall with no particular order in mind).
Each player in turn, in anti-clockwise direction, draws a tile from the wall and then discards a tile by throwing it into the centre and, if desired, announcing out loud what the piece is. Play continues this way until one player has a legal winning hand and calls out "Mahjong" while revealing their hand. There are four different ways that this order of play can be interrupted.
During play, the number of tiles maintained by each player should always be 13 tiles (meaning in each turn a tile must be picked up and another discarded). Not included in the count of 13 tiles are Flowers and Seasons set to the side and the fourth added piece of a Kong. If a player is seen to have fewer or more than 13 tiles in their hand outside of their turn they are penalised.
A winning hand consists of 14 tiles. Since players always have 13 tiles in their hand they must win by either taking a piece from the wall that completes their 14-tile hand (winning from the wall) or claiming a discard from another player which completes a 14-tile hand (winning by discard). The winning hand is made of four melds (a specific pattern of three pieces) and the eyes (a pair of identical pieces). The exceptions to this rule are the special hands listed below.
Most players play with a table minimum, meaning a winning hand must score a minimum number of points (which can be seen in the scoring section). In Hong Kong Mahjong the most common point set is three but can be higher or lower depending on house rules.
- Melds/Pongs are a set of three identical tiles. For example:
You may form a Pong with any tile (except Flowers or Seasons because they are bonus tiles which are set aside and there are not three identical bonus tiles). The tiles must be identical (you cannot mix suits).
- Kong is a complete set of four identical tiles. For example:
Consider a Kong the same as a Pong with an additional tile to make a complete set of four. There are three ways to form a Kong.
- Concealed Kong - If a player holds three matching tiles (concealed Pong) and upon drawing a tile completes a set of four they may declare a Kong. They do so by revealing the meld and placing two pieces in the middle face up and two pieces on the ends face down.
- Exposed Kong - If a player can use a discarded tile to complete three matching tiles (concealed Pong) in their hand, they can take the piece and reveal an "exposed kong" or "melded kong". The player reveals his three pieces face up and places the stolen discard on top of the middle tile, or face down next to the three other face up pieces.
- Exposed Kong from Exposed Pong - If a player has already has a melded Pong and then later in the game draws the fourth piece from the wall, he or she may announce (then or later in the game) a Kong by placing the fourth tile on top of the middle piece of the melded Pong, or all four tiles placed face up in a row. If a Pong has been melded a player cannot steal the 4th piece if another player discards it, it must be drawn.
Whenever a Kong is formed, that player must draw an extra tile from the end of the wall and then discard a tile. The fourth piece of a Kong (not Flowers/Seasons) is not considered as one of the 13 tiles a player must always have in their hand. Kongs are worth collecting to score more points and/or deprive opponents of the opportunity to obtain specific tiles.
- Chow is a meld of three suited tiles in sequence. For example:
The meld must be in absolute numerical sequence. Players cannot skip numbers or meld from the 8 or 9 to 1 or 2. The sequence must also be in the same suit. Honours, Flowers and Seasons cannot be used to make chows because they have no numerical value. A player can steal a discard to form a chow from the player whose turn was immediately before theirs if no one else needs the tile to make Pongs, Kongs or win.
- Eyes (also known as a pair) are two identical tiles which are an essential part of a legal winning hand. A piece cannot be stolen (melded) to form a pair of eyes unless the player simultaneously completes a legal winning hand.
Interruption of play
Flower or Season
Whenever a player draws a flower or season, it is announced and then placed to the side (it is not considered a part of the hand but the player with the winning hand will earn a bonus point for them) and the last tile of the wall is drawn as a replacement tile so that the player has the 14 pieces needed before their discard. This may happen successively in a player's turn.
Melding another player's discard
When a player discards a tile, other players may steal the tile to complete a meld. Stealing tiles has both advantages (quickly forming a winning hand and scoring extra points) and disadvantages such as revealing part of one's hand to other players and not being able to change the meld once declared.
When a meld (Pong, Kong or Chow) is declared through a discard, the player must state the type of meld to be declared and place the meld face up. The player must then discard a tile, and play continues to the right. If the player who melds a discard is not directly after the discarder (in order of play), one or two players essentially miss their turn as play continues to the player after the one who declared the meld.
When two or more players call for a discarded tile, a player taking the tile to win the hand has precedence over all others. Otherwise a player who can form a Pong or Kong takes precedence over a player who claims a Chow. Players may only call for a Chow from the discard of the player immediately prior to them, unless the tile is the final one required to complete the hand, but may call for a Pong or Kong from any player. A player may also take the tile to win the hand from any other player.
From a discard
If at any point in the game a player can use another player's discard to complete a legal hand (and with the agreed minimum points), they yell out 'Mahjong!', take the discard and reveal their winning hand. This ends the hand, and scoring commences. If more than one player can use a discard to go mahjong (win the hand) there are two ways to resolve the issue depending on agreed table rules: Either the players count the points they would win with the discard and the winner is the one with the higher score, or the winner is simply the player closest to the discarder in order of turn.
From the wall
Alternatively, a player may also win by drawing a tile that completes a legal hand. This is called "winning from the wall". In Hong Kong mahjong winning from the wall is advantageous as it doubles the amount of base points each loser must pay.
Robbing a Kong
A rarely occurring and high-scoring feature of Hong Kong Mahjong is a move called robbing the Kong. If a player declares a Kong (by melding it or adding a fourth piece to a Pong to form a Kong or declaring a concealed Kong) and another player(s) can use that piece to complete a hand (which by logic could not be used to form a Pong or Kong as two players cannot make a Pong out of the same tile), a player may steal that piece from that player when declaring the Kong and go Mahjong (win the hand).
Example winning hands
Below are examples of winning hands. A winning hand must consist of four melds (Pongs, Kongs, or Chows) and a pair (eyes) and must also score the agreed table minimum.
Hand formed with four Pongs and the eyes (pair) of East wind. Only bamboo is used (no other simples), scoring extra points (clean hand). No chows are used (an all Pong/Kong hand scores extra points).
A high scoring hand formed using only circles, known as a pure hand. Hand is made of Chows, Pongs and the eyes of circles.
Most players include table variations in their games, of which some non-standard are included. The hands of seven different pairs and 13 orphans are examples which do not have four melds and the eyes. They are described in more detail below.
Calling out Mahjong! without having a complete (legal) hand and/or without the minimum points is usually penalized depending on table rules. Either the player forfeits points to the other players. Another penalty is the player who called out the false mahjong must play the rest of the hand with their tiles face up on the table so other players can see them (open hand).
If the dealer wins the hand, they will remain the dealer and an extra hand is played in addition to the minimum 16 hands in a match. The same occurs if there is no winner also meaning an extra hand is played. When there is no winner it is known as a "goulash hand". Depending on table rules, the winner if the next game may take an agreed amount of points from each player (as though the points from the non-winning hand carry over to the winning one). If there are two or three goulash hands in a row then the winner would collect a considerable amount of points from each player on top of their scoring hand. Because extra hands may be played every time a dealer wins or if there is a goulash hand, a match of 16 hands can easily become a match of 20 or even much higher. As table rules add a large amount flexibility for players, they can choose to disregard the rule of extra hands and pass on the dealership regardless of who wins or if it's a goulash hand. This puts a maximum estimated time on the game and some element of predictability.
Rhythm of play
Players may agree on table rules if the pace of the game is brisk or leisurely. For brisk games players may agree that a couple seconds after a discard are allowed for a "window of opportunity" before the next player picks up from the wall. Usually it is agreed once the next player has waited the duration of the "window of opportunity" and draws a tile from the wall, the previous discard is lost and cannot be claimed..
Old Hong Kong scoring is relatively simple. There is only one winner (or if there is a draw the hand is replayed). The winner must have a legal hand that meets the minimum faan points agreed to in advance (not including any bonus points). Only the winner scores, the other players pay the winner various sums. After each hand ends, the winner counts all of his or her faan points:
- individual melds
- the composition of the entire hand
- how the hand was won
- bonus tiles
- special patterns
- and a few other special criteria.
- In order to win, a player needs to have at least the minimum faan value agreed in advance (often 3). Bonus tiles and a few other elements are not included in the minimum faan value a player needs to form a legal winning hand. (i.e. in a three faan minimum game, if a player has two faan points and one bonus point, the player has not met the proper requirements to win and will need to gain another faan point before calling mahjong. Though the bonus points cannot be including in the minimum points needed to win, they are including in the overall score after a player wins
- The other players do not score their hand. Once the winner has added his or her points (faan points plus bonus points) they must be converted into base points (the chart is below). These base points represent how much the opponents pay to the winner
- Players then pay the winner (in money or when not gambling with "chips or points") based on 3 factors:
- the based points (faan points and bonus points converted into a payment unit)
- if the player won from the wall (doubles the points)
- if the player was the dealer or not (doubles the points)
Basic faan value
A winning hand must include an agreed minimum amount of faan value (often 3)
|A Pong/Kong of Dragons||1|
|A Pong/Kong of Seat wind or Round wind||1|
|All chows and a pair of simples||1|
|Only Pongs/Kongs and any pair (Pong hand)||3|
|Only bamboos with Honors, only circles with Honors or only characters with Honors (clean hand)||3|
|3 unmelded (hidden) Pongs/Kongs||3|
|7 pairs (special pattern)||4|
|Pure hand (of only one suit and no Honors: pure circles, pure bamboos or pure characters)||6|
|Little Dragons (2 Pongs of dragons and a pair of the 3rd dragon)||12|
|Little Winds (3 Pongs of winds and a pair of the 4th wind)||12|
|Winning from the wall||1|
|Robbing the Kong||1|
|Winning on the last tile from the wall or its subsequent discard||1|
|No Flowers or Seasons tiles in hand||1|
|Having Own flower (seat flower)||1|
|Having Own season (seat season)||1|
|All 4 Flowers||2 (plus 1 for own flower)|
|All 4 Seasons||2 (plus 1 for own season)|
|All 8 Flowers and Seasons (exceedingly rare)||Automatic win with maximum payment|
A player only scores a bonus faan for Flowers or Seasons if it is their own flower or season (East=1, South=2, West=3 and North=4) or if the player has all four Flowers or all four Seasons (scoring 5 faan in total).
The losers pay the winning player points based on several criteria and depending on whether the game is for fun or for money. How points are reckoned is agreed by players beforehand. For example, they can keep a tally, exchange chips or pay one another with money. The faan value of a hand is converted into base points which are then used to calculate the points the losers pay the winner. The table is progressive, doubling the amount of base points when reaching a certain faan point target. The following is the Old Hong Kong simplified table, for other tables see Hong Kong Mahjong scoring rules.
|faan points||Base points|
This table is based on play where 3 faan is the minimum needed in order to win with a legal hand. If a player has 3 faan then his hand is worth one base point. A winning hand with 9 faan is worth four base points. Losing players must give the winning player the value of these base points. The following special cases result in doubled base points:
- If the winner wins from the wall his base points are doubled
- If the hand was won by discard, the discarder doubles the amount he owes the winner
- If the winner is east all losers double the basepoints
- If east player is a losing player he pays double the points to the winner.
If two of these criteria apply to any player, he must double and then redouble the points owed to the winner.
|East (dealer)||1 (base points) x2 (doubling for winning from wall) x2 (doubling for being east) = –4|
|South||1 (base points) x2 (doubling for winning from wall) = –2|
|West||4 (from east) + 2 (from south) 2 (from north) = +8|
|North||1 (base points) x2 (doubling for winning from wall) = –2|
|East (dealer)||2 (base points) x2 (doubling for being east) = –4|
|South||2 (base points) x2 (discarding winning piece) = –4|
|West||2 (base points) = –2|
|North||4 (from east) + 4 (from south) 2 (from west) = +10|
|East (dealer)||16 (from south) + 32 (from west) + 16 (from north) = +64|
|South||8 (base points) x2 (paying to east) = –16|
|West||8 (base points) x2 (paying to east) x2 (discarding winning piece) = –32|
|North||8 (base points) x2 (paying to east) = –16|
Hong Kong Mahjong is essentially a payment system of doubling and redoubling where winning from the wall adds great value to the final payment and where the dealer is highly rewarded or penalised if he or she wins or loses.
There are a series of "limit hands". Table rules dictate if these rare and special hands are allowed, which ones, and the limit for scoring. A common scoring limit is 64 points, which is the highest base points doubled twice. A winner receives the scoring limit from each player without any doubling.
Some limit hands by necessity must be completely concealed (not discards used) or semi-concealed (the only discard used is the one needed to go mahjong). This includes the the 13 orphans, 4 concealed pongs, heavenly hand and earthly hand. It is usually expected that the heavenly gates hand be concealed or semi-concealed. As for the dragon limit hands and the great winds, table rules dictate if the hand must be concealed or not. Some table rules claim that a semi-concealed hand (winning from a discard) scores a half-limit.
Some groups also play with the "great Flowers" rule. If a player picks up all four Flowers and all four Seasons during their hand, they instantly win the hand and receive the maximum points from all of the players. This is exceptionally rare.
|Heavenly Hand||The dealer draws a winning hand at the beginning of the game.|
|Earthly Hand||A player completes a winning hand with the dealer's first discard.|
|Thirteen Orphans||Player has 1 and 9 of each simple suit, one of each wind, one of each dragon and in addition one extra piece of any of those thirteen elements|
|Heavenly Gates||Player has 1112345678999 of any simple suit and one extra piece of numbers 1 to 9. This hand always has 4 melds and the eyes.|
|Hidden Pong Hand||4 concealed Pongs|
|Kong Hand||Player has 4 Kongs|
|Honors Hand||Player has all Honors in the hand (only winds and dragons)|
|Pearl Dragon||3 circle Pongs/Kongs and a pair of circles (eye) with a Pong/Kong of the White dragon (no chows).|
|Ruby Dragon||3 character Pongs/Kongs and a pair of character (eye) with a Pong/Kong of the Red dragon (no chows).|
|Jade Dragon||3 bamboo Pongs/Kongs and a pair of bamboo (eye) with a Pong/Kong of the Green dragon (no chows).|
|Great Dragons||3 Pongs of all 3 dragons|
|Great Winds||4 Pongs of all 4 winds|
Examples of high-scoring hands
All-Pong hand (對對糊)
Kong hand / 18 Arhats hand (十八羅漢)
Clean hand (混一色)
Pure hand (清一色)
Great winds hand (大四喜)
Great dragons hand (大三元)
Thirteen orphans hand (十三幺)
A single-player version of this game exists, called Mahjong Solitaire. It is based on the four-player game, but can be played by one person, so it is one of the games that are played often on computers (such as Solitaire, Spider Solitaire, or Minesweeper). Mahjong Solitaire is much simpler than four-player Mahjong: it is played without dice or chips, by removing tiles (set up in the shape of a pyramid) from the board in sets of two. Each set of two has to match - they are either exactly the same, or go together (two "flowers" tiles, for example). A Mahjong Solitaire player wins when he picks up all the tiles, or he loses when he runs out of sets of two that he can pick up.
Images for kids
Local play on the street in Lanzhou
The top 3 in the World Mahjong Championship in Tokyo, October 2002. Left: John J. O'Connor (2nd place) In the middle: world champion Mai Hatsune, from Japan Right: Yuichi Ikeya (3rd place)
The first Open European Mahjong Championship, Nijmegen, the Netherlands, June 2005
The winners of the second Open European Mahjong Championship, Copenhagen, Denmark, June 2007. From left: Kohichi Oda (2), Martin Wedel Jacobsen (1), and Benjamin Boas (3)
Mahjong Facts for Kids. Kiddle Encyclopedia.