Mahjong – The Ultimate Guide

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Mahjong, a fascinating game of strategy and skill, has won the hearts of millions across the globe due to its captivating combination of intricate gameplay and social interaction. With numerous regional varieties, navigating the world of Mahjong can seem daunting at first, but fear not – this ultimate guide will provide you with everything you need to learn, enjoy and excel at this captivating pastime.

Originating in China in the 19th century, Mahjong has since evolved, spawning different styles such as Japanese/Riichi and Hong Kong Mahjong, catering to diverse audiences and playstyles. To help you quickly get up to speed, we will delve into essential aspects of the game, such as the basic rules, tile types, and scoring methodologies. Additionally, we will highlight key strategies for beginners so you can master this delightful game in no time.

One of the unique features of Mahjong is that it can be enjoyed by people of all skill levels, making it an inclusive and engaging pastime for all. So, whether you’re new to the game or looking to refine your existing skills, this ultimate guide is your perfect companion on your journey into the thrilling world of Mahjong.

History of Mahjong

Mahjong has a rich history, originating in the 1800s around the Yangtze River Delta in China. At first, it was primarily a male gambling game but soon spread through Chinese cities, becoming a way for people to socialize and bridge generational gaps.

As your understanding of Mahjong deepens, you’ll appreciate its links to Southern China in the mid-1800s, towards the end of the last imperial dynasty, the Qing Dynasty. The game’s popularity grew during a tumultuous period marked by strife and adversity.

Over time, Mahjong spread throughout the world, and by the early 20th century, it was enjoyed by players in various countries. Some three-player variations emerged in regions like China, Japan, South Korea, and Southeast Asia.

The game arrived in the United States in the 1920s, thanks to Joseph Park Babcock, an American living in China. Babcock wrote a book that simplified Mahjong’s intricate rules, contributing to the game’s meteoric rise in popularity. During this period, sales outstripped imports of other goods, such as silk, lace, and tea.

Basic Components

Understanding the basic components of Mahjong is essential for playing and enjoying the game. In this section, you will learn about the tiles, dice, and wind indicators that are fundamental to Mahjong.


Each Mahjong set contains 144 tiles, which can be grouped into three basic suits – dots, characters, and bamboos – and two honor suits – wind and dragon tiles. The basic game utilizes 136 of these tiles, including 36 characters, 36 bamboos, and 36 circles, with each suit divided into four sets of numbers 1 to 9. Additionally, 16 wind tiles and 12 dragon tiles are used. Some sets may also include eight bonus tiles, consisting of four flowers and four seasons, though they are not needed for the basic game.


Dice are an essential component in Mahjong, as they determine various factors throughout the game, such as the dealer and the starting wall. Most Mahjong sets come with three dice, and you’ll typically use two of them to determine these aspects. The player with the highest roll becomes the dealer, which sets the course of the game.

Wind Indicators

There are four wind indicators in Mahjong, each representing a cardinal direction – North, South, East, and West. These indicators play a prominent role in gameplay, as they correspond to the players’ seating positions and have unique effects on scoring. Understanding the wind indicators is key to mastering Mahjong strategies, as your seating position and the current wind can significantly impact the outcome of the game.

Mahjong Rules Overview


In Mahjong, your primary goal is to create a winning hand of 14 tiles by forming combinations of three or four matching tiles, known as melds, and a pair. The first person to achieve this and call “mahjong” ends the game, and the player with the highest score at the end of all rounds wins.

Basic Gameplay

To begin, four players are seated around a table, with each player getting a turn to shuffle the tiles and roll the dice. The player with the highest roll becomes the dealer. The game proceeds with the allocation of tiles and the exchange of tiles between players in order to form their melds.

Players take turns drawing and discarding tiles while trying to form their winning hand. Special actions can be taken during gameplay, such as claiming a discarded tile to complete a meld, but be careful not to reveal too much about your hand to your opponents.


Scoring in Mahjong can vary depending on the regional rules and style of play. In general, though, points are awarded based on the type and combinations of melds formed, with bonus points for special hands or achievements. The following are some common scoring elements to keep in mind:

  • Points for melds: Depending on the meld (set of three or four tiles), different point values are assigned.
  • Pair bonuses: Certain pairs of tiles, such as dragons and winds, can earn bonus points if they are part of your winning hand.
  • Special hands: Unique hands, such as a pure hand of all one suit or a hand of all pairs, can score extra points.

At the end of each round, players tally their scores, and the winner of the round may receive bonus points. Once all 16 rounds are played, the player with the highest total score is declared the winner of the game.

Tile Types and Values

Mahjong is a game of strategy and skill, played with 144 tiles. To become a skilled player, you must understand the different types of tiles and their values. In this section, we’ll explore the three main categories of Mahjong tiles: Suits, Honor Tiles, and Bonus Tiles.


There are three basic suits in Mahjong: Bamboos, Characters, and Dots. Each suit has tiles numbered from 1 to 9. You’ll find four identical tiles of each number, totaling 36 tiles per suit and 108 tiles in total for all three suits. The suits are:

  • Bamboos: Also known as sticks or bams, these tiles have a bamboo design and represent strings of coins.
  • Characters: Also called craks, these tiles have a Chinese character on them and represent 10,000 coins.
  • Dots: Also known as circles or wheels, these tiles feature round shapes that represent coins on each tile.

Honor Tiles

Aside from the three main suits, you’ll encounter two honor suits in Mahjong: Winds and Dragons. They do not belong to any of the three basic suits:

  • Winds: Representing the four cardinal directions (East, South, West, and North), there are four identical wind tiles for each direction.
  • Dragons: Representing the Red, Green, and White dragons, there are four identical tiles for each dragon in the game.

Bonus Tiles

Bonus Tiles, which include Flowers and Seasons, add an additional level of complexity to the game. They consist of:

  • Flowers: There are four flowers in the game, each associated with a specific wind: Plum (East), Orchid (South), Chrysanthemum (West), and Bamboo (North), and there’s only one tile for each flower.
  • Seasons: Representing the four seasons, there’s only one tile for each season (Spring, Summer, Autumn, and Winter), and like the flower tiles, each season is associated with a specific wind.

Understanding the tile types and their values will enhance your Mahjong gaming experience and elevate your skills as a player. Take the time to familiarize yourself with every tile to improve your strategic approach to the game.

Game Setup

Shuffling Tiles

To begin setting up a Mahjong game, you’ll first need to shuffle the tiles. Start by placing all the tiles face down on the table and mix them around thoroughly. This process ensures that the tiles are randomized and not in any specific order. To speed up the shuffling process, each player can contribute by helping to shuffle tiles.

Building Walls

Once the tiles are shuffled, it’s time to build the walls. Each player constructs a wall in front of them using eighteen stacks of tiles, with each stack being two tiles high. These stacks should be placed side by side, forming a long row. When completed, the four rows should create a square shape in the middle of the table, representing the walls that the players will pull tiles from during the game. For better visibility, make sure there’s enough space between the rows and the edges of the table.

Distributing Tiles

The distribution of tiles to the players is the next step in setting up a Mahjong game. Each player will receive 13 tiles, and the process should be done in a specific order. First, the dealer rolls the dice to determine where to begin the distribution. Starting at the designated section of the wall, the dealer proceeds counterclockwise, picking up two stacks of tiles at a time (four tiles in total) and distributing them to each player in turn. This process continues until players have the required number of tiles (13).

When all players have their starting hand, they should arrange their tiles on a rack for easy access during gameplay. Your tiles should be sorted according to suits and numbers for efficient tile management and strategic play. Now you’re ready to start the game!

Playing Mahjong

Mahjong is a captivating and challenging game that requires strategy, memory, and quick decision-making. In this section, we will discuss the key aspects of playing Mahjong, including drawing and discarding tiles, forming melds, and going Mahjong (winning the game).

Drawing and Discarding

During a round of Mahjong, each player takes turns drawing and discarding tiles. At the start of your turn, you will draw a tile from the wall or pick up a discarded tile. After drawing, assess your hand and decide which tile to discard. The goal is to gradually improve your hand by discarding less useful tiles while acquiring more valuable ones. Remember to keep an eye on the other players’ discards to help deduce their possible hands and strategies.


Melds are combinations of tiles that form the basis of your hand. There are three types of melds in Mahjong:

  1. Pung: A set of three identical tiles (e.g., three 5 bamboos).
  2. Chow: A sequence of three consecutive tiles from the same suit (e.g., 2, 3, and 4 circles).
  3. Kong: A set of four identical tiles (e.g., four 7 characters).

During your turn, you may declare a meld by picking up a tile that completes the set. However, you can only declare a meld when it is formed using the most recently discarded tile. Once a meld has been declared and formed, you must then discard a tile from your hand.

Going Mahjong

Going Mahjong means claiming a winning hand. To win a game of Mahjong, you need to form a complete hand that typically consists of four melds and a pair of identical tiles. When you believe you have a winning hand, announce “Mahjong” before discarding your last tile. Keep in mind that different Mahjong variations may have specific winning hand requirements, so make sure you are familiar with the rules of the version you are playing.

By considering these essential elements of playing Mahjong – drawing and discarding, forming melds, and going Mahjong – you can confidently participate in this intriguing game. The more you play, the sharper your skills and strategies will become, enhancing your enjoyment of the timeless game of Mahjong.

Scoring and Settling Scores

Scoring Elements

In Mahjong, various factors contribute to your final score. These elements include:

  • Pungs and Kongs
  • Concealed and exposed Chows
  • Bonus Tiles
  • Special combinations

Knowing each of these elements will help you understand how the scores are calculated, and ultimately, how to win the game.

Mahjong Points

Points are earned differently based on the various scoring elements. For instance, a Pung or Kong, consisting of three or four identical tiles, can earn you points depending on whether they are concealed or exposed. You can refer to a basic scoring table for more information on how points are awarded for different combinations and situations in the game.

Additionally, you can earn points with particular special combinations like a concealed hand, which means all Pungs and Kongs in your hand should be hidden. This combination can earn you extra points as stated in the Official Mahjong Rules.

Settling Scores

At the end of a round, players compare scores and settle any differences. Non-winners compare their scores with each other and pay the difference. For example, if you had 20 points and another player had 10 points, the other player would pay you 10 points as mentioned in The Mahjong Project.

Understanding the scoring system and settling scores will help you become a more strategic Mahjong player. Keep practicing and improving your skills to gain an advantage over your opponents.

Mahjong Variants and Regional Differences

This section will explore the various Mahjong variants and regional differences that make the game diverse and fascinating for players all over the world.

Chinese Classical Mahjong

Chinese Classical Mahjong is known to be the oldest version of the game and serves as the foundation for other variants. As you play this version, you’ll find that it has simple rules and scoring systems compared to other adaptations. Every player starts with 13 tiles, aiming to draw and discard tiles to form a complete hand of 14 tiles. In this variant, there are no joker tiles or special hands, keeping the gameplay traditional and straightforward. You can learn more about the rules and gameplay of Chinese Classical Mahjong here.

Mahjong Variants within China

Due to China’s vast geographical and cultural landscape, several regional Mahjong variants have emerged. Although they share similarities with Chinese Classical Mahjong, each of these regional adaptations brings unique twists to the game:

  • Cantonese Mahjong: Also known as Hong Kong Mahjong, this variant is popular in Southern China and features unique scoring rules and limits.
  • Sichuan Mahjong: This faster-paced version features simpler rules, fewer tiles, and can be played without honors.
  • Shanghai Mahjong: Also known as Mahjong Competition Rules, this variant has a more complex scoring system and allows for a wide array of winning hands.

You can explore the differences among these regional Mahjong variants in greater detail here.

American Mahjong

American Mahjong, also known as Mah Jongg, is an adaptation widely played in the United States. It features unique characteristics, making it a distinct experience for both seasoned and new players. Key differences include the use of joker tiles, more flexibility with chows, and a fixed set of hands that are predetermined and updated annually. To learn more about American Mahjong and its rules, visit The Spruce Crafts.

Japanese Riichi Mahjong

Japanese Mahjong, also known as Riichi Mahjong, is a variation that has evolved over the years, primarily in Japan. This version includes unique aspects such as the Riichi declaration, dora tiles, furiten, and more complex scoring rules. It requires strategic thinking and adaptability since players must aim for specific hand compositions to maximize their scores. Discover Japanese Riichi Mahjong and its intricate gameplay here.

As you learn about these Mahjong variants and regional differences, you’ll appreciate the rich history and diverse gameplay that the game of Mahjong offers to players worldwide.

Strategies and Tips

Tile Efficiency

Improving your tile efficiency is a crucial part of mastering Mahjong. Focus on creating a hand that can use all the tiles effectively. Here are some ways to enhance your tile efficiency:

  • Look for tiles that can form multiple combinations with your existing tiles, increasing your chances of a quick completion.
  • Preserve flexibility in your hand by holding onto related tiles, allowing for multiple possibilities.
  • Discard early any isolated or less useful tiles.
  • Practice memorizing tile locations to quickly locate the pieces you need, enhancing your overall game.

Reading Opponents

Observing and adapting to your opponents’ plays are essential skills in Mahjong. Pay close attention to their discards and the calls they make. Some tips for reading your opponents include:

  • Noting the type of tiles they discard to deduce their potential hands and strategies.
  • Maintaining awareness of your opponents’ actions to identify their weaknesses or strengths.
  • Be vigilant with your opponent’s discards to predict their next moves and increase your chances of building a winning hand.

Defense Techniques

In Mahjong, a strong defense can be just as important as having a high-scoring hand. Here are some key defensive strategies:

  • Be cautious when discarding highly-valued tiles that may be dangerous, as they could complete your opponents’ hands.
  • Observe the tiles your opponents are keeping to estimate the type of hands they are forming, then adjust your strategy accordingly.
  • As a game progresses, consider focusing more on defensive plays rather than taking risks to complete your hand.

By integrating these strategies and tips into your gameplay, you’ll improve your Mahjong skills and elevate your chances of winning.

Mahjong Etiquette and Terminology

Table Etiquette

As a Mahjong player, it’s essential to be aware of table etiquette to ensure a smooth and enjoyable gaming experience for you and your fellow players. Always respect your opponents and maintain a courteous demeanor throughout the game. Below are some points to keep in mind while playing:

  • Handle the tiles with care and avoid making excessive noise.
  • Wait for your turn and don’t touch or move other players’ tiles without permission.
  • Keep your game area organized and clutter-free, ensuring that discarded tiles are placed in an appropriate manner.
  • Avoid providing unsolicited advice or making announcements about others’ gameplay mistakes, such as missed Joker exchanges or discards (Debbie’s Golden Rules).
  • Refrain from discussing your hand or previous plays with other players during the game.

Common Terminology

Understanding key Mahjong terminology is crucial to effectively communicating with your fellow players and developing a deeper appreciation of the game. Here are some common terms you may encounter:

DealerThe player who starts the game, determined by the highest dice roll.
JokerA wildcard tile that can be used to represent any other tile in a player’s hand.
PungA set of three identical tiles.
KongA set of four identical tiles.
ChowA consecutive sequence of three tiles of the same suit.
MahjongThe moment a player completes their hand, winning the game.

As you continue to play Mahjong, practicing good table etiquette and familiarizing yourself with the terminology will help you become a more competent and respected player in the community.

Online and Computer Mahjong

In this digital era, you can enjoy the game of Mahjong through various online platforms and computer games. Here’s an overview of different ways to play Mahjong online or using apps and games.

Playing Online

Playing Mahjong online allows you to challenge other players from all around the world or learn at your own pace by playing against computers. Websites like Real Mah Jongg Online offer American Mah Jongg with the latest card versions, and has a variety of Mahjong styles to choose from, including Mahjong Fortuna, Mahjong Solitaire, and Mahjong Connect. These platforms often offer both free and paid options, depending on your preference and skill level.

Mahjong Apps

Several Mahjong apps are available for download on smartphones and tablets, allowing you to play the game anytime, anywhere. Mahjongg Time, for example, lets you play different styles such as Chinese, American, Riichi, Hong Kong, and Taiwanese versions. Additionally, some apps offer single-player modes against a computer, ensuring you can practice and hone your skills, even when you can’t find opponents or have an internet connection.


Besides websites and apps, several computer games also cater to Mahjong enthusiasts. Some of these games feature visually appealing graphics and immersive gameplay, bringing the traditional game to life in a modern format. Examples include Mahjong 3D, Mahjongg Dimensions, and Mahjongg Titans. Many of these games are available through online platforms, gaming consoles, and even as downloadable content for your computer.

As you explore these options, you’ll find that there’s no shortage of ways to enjoy Mahjong in the digital age. Whether you’re a beginner looking to learn or an experienced player seeking new challenges, online and computer Mahjong can provide hours of entertainment and mental stimulation.

Sources and More Information

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