Want to learn how to play Mahjong? We gotchu! First, though, let’s take a look at the history of this fun game. There’s a bit of debate about where and when, exactly, mahjong was invented. However, according to Stanford University, it most likely began around Shanghai during the mid-to-late-1800s. That was during the Qing Dynasty, which lasted from 1644 to 1912. (It seems worth noting that directly after the Qing Dynasty, the Republic of China was established.)
From its Shanghai inception, it quickly spread to Beijing and beyond. What was once a very “Eastern” game soon found its way across the globe as more people immigrated from China to various parts of the world, especially Europe and America. By the 1920s, it was wildly popular in America and played almost as often as any tabletop card, like Hearts or Spades. For an “inside” look at its popularity among and importance to modern Chinese Americans, take a look at the “Grand-Mahjong” episode of Fresh Off The Boat. (You can find it in season five, episode 13.)
Now that you’ve gotten that little history lesson out of the way, you’re ready to play, right? Well, here’s everything you need to know.
How to Play Mahjong: The Set-up
Mahjong is a tile game, and it might help you if you think of the tiles as you would think of a deck of cards. Just like cards, there are suits. Mahjong tiles come in three suits: Characters, Bamboos, and Circles. There are 36 tiles in each suite, and they’re numbered one through nine. If you’re doing the math, that means there are four of each number in each suit. Here’s where we stray from the deck of cards analogy, though. There are also 16 Wind tiles and 12 Dragon tiles. A set of dice is used to determine each deal, and some mahjong sets come with racks to hold each individual’s tiles, just like in Scrabble. (Though the really quick, skilled players don’t seem to use racks.)
Most mahjong games are played with four players. There are three-player variations. But, for the sake of your sanity, we’re going to stick with the popular four-player rules.
Modern players roll their dice, and the person with the largest roll deals first. While most games play in a clockwise rotation, Chinese traditions tend to base things on the Earth’s directions. As a matter of fact, traditionally players didn’t roll dice but drew from four Wind tiles — which sat on their directionally direct sides of the table — with East dealing first. But, just like with any modern gameplay, sometimes this whole process is simply skipped if only one person is interested in the deal. That’s fine, too. Whatever gets the game started!
From here, all the tiles are turned face down on the table and all hands are “on deck” to shuffle them around before dividing them evenly between players. Next, each player pulls 34 tiles (still facedown). They use their tiles to build a “wall” in front of their seat at the table. After the wall is built, it should be 17 tiles long and two tiles tall. When each player has their walls built, they tend to push together to form a square around the table. After that, the dealer deals 13 tiles apiece, starting from the left side of their own wall. Confused? Here’s a video that might better explain the system.
This is where the racks come in. Just like in Scrabble, you’ll want to keep your 13 tiles a secret. On your side of the wall, you’ll set up your tiles on your rack so that only you can see them.
The dealer will start by discarding one tile. If you can grab the tile to complete a “mahjong,” you can absolutely grab the tile, call “mahjong,” and show your hand. More likely, however, you or a competitor will use the tile to call a “pung” or “chow.” There are several different ways to get a solid winning hand and, just like in cards, it’s all about matching suits or sets.
Ending the Game
There are really only two conclusions to a game of mahjong. The first is for someone to get mahjong, or a hand of four sets and one pair. If, however, you make it through the entire wall without anyone accomplishing mahjong, the game is considered a “draw.”
Is Mahjong Good for Your Brain?
Mahjong is a great game to play to improve your cognitive performance. It has a big impact on a person’s short-term and verbal memory. This game is such a brain booster, it’s even used to help treat patients with dementia.
It’s also an excellent way to boost strategic thinking and pattern recognition skills. Over time, your mind will be able to identify patterns more quickly. Mahjong can improve your capacity for recollection and concentration. It’s a game of focus, and usually, the only way to win is to avoid distractions and pay attention. Mahjong is a continuous puzzle that requires visual strategy and analysis, which can boost your problem-solving skills as well.
How to Play Mahjong: Variations
Take note: This gameplay is the most popular and traditional way of playing. Just like with many card games, rules often vary slightly between regions or even between families. You have the ground rules. Start there and master them so new rules with new friends won’t throw you off your game.
Lessons You Can Learn From Mahjong
Mahjong isn’t just a game. It can teach you valuable skills you can apply to your everyday life.
- It doesn’t matter where you start in life. Even if you begin the game with a bad hand, the only way to change things is to keep going.
- Don’t get distracted by what others have. It’s OK to take notice, but don’t let it distract you. Pay attention to what you have and work on improving yourself.