Nan's Mah Jong Notes
Nanette Pasquarello

[Notes taken and adapted from various sources including: A Mah Jong Handbook: How to Play,Score, and Win the Modern Game, Eleanor Noss Whitney, 1964.]


Mah Jong (mah jongg) is a traditional Chinese tile game with manyvariations. An ancient game widely played in China and Japan, "American" mahjong came to the U.S. in the 1920s. "Mahj" became very popular, particularly in Jewish-American women's circles. The "American" version of the game uses of special cards outlining combinations of hands that players collect. Also widely played in the U.S. is the Chinese version of the game. This traditional version is simpler, and yet many believe it to be more enjoyable. These notes present a traditional Chinese variation of mah jong.

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!

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.


A complete set contains 144 tiles. The tiles fall into four categories: suits, honor tiles, flowers and seasons.

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.

Character Tiles

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 Americanized sets as dragons in the colors in red, green and white. On more traditional sets, the red has the Chinese character (in red) for Cheung -- meaning center 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 honor 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.
Flower Season/Occupation Number Corresponding Wind
Plum Spring/Fisherman 1 East
Lily/Orchid Summer/Woodcutter 2 South
Chrysanthemum Autumn/Farmer 3 West
Bamboo Winter/Scholar 4 North


(Seasons are sometimes depicted by people or animals)

The Game

Mah Jong is played by four people. Three or five people can play a modified version, but the ideal number of players is four, seated at a card table.

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. Typically, each player begins the game with 2000 points. If playing with bones or chips, a certain number of bones/chips will = 500, some will = 100, and the remainder will = 10 points each (depends upon set).

Beginning the game

There are many ways to determine seating, and who will deal first. The most simple method has each player roll the dice. The highest roller will deal, and assume "East." The other directions follow according to seating. Note: If East wins the game, that person remains East (dealer) until they lose, adding hands to the 4 of the round.

Building the wall

(Again, there are many variations. The following variation is one of the most simple.)
  1. Mix, face down, the 144 tiles . . . with tremendous clatter
  2. Arrange 18 stacks (a stack is two tiles, one on top of the other) in a horizontal row in front of each player, making a square. Once the wall is complete, it belongs to all the players.
  3. To break the wall and determine where to begin distributing tiles to the players, the dealer rolls the dice and counts players counter clockwise, beginning with herself to the total number shown.
  4. In front of the person last counted, break the wall from the right of that line of stacks . . . setting aside as the "dead wall" that number of stacks rolled by the dice. (The break occurs AFTER the number rolled, counting from the right.) Some versions dictate that the dead wall will be 7 stacks.
  5. East picks up the first two stacks to the left of the break (4 tiles); East then distributes the next 2 stacks (moving again left of the break) to South, then West, then North.
  6. East repeats this distribution two more times so that each player has 12 tiles (or 6 stacks) in hand.
  7. East then draws 2 more tiles (top one and top third tile at left) and distributes one more tile to S, W, and N.
  8. If any player has flower(s) or seasons(s), they declare so right away, turn face up in front of them, and they draw a substitute tile from the dead wall for each flower/season.
"Dealer's Courtesy" is waiting to arrange one's tiles until the dealer is done dealing.

Play begins

East begins by discarding, and play goes to East's right (counter clockwise). The goal is to collect 4 SETS and a PAIR.

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 crack"

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 PUNG: a player has a pair of identical tiles in hand and a third is either discarded or drawn from the wall. Unlike chow, a pung may be declared on a discard regardless of whether it is the player's turn, and any players in line to go are skipped. Play continues to the right. Again, as with concealed chows, concealed pungs should not be declared.

A KONG: four of a kind. There are three ways to get a kong:

  1. from a triplet in hand plus one discarded tile
  2. a triplet in hand and one drawn from the wall
  3. a melded triplet and a tile drawn from the wall.
One cannot make a 4 from a melded triplet and a discard. No kong can have more than one discard. If the kong is concealed, the player MUST declare it so she can draw from the dead wall . . . else the balance of sets is disturbed. But, in this case, the player will still get credit for a concealed kong if she wins. When the kong is shown, it is shown with the two inside tiles face-up, and the two outside tiles, face down.

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.

In the event that more than one player wants to meld a discard: Pung has precedence over chow. Kong has precedence over pung, and "mah jong," or going out, has highest precedence.

Winning the game

When a player needs one tile go out, the hand is "ready" and should be declared. The "ready" player may draw any discard needed to go out or may
draw the needed tile from the wall. The result is four sets of three (including 4s) and a pair. The hand is shown and the score is determined. (See scoring)

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 round is complete when all four players have held and lost the deal. The first round is the East round, and the East wind prevails. South, West and North rounds follow, with the respective prevailing winds during the round. Each player deals in each round once, unless the dealer wins and that player deals more than once.

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.


  1. If mah jong is declared mistakenly AND other players have displayed their hands, the hand ends. If a non-dealer, the player must pay 250 to each other non-dealers and 500 to dealer (1000 penalty points). If a dealer, player pays 500 to each player (1500 penalty points). If no other players' hands are displayed at the time of the false "out" the hand continues and the penalty sustained is that the offender can't go out until after her next turn.
  2. "Long hand," "Short hand," "Foul hand," or "Intentional Display": If at any time a player (for whatever reason) has more or less than 13 tiles (and one extra for each kong), that player may not go out and must continue to play. This player may try to cause a draw by playing defensively.
  3. If a player melds an incorrect sequence, triplet or four and the next player has begun, the same penalty as above is levied. If the next player has not begun, no penalty is assessed.
  4. If a chow, pung or kong is improperly declared, or if player changes mind, the player must forfeit 100 points to go in the "kitty" to go to the eventual winner of the game. If the game ends in a draw or if the offender wins the hand, the penalty is withdrawn.
  5. If a tile is discarded by mistake, it may not be reclaimed.
  6. If a player is ready and misses the needed discard, the player may not get the next discards until after her next draw from the wall.


As with the many variations of mah jong, there are many variations in scoring. It is best to agree upon "house rules" when beginning the game. Scoring is a three-step process: First, points are determined; next, the points are multiplied according to any applicable doubles; finally, payment is determined. Whether the winning player is the dealer or a non-dealer, and whether the winning tile was from the wall or a discard, affects both the scoring and payment.

Points: 20 points are given as a reward for winning the hand. Only the winner receives points. Depending upon the combinations held in the winning hand, additional points are added. For example, sequences do not add points, but triplets do. Melded triplets score fewer additional points than do concealed triplets. Simple triplets score fewer points than do terminals or honors. Pairs only score points if the pair is a dragon, prevailing wind or the player's own wind OR if it is a pair of "double wind" tiles(see scoring table). If the last tile is drawn from the wall, the player scores 2 additional points; if the hand was concealed throughout the hand but went out with a discard, the player scores 10 additional points; if the last tile was a last chance tile (the 2nd tile of a pair, the middle tile of a sequence, or the "inside" tile of a terminal sequence . . . the 3 of a 1,2,3 or the 7 of a 7,8,9, the player scores an additional 2 points. Please refer to the Scoring Table to run down the list of point options.

Doubles: After the points are decided (rounded to the nearest 10), the winner shows the ways a hand is worthy of doubles. 1 double is 2x; 2 doubles are 4x; 3 doubles are 8x, etc. the points accrued. There are eight possibilities for earning doubles: lucky sets, concealed hand, groups of sets, ways of going out, special inclusions, no points, consistency, or flowers/seasons. Please refer to the Scoring Table for further explanation.

Payments: Each player begins with 2000, and points are rounded to the nearest 10th prior to determining the doubles. The player responsible for the winner going out (discarder) must pay. If the winner goes out on a draw from the wall, all 3 losers must pay. The dealer must alway pay double or be paid double.

There are four payment situations:

  1. If dealer goes out on a self-drawn tile, each player pays 2x
  2. If dealer goes out on a discard, discarder pays 6x
  3. If non-dealer goes out on self-drawn, dealer pays 2x, others pay 1x
  4. If non-dealer goes out on a discard, discarder pays 4x (whether dealer
Initial Points and the "Limit": Max score is 500 points AFTER DOUBLING (the limit is the highest final score after doubling). Therefore, the maximum payment would be 2000 points for a non-dealer, and 3000 points for a dealer.

To score: the winning player begins with 20 points. She then looks at each of the four sets and the pair and computes applicable points. Then the winner assesses how the last tile affects points. If "no points," and the score is 20, a double will be earned for "no points." Eg. If a "no points" hand was concealed and won on a discard (add 10) then double it for no points and then figure out payment. The winner then computes any applicable doubles, and then figures out payment. Ideally, each player should score own her hand, with other players serving as a "check" for mistakes.

Limit hands

A limit hand automatically tallies to 500 (no need to tally points or figure out doubles). When a winner has a limit hand, players go immediately to the "payment" phase to figure out which players pay how much. In a limit hand, the minimum the losers can pay 1x ( a non-dealer goes out from the wall) is 500 points. The maximum a loser could pay is 6x or 3000 points (if a non-dealer pays a dealer for discarding and allowing dealer to win).

Any hand with 5 or more doubles has automatically reached the limit and need not be tallied.
Any hand with 32 or more points and 4 or more doubles is automatically at the limit.

Ten special hands are automatically limit hands:

  1. Big Three Dragons - a hand with one triplet of each of the three dragons (red, green and white)
  2. Little Four Winds - a hand with one triplet of each of 3 winds and a pair with the 4th wind.
  3. Big Four Winds - a hand with one triplet of each of the 4 winds and any pair.
  4. All Honors - any hand with only wind and dragon tiles (four triplets and a pair).
  5. All Terminals - (1s and 9s) any hand with only terminals (four triplets and a pair).
  6. Four Concealed Triplets - four triplets of any kind, only drawn from the wall. The pair alone can use a discard.
  7. Heavenly Hand - if dealer goes out immediately with hand she is dealt.
  8. Earthly Hand - if a non-dealer goes out on the 1st discard by the dealer OR if by self-drawn tile on her 1st turn (before a pung, chow or kong is declared).
  9. Nine Gates - the winner's hand contains only one suit AND has a triplet of 1s, a run from 2-8, and a triplet of 9s. Player must go out on a drawn or discarded ODD tile. The hand must be a true 9 chance hand, with nine openings, or "gates." It must be completely concealed, and the player can actually go out on any tile of the suit.
  10. Thirteen Orphans - a hand of entirely terminals and honors, and contains 1 tile of each: 3 different dragons, 4 different winds, 3 different 1s, 3 different 9s. The 14th tile can match any of these. The hand must be concealed, but the player can go out on a discard of the tile needed.
Strategy: 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 honors 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!

Mahjong scoring table

To score: 1) first determine points, 2) then multiply doubles, 3) then determine payments


Simples Terminal/
Sequences 0p 0p
Melded Triplets 2p 4p
Concealed Triplets 4p 8p
Melded Fours 8p 16p
Concealed Fours 16p 32p


Last Tile

Concealed Hand

Lucky set

Groups of Sets

Ways of Going Out

Special Inclusions




**LIMIT HANDS: (500 points after doubling) include Big three dragons, Little four winds, Big four winds, All honors, All terminals, Four concealed triplets, Heavenly hand, Earthly hand, Nine gates, and Thirteen orphans, AND any hand with 5 or more doubles or 32 points plus 4 doubles. After determining a hand is a limit hand, directly determine "Payment."

Nanette  Pasquarello summarized these Mah Jong notes in 1995 after
reading a number of books and instruction booklets for the game. Finding
many poorly translated instructions and many complicated versions, Nan's
goal was to construct clear and easy to understand guidelines for one
version of Mah Jong while she and her friends discovered the game. She
has become an aficionado of the game and is delighted to help others
discover the wonderful winds of Mah Jong. Questions or comments may be
e-mailed to Nan at