[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.
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.
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
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.
(Seasons are sometimes depicted by people or animals)
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.
N (4) S (2)
W (3) E (1)
S (2) N (4)
E (1) W (3)
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
"Dealer's Courtesy" is waiting to arrange one's tiles until the dealer
is done dealing.
Mix, face down, the 144 tiles . . . with tremendous clatter
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.
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.
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.
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.
East repeats this distribution two more times so that each player has 12
tiles (or 6 stacks) in hand.
East then draws 2 more tiles (top one and top third tile at left) and distributes
one more tile to S, W, and N.
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.
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
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).
*If the sequence is drawn from the wall, it should not be declared,
and may remain concealed. Concealed sets are more valuable if the player
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:
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.
from a triplet in hand plus one discarded tile
a triplet in hand and one drawn from the wall
a melded triplet and a tile drawn from the wall.
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.
**A player may "Rob a Kong" if she needs one tile to go out, and another
player makes a melded four with that tile by drawing it from the wall (adding
it to a previously melded triplet). That tile may be taken to go "out."
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.
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
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
"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.
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.
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.
If a tile is discarded by mistake, it may not be reclaimed.
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:
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.
If dealer goes out on a self-drawn tile, each player pays 2x
If dealer goes out on a discard, discarder pays 6x
If non-dealer goes out on self-drawn, dealer pays 2x, others pay 1x
If non-dealer goes out on a discard, discarder pays 4x (whether 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
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:
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
Big Three Dragons - a hand with one triplet of each of the three dragons
(red, green and white)
Little Four Winds - a hand with one triplet of each of 3 winds and a pair
with the 4th wind.
Big Four Winds - a hand with one triplet of each of the 4 winds and any
All Honors - any hand with only wind and dragon tiles (four triplets and
All Terminals - (1s and 9s) any hand with only terminals (four triplets
and a pair).
Four Concealed Triplets - four triplets of any kind, only drawn from the
wall. The pair alone can use a discard.
Heavenly Hand - if dealer goes out immediately with hand she is dealt.
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
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.
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.
Mahjong scoring table
To score: 1) first determine points, 2) then multiply doubles, 3) then
Suit Tiles 0p
Ordinary Winds 0p
Lucky Tiles 2p (Dragons, prevailing wind, own wind)
Double Winds 4p (Own wind is prevailing wind)
One chance 2p (2nd of pair/ middle of sequence/ or 3 or 7 of terminal sequence)
with discard 10p
with self-drawn -- see doubles
Lucky triplet/four 1x (dragons, prevailing wind, own wind)
Double wind triplet/four 2x (own wind is prevailing wind)
Groups of Sets
(4) triplets (including fours) 0,1,2 concealed 1x
3 concealed 2x
4 concealed limit (500 points includes doubles)
3 concealed with one sequence 1x
Ways of Going Out
Last tile of wall 1x
Last discarded tile 1x (after last tile of wall is drawn)
Robbing a kong 1x
Supplemental Tile 1x
3 consecutive sequences 1x (one suit)
No Points 1x
All simples 1x
All terminals/honors 1x
Terminal or honor in each set 1x
One suit with honors 1x
One suit only 4x
3 little dragons 1x (2 dragons triplets and a pair of dragons)
Corresponding Flower/Season 1x (to own wind)
Corresponding Flower/Season 1x (to prevailing wind)
All four Flowers/Seasons 1x (each)
**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."
Dealer goes out self-drawn: each pays 2x
Dealer goes out on discard: discarder pays 6x
Non-dealer goes out self-drawn: each 1x; dealer 2x
Non-dealer goes out on discard: discarder pays 4x (whether dealer or not)
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.