Mahjong has been around for hundreds of years. The game originated in China centuries ago and features beautifully adorned tiles meant to be arranged in specific combinations for a winning hand.
Won with the right mix of luck and strategy, mahjong remains a popular pastime for gamers across the globe. While specific terminology and rules vary across regions, the basic form holds constant.
Here’s a step-by-step guide on how to play mahjong, from the tile types to what makes a winning hand.
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What is mahjong?
The South China Morning Post reports that the game of tiles was born in China over 300 years ago. It requires four players and is widely played across the Asian continent, and around the world.
It gained particular popularity in the United States after it was introduced around 1920 by the American businessman Joseph P. Babcock who, according to the New York Times had spent time living in China and was captivated by the game and the culture it represented. Sets were first sold at none other than Abercrombie & Fitch in New York.
The game has a set of 144 tiles, each with one of five illustration categories displayed. The illustrations are based on Chinese symbols or characters.
How do you play Mahjong? Step by step.
Versions of the game differ across regions, but the basic rules of play are as follows:
- Shuffle the tiles, illustration face down.
- Roll the dice, the player with the biggest roll is the dealer, and the person to their right plays first.
- 3. Each player chooses 36 tiles and arranges them into two sets of 18, resembling a wall.
- The “walls” are then pushed forward, leaving space in the middle of the table for discarded tiles.
- Each players then takes turns, drawing thirteen tiles total from the pool or is doled them out by the dealer.
- The first player draws another tile from the pool to begin the game, keeping or discarding the new tile so their total number remains at 13. The players go around in a circle continuing this process. You can either take a fresh tile or pick up one discarded by another player.
- When a player discards a tile, any player can pick that up, regardless of their turn, in order to form a Pong or Kong meld. To form a Chow meld the tile has to be discarded by the player to your left. A full guide to melds can be found below. If you use a discarded tile to make a meld, you have to announce it and display those tiles to the other players.
- One player wins once their set of tiles has four melds (or suits) and a pair. This requires a total of fourteen tiles.
What is a pair in Mahjong?
A pair is two of the same tile.
What is a meld in Mahjong?
A suit or meld can be one of three different types of combinations, given different names depending on region.
- Pong: Three identical tiles.
- Kong or Gong: Four identical tiles.
- Chow or Chi: Three tiles belonging to the same suit, in sequence.
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What are the different tile types in Mahjong?
There are five tile types, in Mahjong:
Bamboo, Character, and Dots are the three main suits. Each suit contains four sets of tiles numbered 1-9, making 36 tiles total for the distinct categories.
The Honor tiles have two classifications: Dragon and Wind. There are three sets of four Dragon tiles (12 total) and four sets of four wind tiles (16 total).
The Bonus tiles have only two sets, each with four tiles. The first depicts flowers, and the second shows the four seasons of the year.
What do you say when you win mahjong?
It is traditional when you win a game of mahjong to say: “Sik wu.”
In Western circles sometimes winners will instead announce “mahjong.”
Is mahjong a game of skill or luck?
Both. A win is based both on an individual players strategy and the luck of the draw (literally) at the beginning of and throughout the game.
The game is oft compared to gin rummy, a card game which similarly relies on both luck and skill.
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