Mahjong - How to Play


Mahjong is a beautifully crafted tile game for four players which originated in China. The game involves a combination of skill, strategy, intelligence, calculation and often luck. The aim of Mahjong is to build complete suits, generally threes, from either 13 or 16 tiles. The winner is the first person to have built complete suits and the winning tile completes the set of tiles – either 14 or 17.

There are many myths and legends surrounding the origin of Mahjong. Some believe it was developed by Confucius, while others claim that it was formed from a combination of Ancient Chinese tile games. Everyone agrees however, that the game is one of great intrigue and that the customs and rules surrounding the game are as important as the game playing itself.

Click for details on history, terminology/glossary and Chinese terminology.

Mahjong Equipment

The equipment needed for playing Mahjong is a set of tiles, chips and dice.

Mahjong is generally played with tiles, but also occasionally playing cards. The cards are used if the Mahjong set needs to travel as it makes the set lighter, but the quality of the cards are mostly of lower quality and take away from some of the rituals of the game.

A set of chips or bone tiles are used for scoring in the game of Mahjong. The set also includes unique chips indicating the dealer and the wind prevalent in the round. Some sets may include racks to hold the chips and tiles, with a separate rack for the dealer.

Mahjong Tiles

There are a total of 144 Mahjong tiles which can be divided into different suits – Suited Tiles, Honor Tiles, Joker Tiles and Flower Tiles.

Suited Tiles – Most of Mahjong tiles are depicted by rank and suit. There are three suits of tiles with ranks ranging from one to nine. Each rank and suit combination is included four times in a Mahjong set, totaling 36 tiles per suit.

The Circle Suit: Each tile consists of a combination of a number of circles from one to nine. Each circle is representative of copper (tong) with a square hole at the center.

  • The Bamboo Suit: These tiles are numbered according to bamboo sticks on their face (except for 1 Bamboo). The symbolism of the bamboo is believed to be a string (suo) that held one hundred coins.

Character Suit: These tiles represent ten thousand (wan) coins.

Wind Tiles East, South, West and North

Dragon Tiles – These appear in red, green and white. These tiles are believed to symbolize the Chinese Imperial Examination. The red tile means that you have passed an examination and can become a government official; the green tile means that you will become finally successful; the white tile means that as a successful official, you should be uncorrupt.

Flower Tiles – These are often optional parts of a Mahjong set, containing floral artwork on each tile.

Setting Up a Mahjong Board

Setting up of the Mahjong board involves a sequence of strict protocol and order which determines who is the dealer, in what direction tiles are dealt and in what direction the tiles are played. Casual players often skip over this sequence, but the devout players who are true to Mahjong traditions will carry out this procedure.

Each player throws three dice in order to determine the Player Game Wind. The player with the highest total roll becomes the dealer/banker. The dealer’s wind is East and moving in an anti-clockwise direction, the next players are South, West and North winds. After every round of play, the Game Wind changes, unless the dealer wins the round.

The Prevailing Wind always starts with East, but changes after the Game Wind has moved completely around the board (after every player has lost, being the dealer). Each Mahjong set includes a Prevailing Wind marker which consists of a die decorated with the wind characters, placed in a holder. The marker also includes a pointer which indicates the wind direction, pointed at the dealer.


The tiles are placed face down and are all shuffled. The players then pile two rows of tiles in front of them, generally with 18 tiles per row. The number of tiles per row might differ according to the number of tiles used in other variants of the game. This set up is called the wall, and the space in the center is called the well, to discard unwanted tiles.

The dealer has two main roles – to start the game by rolling the dice, which determines where to break the tile wall, and to break the wall and to begin distributing the tiles.

The dealer throws three dice and adds up their total. Taking the total, the dealer counts this number off in a clockwise direction, beginning at the far right side of his row of tiles. Tiles are distributed from this opening, which is called breaking the wall. The dealer deals 13 tiles to each player, in a counter-clockwise direction around the table. The dealer then takes a 14 th tile with which he begins the game. The board is now ready and new tiles will be taken from the wall at the point where the dealer ended.

Starting the Game

A player’s turn begins when he takes a tile from the wall (or draw pile) and includes it in his hand. A player then discards another tile into the well, which signals the end of his turn. The player to the right then has a turn to move. It is considered good Mahjong etiquette to announce the name of the tile being discarded. Depending on the variation of play, discarded tiles must either be placed in a specific order in front of the player or face down.

Flower Tiles

If flower tiles are dealt or selected, game play requires that they be replaced by a tile from the back wall of tiles (also known as the dead wall). These tiles are exposed by placing them up facing by the player’s tiles. At the beginning of every round, if two or more players have flower tiles, these are replaced by starting with the dealer and moving anti-clockwise. Depending on the type of Mahjong being played, flower tiles may determine who wins the round, despite the contents of a player’s hand.

Joker Tiles

The American variation of Mahjong uses joker tiles which are used as a substitute for any tile. Some variations allow a player to replace tiles that are already in exposed melds with a joker tile. Jokers are generally allowed to take on the identity of any tile, but some only allow it to take the identity of a tile that was previously discarded.


Melds are the sets of tiles that are combined in order to form a winning hand. When a player discards a tile, another player may bid for it, in order to use the tile to complete a meld from his own tiles. The downside of bidding for a tile, is that the player has to then expose the entire completed meld to the rest of the players, allowing them a glance at what type of hand he is trying to create. There is some strategic play involved in this move too, because if a player wins by using the discarded tile, the discarding player loses points.

Most variations of Mahjong use three types of melds: Pong, Kong and Chow. When a meld is created following a discard, a player states the type of meld being created and places the meld in an exposed fashion. The player then discards another tile and play continues in an anti-clockwise direction. Due to this procedure, some players may miss a turn.

Pong – A Pong is a set of three identical tiles. American Mahjong also allows Flower Tiles to create a pong by melding three of four flower tiles into a group.

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Kong – A Kong is a set of four identical tiles. When a Kong is declared it has to be exposed immediately because all other melds are composed of three tiles. If a fourth tile used to complete a Kong is obtained from a discard, the meld is known as an ‘exposed Kong’. If all four tiles came from the player’s hand, it is called a ‘concealed Kong’. A Kong can also be created by joining onto an existing exposed pong, if the correct tile is drawn. If this happens, a player must take an extra tile from the back end of the wall and discard as usual. Play continues in an anti-clockwise direction. A completed Kong cannot be split up and some strategists suggest, therefore, not to declare a Kong right away.


Chow A Chow is a meld of tiles of the same suit in a sequence. An exposed Chow can only be declared from a discarded tile of a player on the left hand side, which is unlike other melds in Mahjong.

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Eye An eye is a pair of tiles that is not part of the melds and is not declared or formed with a discard. The eye is the last component of the standard Mahjong hand and has to be made up of identical tiles. In the hand below, the is the eye.

Calling on Discarded Tiles

When two or more players make a call for the same tile, the player taking the tile to complete his hand has precedence over the other players. Players declaring a Pong have the next bid on the tile, followed by Kong declarers, and lastly Chows. In American Mahjong the rules make it possible that two players may need the same tile for melds, and in this case the meld with the higher number of identical tiles has priority. When two or more players call for a meld of the same level, or in order to win the hand, then the player seated closest to the right gets the call.

Ready Hand

When a player is only one tile away of winning, the hand is called a ready hand.

Example: , needing , or .

A player possessing a ready hand is termed as ‘waiting’ for specific tiles. In most cases, a player will be waiting for two or three tiles, and is some forms of Mahjong a hand waiting for only one tile is awarded extra points. In 13 tile Mahjong, the highest amount a player can wait for is 13 tiles.


When only the dead wall is left standing and no one has yet won, a draw is declared. A new round is called and often the game wind direction may also change.

Abortive Draws

In Japanese Mahjong there are some occasions that abortive draws can be declared – when a game is drawn even though tiles are still available.

  • On a player’s first turn, if no melds can be declared and a player is holding nine different terminal or honor tiles, the player has the right to declare a draw.
  • If three players wish to claim the same discard in order to win the hand, then a draw is declared.
  • If all four players discard the same wind tile, and no melds have been declared, the round is drawn.
  • If all four players call a richi, the round is drawn. A richi is a declaration that any tile drawn by the player is discarded right away, unless in makes up a winning hand.
  • A draw is also declared when the fourth Kong is declared, unless they were all declared by the same player. When this happens, draw is called when another player declares a Kong.

Winning at Mahjong

A player wins the round of Mahjong by creating a standard Mahjong hand. In American Mahjong, this is known as ‘creating a Mahjong’ and the winning process is called ‘going Mahjong’. The winning hand is comprised of a certain number of melds – four for 13 tile Mahjong and five for the 16 tile version – and a pair.

Some variations require that the winning hand contain a point value, while others variations have options for non-standard hands which comprise a winning hand.

Turns and Rounds

After every game, a new dealer is selected, unless the dealer wins the game. If the dealership does get passed on, then the player to the right becomes the new dealer and that player’s wind becomes the Game Wind. The Game Wind follows the East, South, North, West sequence.

After the wind direction has returned to the East, it indicates that every player has had a chance of being the dealer. A round has thus been completed and the Prevailing Wind changes in the same sequence. An entire game of Mahjong consists of four rounds – when the North Prevailing Wind round has been completed.


Points are used in order to score in Mahjong. When gambling, the points are translated directly into money value. While many Mahjong variations allow hands to be played for no point value, some require that the hand be of some value in order to be declared a winning hand.

The different variations of Mahjong do not differ too much in their game play, but the major difference become very apparent in the scoring systems. Because of the great variations available in scoring rules, player within a group will generally agree amongst themselves on specific scoring rules.

Points are earned by matching the winning hand and the winning condition with a predetermined set of criteria. Different criteria award different score values, while some criteria can be subdivisions of other criteria. The points are turned into scores and when gambling with Mahjong these scores equal sums of money.

Mahjong Strategy

Mahjong is generally considered a game of luck but there is actually a fair amount of strategy that can be incorporated into the game.

  • When tiles are first received, a player’s hand should be evaluated. A player must count how many tiles they are away from a victory, in the quickest possible method. If four or less tiles are needed, then a player should expect to win within 9 moves and should try and play to win. If five tiles are needed, a player needs to hope to have luck and to draw good tiles. If six or more tiles are needed, a player should give up and play defensively, hoping for a draw.
  • In order to play to win, a player needs to take some chances. He should discard any tiles that are not needed, even lucky tiles. After six or seven tiles, a Chow or Pong can be declared.
  • If playing not to lose, then a player should discard cautiously. If after four draws, only three tiles are needed, then a player should try to go for a win.
  • When playing for a draw a player should not be the first to discard a dragon or a wind, except their own. A player should not play for doubles and should not claim tiles for a triplet. A player should keep their hand concealed and not go for a Chow or Pong.

Discarding should be done in the following order:

  • Isolated Early Winds – these are worthless to a player and also to the opponents, unless they already hold some. These should be discarded very early before they are able to Pong. Unless the player is the dealer, he should start with East and then discard the wind of the player on the left. This should be followed by the player opposite and then on the right.
  • Terminals – If a player holds 1,6 and 9, what is discarded first? If a 2-3 is taken then the 1 can be used. If a 7-8 is taken then the 6 can be used, and the nine is not needed. So the 9 should be discarded first.
  • Dragons – These should be discarded earlier, rather than later, in order to stop opponents from calling a Pong. Pairs should be kept but a player should discard isolated ones straight after the winds, or not at all.
  • Special Winds – The prevailing wind is a wanted tile by all the players. This tile should be discarded early, but a player’s own wind should be kept until it has been discarded twice by other players. After turn 9 or 10, a player should be aware that their wind might be used as a pair by another player. A player’s double wind is very useful so it should be kept as late as possible in the game.
  • Simples – 4, 5 and 6 are very valuable tiles and should be kept as long as possible. Tactics can be changed after turn 10 and a player should keep note what other players are collecting. After turn 10, winds, terminals and dragons are very dangerous, as are simples.


All the elements of luck, skill and strategy combine to create a great Mahjong game plan. After playing the game on a regular basis, a player will be able to find out what sort of strategy works best for them and what their personal style of play is. If a regular Mahjong group is formed and the same players usually play together, then the regular opponents’ strategy will also be a determining factor in the outcome of a game.

As with any other pastime, the main point of Mahjong is to have fun and to enjoy the game. Once a player has experienced the thrills of Mahjong, it will be clear that this is not asking too much!!

Posted by CCJ Team