A Simple and Easy Guide to Mahjong

Mahjong is complicated, however it is very satisfying and interesting once you understand how to play. There are so many different kinds and varieties that it’s hard to know where to start. This guide is for Hong Kong/Guangdong style, which is a very good style to learn as it’s not only fun but an amazing jumping off point for trying other styles as well.

Generally most people want to start by learning Japanese mahjong, but Japanese style is so complicated that it’s very difficult to start, especially when guides expect basic knowledge of some sort of mahjong and load so much information onto you at one time.

The thing that I love about Hong Kong style so much is that you have the option to play a much more simplified version, which allows you to get accustomed to the basics before increasing complexity to what you would likely see in other styles. This is not easily found in other styles, so if you are wanting to learn a different style, but find it difficult, then this guide should help you a lot too.

This guide is split into two parts. The first explains what you need to know in order to play the much more simplified version of the game, starting with tiles, hands, and game mechanics to advice for getting started. It then expects you to play and get familiar with this version of the game before explaining more complicated concepts. If you don’t do this, there will simply be too much information and it won’t be easy for you to remember anything.


Part 1 – Introduction to Mahjong

Standard Tiles

There are 4 of each tile, with the exception of flower tiles, but the most complex thing about them is the symbols, which are confusing. But there are two simple categories. Honour tiles and standard tiles. If you split the above image into quarters, then the bottom right is the honour tiles. For the purpose of this, please forget flower tiles even exist, as that’s how most players play the game anyway, I will address these later.

Let’s start with the standard tiles. In a similar way to how a deck of playing cards is split into .diamonds, hearts, spades and clubs, the standard tiles are split into three types: stones, bamboo and thousands (or technically 10s of thousand) of course the names vary as well.

Each of these groups have tiles from 1-9 and 4 of each. If you look at the image above, you can see all of the stones in the top left, bamboo’s in the top right, and thousands in the bottom left. For the top two, remembering which one is a matter of counting the number of items on the tile, but for the thousands it’s a little more complicated.

The numbers shown on the thousands come from the Chinese numbers. Unfortunately you simply have to learn which one is which. The first three are relatively simple, as the horizontal lines represent the actual number, but after that it isn’t intuitive. I’ve found that the best way to learn is just to test yourself and play, if you play online it will automatically be sorted into the correct order so this will make the process easier.

Honour tiles are also taken from the Chinese symbols, and unfortunately you just have to learn them as well. This is true for any style of Mahjong. Luckily, they are much more simple than standard tiles, however they are split into two groups: winds and dragons. Let’s look at the winds first:

The names of the wind are underneath the tile. When talking about these tiles you would say “East wind”, “South wind” etc. I don’t even remember these correctly all the time, so don’t stress about learning these. They aren’t nearly as important as the thousands tiles.

The next set is the dragon tiles, and all you have to do here is remember the colour, which is displayed on the tile:

From right to left we have the red dragon, the green dragon, and the white dragon.

A Mahjong Hand

If you play the simplified version of mahjon (0 points mahjong), then any valid hand will allow you to win. This is almost always 4 sets of three and one pair however there are a couple of special hands I will talk about in part 2, you don’t need to worry about these now as these hands are generally much harder to obtain, and very rarely come up, so it is more than acceptable as a beginner to just focus on 4 sets of three and a pair.

There are a few simple rules to a set of three:

  1. You cannot mix tiles. A bamboo doesn’t go with a thousands, a wind doesn’t go with another wind and a dragon doesn’t go with another dragon.
  2. For honour tiles (winds and dragons) any set of the same three honour tiles counts as a set.
  3. For standard tiles, the number and suit must be the same and there must be three of them or
  4. Standard tiles must be in 1,2,3 order and the same suit. This could be any combination as long as they are all next to each other e.g 5,6,7 and 2,3,4.
  5. There is no wrap around, you can’t have 8,9,1 or 9,1,2
  6. This is everything.

Now what a set of three is, and that a pair is simply two tiles that are the same, the only thing left before you can play a game is an explanation of how it works, and how you might build a valid mahjong hand as you play.

Game Basics

Every player besides the dealer starts with 13 tiles. This is simply because the dealer doesn’t draw on their first turn, and instead just plays a tile. Each player starts their turn by drawing one tile, and ends it by discarding one. Through this, they can slowly build their winning hand. There are also other things that can be done during the game help you to build this hand, I will go through these below:

Pong

Imagine you are in the situation where you have two of the same tile and just need one more to complete your set of three. If someone discards their tile, regardless of other players (unless of course that tile caused another user to win) you can take that tile by shouting “Pong”. When you do this. You have to take your two tiles along with the recently discarded tile and display them face up to the side of your table so that everyone can see what you have played. Even though it has been placed to the side of the table, it still counts as one of your sets of three.

After this, due to having just taken an extra tile, you need to discard one of your own tiles as well. If someone pongs, play is resumed as if it was just their turn, which means that it can skip past people. This can feel either really unfair or pretty amazing, especially if the person skipped might have just been about to win.

Chi

The most important thing to remember about Chi is that you can only do it if the tile was played just before your turn started. Imagine a different scenario now, you have a 2, and a 3 of stones in your hand, and are wanting to convert that into a set of three (1,2,3 or 2,3,4) and someone plays the 4th stone tile that you need right before your turn. By shouting “Chi” you can take this tile and incorporate it into your set of three. It must be displayed face up on the top of the table so that other players can see.

For the same reason as above, you need to discard a tile as well and play just continues in it’s normal way.

You cannot have two people pong at the same time (there’s only 4 of each tile) but someone could want to use a tile for a Chi whereas someone might want to pong the tile. So who gets the tile? The person who ponged gets priority over the chi unless they are just incredibly late in calling it, and the person who has chid has already played.

For all of these rules, if you miss your chance and someone plays before you, you can’t go back and claim your pong or retroactively change your position. This is why expert mahjong play is so fast, of course, you don’t need to worry at this speed, at this stage playing slower is significantly better as it will help you learn.

What about sets of 4?

What if you have three red dragons in your hand, and suddenly draw a fourth one? How can this be incorporated into your set of three? This is called a “Gang” and it simply allows you to make this set of four count as a set of three (although there are technically 4 tiles)

You can do this when the tile you need is played or when it is drawn. You must display it face up in the corner (sometimes with two tiles turned over depending on what rules you play, but ultimately it doesn’t matter)

Because you have gained a tile (a set of 4 is now considered 3 tiles) you must draw an extra tile as well.

This can be done if the set of three is already in your hand, however if you have ponged already, you can only add the tile to a gang if you draw it, and not if it’s discarded by another player.

What if you have 1,2,3,4? Unfortunately you cannot do the same thing with chi’s, this only applies to sets of the same tiles.

Drawn Game

If nobody can make a valid hand before there are no tiles left, then it is a drawn game and the game stops without anyone being able to win. There is no re-shuffling the discarded tiles and playing with them again.

Winning

This is the most important and satisfying part of the game. It’s the time where you can slam your hand face up and show your winning hand that you have spent so long working on. As the game progresses you will slowly complete your sets of three and make a pair. When you are doing well you will reach a point where either all 4 sets of three are complete and you’re just waiting on a pair, or three sets of three are complete as well as a pair and you’re just waiting for a tile to complete your last set of three. In this situation there is two ways to win:

The first is simply by drawing the winning tile on your turn. When you do this, simply turn all of your tiles face up and show your winning hand. As long as your hand is valid you will win and you’ll move onto the next round, if it’s invalid due to making a mistake, unfortunately you will have to play on while everyone has already seen your tiles and knows exactly what you need to win.

The second, and much more likely way of winning is by someone discarding your winning tile. When this happens, simply show your tiles upright. Once people have seen this they know you have won, it also helps if you add an “Oh yeah!!!” or something to that effect.

It should go without saying that you must show that you won as soon as the tile is played. If you didn’t concentrate and missed it, that’s just unfortunate, and really sad, so definitely don’t miss your wait.

Strategy Guidance

You could argue that Mahjong is a game of luck, but that’s only really true for people capable of making the most optimal discards. In reality we are all affected by our biases, influenced by what others are playing around us, and we blunder as well as make mistakes we don’t even realise are mistakes.

So rather than playing for a game of luck, really try and make discards to give yourself the best probability to win.

I’ll give you one example. If you are about to win but need to choose between discarding the 1,2 and 4 bamboo tiles which do you choose? Obviously you want to go for a chi to complete the set of three and win. But what is the best way to do this to have the highest odds of winning?

Potentially unintuitively, it is the 1 which is the best to discard. This is because to complete the chi you need the 3. So if you get a three, it doesn’t matter if it’s a 123 or a 234, it’s all a valid set of three. However if you draw a 5 next, you can discard the two and now you have a 4 and a 5. This means that you now win if a three or a 6 of bamboo is played, this effectively doubles your chances of winning, just by making a different choice of discards.

Mahjong is massively full of moments like this. So remember to keep this in mind as you play.

Another important factor to keep in mind is the discard pile. If you have two of the same tile, and need a pong to win, that will simply never happen if the other two pong tiles have been discarded already. So keep in mind that there are only 4 tiles of each in the game and use what you can see in the discard pile and other people’s pongs/chi’s to calculate your discards.

Something useful to keep in your head as well is what tiles you are looking to pong so that if someone plays it you can call it instantly. This is the same for your winning tiles later in the game, you seriously don’t want to be doing maths every time each tile is played.

0 Points Game

You are now ready to start playing a 0 points game. If you are new to Mahjong, I highly recommend getting familiar with a 0 points game first before you attempt to understand 3 points. It is simply too much information to continue without practice, and a zero points game is a good and fun introduction to Mahjong. It is well worth your time.

You can find it on the play store here – this is an offline game which will allow you to become used to playing mahjong at 0 points without the stress of playing with real players, or the need to wait for them to make their move. It also gives you time to think every time it is possible to pong or chi, which is so useful too. If you want to play physically instead, I recommend going to the Appendix at the bottom where I explain the rules of how to play a physical game. These are all things that you won’t be able to come across in an online game.

Once you are familiar with a 0 points game, understanding a three points game will be much easier than understanding a 0 points game as you will already know so much about the game. Read on when you are familiar with a 0 points game.


Part 2 – Three points Mahjong

Points

Before talking about a three point game in particular, I want to talk about points in general. A valid 0 points game hand that you would have played before is unfortunately worth 0 points, but in order to win a 3 points game you need to obviously gain 3 or more points. There are some standard hands that give you enough points regardless, which are the hands you should be going for, however there are other ways you can turn your 0 points hand into a three points hand without doing this.

I want to also make it absolutely clear that it isn’t essential to learnt these, just helpful to playing optimally. I’ll explain later how you can play in a way that means you don’t need to worry very much about this at all.

Gangs

Gangs are quite simply worth 1 point. So if you have three gangs you can automatically qualify for a three points hand. If you have 4 gangs you qualify for a magnificent 13 points as that’s a special hand!

Dragons

Any dragon set of three is worth 1 point. If you Gang a dragon title is that two points? No. You would think that getting all three dragons would give you 3 points, but actually it gives you 8, and having two dragons with a single dragon pair gives you 4 points. Some hands in mahjong are just considered special and more valuable than others.

Winds

Winds are the most complicated. At the start of the game each player will be assigned to a different wind. At the start of each round, the prevailing wind will change in a cycle (East to South to West to North). The wind given to you at the start of the game is the seat wind, and the prevailing wind of the round is the wind that changes with each cycle.

So if you pong or just have in your possession the wind of your seat, that is worth a point. If you also pong or have in your hand the wind of the prevailing wind direction that is also another point.

If you have the other two winds then that is still worth zero points and considered a standard set of three, and if the seat wind and prevailing wind is the same, that is still worth two points.

Despite all this, if you manage to get all 4 winds and 1 pair in your mahjong hand, that counts as a 13 point hand. This is one of the special hands I referenced previously.

Luckily this is the most complicated rule, and if playing in person you may not even do winds due to their complexity. Generally if this happens and you still play three points, you will decide if winds are worth 1 point or 0 and not discriminate or just do seat winds.

Flowers

When you get a flower tile, you simply put it on the left side of your table and pick another tile up. So they have little impact on the game except for points. You might have been playing it before in your 0 points practice and not even noticed. If you have the flower tile that corresponds to your seat position you get a point. Here are the numbers and positions:

1East
2South
3West
4North

If you get both flowers that correspond to your position, you automatically win. This is because you are at such an advantage that you are very likely to win because getting a 1 point hand is quite easy considering the rules above. I still think it’s a strange rule as it’s not three points however the rules of mahjong disagree.

2 Points hand

Before talking about a three points hand. There is just one two points hand. This is the all Chi’s hand. In this hand, regardless of suit, you need to have an entire hand of chi’s and a pair, no pongs. You can have winds and dragons tiles included in this as well. Obviously if you have the correct winds or dragons, this will elevate it to a three points hand. So as long as you have a way of boosting points, it is completely legitimate to go for this hand.

3 Points hand

For a three points hand, there are just two rules to remember, and one third rule that you can probably forget and be ok.

  1. Any hand without a chi in it is a three points hand
  2. Any hand with only one suit (stones, bamboo or thousands) is a three points hand
  3. Any hand with only pairs is a valid 3 points hand (yes not 4 sets of 3 and a pair)

That’s basically it, and these are the main hands that you will be going for when playing three points. Simple right? I’ve left a lot of the scoring out, but by following these simple rules it’s possible to set yourself up for winning even higher points hands e.g a hand with one suit and only one suit is worth 7 points. There’s just a few more hands that I want to talk about which are possible.

9 Gates

This hand isn’t well known, so it may be considered an invalid hand by players who don’t know it. Nevertheless it exists, just be careful.

This is a pure suit hand where you have to self draw – no pongs allowed. It follows the structure of 1112345678999 – so that’s a set of 1’s and 9’s with all numbers in between, in your hand.

Obviously this is a very difficult hand, and potentially a reckless one too, but it’s worth 10 points if you get it.

Orphans

In mahjong, an orphan is considered to be a 1 and a 9. So to obtain your ten points with an orphans hand, you must have a hand consisting of only 1’s and 9’s.

13 Orphans

Probably the most prestigious hand you can get in the game is the 13 orphans hand, which is worth the most points in the game. Generally if you start off with a really poor hand that you don’t feel you can win, you might try to go for this and achieve this amazing feat.

So what is it? Simply a 1 and 9 of every single suit, and then every single honour tile (not including flowers) – here is what it looks like:

And if you have this, you should be incredibly happy. I’ve only ever achieved it online and never in person… maybe one day.

Other points Games

Obviously you could choose to play 4 points up until a 13 points 13 orphans hand, but it is almost never done. The main reason for this is that with points higher than 4, it becomes a good amount harder to make valid hands, there are significantly more draws, which nobody wants.

This obviously begs the question of why have these higher points hands at all? What’s the point? Well simply gambling. The more your hand is worth, the more you get for winning it. When introducing money it makes sense to start giving up a three points hand if it’s not too much more difficult to get a 4 or 5 points hand etc.

I wouldn’t recommend gambling at all in real life with real life money (unless it’s an amount so little nobody really cares at all) however if you are online and playing with virtual currency that ultimately isn’t important then it’s really good to consider these strategies.

If you are playing with people in real life and not gambling, it makes the most sense to go directly for the win, and only go for higher points for the prestige, of course it’s up to you though.

Why is Mahjong so difficult to learn?

As I’ve been writing this, it’s become clear to me that although on paper the rules are basic, there are a ridiculous number of exceptions and caveats. Without the simple explanation for three points hands, setting you up for success, this post would have been so much longer. And please bear in mind, this is just one of the hundreds of other styles of mahjong that exists. I feel that due to this, mahjong is quite difficult to get into, and of course, I couldn’t cover everything in this guide.

The truth is that I didn’t learn mahjong in this way. I learned by playing for several hours with someone sitting next to me checking and explaining things to me, but yet again, this guide didn’t exist at that time.

When you introduce points and winds, and also give the tiles their original Chinese/Japanese names instead of English ones the rules can just feel like a huge incomprehensible mess.

Improvements

Thank you for reading this guide, I really hope that it was useful to you! If you are confused about anything please leave a comment about it and I’d be happy to reply! This will in turn help me improve the guide and find out if there are any parts that are confusing.

Mahjong is not an easy game to explain simply, so if you are confused, it is completely not your fault and you shouldn’t feel put out.

Next Steps

Obviously your first step should be to enjoy the game! But obviously this sets you up greatly for learning some of the many other styles of mahjong, including the titan of Japanese style! But I’d like to finish with a story about Sichuan mahjong.

I had friends who only knew Sichuan style mahjong, so they briefly taught me the rules and we started playing. But despite the different styles, your experience in mahjong in general can really help you win. I was so proud as an English person to beat people from Sichuan at their own style of mahjong which they had got used to playing for all their life.

It’s moments like this, the probabilities and the epic wins that make mahjong the great game it is. Good luck!


Appendix – A Physical Mahjong Game

I have not talked about how to play a physical game yet. Generally as you are new, if you are playing a physical game the other players will be doing all of this for you, however I thought I would give information here so that you know what to expect. Of course if you have an automatic mahjong table, you don’t need to worry about this.

The game starts with the tiles all in a mess, and you each need to build one side of the wall. This is done by taking one line of tiles and then stacking them onto another, this brings an issue when you need to stack 18 tiles on top of 18! I recommend doing this in sections so that you don’t break it. After everyone has built the wall, you will push it into the centre so that you have a sideways square.

This is when you decide who the first dealer is. Everyone rolls a single dice and whoever has the highest starts the game. If there’s a draw you roll again until there is a winner. You then throw three dice in order to decide where the wall starts.

If it’s a 9 you count to your right 9 times and draw tiles from that wall. The number of tile is decided by counting 9 backwards from the centre and then taking four tiles from the wall. After this you each take 4 tiles in turn three times. After this the dealer takes the first tile from the first wall, and puts it on top of the tile on the third, taking the original first tile and then the first tile from the 3rd position wall. After this each of the remaining players take one tile in order.

After this, you build and check your hands. Usually some people will have flower tiles, these are automatically removed from the starting hand and replaced from the side of the wall on the opposite side to where you are drawing from.

After this you continue to play in the usual way.


If you read this far, thank you so much. I really appreciate it!

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