To continue ticking off devotees of Mah-Jongg from every corner of the world, let's move on to the next step of playing the remarkable game of Mah-Jongg...simplified, to prevent our poor Midwestern brains overheating.
My first proposal, to tick off the faithful, was to stick to exactly 144 tiles. That's 4 sets of each suit of numbered tiles (1-9 in Bams, Craks, and Dots); 4 each of 3 dragons (red, white, and green) and 4 winds (East, South, West, and North); plus 1 each of 4 numbered flower tiles and 4 numbered season tiles. Even these last 8 tiles are optional, strictly speaking, but the game has many variants containing even more bonus tiles, jokers, wild tiles, etc., none of which add anything to the game except needless complexity and pointlessly inflated scores.
And now, moving on into actually setting up the game and dealing the tiles, I have even more tick-off triggers in store! You see, the orthodox (and yet varying) procedures for deciding who sits where, who goes first, etc., are so absurdly complicated that simple-minded newcomers are apt to give up before the game gets moving. Maybe all this has been arranged on purpose to prevent simpletons from meddling in the game. But suppose you don't have anybody to play with except simpletons who need to learn as they go along? You could be one lonely Mah-Jongg enthusiast. So here is my second proposal to get up the nose of you orthodox players:
To start the game, each person rolls three dice. Then the players sit down around the table counterclockwise, in descending order of the sum of each person's dice. The high roller gets to be the first dealer. Then let's just call whoever is dealing East, and the other players (in order, counterclockwise) South, West, and North. The dealer gets to keep dealing as long as he wins the hand; if he loses, the next player to the right becomes East. The game lasts until each player has lost the deal 4 times. Keep score on a (big) pad of paper. If you have trouble remembering who dealt how many times, put a dot next to the dealer's score. Many Mah-Jongg sets come with a marker that you can use as a visual aid for remembering which player is East at any given time.
Now you shuffle the tiles and build a wall with them. Place all the tiles face-down on the table and scramble them up. Then each player builds a wall of face-down tiles in front of himself, two tiles high by 18 tiles wide.
Finally, it's time to deal the tiles. The dealer (East) rolls 3 dice again, and counts around the four sides of the table, starting with himself and going to the right until he reaches the sum of the 3 dice. The row of tiles on the side of the table where the count stops is where the wall must be broken. Starting from the right end of the row, the dealer counts rows up to the sum of the dice. Then, beginning with the next row to the left, the dealer takes the first four tiles (2 piles). Players take turns taking the next 4 tiles, going around counterclockwise until each player has 12 tiles; then each player takes the next 1 tile each, and the dealer draws 1 more tile because he has the first turn. Tiles will continue to be drawn from the wall at the point where dealing stopped, except when a player draws to replace a bonus tile or a tile used in a Kong (see Part 3).
You may think this is quite complex enough, but you'd thank me for simplifying this if you realized how most sets of Mah-Jongg rules require you to keep two sets of "winds" straight in your head at the same time. Also, most American rules have a little ritual called the Charleston in which tiles are passed to and fro between the players, which again, seems to exist for no other reason than to confound beginners and outsiders. Away with it, I say!
And so, you're ready to play. You still don't know what on earth you're supposed to do with all these tiles, but that's all right. I'll tell you about that in Part 3. For now, so long as the dealer isn't ready to declare himself the winner on his first turn, play proceeds with each player drawing a tile from the wall, or from someone else's discard pile, and then discarding a tile face-up. The rest is pretty much rummy...but there are enough subtle twists yet to come that you'll be glad of a little light.