Sunday, April 22, 2007

Mah-Jongg for Dummies: Part 1

I've taken an armchair interest in Mah-Jongg over the past several years. Armchair, because although I've bought a couple of sets, studied several systems of rules, and even once or twice tried to teach a group of people to play it with me so that I can really experience it, I haven't had much success in starting a "beginners Mah-Jongg" club. So my sets collect dust and I periodically have to re-study the rules to keep from forgetting them.

Now, I'm not talking about the solitaire game many people enjoy playing on their computer. That's all very well; but the REAL Mah-Jongg is a highly ritualized, clickety-clack, rapid-fire form of gin rummy with an extra touch of complexity to keep it interesting. Plus, a lot of history is woven into the many sets of rules for the game - from Imperial China to the Chinese Communist Revolution, from WWII Japan to modern-day east Asia. Chinese-Americans, Jewish women, and Air Force wives each have their own sophisticated scoring systems that reveal something about their cultural outlook and diverse experiences. By getting inside the world of Mah-Jongg, you could learn a lot on many subjects. At the very least, you could get inside a group of people who have experiences to relate, such as you have never imagined.

Here is a modest (i.e., totally arrogant and undoubtedly heretical) proposal for a dead-simple set of Mah Jongg Rules, to help know-nothing beginners get started and learn enough to move ahead without getting so frustrated that they give up.


Mah-Jongg sets from different areas have varying numbers of tiles, because different communities have their own sets of rules, including bonuses and wild cards, etc. Below is a picture of the tiles that most sets have in common:

The left 12 columns are the 3 "suits" of numbered tiles. There are 4 of each number per suit, running from 1 to 9, top to bottom. The four columns farthest to the left are "dots": 1-dot, 2-dot, 3-dot, etc. The next four columns are "bams" (short for "bamboo"): 1-bam, 2-bam, etc. The 1-bam often looks like a bird and is sometimes referred to as the Sparrow tile. The next four columns are "craks" (short for "characters"). Sorry, but unless your set is made in the U.S. and has Arabic numerals up in the corner, you're just going to have to learn how to count one to nine in Chinese characters. It's really not hard. 1, 2, and 3 are obvious, and that leaves only 6 characters that you have to learn.

The last four rows in the first picture contain the same tiles shown here. These are not numbered tiles, but bonus titles. There are four of each of the first seven bonus tiles, which are also known as "honor" tiles. First there are three dragons: Green, Red, and White (the last of which may simply be a blank tile). Then there are the four winds: East, South, West, and North, respectively. Finally, in the bottom row, you see 8 one-off tiles representing Flowers (Plum, Orchid, Chrysanthemum, Bamboo) and Seasons (Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter), in that order, corresponding to the sequence of winds. Both "Flower" and "Season" tiles can be collectively described as "Flower tiles."

American sets may include an additional quartet of Joker tiles (like wild-cards), and in Singapore (from which I got my set) they include a third variety of Flower tiles. These aren't really necessary; they only make extra bonuses possible.

I'll give you some time to digest which tile is which before dumping the next bunch of rules on you. You'll thank me later. Meanwhile, thanks to Wiki for the photos (though I have never found their explanation of the rules helpful).

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