Sunday, May 6, 2007

Mah-Jongg for Dummies: Part 3

All right! We're ready to start playing Mah-Jongg, and it's only Lesson Three!

Here's where we stand: Each of the four players has drawn 13 tiles from the wall, and stands the tiles up facing himself (a tile holder may be helpful for this). The dealer, who is "East," draws a 14th tile from the wall to begin his first turn. Unless East is ready to declare himself the winner at this point, he discards a tile face-up and says the name of the tile aloud. Then the next player to the right (proceeding counterclockwise, in order E-S-W-N) can take his turn.

To win, you need a hand in which there are 4 sets of 3 or more tiles (pung, kong, and/or chow) and 1 set of 2 tiles (eyes). Pung is a set of 3 identical tiles. Kong is 4 identical tiles. Chow is a series of 3 consecutive number tiles in the same suit. Eyes is simply a pair of identical tiles.

After a player discards, and before the next player takes a tile from the wall, any player may "call" for the tile just discarded. To do this, you must be able to "meld" either a Pung, a Kong, or a Chow. Here's how this happens.
  1. First, any player who wants the discarded tile must declare what he needs it for, by saying either Kong, Pung, Chow, or if the discarded tile gives you a winning hand, "To win."
  2. If more than one player calls for the same tile, it is awarded to the player with the highest claim in the following order: (1) To win; (2) Kong or Pung; (3) Chow. (You cannot meld Eyes, but you need one to win.)
  3. Only the next player to the right of whoever discards a tile can use it to meld a Chow, except if the Chow is needed to win.
  4. If more than one player calls "To win," the closest one to the right of whoever discarded takes precedence. (Just imagine putting down a tile and hearing everyone yell "Pung!" "Chow!" etc. Sounds thrilling, don't it?)
  5. After you win your claim to a discarded tile, you then have to place the "declared" Kong, Pung, or Chow face-up next to the other tiles in your hand. This serves two purposes: (a) to prove that your claim to the discarded tile was legitimate, and (b) in scoring your hand, to distinguish between "exposed" melds (including another player's discard) and "hidden" melds (consisting entirely of tiles you drew from the wall).
  6. Here's the interesting part. When you successfully claim another player's discarded tile, it becomes your turn. So, after you discard, it becomes the turn of the next player to your right - even if that means one or more players to your left get "skipped."
KINK #1: During your turn, if you have a Flower or Season tile in your hand, lay it face-up next to your hand (or on top of your tile-holder) and draw a tile to replace it, taking from the "back" of the wall - opposite the end from which tiles are dealt or drawn at the beginning of each turn.

KINK #2: Also, if you draw a fourth identical tile from the wall, creating a "hidden Kong," lay the four tiles down next to your hand (or on top of your tile-holder), leaving one of them face-down to show at scoring time that the Kong is hidden. Then, replace this extra tile from the "back" of the wall, so that you will still have enough tiles in your hand to win.

A game may end when someone declares "Mah-Jongg" or a winning hand, including the last tile he draws; or, it may end in a draw. Here are some ways a hand can end in a draw:
  1. The wall of undrawn tiles dwindles to the last 14 tiles without Mah-Jongg being declared. (These last 14 tiles are called the "Dead Wall." Some American versions draw all the way down to zero, and this may seem to simplify the game, but I rather like the idea of leaving a few tiles "off limits." It adds an extra element of chance, I think.)
  2. A player can call a draw on his first turn if, after drawing a tile from the wall, he has at least 9 different tiles that are either 1's or 9's ("terminal tiles"), or Wind or Dragon tiles ("honor tiles").
  3. The game draws if three players claim the same discarded tile "To win."
  4. It's a draw when all four players discard the same wind tile on their first turn.
  5. It's a draw when all four players declare "Riichi." See below.
  6. It's a draw when four Kongs are declared.
If the dealer (East) wins, or a game ends in a draw, it remains the same player's turn to deal. The dealer's turn ends, and the next player to the right becomes East, only when another player wins a game. I have seen rules that call this a "wind change." A round ends as the fourth player's turn ends. An ordinary, full game of Mah-Jongg ends after four rounds, but the players may contract beforehand to play more or fewer rounds.

I'm going to leave the matter of scoring for Part 4. But before I conclude this part, I want to chuck in one more nifty rule that comes from the Japanese version of Mah-Jongg. When you only need one tile to win (even if that means any one of several different tiles), your hand is said to be ready or waiting. If, at that point, you declare Riichi, you vow to discard any tile you draw unless it gives you Mah-Jongg. After declaring Riichi, you get a bonus for winning or a penalty for not winning. I like this rule because it adds a bit of risk - potentially lucrative risk!

I probably haven't ticked off too many Mah-Jongg fanatics in this part, but wait till I get to the scoring. I can already forecast a storm of frowns and raspberries after I denounce all "special hands" - which constitute the majority of winning hands in some American versions of the game. The Air Force wives' rule book goes on for pages and pages describing fancy combinations of tiles, each with its own exotic name such as "Jade Palace," "Celestial Cauliflower," and "Yak of Divine Inspiration." All right, I'm kidding just a little bit. But in my opinion, it's all nonsense; these "bonus hands" create a nightmare of complexity, hugely inflate scores, and pollute the original purity of Pung, Kong, Chow, and Eyes. So, with a minimum of exceptions, I'm going to chuck out all the special hands and focus on the essentials. Compare my "for Dummies" rules to anything out of China, Taiwan, Japan, Singapore, or especially the U.S., and you will probably appreciate how much of the need to "simplify Mah-Jongg" relates to scoring!

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