A Game Guide to Mahjong

MahjongMahjong is a highly popular Chinese tile-based game that is played all over the world, at real and online casinos as well as public spaces such as parks. People enjoy mahjong because of its fast pace.

However, this may confuse new players and the huge amount of tiles used in the game can be overwhelming. Our game guide to mahjong will help you learn the game and turn you into a mahjong pro.

Mahjong Basics

Mahjong is a Chinese game that dates back to the 1800s during the Qing dynasty. The game was popular during this time but was banned in China in 1949 when the People’s Republic of China decided to outlaw all forms of gambling. Many people considered mahjong, sometimes spelt as Mah Jong, to be a representation of capitalist corruption. It wasn’t until the Cultural Revolution that the game was brought back, though the gambling part of the game was omitted. Around 1985, the game was made completely legal again in China.

Around the 1920s, mahjong was brought over to the United States and Abercrombie & Fitch, a popular modern-day clothing brand, was the first company to sell mahjong sets in America. The game became so popular that Ezra Fitch, a co-founder of the brand, decided to send emissaries to cities in China to buy up numerous mahjong sets. Since the rules in the American version of mahjong were less complicated than the Chinese version, the game became hugely popular.

The popularity of the game in America led to the formation of the National Mah Jong League (NMJL) who published an American rule book titled Maajh: The American Version of the Ancient Chinese Game. Today, two mahjong organisations exist in the US, the NMJL and the American Mah Jong Association, and the game is popular all over the US and Europe.

But how do you play mahjong? First, let’s take a look at the tiles and their sets.

Mahjong Tiles

A complete mahjong set consists of 144 tiles traditionally made from bone or ivory, but are now made from plastic. All 144 tiles consist of:

  • 36 Circle tiles in four sets of nine tiles. Each tile is numbered one to nine and features the same number of circles.
  • 36 Character tiles in four sets of nine. Each tile is numbered one to nine and features a Chinese symbol for the number represented.
  • 36 Bamboo tiles in four sets of nine tiles. Each tile is numbered one to nine and features the same number of bamboos. However, the One of Bamboos is represented by a picture of a sparrow or rice-bird. Meanwhile, tiles one, five, seven and nine are represented by both red and green bamboos while the other tiles feature only green bamboos.
  • 16 Wind tiles, four tiles for each of the four winds.
  • 12 Dragon tiles consisting of four red dragons, four green dragons and four white dragons represented by a blank tile or a tile with the letter P, representing the word Pai which means white or pure.
  • 4 Flower tiles. Each tile numbered one to four and are optional. They give bonus points when drawn.
  • 4 Season tiles. Each number one to four and are optional. They give bonus points when drawn.

The circles, characters and bamboo tiles are known as suits. The tiles number two to eight are called “minor” and tiles number one and nine are called “major”. The wing and dragon tiles are referred to as “honour” tiles.

Along with the complete mahjong set, two dice are required for the game.

Mahjong Tiles

How to Play Chinese Mahjong

The main objective of mahjong is similar to poker, in that players are required to get the highest combination of tiles which are called sets. It’s important that players learn and memories the sets before playing, but more on that later. Due to the number of tiles, mahjong can only be played by four players.

To start the game, players should prepare the board game. Place all the tiles face-down on the table or game board and then shuffle them by placing your palms down on the tiles and moving them around the table. After this, each player builds a wall two tiles high and 17 tiles long in front of their space. The four walls are then pushed together to form a square, symbolising the Great Wall of China.

Each player draws one of the four wind tiles which determines where players will sit at the table. The players then seat themselves according to the tiles in the clockwise order of N-W-S-E. East Wind is the prevailing direction and the player starting in this position scores and pays double for the round. Following each round, the positions can change in one of two ways:

If East Wind went out in the last round, the positions of all players remain the same and the player who was East Wind plays in the same position for another round.
If one of the other three players went out in the last round, the wind positions rotate anti-clockwise, so the player who was North becomes West, the player who was South becomes East and so on.

A complete session of mahjong is only completed once each player has become each prevailing wind and normally consists of around 16 rounds (Four rounds for each Wind). For example, once each player has become East Wind, South becomes the prevailing wind and everyone plays several rounds. Once each player has become South Wind, North becomes the prevailing wind and then West after that. However, mahjong players don’t necessarily need to complete a full session, they can play as many rounds as they want or to a target score.

When players have sat in the correct positions, the East player is tasked with breaking the wall. To decide which wall is broken, the East player throws the dice and counts the players starting with themselves and working anti-clockwise. The player who sits where the count ends will have their wall broken. Before doing this, however, East rolls the dice again, adds this value to the previous role and then counts along the selected wall from right to left.

East then breaks the wall where the count ends by removing the four tiles to the right of that point. Moving anti-clockwise, each player continues breaking walls to collect their four tiles. For example, after East breaks the wall, the North player will collect the four tiles to the right of the hole made by East. The West player will then collect the four tiles next to the space North has made and so on. When players reach the end of one wall, they continue to the right and begin breaking the next wall. This continues until each player has 12 tiles.

After this, East continues dealing tiles by removing two more tiles from the next wall and keeping them. The East player then deals one tile to each of the other players, giving them 13 in total while East has 14. The real game begins after this.

Playing the Game

The basic aim of mahjong is to complete three sets and a pair through the various rounds and scoring the most at the end of the game. The three sets can be made of pungs (A set of three identical tiles), kongs (A set of four identical tiles) or chows (A set of three tiles in the same suit).

Mahjong Game

To begin the actual game, East places one tile face-up in the centre of the table. Moving anti-clockwise, the next player either picks up the discarded pile or selects a random tile from the wall that was first broken. However, the player can only pick up a discarded tile if they want to use it to complete a chow.

If the first player manages to complete a chow, they place their tiles face-up to their right. After this, they will need to discard one of their tiles by placing it in the centre of the table. If the first player doesn’t complete a chow and selects a tile from the wall, they must still discard a tile. Players can discard the tile they just drew. After this, the game will continue anti-clockwise.

Throughout the game, players should watch discarded tiles that may help them complete a pung or kong. If a player sees a tile that may help them, they should shout “pung” or “kong” and take the tile that completes the set and placing them all face-up on the board to their right.

As mentioned above, players win the current round by having three combinations and a pair. Pairs drawn from the wall can be kept secret and when a player completes the winning combination, they shout “Mahjong” and lay down all of their tiles. After winning the round, players calculate their scores and begin a new round.

Scream & Shout

If a player shouts “pung” or “kong” as another player shouts “mahjong”, the player shouting “mahjong” is given priority. If two players shout “mahjong” over a discarded tile, the player nearest to the right of the player who discarded the tile wins.

There are even more rules when it comes to creating winning combinations. When a player needs one more tile to win, that player shouts “one for mahjong”, alerting the other players to be more careful with their discarded tiles.

Whenever a player declares a kong, they must lay all of their tiles on the table and immediately take a tile from the wall. A declared pong can turn into a kong but only by using a tile from the wall. Meanwhile, a kong can only be created by using discarded tiles.

However, if all the tiles from the wall are drawn during the round, the game is declared a draw. The tiles are then reshuffled and a new round begins with the same player as East.

Scoring & Winning


After a player goes mahjong, all players are required to calculate their scores and the round effectively ends. Players will then keep playing a complete session of mahjong, which is normally 16 rounds, or until a certain target score or number of rounds are met.

With the sheer amount of dominos and combinations available, it may seem difficult to calculate scores. There are several ways to do so but to keep things simple you can calculate them as follows:

  • Four Pungs earns six points.
  • Four Chows earns two points.
  • One Dragon Pung or Kong earns two points.
  • Two Dragon Pungs earns six points.
  • Pung or Kong of Winds matching the player’s wind earns two points.
  • Flowers or Seasons, if used, earn one point.
  • Going mahjong scores ten points.

The player who went mahjong is paid by the other players the amount scored by their hands. This means that the player who goes Mahjong always wins the round, even if other players get higher scores. If East wins, other plays pay double.

Special Hands

In addition to the winning combination that allows players to go mahjong, players can create special hands which also allow them to win the game by going Mahjong. The original Chinese version of the game included only a select few special hands, but the American version created new specials.

Mahjong Variations

Like other casino games, there are numerous variations of mahjong, including a British version, a two-player version and a three-player version.

British Mahjong

The British variation of mahjong generally follows the same rules, but there are some differences. For example, Flowers and Seasons tiles are part of the rules and each player can only declare one Chow per round.

In addition, the British version has an extra eight special hands than the Chinese version. They are:

Meanwhile, going mahjong awards players 20 points rather than just 10. There is also an additional preparation step in the British variation in which players create the Kong Box or Dead Wall. The tiles here are used to provide replacements for players who declare Flowers, Seasons or Kongs.

Setting up the Kong Box occurs after the wall has been broken. Starting from the break, players count anti-clockwise and select the first six columns of tiles to make a total of fourteen tiles including the loose tiles. These tiles are then separated from the wall.

The wall in the British variation is 18 tiles long and consists of 36 tiles. During the game, if a Flower or a Season tile is dealt to a player, that player must declare it and replace the tile with one from the Kong Box.

Two-Player Mahjong

Two-player mahjong is generally easier than the traditional four-player version. One player plays East Wind and the other plays West. Like the traditional version, the two players build four walls and the game starts with East’s discard tile. The game then continues with the traditional rules, but includes the following changes:

  • No chows are allowed so before a player can go mahjong, they must have four doubles
  • When scoring, the East Wind player never pays or receives double scoring.
  • When scoring, if the player going mahjong has a lower score than their opponent, the player with mahjong receives the normal score plus the difference between the two scores.

Three-Player Mahjong

Three-player mahjong is often played in South East Asia and there are two ways to play. The most common way sees players build the four walls and have the North Wind act as a “dummy”. The other way is to play with three walls in the form of a triangle.

In triangular mahjong, the position of the North Wind player is removed completely along with the four North Wind tiles. This means a set of 132 tiles are used for this game. Because of this, the walls in triangular mahjong only consists of 22 stacks of 44 tiles. Other than this, the game is played with the traditional rules.

Mahjong Terminology

Bamboo: One of three suits, sometimes referred to as bams or sticks.

Bonus Tiles: The Season and Flower tiles not used in the traditional Chinese variation.

Characters: One of three suits, sometimes referred to as cracks.

China Jade: When a player has a hand completely made up of green tiles.

Concealed: When tiles are drawn from the wall but not exposed.

Discard: A tile that is thrown away.

Exposed: A card that is laid face-up and can be seen.

Family Hand: A hand that consists of the three suits, Dragons and Winds.

Going/Gone Mahjong: When a player yells “mahjong” and wins the round by completing a winning combination.

Honours: The Wind and Dragon tiles.

Meld: A term meaning a set.

Self-Drawn: A tile that a player takes from the wall.

Set: A Chong, Kong or Pong.