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Mahjong (麻將) is arguably the quintessential East Asian gambling game, although it does not require money stakes. It originated in China during the last half of the 19th century, although the exact details of its creation are Shrouded in Myth. It also has numerous variants; common variants with major differences from the Chinese/Hong Kong variants are detailed in their own sections below. It is not to be confused (although it far too often is) with Shanghai (aka Mahjong Solitaire), which is a completely different one-player tile-matching game played with Mahjong tiles.
Mahjong is generally played on a square table, with one player seated on each side, as in contract bridge. The game is played using rectangular tiles, with four identical tiles of each type in the set, and at least 34 different tiles, for a total of at least 136 tiles.
(Note: Where possible, terminology will use the names most commonly seen in English-language editions of the game.
The set of tiles contains three regular Suits, with individual tiles having a value from one to nine
- Characters (萬子/万子), sometimes called "cracks" or "craks", are classical Chinese numerals. Each tile has the specific value written on top (usually in blue), and the wán character for "ten thousand" or "countless" (signifying prosperity) on the bottom in red. Modern sets are commonly marked with Arabic numerals in addition to the Chinese ones. There are in fact three possible wán characters; the first two are 萬 and 万, and the third is 卍, no longer seen on Western sets for reasons which should be obvious.
- Sticks (索子), also called "bamboo" or "bams", use little bamboo rods to represent the number. Traditionally, the one of sticks has a picture of a sparrow perched on it.
- There are several bird variants for the 1, including cranes, peacocks, and even an owl.
- Stones (筒子), also called "balls", "dots" or "circles", use little circles to represent the number.
As well as those, there are also the Honor tiles:
- Four Winds (風牌), East (東), South (南), West (西) and North (北)
- Three Dragons (三元牌), red (中), green (發), and white (白, represented by a dark bluish frame or a completely blank tile face). Occasionally, the dragon tiles are stylized dragons (with white being a dragon in silver ink, or a frame made up of two blue-outlined dragons).
- Eight optional Flower tiles (花牌), which consists of two sets:
- Four (actual) flower tiles: plum (梅), orchid (蘭), chrysanthemum (菊) and bamboo (竹). 
- Four season tiles: spring (春), summer (夏), autumn (秋) and winter (冬).
A game is divided into hands and rounds. Each round is assigned a direction, beginning with east and progressing through south, west, and north in that order. Each player is also assigned a direction, referred to as their seat. The East seat opens every hand; at the end of each hand, the seats rotate anticlockwise (so that East becomes North, South becomes East, etc) unless the hand was won by East or ended in a draw. A round ends when the East seat returns to the player who started as East. The game ends after four rounds have been played.
Each player stacks one-quarter of the tiles in a wall in front of him, two tiles high and all facing down. Then, the dealer rolls the dice to determine which wall is broken and where, and the deal starts at the breaking point, for a result similar to cutting a deck of cards. Each player is dealt a hand that usually has 13 tiles. After the deal, play starts with the dealer. Each player, on his own turn, draws the next tile from the wall. If he does not have a complete hand, he discards one tile, and play continues with the player on his right. The object of the game is to be the first to make a complete hand consisting of a pair and four sets usually consisting of three tiles each. Possible sets are:
- Chow (corruption of 吃, chi), or chi (チー), also known as Sheung (上): Three tiles from one of the regular suits in numerical sequence (eg 4,5,6). Numbers do not wrap, meaning that 8,9,1 and 9,1,2 are not valid.
- Pong (碰), or pung, pon (ポン): Three identical tiles.
- Kong (槓), or gang, kan (カン): Four identical tiles. Since this is the only possible set with more than three tiles, a kong must be declared and set aside, and the player must draw an additional tile to replace the fourth tile. A kong is worth no more than a pong in most variants; its purpose is mostly to use up the extra tile to avoid having to discard a tile or make it available to another player.
When a player discards a tile, another player may claim it to form a set if they already have two (for a shueng or pong) or three (for a kong) of the needed tiles in their hand. If a tile is claimed in this manner, play immediately jumps to the claimant. The set made by a discard must be set aside and revealed to the other players; the tiles in it may not be discarded.
A tile may only be claimed for a sheung if it was discarded by the player on the claimant's left (unless it is the final tile needed to win). A tile discarded by anyone may be claimed for a pong or kong. If multiple players claim a discard tile, a player claiming it for a pong or kong is given priority over one claiming it for sheung, and one claiming it as the final tile for victory has priority over all others. The first player to form a complete hand, with four sets and a pair, wins the hand.
If a flower is drawn, it is set aside and a new tile drawn. Flowers may be worth points at the end of a hand. Each one corresponds to a direction: East is 1, South is 2, West is 3, and North is 4.
Because the Chinese words for "four" and "west" are both similar to the Chinese for "death" (observant players will have noticed that these two ideograms are very similar; one Chinese metaphor for death is "to return to the west"), superstitions have grown around this:
- It's considered bad luck to end a Mahjong game during the West round.
- In some rule sets, if all four players in succession discard a West Wind, the game is drawn.
The winning hand is awarded points for patterns and winning conditions, then these hand points are converted to Scoring Points, usually on an exponential scale. If the hand was won by a discarded tile, the discarding player pays the value of the hand to the winner. If the hand was won by a tile drawn from the wall, all three players pay the winner; how the value is split up or duplicated depends on the variant. If the dealer is the winner, he keeps the dealer button for an extra hand. If there are not enough tiles left in the wall and nobody has won, the hand ends in a draw; in most variants, this occurs at 14 tiles left. In the event of the draw, the dealer usually keeps the dealer button. Being the dealer often has scoring advantages, although the specific advantages depend on the variant.
The following bonuses are correct in the Hong Kong variant; other variants may have some differences, but scoring is generally pretty similar. Scores are cumulative, so you get points for each condition satisfied.
- If the winning hand is completed by a tile picked up from the wall: 1 point
- If that tile was picked up as a result of declaring a kong: 1 extra point
- If the winning hand is all sheung plus a pair: 1 point
- If the winning hand is all pong or kong plus a pair: 3 points
- A hand containing only one of the regular suits plus winds and dragons is known as semi-pure, and is worth 3 points
- A hand containing exclusively one of the regular suits is known as pure, and is worth 6 points
- A hand consisting entirely of winds and dragons is worth 7 extra points
- A pong or kong of the wind that matches your seat or the current round is worth 1 point.
- 1 - 2 dragon pongs: 1 point each
- Two dragon pongs and a pair of the third dragon: 4 points
- Three dragon pongs: 6 points
- No flowers: 1 point
- Flower that matches your seat or the current round: 1 point each
- All flowers of a colour: 1 extra point each
Japanese Riichi variant
Riichi is probably one of the most complex variants, as well as one of the most popular for competitive non-gambling play. It adds many new rules, such as:
- One-yaku requirement (Iihan Shibari): Players may only declare a win with a hand which fulfills at least one scoring condition that awards hand points (yaku).
- Riichi: If a player is one tile away from winning and has no open sets, he may declare Riichi when discarding a tile. He puts a 1,000-point counter in the center of the table, which goes to the next player to win the hand (including him/herself). From that point on, he may not call any discards except to win, and if he draws a tile that doesn't complete his/her hand, he must discard the newly drawn tile. Winning after declaring Riichi is worth 1 point.
- Dora: The fifth-to-last tile in the wall (which will never be drawn) is flipped face up to determine the dora tile. If the dora indicator is a numerical tile, the next number in the same suit is the dora tile; if it's a 9, the 1 in the same suit is the dora. If the indicator is a wind tile, the next tile in the sequence East, South, West, North is the dora; North wraps around to East. Similarly, if the indicator is a dragon tile, the sequence is White, Green, Red. The winning hand gets one additional hand point for each copy of the dora tile it includes; these do not count towards the one-point minimum.
- Furiten: This describes a player who is one tile away from winning but cannot take another's discard to win.
- Players must keep all their own discards in a pool in front of them, and open sets are arranged with one tile rotated sideways to mark who discarded the called tile (for Pong or Kong) or which tile in the set was called (for Sheung), so as to keep track of every tile each player has discarded. If a player is one tile away from winning, but one of the tiles he has already discarded would allow him to win if he acquired another copy of it, he is furiten, although he may change the composition of his hand escape furiten.
- If a player can call a discard to complete his hand but misses or passes on the opportunity, he is furiten until his next turn if he has not declared Riichi, or for the rest of the hand if he has declared Riichi. Note that this applies even if calling the discard would form a complete hand with no points.
- No-ten bappu: If a hand ends in a draw by running out of tiles, players who are more than one tile away from victory (no-ten) split a 3,000-point penalty, and the 3,000 points are split amongst those who only require one tile to win. (No payment occurs if all four players are in the same situation.) Also, if the dealer is no-ten, the dealer button rotates.
Unlike most other variants, a typical Riichi match consists of only two rounds, East and South, and it is not uncommon to play a one-round game with only the East round.
In the event of victory by self-pick, the payment of the point value of the hand is split amongst the other three players. If the winner is the dealer, each opponent pays half the base value of the hand, for a total of 1.5x the base value. Otherwise, the dealer pays 1/2 the value of the hand, and the other 2 opponents pay 1/4th of the value. All payments are rounded up to the nearest 100 points. If the dealer wins by discard, his hand value is multiplied by 1.5x. Additionally, there is a honba count that starts at 0 and increases in increments of 1 every time the dealer wins a hand or a hand ends in a draw, and is reset to 0 every time a non-dealer wins a hand. The winning player gets an additional 300 points per honba; if he won by self-pick, this is split up with each opponent paying 100 points.
Also, Riichi Mahjong has several additional draw conditions rarely seen in other variants:
- Suufontsu renda: If all four players discard the same wind tile on their first turns, the hand immediately ends in a draw.
- Suukaikan: If kong is called four times in a single hand, the hand ends in a draw, unless all four kongs were by the same player, in which case the fifth kong causes the draw.
- Kyuushuu kyuuhai: If any player, on his/her first turn, has nine or more different terminals (1s, 9s, and wind and dragon tiles), he may reveal his hand and declare a draw if he wishes.
- Suucha riichi: If all four players declare Riichi, the hand ends in a draw.
- Sancha hou: If one player discards a tile and all three opponents call it to win, nobody wins and the hand is drawn.
Sanma is heavily based on Riichi, but modified for three players. The primary differences from Riichi rules are:
- The 2~8 tiles in one suit (usually Characters) are removed. If the dora indicator is a 1 in this suit, the 9 of the suit becomes the dora instead of the 2.
- There is no North seat player. Optional House Rules make the North Wind tile always a dora in addition to the normal dora (and if the indicator is a West Wind, each North Wind tile is worth two dora points), and/or plays the North Wind tile as a flower.
- Claiming a discarded tile for sheung is disallowed.
Payment division in the event of victory by self-pick varies by House Rules. Common methods are to split it 50/50, ignore the would-be North player's payment, or split the would-be North player's payment 50/50 amongst the other two.
Unlike most other variants, Taiwanese Mahjong uses 16-tile hands, and a completed hand has five sets (instead of four) plus the pair. The hand points to Scoring Points conversion is also done linearly instead, with a base value for winning and an additional point value per hand point; these two values are set by House Rules. For a win by self-pick, the hand gets one additional point, then all three rivals pay the full value of the hand.
American Mah Jongg
Mah Jongg was first imported to the United States in The Roaring Twenties, and became a huge fad. While the fad died down somewhat in The Thirties, a variant game developed which was eventually codified by the National Mah Jongg League (NJML), formed in 1937. Among the differences:
- The American set uses 152 tiles, including 8 jokers (wild card tiles, which are used to form sets of 5 tiles, known as quints);
- Tiles are passed among players at the beginning of the game, much like modern versions of the game of Hearts. As befits the era the game first became big in the US, the passing rounds are known as "Charlestons".
- The biggest difference of all is that winning hands are not composed of a number of standard sets, but rather based on a series of hands listed on cards issued annually by the NJML-- in a sense, all American Mah Jongg hands are special hands (see below).
Notably, the NJML was founded by primarily Jewish players, and even today in the US many Mah Jongg players are of Jewish descent.
Mahjong provides examples of:
- Calvin Ball: That's what it looks like when someone tries to explain the rules. Or when one looks at the length of this page.
- Flower Motifs: The eight Flower tiles. The four non-Season tiles within that set feature the Four Gentlemen.
- House Rules: Many, many of them.
- Kyu and Dan Ranks: By far the most common ranking system used in Mahjong games and leagues.
- Luck-Based Mission: Depending on the variant, luck can be anywhere from a minimal factor to becoming the biggest factor in winning. In particular, the Taiwanese variant more than triples your score gain for a win by zi mo (self pick, "drawn by yourself"; i.e., a lucky draw on your part rather than through another player's discard).
- Some (if not all) Hong Kong rules include the special hand "Picked by the Golden Cock": This is where you win by drawing the Five of Circles from the wall, and gives a huge bonus (e.g. 100 points in one version, where Mahjong itself is only 20 points). If you have doubles as well, this can result in a crushing lead.
- Most if not all rule variants award an extremely large number of points for certain special hands, which require some lucky draws on the part of the winner:
- Thirteen Terminals (a.k.a. Kokushi Musou in the Riichi variant): One of each terminal (1, 9, wind, and dragon; thirteen tiles total), plus a second of any of them. Some House Rules award more bonus points if you draw one of each terminal first and are waiting to pair up any of them; this bonus may or may not require that you have not discarded any terminals prior to winning the hand.
- Pure Nine Gates: The player must have a fully concealed (i.e. all self-drawn, no called discards) hand of 1112345678999 in any suit. He can then win on any numerical tile of the suit.
- Big Three Dragons: A Pong or Kong of each dragon tile. This is hard to accomplish because (a) you must draw two of each dragon before your opponents discard the other two, and (b) if you Pong two dragons, any sensible opponent will avoid discarding the third to give you the special hand. Additional bonus points if the other 5 tiles are a pong of a wind and a pair of another wind.
- Big Four Winds: A Pong or Kong of each wind tile. Even harder to accomplish than Big Three Dragons but for the same reasons. Additional bonus points if the pair in your hand is a dragon.
- Kong Hand: A hand of four Kongs and a pair. Strategically speaking, this is probably the most difficult hand to get, partly because of the sheer luck involved in getting 4 of a kind for any tile in the first place, and mostly because this is the one type of hand that will always be outright advertised if a player is going for it, as it requires 18 tiles total. Compounding things more is that in some rules, a fifth Kong declared in a single hand automatically makes that hand drawn, requiring that all Kongs declared for this hand be done by the winner.
- Obvious Rule Patch: The "kuitan nashi" house rule in the Japanese Riichi variant.
Works that feature Mahjong:
- Futaba Kun Change
- In 'Hayate the Combat Butler, one of Hayate's past jobs was playing Mahjong player for those with mob debts.
- Miyuki-chan in Wonderland
- The Legend of Koizumi, in which all world politics are secretly carried out by behind-the-scenes high-stakes mahjong games between politicians, referred to in public as "negotiations". The Pope explains that mahjong is mankind's attempt to recreate genesis.
- And all of that is before the Nazis, who have colonized the moon, show up and the characters get involved in games where losing points equates to having your life force sucked out of your body and a full on loss literally killing you.
- Detective Conan - Kogorou loves playing it, but he's not very good; and Ran, being Born Lucky, tends to win rather improbable hands.
- Higurashi no Naku Koro ni has people play mah jong a few different times during the plot, and later on, a Gaiden Game was created which is basically Higurashi no Naku Koro ni+MAH JONG
- This "recycled into a Mahjong game" business happens to many different series (Evangelion, Gundam, Haruhi-chan, to name a few). Even the Super Mario series is not immune.
- Saiyuki - The four main characters are often seen playing Mahjong (and it's all but spelled out that they all cheat blatantly). Sanzo in particular once managed to draw the jaw-droppingly impossible Kokushi Musou (see Luck-Based Mission above). (But then, he's Sanzo.) Gojyo once wisecracked that the only reason he was saving Goku's life was to make sure they had a fourth for mahjong games.
- Chin Yisou, one of the original series villains, had somewhat of a Mahjong theme.
- The occasion of Sanzo's astonishing draw was doubly symbolically loaded, in that it was concluded with a West tile (as referenced above), suggesting both the group's westward journey and its frequent consequences.
- XxxHolic - Watanuki, Yuuko, Shizuka, and the spirit of a dying cherry tree play Mahjong together as part of a ceremony to help the spoiler pass on into the next life.
- Kakei from Legal Drug is revealed in an omake to love Mahjong. Considering he's a Seer, it's a wonder why anyone agrees to play with him.
- The third series of Kaiji has a two-player variant called Minefield Mahjong.
- Legendary Gambler Tetsuya is about this, with lots of cheating involved.
- At one point in Cowboy Bebop "Ura-Dora" and "Mangan" are used as code phrases.
Film / Live Action
- There's a quick gag in Annie Hall when Alvy is riffing on his Jewish background:
Alvy (performing standup): I was thrown out of N.Y.U. my freshman year for cheating on my metaphysics final, you know. I looked within the soul of the boy sitting next to me. When I was thrown out, my mother, who was an emotionally high-strung woman, locked herself in the bathroom and took an overdose of Mah-Jongg tiles.
- Lust, Caution begins with a Mahjong game, and the game is being played on several occasions throughout the film.
- The Discworld novel "Interesting Times" has the similar-looking Shibi Yangcong-san (a mixture of Chinese and Japanese for "Cripple Mr. Onion").
- The Breaking the Wall series by Jane Lindskold has an entire magical system based on mahjong.
- The Joy Luck Club: Jing-Mei mentions having played mahjong with "some Jewish friends" in college, prompting Lindo to note that that game is entirely different.
- The Agatha Christie novel The Murder of Roger Ackroyd features one chapter titled "An Evening at Mahjong". This particular round concludes with a Heavenly Hand (instant win after the distribution) by Dr. Sheppard.
- In an episode of Seinfeld, George Costanza's mother and some of her friends are playing Mahjongg while George describes the pilot of the show he and Jerry are working on.
- That 70s Show: "Mahjong? What the hell is mahjong?"
- During the American fad, Eddie Cantor had a hit with "Since Ma is Playing Mah Jong", the unfortunately racist rant of a husband whose wife has become addicted to the game:
Since Ma is playing Mah Jong,
Pa wants all the Chinks hung....
- A recording of the song by the Memphis Five with Billy Jones is on YouTube here.
- A Pillow of Winds by Pink Floyd, from the album Meddle, refers to a possible mahjong hand.
- Litchi Faye-Ling of Blaz Blue needed a few more Chinese touches--the panda, taoist philosophy, love of green tea, and yin-yang hair clip apparently weren't enough--so she was also conceived as an avid mahjong player. Several of her move names come directly from mahjong terms, with her super moves being named after high-value hands like "Thirteen Orphans" and "All Green."
- In Killer7 you witness a mahjong game between four negotiators, which ends with the quad-suicide as a result of one party declaring Ron without realizing that he was in Furiten. This symbolizes the backdoor dealings in the world of politics.
- There's a Touhou fangame, titled Touhou Unreal Mahjong, which revolves around mysterious Mahjong boards appearing. It uses Riichi rules, plus special abilities.