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Mahjong Basics

Here I will try to outline the basics of mahjong play. This is a summary of the core rules and most points apply to both chinese and japanese mahjong (riichi).

The basic flow of the game goes like this: players take turns drawing tiles, trying to complete a valid hand that fulfills some scoring criteria. If a player can not win on the tile they have drawn, they must discard one of their tiles, which may then be claimed by another player to complete some part of their own hand. Play continues until someone forms a winning hand or all tiles have been used up.

But let's break it down a bit...

The Tiles

Mahjong typically uses 136 or more tiles. These are divided into suit tiles, honor tiles and optional bonus tiles. There are four identical tiles of each (except the bonus tiles, which all look different).

There are three suits:

Each of the suits have tiles numbered 1 through 9, where 1 and 9 are called terminals and 2 through 8 are called simples. Terminals usually score higher since they are slightly harder to form sets with, but otherwise there is no internal ranking of the tiles: a 4 is no more important than a 3. They're just numbers!

Next we have the honors:

Honor tiles are much fewer (28 in total, compared to 108 suit tiles) and thus much more difficult to collect full sets of.

If included, there are usually 8 bonus tiles. These are technically divided into flowers and seasons but are commonly referred to only as flowers since few (western) players know how to tell them apart. Not all rulesets use bonus tiles and even in those that do they have little impact on the game. The flowers are plum, orchid, chrysantemum and bamboo.

Note: In Asia the tiles have a cultural context that is usually lost to western players. The "circles" are actually coins, "bamboo" are strings of 100 coins tied together and "characters" are 100 strings of 100 coins; 萬 means 10000. The "dragons" are not literally dragons; this is an exotification of Chinese culture. The "wall" is really a mountain. The winds correspond to the characters used for compass directions, but the south and north seats are reversed at the table.


Mahjong has three kinds of sets, or combinations.

There is also the pair (or head), which consists of two identical tiles.

Chows must form an unbroken sequence (e.g. 456, not 457) and all tiles must be of the same suit. Wrapping (e.g. 891) is not allowed. Honor tiles can not be used to form Chow; they can only be used for Pungs, Kongs and pairs.

Kong is a special kind of Pung, but it must explicitly be declared as a Kong. Simply having four identical tiles on hand only makes two pairs, not a Kong. Once a Kong has been formed it is considered a Pung in almost every respect and only counts as three tiles (for this reason the player must draw a replacement tile to have the right number of tiles on hand).

Most mahjong hands consist of four sets and one pair.

Shown here are two Chow (Bamboo 234), a Pung of Bamboo 8, a Pung of Green Dragon and a pair of Bamboo 6 (it might not look like much, but this is actually a really good hand that would score a huge amount of points).

There are also a few exceptions; non-standard hands like Seven Pairs (exactly what it sounds like) and Thirteen Orphans (a hand formed only of terminals 1 and 9, dragons and winds; one of each + a duplicate).


Table overview, wind positions, turn orderWinds are a core concept of mahjong. The order of the winds is East, South, West, North (after North comes the East wind again). Each player seat at the table corresponds to a wind. This determines the order of play and also affects the scoring.

Note that the first wind is always East and that the compass direction is reversed from what we are used to: from Easts position, South is seated to the right! East is often called the dealer.

A mahjong game is divided into rounds which are also designated by a prevailing wind: first is the East round, then the South, West and North rounds. Each round is further divided into four hands (or more, in case of draws and aborted games). Each hand lasts about 10 minutes (for western players; asians are usually faster).

Note: Hand can refer both to the period spent playing between each time the wall is rebuilt, as well as the actual tiles in front of the player!

Most hands end with one of the players winning and points being exchanged (or paid, sticking with the monetary origin). Sometimes scoring sticks (or more rarely, poker markers) are used, or just a piece of paper to note the transaction. Points are accumulated over the entire session and it is the total that determines the winner of the whole game. Mahjong is a zero-sum game; wins and losses of all players combined should always add up to 0.

The game usually ends after the South (with 8+ hands played) or North round (with 16+ hands played) or when someone needs to leave.


East should always collect the dice before breaking the wall, or the mahjong spirits will escape and bring bad luck to the game. Superstition aside, there is a practical reason for this: by placing the dice in the table corner to Easts right, everyone can easily tell during the game which seat is East, and following this also what their own seat is. It also minimizes the risk of skipping a hand and someone missing their go at being East.

In routine play East will usually grab the "first and third" top tiles at the end to speed up the dealing procedure slightly. This is practically the same as everyone taking their single tile and East taking one more.

Wall building is an art in itself and takes a lot of practice. You'll sometimes see players lifting all 36 tiles at once, but the overambitious will often mess up and see their section of the wall collapse. Re-shuffling exposed tiles is more annoying than taking the extra seconds to stack them properly, so go easy at first!


Players take turns drawing and discarding tiles. The order of turns is always counter-clockwise (to the right). Players should have 13 tiles on hand after their turn has ended (special case: Kongs only count as three tiles).


Winning is also called going out.

Scoring Criteria

The criteria for scoring differ between rulesets. Most use a combination of minipoints (formed by adding the value of individual sets together) coupled with doubles that let the minipoints grow exponentially by a factor of two. Some systems (e.g. MCR) use only minipoints.

The scoring criteria combine freely in many ways and most hands will utilise several criteria. The hand illustrated above would, in MCR, combine the elements Four Concealed Pungs, Mixed Shifted Pungs, All Pungs, All Types, Dragon Pung and Fully Concealed, earning the winner 294 points in total. In riichi it would be a yakuman, the highest scoring hand possible (32000 or 48000 points).

Here is a summary of the most common scoring elements:

The level of detail in scoring varies with player skill and the specific ruleset used. In a beginner-friendly game you usually end up exhaustingly picking the hand apart and analyzing its components. In a high-level riichi game, players can intuitively tell at a glance what ballpark the score is in. In MCR, every player is personally responsible for their scoring and omitting anything will simply forfeit those points! It pays off to be systematic.


Here are some details and clarifications I have omitted above:

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