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How To Play Mah Jongg

Mah Jongg

Mah Jongg is essentially a game of drafting and set collecting but with ornate and brightly-coloured tiles instead of cards. These tiles once ivory are now usually plastic some with bamboo backs. Played by four people around an often hard-topped table it is a very tactile game echoed by the evocative clacking of the tiles during the mixing called the “Twittering of the Sparrows”.

Mah Jongg has 3 Suits: Circles, Characters and Bamboo having four of each number 1-9; There are 7 Honours: 4 winds: E, S, W and N and 3 dragons: Red, Green and White all also having 4 copies. 4 Flower tiles and 4 Seasons which provide scoring bonuses make up the total of 144 tiles.


The players sit on the four sides of the table and roll 2D6 to see who will be East Wind with the rest allocated anti-clockwise South, West and North. East leads the initial drawing of tiles and both wins and pays double at game end. The tiles are mixed face-down on the table and each player takes 36 and builds a two-tier row or “wall” of 18 tiles. These walls are pushed together to make a square.

East then rolls 2D6 again and counts around the table anti-clockwise to see where the wall is broken. The player thus chosen counts the same number of tiles from the right hand end of their wall and breaks it by taking the two tiles out and putting them on top of their wall to the right, one after another. These two tiles are called the Kong box.

East then takes the first four tiles from the left of the break followed by the others after 3 rounds of 4 tiles each takes 1 tile and finally East takes one more. Thus East now has 14 tiles and everyone else 13. If any player has a Season or a Flower tile on their rack they place it in front of them and draw a replacement from the Kong box. East goes first followed anti-clockwise. Each time the Kong box is emptied two more tiles are picked from that end of the wall and are placed on top.

Basic Play

After sorting the rack East will then discard a tile calling out its name and play passes anti-clockwise drawing and discarding until someone goes Mah Jongg or the tiles run out.

The aim is to collect sets: 3 of a kind (Pung) e.g. 3 x 4 Bamboo or a run of 3 (Chow) e.g. 3,4,5 Circles. Honour tiles which are the Winds and Dragons can also be collected as Pungs.

Whilst building your hand you can claim the 3rd tile for a Pung from another player’s discard. You must call “Pung” before the player following has looked at their next tile. Then lay this set out, it is Exposed and discard a tile. Play continues on from you thus some may miss a turn. If you get the 4th tile of a set this is called a Kong and the extra tile is free so you take a replacement from the Kong box. If your Pung was Concealed i.e. built from the wall you can take the 4th tile from a discard as with a Pung but this Kong must then be Exposed.

To go Mah Jongg you must have 4 such sets and a pair all in one suit or Honours: 14 tiles as there is no discard after your last pick. When you are one tile off going Mah Jongg you call out “Fishing” this means you can claim your last tile from the table if someone discards it.


And that’s it. Well not quite. That’s all you need to play a game of basic Mah Jongg which in itself is a good “rummyesque” like experience. However, there are two further areas to be explored: the Scoring and Special Hands

The scoring is not too complicated and you get more for having your Pungs and Kongs concealed, more if they are in Majors 1s, 9s, Winds and Dragons and bonuses for Flowers and Seasons. Full scoring rules are important if you are going to be playing for money!

A Special Hand is an alternative tile combination that lets you go Mah Jongg. There’s dozens of them, at least 65, to try with names such as “Wriggly Snake”, “Little Robert” and “Gertie’s Garter” and whilst basic hands might score lower these specials will earn 500 or 1000 points.

One of my favourites and one of the easiest is Crazy Chows. A “crazy” chow is where the run has one tile in each of the 3 suits e.g. 3 Bamboo, 4 Circles, 5 Characters. This hand has 4 of these crazy chows plus a crazy pair e.g. 7 Bamboo, 7 Circles.

For more details of the advanced aspects the British Mah Jongg Association has a good website and here’s a list of Special hands.

So get around a table with three friends and start “twittering those sparrows”.