I recently had the pleasure of attending an introductory class in mahjong, the popular Chinese tile game. One lesson definitely doesn’t make me an expert – I still have a lot more to learn about the complex game some liken to rummy – but it was a fun experience I’d like to share.
Although the game’s origins remain shrouded in mystery, some believe Confucius created mahjong sometime around 500 BC. Another legend, according to our instructor, suggests that the game was developed centuries ago by a ship’s captain looking for a way to keep his sailors occupied during long days at sea.
Mahjong is played with a collection of 144 tiles which can be divided into four identical sets. Each set can be broken down into two categories: suits and honor.
The suit tiles are numbered one through nine. As our instructor described, one suit, often mistaken as sticks of bamboo, is actually depicting the number using lengths of rope, which the sailors were used to counting. A second suit uses gold coins because the fabled captain didn’t want his men gambling real money. The Chinese character for each number decorates a third suit. I was the only person at my table who knew these characters, giving me a considerable advantage once playing commenced.
Tiles featuring the Chinese characters of the directional winds 北 (North), 南 (South), 东 (East) and 西 (West) are part of the honor category, along with three additional tiles called dragons which our instructor didn’t talk much about. Mahjong is a four-player game, with each person representing one of the directional winds.
Playing the game
To set up the board, all the tiles are turned face down, then stacked two together to form a double-layer square. A roll of the dice decides who goes first and then each player takes 13 tiles to build their hand according to some complicated rules that I won’t bore you with. On each turn, a new tile is taken from the board and one tile from the hand must be discarded.
To simplify our lesson, we were taught that the first person who could successfully use the tile picked up during their turn was the winner. A winning hand, consisting of 14 tiles, is made up of groupings called melds. One of these melds must be an identical pair, such as two Wests. The others can be three of a kind, or a sequence in the same suit, such as rope tiles numbered five, six and seven. In a real game, the various melds would be worth different points.
If you are able to make a meld with the tile discarded by the previous player, you are free to pick it up in lieu of a new tile from the square. If you do this, however, you must show your meld to the rest of the group. If the discarded tile will build a meld that gives you a winning hand, you can pick up the tile even if it’s not your turn.
We played five games and I won three! Two of those wins occurred because I was quicker on the draw for the discarded tile – since I could read the number characters I more quickly figured out where the tile fit into my sequence. My language teacher would be so proud!
Have you ever played mahjong? Does your country have any interesting games?
Let me know in the comments!