Mark's Mahjong Page

- How To Play -


The Mahjong Set
How To Play
The Scoring System
Special Hands


Mahjong or Mah Jongg (from the Chinese meaning "sparrows" ) is a game of skill and chance of ancient Chinese origins, usually played by four people in which game pieces known as Tiles, bearing various designs, are drawn and discarded until one Player has an entire Hand of winning combinations, or the Game is drawn. The tiles are traditionally made of bamboo faced with bone and ivory, although modern tiles are plastic imitations. During the Cultural Revolution the game suffered many setbacks in its country of origin, particularly in connection with gambling, however it is now making a comeback with the use of plastic chips or pure points scoring.

The Mahjong Set

The basic Chinese Set consists of 136 tiles (sometimes referred to as Cards), and all tiles are represented four times within the Set. There are three Suits known as Bamboos, Characters, & Circles, with tiles being numbered from 1 to 9. The tiles in these three suits therefore total 108 tiles and are shown below:


There are 12 Cardinal Tiles known as Dragons, and are coloured Red, White & Green.

There are 16 Directional Tiles known as Winds or feng labeled East, South, West & North.

These 136 tiles comprise the Chinese Set.

The 1's, 9's, Winds & Dragons are known as the Major or Honour Tiles.
The tiles numbered from 2-8 are the Minor Tiles.

The Western/European Game, to which these notes generally refer, has eight additional tiles, making the 144-tile Western/European Set. These are the four Seasons and the four Flowers. Each one corresponds to a particular wind or player. The terms for these eight tiles varies considerably depending on the translation of the rules and regional variation. The following table shows the combinations of terms so far encountered by the author:

Winds: East South West North  
  Dong Nan Fang Bei  
  Ton Nan Sya Peki  
  1 2 3 4 in one colour
Seasons: 1 2 3 4 in another colour
  Spring Summer Autumn Winter  
  Wind Flower Snow Moon  
  Fisherman Woodcutter Farmer Scholar  
Flowers: Plum Bamboo Chrysanthemum Orchid  
  Plum Orchid Chrysanthemum Bamboo  
  Plum Lily Bamboo Chrysanthemum  
  Fu Lu Shu Csi  

There are at least three versions of the Chinese Game (Taiwanese, Hong Kong/Cantonese, and conventional Chinese) and at least two versions of the Western Game (European & American/Jewish). The American/Jewish Game has 8 additional Joker tiles, which can be used anywhere, making a 152 tile set. Some blanks are often supplied for any missing tiles.

Spelling and phonetic variations also exist for the terms used in Calling. See the table below:

Terms used in these Notes: Definition: Alternative Terms:
Pung Three of a kind Poong, Pon
Kong Four of a kind Kaong, Quong, King, Kan
Chow Three consecutive numbers in sequence Chi, Run, Sequence, Quint

In the US the suits are often referred to as "Bambs", "Dots" & "Cracks".

The following table also gives familiar names to certain individual tiles if players wish to use them:

Tile(s) Alternative Name Notes
1 Circle The Moon  
5 Circles Plum Blossom as it resembles the flower
1 Bamboo Sparrow or Peacock often depicted as a bird
8 Bamboos The Gate or Gates  
White Dragon Soap, Po or Haku  
Red Dragon Chung or Chun  
Green Dragon Fat or Hatu  
2, 4, 6, & 8 Bamboos   the Green Bamboos
3, 5, 7, & 9 Bamboos   the Red Bamboos 
(some red on tile, except for the 3)

How To Play

Notes are supplied in simple sections. Further detail can also be obtained from the Appendices.

1. The Allotment of Seats

Each Seat may be marked by a Ming or Mingg, either a labeled counter or tile holders marked with a Wind consecutively East, South, West and North. One Ming only may mark the position of East, then the remaining seats will be known as South, West and then North in that order, anticlockwise around the Table from East's position. It should be noted that East and West are opposite to that normally found on a compass rose which is a reflection of the hierarchy and importance of the winds to the Chinese and not their direction.

Two dice are used to allocate the four Players their Seats. The Player throwing the highest total becomes East, the next South, West, and then North for the lowest number thrown. In the event of a tie, only those players involved in the tie throw again for only those seats in question.

2. Building The Wall

All the tiles are shuffled face down on the table by all four players, something referred to as "the twittering of the sparrows" by the Chinese. Each players then constructs a Wall of 36 tiles (34 tiles in the Chinese version, 38 tiles in the US version). Each wall consists of two layers of 18 tiles face down, with the longest sides adjacent. The four walls are then pushed together to form a square which represents the City or Chinese Garden, something referred to as "keeping the devils out". The racks are used to help in the construction and moving the walls together.

3. Opening The Gate

East throws two dice, and counting East's wall as '1', counts the number thrown anticlockwise until the corresponding wall is reached in which the Gate is to be opened. In summary East's wall is numbered 1, 5 & 9, South's wall 2, 6, & 10, West's wall 3, 7 & 11 and North's wall 4, 8, & 12.

The owner of the selected wall also throws two dice. The total number thrown in all four dices is used to count the vertical pairs of tiles in that wall from right to left as the owner looks at it. If 18 is exceeded, then the counting continues onto the next wall.

The corresponding vertical pair of tiles are then placed on top of the preceding tiles, the lower tile of the pair being nearest to the newly formed Gate. These two tiles are termed the Loose Tiles, and are always to be found on the Roof of the Garden or City wall. The use of these tiles is further explained in Notes 7 & 8, iii.

4. Dealing

Dealing proceeds clockwise from the Gate (i.e. the opposite side to the Loose Tiles), East taking the first two pairs of tiles, South the next, followed by West and then North in that order. This is done three times until all players have 12 tiles each. East then takes the tile from the top of the next pair, South the bottom tile, West the top of the next pair, then North the remaining bottom tile, so that all players have a thirteen tile hand similar to a game of cards. East then takes one further tile from the end of the wall to provide the discard. [A US variant of this is that East can take the 13th & 14th tile together, by taking the top two tiles from the Wall, before the other players take their remaining tile.]

The tiles are often placed on wooden racks to allow their display privately to each player, otherwise they should be stood on their ends facing the player. Some racks are supplied with special holders if using chips. In the US, where the game is particularly popular, special Mahjong tables are available, some of which are computerised and automatic, and use magnetic tiles.

All players in turn of priority (i.e. East. South, West, then North) should then check their dealt hands for Flowers and Seasons, which should be replaced from the Loose Tiles, and placed face up on the table by the player's hand. Each replacement loose tile should also be checked and replaced if a Flower or Season before the next player, and so on. See also Note 7.

5. The Compilation of Hands

The compilation of Hands occurs with the systematic drawing and discarding of tiles from the wall, until a hand of winning combinations is completed, or the game is drawn.

a. Apart from certain Special Hands (see Appendix B), all hands must consist of Pungs (three of a kind), Kongs (four of a kind), Chows (number sequence of three consecutive tiles in the same suit), and a Pair (otherwise known as the Sparrow's Head). Mahjong is therefore achieved with 14 tiles, with no discard being made on completion.

b. A Standing Hand can be declared by a player during the course of a game. After the declaration ALL the remaining tiles required to complete the hand must be drawn from the wall. No calls for discarded tiles can be made, including Mahjong. Extra points are then available upon successful completion of the hand (See Appendix A).

6. The Discard

If a discarded tile upon discard is required to complete a Pung, Kong, or Chow, or complete a hand for Mahjong, then the appropriate Call must be made by the player requiring it. See also Note 8.

If a tile has been discarded and not been called for then it is deemed to be dead, and remains irretrievable in the garden. The next tile is drawn from the wall.

After the Call, the discard continues from the caller and the Game continues around the table. Unless a call comes from the player sitting immediately to the right of the discard, several players will effectively lose their turn.

The tile being discarded should be correctly and clearly named BEFORE disclosure, enabling all players to have an equal chance of calling for it.

7. Flower and Seasons

If a Flower or Season is found in the dealt hand, or is subsequently drawn from the wall during the course of a game, then it must be immediately declared by being placed face up on the table beside the players hand, and a Loose Tile (See Note 3) taken to replace it before the discard.

After the deal, each players in turn (East, South, West, North) should check their hands and replace any Flowers or Seasons with Loose Tiles. If any of the Loose Tiles taken are themselves Flowers or Seasons, then they too must be replaced before the next player checks their hand.

When the two Loose Tiles from the wall are used, then they are replaced by two more tiles from that end of the wall, in exactly the same manner as Opening the Gate, i.e. the top tile of the vertical pair becomes the Loose Tile furthest from the Gate.

8. Calling

a. A Call must be made for any discarded tile before the next player draws the next tile from the wall, and has seen the face of that tile. In a fast game the situation may arise where it is difficult to determine whether a Call or the Draw was first. If the situation cannot be amicably settled, then two dice should be thrown and the higher have the decision. Players may find the introduction of alternative House Rules more suitable to their needs (see Note 16).

i. After the calls of Pung, Kong and Chow, the combination is then declared or melded by being turned face up on the table beside the players hand.

ii. A Chow can only be made from the discard of the player immediately preceding the caller.

iii. After the call of Kong, the combination should be declared by being turned face up on the table. And then a loose tile is taken to replace the fourth tile in the Kong. If the loose tile is not taken, then Mahjong cannot be achieved by obtaining a final pair.

b. An Undeclared, Unmelded, Hidden or Closed Kong is achieved when all four tiles have been drawn from the wall or loose tiles. In this case, in order to receive the loose tile necessary to replace the fourth tile, the call of Kong is made and the combination is placed FACE DOWN on the table besides the player's hand. This Kong is consequently worth twice the points of an Open Kong.

c. An Open or Disclosed Pung can only be made into a Kong if the fourth tile is drawn for the wall by the holding player. The tile cannot be called for upon being discarded. A loose tile is taken the fourth tiles drawn from the wall, as above.

9. Simultaneous Calling

At discard, should more than one player call for the same tile, not necessarily at the same time, then the following priority of calls decides who should have the tile: Mahjong, before Kong, before Pung, before Chow.

In the event of two players calling Mahjong on the same discarded tile, then the following priority of combinations decides who should get the tile: Kong, before Pung, before Pair, before Chow.

It is possible that two players can call Mahjong on the discard for either a Chow or a Pair. In this case, the player who would be next around the table in order of play from the player discarding would be the winner.

10. Drawn Games

A game is Drawn when the last 14 tiles (including any Loose Tiles) remain in the wall. No scores are taken , the seating remains the same, and tiles are reshuffled to begin a new game.

11. At Mahjong

The Ming, which denotes the position of East and thereby the positions of the other three players, moves on one place anticlockwise around the table. If East is the winner of the game, then the seating remains the same.

12. Game Duration

The Full Game consists of four Rounds, where each Round is named after each of the winds consecutively as the prevailing Wind of Round. The first round is named East, then South, West & North. One round is when the Ming denoting the position of east has rotated the table once, i.e. a minimum of four winning games. A round will consist of more games in the event of draws or East winning games.

The Full Game represents the four seasons of the Chinese Year and will therefore consist of a minimum of 16 winning games.

The Ming may also contain a device to indicate Wind of Round, which would be useful as Wind of Round is taken consideration during Scoring. (See Appendix A).

13. Robbing The Kong

If one player requiring a particular tile to go Mahjong sees it being incorporated into a Declared or Open Kong, then that player can call Mahjong by Robbing the Kong, and the tile is taken to complete the winning hand. Extra points are then available to the winning hand. (See Appendix A).

14. Fishing

A player who only requires one tile for Mahjong is termed to be Fishing. A player who is fishing should call "Fishing" to give notice to the remaining players. If agreed by the players beforehand, it can be acceptable to fish for a hand and be awarded the points (particularly Special Hands), even if that hand could not be completed due to all required tiles already discarded.

15. Scoring

For point system see Appendix A.

The Winner receives in full from each of the players the full value of the Winning Hand, and pays out nothing to other players.

The three losing players then settle the differences between the value of their hands. A player will pay out the difference to players with a higher scoring hand, and receive the difference from a lower scoring hand. Hence, the player with the lowest score pays out to every other player and receives nothing.

In any given scoring situation East always pays and receives double. This is why East is sometimes referred to as the Banker.

Quick example:
After Mahjong the points have been calculated as follows - East 200 points, South (the Winner) 400, West 50, North 100. South, as the Winner, receives 400 from West and North, and 800 from East. East receives 200 from North and 300 from West. North receives 50 from West, and West receives nothing.

16. House Rules

House Rules enable players in a game to decide on which Rules they wish to play or omit, prior to the start of the game. This enables the game to be adapted to the players abilities, to suit the available time, or for pure convenience. Players with experience can introduce their own House Rules to add duration and complexity to the game. Any issues you don't find explained here can be subject to your own house rules!

Some examples of House Rules:

a. The use, or otherwise, of Special Hands (see Appendix B).
b. A limit of one Chow per hand; Special Hands excepted.
c. A hand must be Clean before Mahjong:

Clean is defined as a hand consisting of entirely one suit, with Winds and Dragons.
"Superclean" or Immaculate hands are those consisting of entirely one suit, with no Winds or Dragons, and is used only in Scoring (see Appendix A).

d. Discarding tiles face down on the table, instead of face up.
e. The Chinese Game - omitting the Flowers & Seasons. The Walls in this game will only be 17 tiles long.
f. The Limit - this is used for Special Hands (see Appendix B), where scoring is determined as multiples or fractions of the Limit. The Limit is most commonly set at 1000 points in the European Game and at 300 points in the Chinese Game. The use of the higher limit is to encourage more inventive and riskier play.
g. The Goulash - introduced at any stage of the game as an added incentive to players to Mahjong in an otherwise tactical series of drawn games. After reaching a draw, each player adds an agreed amount (usually 100 points) to the Goulash. The Winner of the next game will receive the usual points for the Winning Hand plus the bonus of the Goulash.
h. The use of Penalties (see Appendix A).
i. The Exchange or Charleston (Compulsory in the US game) - This is an exchange of tiles at the start of the game, and a chance to improve a player's hand by getting rid of unwanted tiles. The three steps to the First Exchange are:

1. Each player passes 3 unwanted tiles to the player on their right.
2. Each player passes 3 unwanted tiles to the player opposite.
3. Each player passes 3 unwanted tiles to the player on their left.

A Second Exchange of tiles is optional, and must be agreed to by all players. The three steps to the Second Exchange are:

1. Each player passes 3 unwanted tiles to the player on their left.
2. Each player passes 3 unwanted tiles to the player opposite,
3. Each player passes 3 unwanted tiles to the player on their right.

Once the Exchange has been started all 3 steps must be completed. If a player is happy with the tiles and does not wish to exchange, then they can be passed on without looking at them. This is called a Blind Pass. No Jokers (US Game) are passed during an Exchange. All other tiles may be passed.

Appendix A: Scoring System

There are as many variations in scoring as there are styles of play. See also Note 15.
It was rumoured that an International scoring system was to be agreed and introduced sometime in 2001.

a. Points available to ALL HANDS:

Combination Open Closed
Minor Pung 2 4
Major Pung 4 8
Minor Kong 8 16
Major Kong 16 32
Dragon Pair   2
Pair of Own Winds   2
Pair of Prevailing Winds   2
Each Flower or Season 4  

b. Additional points for WINNING HAND ONLY:

Mahjong 20
Winning tile from Loose Tiles 10
Winning tile was last tile in the Game 10
Winning tile was drawn from the Wall 2
No Chow in hand 10
Robbing the Kong (see Note 13) 10
Standing Hand (see Note 5b) 100

c. Doubles:

Points totals from a + b above are then doubled -

For a Clean Hand (see Note 16c) Once
For a "Superclean" or Immaculate Hand (see Note 16c) Thrice
For each group of Dragons Once
For group of Own Winds or Prevailing Winds Once
For Own Flower or Season (See Introduction) Once
For each complete set of Flowers or Seasons Twice
For Winning on Final Discard in a Game
(Optional and alternative to 10 points in b., above)
If a player wins Mahjong without calling for a discarded tile and without using a Joker (US Game) Once

e.g. a 100 points hand with 6 doubles will be worth 6,400 points, unless playing with a Limit.

d. Fishing for Special Hands

A player who was Fishing for Special Hand at Mahjong will receive 40% of the value of the hand had it been completed.

e. Bonus Points

Payable by each player during the game -

The call of Pung or Kong on East's first discard 100
Obtaining a Set of 4 Seasons or all 4 (Bouquet) of Flowers 1000
Any Penalties played  

f. Penalties

False Mahjong call 1000
Other false calls 100
Incorrect naming of discarded tile 50
To a player who calls for, or misses, an incorrectly named tile 100

A player must always keep only 13 tiles at one time. If by error, a player has more tiles, or less tiles than the 13 (other than East who has 14 tiles at the start of a game) the hand is considered dead. A Dead Hand means the player may no longer continue to play Mahjong until the game is won, or drawn. The Dead Hand is kept concealed until the game is completed. The player still pays the other players when scoring.

If a player wins Mahjong because of a tile discarded by another player, the player who discarded the tile pays double the worth of the winning hand (US Game).

Appendix B: Special Hands


Group = Pung or Kong
Open = Hand comprises Open and Closed Groups
Closed = Hands must comprise of closed groups only. No calls can be made with the exception of Mahjong

Name Description Score
Heaven's Blessing
Hand From Heaven, or Heaven's Grace
East has Mahjong with original 14 tiles 2 x Limit
Earth's Blessing or Earth's Grace Mahjong on East's first discard 2 x Limit
The Four Happinesses or
The Four Blessings Hovering Over The Door
Four groups of Winds and a major pair 2 x Limit
Three Great Scholars Groups of the 3 Dragons
A Wind group and a pair of Winds
2 x Limit Open
Royal Ruby Group of Red Dragons
Groups and a pair of Red Bamboos
2 x Limit Open
Imperial Jade Group of Green Dragons
Groups and a pair of Green Bamboos
2 x Limit Open
All Pictures Hand entirely composed of Winds and Dragons 2 x Limit Open
Thirteen Unique Wonders or
Thirteen Grades of Imperial Treasure
One of each Major Tile, plus one for the pair 2 x Limit Closed
Windy Dragons Two groups of Dragons, with one pair of each wind
(four pairs total)
2 x Limit Open
Heavenly Paradise Group of each Dragon,
Group of own Wind when prevailing, plus any pair
2 x Limit Open
Red Lily Groups of Red & White Dragons
two groups + pair of Red Bamboos
2 x Limit Open
Lily of the Valley Groups of Green & White Dragons,
two groups + pair of Green Bamboos
2 x Limit Open
Red Lantern Group of Red Dragons and Own Wind,
Run of 1-7 + one for the pair
2 x Limit Closed
1 x Limit Open
Heads & Tails or One's & Nine's Hand consisting of groups and a pair of 1's & 9's 1 x Limit Open
Ordinary Limit Hands:
Note: Dragons as a Group and not as the Pair
Characters & Red Dragons, or
Bamboos & Green Dragons, or
Circles & White Dragons
1 x Limit Open
One's, Nine's, Winds & Dragons Hands consisting entirely of Major Tiles 1 x Limit Open
Chinese Odds Four groups and a pair of odd numbers in any one suit 1 x Limit Open
Dragon's Tail 1-9 in any suit, group of Winds + pair of Dragons 1 x Limit Closed
Run, Pung, Pair 1-9, Pung + Pair in one suit 1 x Limit Closed
Plucking The Plum Blossom From The Roof Mahjong by drawing the 5 Circles (Plum Blossom) from the Wall irrespective of the hand being assembled 1 x Limit Open/Closed
Picking the Moon From The Bottom of The Sea Mahjong by drawing the 1 Circles (Moon)
from the Wall irrespective of the hand being assembled
1 x Limit Open/Closed
Clean Pairs or Heavenly Twins 7 pairs entirely in one suit 1 x Limit Closed
Honour Pairs 7 pairs of Winds & Dragons 1 x Limit Closed
Heavenly Joy 4 Kongs & a pair 1 x Limit Open
Windy Chow 1-9 in any suit, one of each Wind
+ one Wind for the Pair
1 x Limit Closed
Crawly Snake 1-9 in any suit, Pung + Pair of Winds 1 x Limit Closed
Wrigley Snake or Greta's Garden
Note: This is the only hand that does not require a Pair
1-7 in any suit, one of each Wind & Dragon. 1 x Limit Closed
Gates of Heaven or Calling Nine Tiles 2-8 in any suit,
group's of the 1's & 9's in the same suit
+ one from 2-8 for the Pair
1 x Limit Closed
Gertie's Garter 1-7 in two different suits 1 x Limit Closed
Sparrow's Sanctuary Five pairs of Green Bamboos + 2 pairs of 1 Bamboo 1 x Limit Closed
Hitler's Blunder 1-9 in any suit, Pung (not Kong) in the same suit
+ Pair of Winds or Dragons
1 x Limit Closed
Dragonfly One Pung in each of the three suits, a Dragon group + any pair 1 x Limit Open/Closed
Buried Treasure Any four Pungs + any pair Half Limit Closed
No Score Hand
Note: This is a no score hand and will be invalidated by any Season or Flower held!
Four chows in the same suit
+ minor pair in the same suit.
Half Limit Closed
Crocheting Seven MIXED pairs in the same TWO suits.
Example Mixed Pair:
Half Limit Closed
Knitting or Triple Knitting Four MIXED Pungs in THREE suits
+ MIXED Pair
Mixed Pung:
Half Limit Closed
Dirty Pairs Any seven pairs Half Limit Closed