Mah Jongg Play

MahJongg originated in China many centuries ago. Mah Jongg is not like most games where there is only one correct way to play. Over the centuries and throughout the world it has evolved. Playing Chinese Mah Jongg in Hong Kong is different than playing in Taiwan or even than playing in Beijing. There are rules of play according to the American Mah Jongg Association and the standards I have used here from the National Mah Jongg League which tends to be the more common approach. The Western and American games usually require the learning of numerous special hands whereas the Chinese and Japanese games tend to be more free forming. The key is to choose a style of play and learn and practice that way. Sometimes your decision is based on the version your friends play with because this is not a game you can play alone!

Although the tiles are the same for all types of Mah Jongg it is the make up of the set and the number of tiles that differentiate the sets needed for each type of Mah Jongg you choose to play. Can you read the Chinese/Japanese characters or do you need the Western/Roman numbers to play? Some people prefer large tiles and some smaller tiles and using a rack.  All sets contain 3 sets of suit tiles made up of dots or circles, bams or boos or bamboos, and lastly craks, cracks or characters. There are always 4 winds played – East, South, West and North and three dragons – Green, Red and White. Japanese style of play never uses the Flowers/Seasons tiles or the Jokers. Chinese style uses the Flowers but never the Jokers.

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Setting up for play differs depending on the type of Mah Jongg you have chosen as well. Japanese and Chinese Mah Jongg may not use racks which are required for playing American Mah Jongg. The standard play is for four people. Each variation requires the tiles to be mixed face down on the table and then built into four walls two rows high. In the Japanese version your wall will only have 17 tiles across because they use the fewest number of tiles while in the American version the wall is 19 tiles long.  Each player assumes a seat and the positions are determined -East, South, West and North. Play begins by breaking the wall and dealing out the tiles so that all players have 13 tiles to start with the exception of East who starts with 14 tiles since their first move is to discard a tile to get the game going. Please refer to the different styles for further details on playing.

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On May 22, 2013 the following video segment appeared on Independent Sources, a studio-based weekly news magazine with field segments about New York City’s ethnic and immigrant communities, and the media that cover them. It appeared on CUNY TV, the City University of New York TV station. Part of the segment features Linda Feinstein of the Manhattan Mah Jongg Club.