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How to Play American Mahjong



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American Mahjong is a popular variant of the much-loved game of Mahjong. It's East meets West with this version, where the traditional Chinese game gets a United States twist. The modified game was developed in the early 20th century and designed to make it more engaging and enjoyable for American players. The result is a unique set of rules and gameplay alterations, for example, the inclusion of 'wild card' Jokers and the use of the 'Charleston' play, which we explore in detail.

The game variant was standardized in the late-1930s with the establishment of the National Mah Jongg League. As well as an extra 'g' in the name, the league established the concept of the annual NMJL card, which changes every year with updated hand configurations. This feature keeps American Mahjong fresh and exciting for game players. Let's explore how the game works and what it offers Mahjong enthusiasts of all experience levels.

American Mahjong Components

American Mahjong is mainly played as a four-player game. At its heart, the game is still about assembling a winning hand and declaring 'Mahjong!". With this variant, the NMJL card determines the winning hand configuration. Hands are assembled by grouping specific tiles into 'melds,' and a set of standardized elements is required to play.


There are 152 different tiles in an American Mahjong set.

  • Numbered Tiles: These tiles are numbered 1-9. Each features one of three suits - Cracks (Characters), Dots (Circles), or Bams (Bamboo).
  • Winds: These tiles are categorized into the North, East, South, and West cardinal directions. There are 4 of each, so 16 in total.
  • Dragons: There are three dragon types - Red, Green and White. The White Dragon is often also called 'Soap' and can represent zero. Again, there are 4 of each, so 16 titles in total.
  • Flowers: There are 8 Flower tiles in the game. They are beautiful but also an essential part of winning hands.
  • Jokers: The 8 Joker tiles are unique characteristics of the American variant of Mahjong. They act as 'wildcard' replacements of other tiles, and we shall explore their possibilities in play later.

Additional Elements

As with traditional Mahjong, each of the four players requires a rack to store and conceal their tiles from other players. The current year's NMJL scorecard is also required to determine winning hands. Dice are provided, and the Prevailing Wind indicator determines the dealer's position.

Differences from Other Mahjong Variants

American Mahjong has many differences for those experienced in playing the traditional game. The most distinctive of these are explained below and in more detail later.

The Charleston

This process is the iconic element of the American game, a specific exchange of tiles immediately before the game commences. It provides a pre-game opportunity for players to swap out unwanted tiles and develop their hands. No other variant of Mahjong has this colorful element.


Including Jokers as 'wildcard' replacement tiles adds an extra angle to the gameplay and gives players more strategic options.


The American body that standardized this version of the game, the National Mah Jongg League, produces a card each year with updated hands and sequences for players to follow. Compared to traditional Mahjong sets with fixed combinations and patterns, this feature keeps the game fresh. It brings an annual set of new challenges to even the most experienced players.

Understanding the NMJL Card

At first glance, the NMJL card can seem overwhelming. Still, it is straightforward to follow once you understand the different symbols and their meanings. Tile color does not relate to a particular suit. Instead, it indicates how many different suits are required for a hand. A hand indicated one color requires all tiles to be the same suit, two colors require two suits, and three colors require tiles from three suits.


The current year's NMJL card will have 9-10 categories, which are indicated in bold on the card:

  • Year (for example: 2024)
  • Any Like Numbers
  • 2468 (Even Numbers)
  • Addition, Subtraction, or Multiplication
  • Quints ('Five of a Kind')
  • Consecutive Run
  • 13579 (Odd Numbers)
  • Winds-Dragons
  • 369
  • Singles and Pairs (Jokers not permitted)

Exposed or Concealed

Next to each hand and adjacent to the score for the hand is a 'C' or an 'X' to indicate whether the hand can be exposed using a discarded tile. 'C' means it cannot, and 'X' means that such a tile can be used to expose the hand. The gameplay of discarding tiles in this way is explained in further detail below.

Example Sequence

NNN EE WW SSS 2015 (Any 2, 1, and 5 must be the same suit)

The tiles required to complete this are 3 Norths, 2 Easts, 2 Wests, 3 Souths, 2, 1, and 5 of the same matching suit (Bams, Cracks, or Dots). The 0 ('zero') is a Soap. Jokers cannot be used for the date 2015 since it comprises singles. Likewise, jokers are not permitted for the EE and WW pairs.

How to Set Up the Game

The game is played on a small square table surface, which seats the four players on each side with their racks in front of them.

  1. The tiles are shuffled randomly before being placed with faces down in the center of the table.
  2. Each player then constructs a 'wall,' with dimensions of nineteen tiles long and two high.
  3. To select which player is 'East' (the dealer), turns are taken to roll the dice until the player with the highest score is identified.
  4. The dealer then rolls again, and the number provided indicates the number of stacked tiles to be left once they have removed tiles from the right of their wall.
  5. Once the wall is broken, the dealer takes four tiles before each player (going counterclockwise) takes four themselves until each player has 12.
  6. Tiles are taken from the dealer's incomplete wall and then from another wall, effectively moving clockwise.
  7. Finally, the dealer takes the wall's 1st and 3rd top tiles before giving one tile to each player in a clockwise direction. If the game has been set up correctly, the dealer will have 14 tiles while the other players have 13.

Order of Play

Each player sorts their tiles on the rack before them to identify the best possible category for their hand from the nine categories detailed on the NMJL card. There is then a set process to follow to start the gameplay.

Introducing The Charleston

This exchange is a distinctive element of gameplay found in American Mahjong and is performed immediately after hands have been sorted. It involves the exchange of 3 tiles with another player but with a particular process.

  1. Each player selects and passes three unwanted tiles to their right while receiving three tiles from the adjacent player on the left.
  2. Players then repeat the passing of 3 unwanted tiles, but this time, it is to the player opposite.
  3. Finally, three tiles are again chosen and passed to the left (while naturally receiving three more from the right).

These steps form a single Charleston, and unless a player stops passing, they are automatically repeated by each player in reverse. Following this example, play would start with a pass to the left and finish with a pass to the right. The last pass of each Charleston is permitted to be a 'Blind Pass,' so a player can pass any or all of the tiles passed to them without looking at them. It is important to note that Jokers cannot be passed in a Charleston.

Courtesy Pass

Each player communicates to the player opposite if they wish to pass any tiles up to a maximum of 3. The lower request is the one that each player must honor in the swap. After this and the Charleston, the game begins with the dealer removing one tile, so all have 13 tiles at full commencement.

Drawing Tiles

Play continues counterclockwise, with the next player removing a tile from the active wall. The tile is racked to indicate that it cannot be called. The player then selects a tile to discard, which completes their turn. Once all of a wall's tiles have been removed, the next wall in a clockwise direction is pushed out so its right end is closest to the center of the table, where tiles are drawn from next.

Using Discarded Tiles

When a tile is discarded, provided the next player has not yet removed a tile from the active wall, any player can announce or 'call' to use that tile. This call can only be made to complete a 'meld' combining three identical tiles (Pung), four identical tiles (Kong), and five identical tiles (Quint) or to claim the final single tile needed to declare 'Mahjong!". When completing a Pung, Kong, or Quint, the hand must be exposed to other players (provided this is permitted by the card showing the hand with an 'X'). The hand can include Jokers acting as substitute tiles. Once this play is completed, the player who picked up the tile discards an unwanted tile of their own, and the play resumes counterclockwise.

Ending the Game and Scoring

Most games of the American variant conclude with a player declaring Mahjong when they complete a valid hand from the current year's NMJL card. A draw or 'wall game' is possible if no player can form a valid hand, the final wall tile has been removed, and the last player has discarded their tile.


Each hand is scored using the designated NMJL card value. Still, additional scoring rules and penalties can apply, depending on how the Mahjong was achieved. For example, if a player declares Mahjong using a discarded tile, the player who discards it must pay double the value (while the other players just pay the standard). The winner is also paid double the hand's value if Mahjong is declared using a final tile from the wall. Likewise, a winning hand not utilizing Jokers earns the winner double the value in payout from the other players.

Gameplay Strategies

The alterations to Mahjong made for the early 20th century US audience created a dynamic gameplay where luck plays its part. However, effective strategy is still the order of the day. Let's explore some of the best strategies for American Mahjong.

Tile Selection and Management

When choosing which tiles to keep and which to discard, It is essential to stay flexible initially and not over-focus on a particular hand. Instead, determine which category or categories best fit what is forming. For example, Even or a Consecutive Run. The foundation for success later in the game can be built on the harder-to-find combinations, so these should be prioritized. Since Jokers and discarded tiles are not permitted for pairs (the latter only when declaring Mahjong), building a hand around pairs is a sound starting point. Flower tiles, numbers that feature the current year date, and single combinations such as the year and NEWS (North, East, West, South) are important to look out for. The key as the game starts is to think in tile trends and categories rather than focusing on a single hand.

Charleston Strategy

It is essential not to underestimate the impact of the Charleston and to follow a strategy for this unique element of American Mahjong gameplay. The goal during passing is to refine and reinforce your hand. It is recommended to avoid passing valuable tiles such as pairs, Flowers, Wind tiles, and White Dragons. The same advice applies to tiles that naturally fit well together, such as tiles of the same suit, same number, and consecutive numbers. Observe the actions of the other players during the Charleston, as these will reveal insights into their own hands and strategies. Make a mental note of the tiles you pass and to whom. If you have to pass a pair, try to break them up so that each tile goes to a different player rather than passing across a valuable combination. As well as considering the tiles you receive, look for any trends in the ones you don't receive as well. The absence of a particular tile type in those passed to you may indicate that a player is collecting them.

Play Defense Accordingly

An offensive opening strategy may need to be adapted when the game reaches its middle stages. Changing hands is acceptable but should not be done too often or late as the game progresses. If so, this is when an excellent defensive strategy becomes vital. Once plays have moved to the point of removing tiles from the third wall, it is the right time to switch to a more defensive strategy. Suppose it is still challenging to form sequences at this stage. In that case, the focus should switch to strategically discarding tiles to make a declaration of Mahjong difficult for the other players. For example, following this strategy, Jokers should be retained since discarding them can only benefit another player. The shift in focus is towards stopping the other players from assembling valuable hands and winning.

Common Mistakes to Avoid

While playing American Mahjong, it pays to be aware of potential 'banana skins' in gameplay. Here are some crucial mistakes to avoid.

Jumping to Conclusions

While observing the other players' play patterns is valuable, resist the temptation to jump to conclusions. For example, monitoring discards can give you an insight into a competitor's possible hand, but it may be misleading. For example, if a player discards a South Wind, it may suggest they are not holding or building South Winds. The possibility remains that they may already have all the South Winds they need.

Picking Discards Too Early

It is a common beginner mistake to rush to make an early Pung or Kong using a discarded tile. Once the exhilaration quickly fades, the problem is that the other players have now partially seen your hand and can make strategic deductions based on these observations. This action limits potential hands if performed too early and prevents the playing of a concealed hand. Waiting until you are halfway to Mahjong before collecting discards is recommended.

Misuse of Jokers

Jokers are a compelling and versatile addition to the game, and success in American Mahjong can often rest on their proper and effective use. They cannot be used for individual tiles, Year date combinations, or to complete a pair. Two Jokers can also not be played as a pair.

A Unique Twist on a Classic Game

American Mahjong has established itself as a popular variant of the game. Unique elements such as the Charleston, including Jokers, and the use of the NMJL's annually updated card make it dynamic and distinctive. As with the traditional game, practice makes perfect, and regular play will soon familiarize even a complete beginner with the different elements. It is recommended that you take some time to study and learn the different tiles and stay updated with the latest NMJL card, its categories, and sequences. It is an approach to the game that keeps it fresh for players worldwide who enjoy its exciting mix of skill, strategy, and fortune.

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