Blanks in American Mahjong - Oh My Mahjong

Blanks in American Mahjong

To Blank or Not to Blank... that is the question 

Whether you're a seasoned American Mahjong enthusiast with years of experience under your belt or a fresh face on the Mahjong scene, the notorious "Blank" tiles have likely caught your attention. These elusive pieces add an extra layer of intrigue to the game, and in this blog post, we'll explore the unique and unconventional role these tiles play at the Mahjong table. Join us as we delve deep into the mysteries and strategies surrounding these seemingly blank canvases that bring a whole new dimension to the American Mahjong table (literally).  

What are blanks? 

Throughout generations, the inclusion of blank tiles in Mahjong sets has served a practical purpose – acting as a contingency plan when a regular tile goes missing. For instance, imagine your 5 Crak mysteriously vanishing, courtesy of your curious toddler. In such a predicament, a blank tile steps in, becoming the canvas upon which, you can write "5 Crak," seamlessly restoring completeness to your set.  

In recent times, especially in the last five years, a fresh wave of Mahjong enthusiasts has ingeniously repurposed blank tiles. Rather than adhering strictly to their traditional role as replacements, these players have embraced blanks as a distinct variant of wild tiles. It's noteworthy, however, that the functionality of blank tiles differs from that of a Joker, a well-established wildcard in the Mahjong realm. The Joker substitutes in for any tile, provided it fits within a grouping of three or more identical tiles, often securing victory in Mahjong hands. 

In contrast, blank tiles defy specific rules. Dubbed the outlaws of the American Mahjong tile family, they operate by their own set of guidelines. The fascinating aspect lies in the variability of rules surrounding blank tiles, dependent on the Mahjong table's host. These versatile pieces, akin to rebels in the Mahjong world, bring an element of unpredictability to the game. Join us as we delve into the diverse ways Mahjong enthusiasts leverage the unconventional nature of blank tiles, each play influenced by the unique house rules in play. 

House Rules of Blanks 

The most common application of the Blank tile involves treating it as a "Zombie" tile, allowing fortunate players the ability to claim ANY discarded tile aka a tile that was previously “dead.” (Get it? “Zombie” because it’s allowing a tile to rise from the dead.)  But why is this such a game-changer? In American Mahjong, particularly when following the rules set by the NMJL, the only eligible tile for acquisition is the most recently discarded one. However, this seemingly straightforward task is often more challenging than it appears. To successfully claim that one tile, a player must not only complete a grouping of three or more identical tiles but also contend with the dual consequences of exposing the grouping and locking it in toward the final Mahjong – unless, of course, the tile is called for Mahjong. 

For seasoned American Mahjong players, the struggle of being unable to call for a discarded tile is a familiar tale, with numerous reasons contributing to this dilemma. Whether it's the inability to complete the grouping, indecision about the optimal line to pursue, or a reluctance to commit to that specific grouping being part of the final Mahjong, the hurdles are numerous. This is where the introduction of Blank tiles proves to be particularly advantageous, offering a strategic edge by allowing players to acquire a much-needed tile later in the game, circumventing the challenges associated with the traditional rules. 

The flexibility of the "Zombie" act, allowing a player to get any discarded tile, varies depending on the house rules where you're playing. Some houses permit this maneuver exclusively on your turn, while others extend the privilege to any player's turn (aka at any point in the game). The execution of this play involves a straightforward process. If you're armed with a Blank tile and are ready to swap it for a coveted discarded tile, discreetly place the Blank on the table and sneakily acquire the tile of your choice – any tile on the table! Notably, there's no obligation to expose, or show, the taken tile. In the event that an observant player notes the tile taken, it's generally an unwritten rule not to disclose this information to the table. Importantly, this action doesn't constitute a player's turn, as a turn is conventionally marked by acquiring a tile, either through calling the most recently discarded tile or drawing a tile on a turn. Instead, it's a straightforward tile exchange—1 for 1—making it distinct from a full-fledged turn. When utilizing Blanks as "Zombie" tiles, it's crucial to note that they are not in a final Mahjong hand; their sole purpose is facilitating an exchange with a previously discarded tile. 

Alternatively, some American Mahjong players harness the potential of Blanks in a different role—as a "super Joker." When assuming this function, Blanks hold even more power. Unlike traditional Jokers, they can operate not only in groups but also as singles or pairs. Consequently, when used in this manner, Blanks possess the capability to be part of a final Mahjong hand, showcasing their versatility and strategic significance in the evolving landscape of American Mahjong play. 

Pros of playing with Blanks 

For those sitting on the side of the fence advocating for the use of Blanks in American Mahjong, their affection for these unconventional tiles can be supported by the following arguments:  

  1. Blanks makes attaining American Mahjong easier. Every American Mahjong player, especially those new to the game, know the struggles and hard work it takes to earning the privilege of exclaiming, “Mahjong!” You may play over twenty, or thirty games before having that victorious feeling.  With the inclusion of Blanks, the pursuit of Mahjong becomes significantly more attainable. The availability of additional wild tiles in the game affords players increased opportunities to assemble winning combinations.
  2. Blanks add an element of excitement to the game. For American Mahjong enthusiasts accustomed to adhering to NMJL rules for an extended period, Blanks introduce a dash of excitement that can be invigorating. Playing by the same rules year after year can create a desire for a novel and thrilling aspect to the game. The utilization of Blanks introduces an element of spice, offering players an exhilarating move that can potentially alter the trajectory of their hand. It becomes a source of excitement, injecting a fresh and dynamic dimension into the familiar terrain of American Mahjong play.
Cons of playing with Blanks 

Many, many American Mahjong players, particularly those who have been playing for a decent amount of time, choose to play by NMJL rules, in which Blanks are NOT invited to the table.  Here are the biggest arguments against adding these outlaw tiles into the game:  

  1. Blanks create confusion due to unclear guidelines. The use of Blanks has such variance from house to house and table to table that it makes it confusing.  First, the number of Blanks added into the game varies, typically ranging from 4-6 Blanks.  Second, depending on House Rules, Blanks can have various functions from being a “Zombie” tile to being used as “Super Joker” promoting confusion when playing with new opponents. When using Blanks as a “Zombie” tile, various situations lead to a confusing situation of “can I do this?” and “can I do that?” For example, can you use a Blank tile to get a discarded tile and THEN use that picked up discarded tile to exchange for an exposed Joker? The answer lies in whichever House Rules you establish as there is no prescribed answer since there are technically no NMJL rules surrounding these tiles. In an effort to combat such confusion, be sure to establish what is permitted with Blanks before gameplay begins.
  2. Blanks make Mahjong too easy. A significant aspect of the thrill in Mahjong lies in its inherent challenge and the sense of accomplishment derived from overcoming that difficulty. It's an achievement that requires effort and dedication, and the pride felt upon attaining it is genuine. However, the introduction of Blanks into the game alters this dynamic by making Mahjong considerably more accessible, consequently diminishing the exhilaration associated with its attainment.
  3. Blanks take too much strategy out of Mahjong and turn it into a game of luck. Mahjong, when played by the NMJL rules, is a game of luck and skill.  If we were to picture an imaginary balance, I would say these qualities of luck and skill are equal.  However, if you add Blanks into the mix, the balance shifts and becomes a game based heavily on luck rather than skill. For those who have worked hard at honing their skill, this is frustrating.  For example, if you are playing with 6 Blanks and 2 extra Jokers (which many players who play with Blanks also add in 2 extra Jokers), you have DOUBLED the number of wild tiles into the game from 8 to 16.  Therefore, the player with the highest number of wild tiles is often the winner; as opposed to the player who is most skilled. Blanks change strategy even more by making the normally dreaded pairs more easily attainable.  If using Blanks as a “Zombie” tile, they can be used to take a tile needed for a pair or if used as a “Super Joker” they can be played as a Joker within a pair.  Finally, Blanks make it much harder to play defense.  Experienced players know that sometimes their best move is to sacrifice their own hand and play defense, in hopes for a Wall Game.  However, the element of Blanks makes this strategic move significantly harder and less effective!  

Blanks are causing quite the stir in the American Mahjong world.  It is up to YOU to decide which side of the fence you stand on regarding these outlaws of a tile and whether or not they are invited to your table!