Give me the Skinny on American Mahjong - Oh My Mahjong

Give me the Skinny on American Mahjong

Maybe you’ve heard of this game that everyone is raving about but you’re over there scratching your head trying to decode its pronunciation.  You’re intrigued but feeling a tad overwhelmed.  The rumors swirling around about there being a lot of rules, it taking time to learn (hello, a few lessons), and the fact that some players treat it like the Olympics have you on the fence.  However, you’ve also heard about Mahjong's undeniable benefits: it’s a mind sharpener, concentration booster, and a therapy session with your favorite people disguised as a game night.  And let’s get real, you might just need a hobby.  In this article we will give you the skinny on this timeless game.  You’ve been warned, prepare for the itch to get you going with your newest obsession... Mahjong! 

A Brief History of American Mahjong 

Mahjong, a game rich in rumors and mysteries, has captivated players for centuries. As diverse as its spellings and versions of play, the word "mahjong" refers not only to the game but also to the captivating tile set itself. Steeped in history, the game emerged in the 1800s in China, demanding strategic thinking, quick decision-making, and most often adrenaline-inducing gambling. 

The mystery surrounding Mahjong’s origin deepened during China's Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976. Historical records and art objects were destroyed, and the game was declared illegal. Only antique sets exported from China before the revolution survived, leaving a void in the game's history. 

Enter Joseph P. Babcock, an American living in China post-World War I, who introduced Mahjong to the United States. Babcock made significant alterations to the game, including scoring, and penned a book to standardize these changes. The roaring 1920s saw Mahjong rise to prominence as China's sixth-largest export. However, a lack of standards led to a decline in popularity. 

Determined to revive the game, five women in New York City founded the National Mah Jongg League (NMJL) in 1937. Their mission was to create a version accessible to all Americans. By amalgamating various playing styles, they introduced the Charleston and devised The Card, generating new hands annually. The proceeds were directed towards charitable causes, transforming mahjong into a guilt-free "charitable" pastime. 

Initially labeled as a "Jewish ladies game," mahjong transcended cultural boundaries in the 2000s, attracting players from all backgrounds. Throughout the past century, American Mahjong has evolved, witnessing changes in rules and scoring. The introduction of Jokers in the 1960s marked a significant shift, granting flowers their own category instead of serving as wild cards. 

Despite its evolution, Mahjong has consistently been more than a game. It's a space where players engage in conversation, friendships blossom, and relationships deepen. In this ever-changing landscape, mahjong has stood the test of time as a game that not only entertains but also fosters connections that last a lifetime. 

What do I need to get started? 

American Mahjong is typically played in groups of four player. Each group needs the following:  

-1 set of tiles per group of four 

-Each player needs a National Mah Jongg League playing card (The Card for that year). To purchase this year’s Card, you can use this link. This is your official rulebook, denoting the winning combinations for that year.  

-Each player also needs a rack/pusher. This holds the tiles and is used to courtesy the tiles during the game. 

How do I win? 

Mahjong is typically played with a group of four, although variations for three or two players exist with adjusted setup and rules. Each player has The Card placed in front of them, which outlines the winning combinations for that specific year. An interesting aspect of Mahjong is that The Card changes annually, introducing a sense of novelty and challenge for even experienced players. Consequently, the winning combinations evolve yearly, with each Card featuring approximately 65-70 different lines. 

Players focus on pursuing one of these lines, each aiming to be the first to complete one of the 14-tile long combinations specified on The Card. The victorious player earns the right to declare "MAHJONG!" This structured approach ensures a methodical and competitive atmosphere, allowing participants to navigate the changing landscape of winning combinations year after year. 

What makes Mahjong hard to learn? 

Embarking on the journey of learning Mahjong can be overwhelming for most beginners, as they are introduced to a myriad of rules and rituals intricately associated with the game. From the initial deal to the passing of tiles known as The Charleston, and the various elements associated with The Card, Mahjong proves to be a complex game that demands both guidance and time to master. 

Even after grasping the fundamentals, Mahjong continues to present a challenge, making it an engaging experience for both novices and those who are already acquainted with the game. For beginners who have successfully acquired the basics, the abundance of choices on The Card often becomes the next hurdle to overcome. With a staggering 65-70 options available, new players find it challenging to narrow down and select the option that best suits their particular hand. 

However, mastering the art of decision-making is just the beginning, as Mahjong offers a continuous learning curve. As players progress in skill, the game evolves from a test of luck to a strategic challenge. Defense and various other strategic elements come into play, transforming Mahjong into a game of skill for intermediate players. What draws players in is the realization that improvement is not only possible but also integral to the addictive nature of Mahjong. 

The allure of Mahjong lies not just in its complexity but in the promise of continuous improvement. As beginners navigate through the rules and choices, they find themselves on an exciting journey where skill development and strategic thinking become the keys to unlocking the true essence of this captivating game. Whether you're just starting or well on your way to becoming an intermediate player, Mahjong's ever-expanding layers of complexity ensure that there's always more to discover and enjoy. 

How can I learn? 

Mahjong is often best learned through an instructor or an experienced player who has experience helping new players enter the world of Mahjong. We also strongly recommend Oh My Mahjong’s Mahjong 101 Booklet and Online CourseThis comprehensive package includes a user-friendly booklet covering rules, strategies, and terminology, along with an engaging online course featuring video with an expert instructor. Perfect for beginners and those looking to refine their skills, our bundle provides a holistic approach to mastering this captivating game. 

So, if you're ready to embark on a journey of strategy, skill, and endless enjoyment, we hope you have the itch to get started learning this timeless game of Mahjong. Get those tiles ready and dive into the fascinating world of Mahjong – where every move is a step towards mastering the art of this captivating and enduring game.