The Beginners Guide to American Mahjong - Oh My Mahjong

The Beginners Guide to American Mahjong

In order to understand the fabulous game of Mahjong, let’s take a trip down memory lane and explore the fascinating history.
Mahjong, the Chinese tile-based game, has been around for over a century, but its exact origins are still a bit of a mystery. Some say it was invented during the Qing Dynasty in China, while others claim it originated in the court of the Ming Dynasty. One thing's for sure: it's been a hit in China and beyond for many years.
As for how mahjong made its way to the good old USA, it's all thanks to a guy named Joseph P. Babcock. Back in the 1920s, Babcock was working as an American representative for the Standard Oil Company in China when he stumbled upon the game.
At first, the game was a bit of a tough sell to Americans.
By the roaring 20s, mahjong was all the rage in the US, and people couldn't get enough of it. The problem was that the game was played with different rules depending on where you were, and there was no standardization.

So, in 1937, a group of mahjong enthusiasts got together in New York City and decided to form the National Mah Jongg League (yes, they spell it with two Gs, don't ask me why). Their mission was simple: to create a standardized set of rules that everyone could agree on, and to promote the game across the country.

The League quickly gained popularity, and they started publishing an annual "Mah Jongg Standard Hands and Rules" booklet, which became the go-to guide for players across the US.

Today, the National Mah Jongg League is still going strong, and their rulebook is updated every year to keep up with the times.

Alrighty, now that you're an expert on Mahjong history, let's get to the juicy stuff - what you need to start playing like a pro! First things first, you gotta have a banging set of tiles. And let's be real, there are so many options out there, but may I suggest a certain set? *wink wink* You can check out some of our favorites here.

An American set usually has 152 tiles, or 156 if you wanna include the blanks. You'll get 4 of each tile for the three suits - cracks, bams, and dots - from 1 to 9. Plus, you'll have 8 flowers, 16 winds (4 of each: North, South, East, and West), 12 dragons (4 of each: green, red, and white - aka soap), and 8 jokers to keep things spicy.

Next up, you'll need some racks and pushers. Four to be exact. And if you're feeling lucky, you can add some dice to the mix for some extra flair.

But let's not forget the most important part - the National Mahjongg League card. This baby changes every year, so make sure you've got the latest version to stay ahead of the game. And if you're feeling fancy and want to protect your precious tiles, grab yourself a mat to keep 'em scratch-free. Now you're ready to shuffle up and deal like a mahjong boss!

Now it's time to gather the gals! Ideally, you want a fab group of four, but in a pinch, you can always throw "BOB" in as the fourth player. And if you're feeling extra fancy and advanced, you can even try your hand at two-person mahjong, aka Siamese mahjong, but let's save that for the real mahjong mavens out there. Maybe we'll tackle that version in a future blog post, who knows?

Alrighty, now let's talk about getting this shindig started! Grab your four racks and pile up 19 tiles, two high, on each rack. The dealer, who's usually the hostess with the mostess, rolls a set of dice and holds back that number of tiles from their stacked wall. Then they deal out the tiles - four for themselves, four to the left and so on until each player has 12 tiles.  (thank goodness for those mats that show directions, am I right?). After that, the dealer takes a hop, skip, and a jump to grab 2 extra tiles and gives each player one more. The dealer ends up with 14 tiles, while everyone else has 13.

Once the tiles are dealt, it's time to channel your inner mahjong master and try to form the best possible hand according to the National Mahjong League card. To do this, you'll typically sort your tiles by suite, odd and even numbers, and go with whatever you have the most of.

Now here's where things get tricky - the Charleston. This is when you trade three tiles to your right, then across, and then to your left. And if all players agree, you can do the Charleston again (this time left over right).

Alrighty, now that the Charleston is over and you've finished your trading spree, it's time for the real deal. But wait, there's more! You can also choose to do an optional pass with the person sitting directly across from you. This can involve passing anywhere from 0 to 3 tiles, depending on what you both agree to. Now, let's get to the real fun and finally start playing!

It is finally time for the real deal. The actual gameplay. The dealer starts by tossing out a tile, and the person on their right snatches up one from the center wall. Rinse and repeat until one lucky gal achieves the hand they were gunning for on the national mahjong league card. Keep in mind, you're always playing to the right, and when you draw from the wall, you push it out towards the left. Easy peasy, right?

Alrighty, listen up folks, this is where things get interesting. So, picture this: someone discards a tile, and one of the other players jumps up, grabs it, and cackles with glee. That's because they're completing a portion of their hand and they need that specific tile to do it. But hold up, there are some rules to this madness. First of all, the player has to have the tiles to complete that portion of the hand - they can't just pick it up for no reason. Once a player picks up a tile, they must expose it on their rack for the world to see. Jokers can be used to compete the section they have exposed. You can’t pickup a discard for a single or pair, unless it's their final tile to make mahjong. Oh, and if multiple players want that same tile, the first one to call it gets it - unless it's one of the player's mahjong tiles, then they get priority. But be warned, once the next person in line has drawn, that discarded tile is dead. And don't even get me started on blanks - we'll save that for another time, maybe an entire blog post.
Once someone draws or picks up their winning tile and yells out "Mahjong," the game is over and it's time to check that hand, baby! The player lays out their tiles on the rack for all to see, and if they have the right tiles to make a winning hand, they take the prize. But don't get too cocky, because if you don't have the right tiles, your hand is dead and it's back to the grind for the other players. And let me tell you, there are more rules and nuances in this game than you can shake a stick at, but fear not my friends, because I'll be here to guide you through it all one blog post at a time.