Mahjong, which style should I learn first? Part 5 Recommendations

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WordcloudIf you read the Introduction to this series you are aware of the origins and basics of Mahjong so the next step is learning how to play the game.

Cantonese Style Recap:   There are few restrictions with HKOS so it’s the easiest to learn and the most flexible way to play.  If you are new to mahjong, this is the best place to start – most people can play independently after an hour or so.  If you learn this style first, you should be able to quickly learn how to play other Asian styles with a fairly short learning curve.  Because this style is so simple, players tend to tire of it and move on to more complex styles after a playing for a couple of years.

Japanese Style Recap:  This style has surprise and strategic elements that make it exciting and more complex than Cantonese style and it’s quickly gaining worldwide and long-term popularity. If you learn this style first, you can quickly learn most Asian variants with a minimal learning curve with scoring.

American Style Recap:   This style is probably the most common way to play in the United States especially amongst Senior Citizens and the Jewish Community. In my opinion, it is one of the hardest styles to learn but is well worth the effort. Unlike Asian versions, players have to pick a hand on the card so they have less flexibility to change their hand when their tiles are discarded or used in exposures. Next to picking the right hand in the first place, critical skills are knowing when to change a hand and picking the next hand to play in time to win. If it’s not possible to change the hand, defensive play is the only saving grace… but this whole topic will have to be in another post.

Are you still not sure which style to learn?   Here’s what I recommend…

  • If there is a Mahjong group in your vicinity, learn the style they play.
  • If you have a connection to a particular style through your nationality, heritage or country of interest, learn that style.
  • If neither of these situations apply to you, I recommend that you start with Cantonese style.

If you want a second opinion, take the questionnaire Part A Which Mah-Jongg rules should I learn?.

Which style did you choose?

Mahjong, which style should I learn first? Part 4 Highlights: National Mah Jongg League, American style

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AmericanMahjongFor the fourth post in this 5-part series, I’ll share my opinion of National Mah Jongg League rules, also know as American style. This style was created by the National Mahjong League (NMJL) in the late 1930s.

Each player uses a card that describes approximately 30 pattern-based hands. The card is published with fresh patterns every April and can be purchased at the NMJL website. The hands are arranged in categories like the current year, 2468, 369, 13579, consecutive numbers, honors, singles and pairs. This style requires the player to gather singles, pairs, pungs (3 of a kind), kongs (4 of a kind), quints and/or sextets to match one of the hands on the card. Flower tiles are used in many of the hands and there are eight joker tiles that can be used for anything but singles and pairs. One of the elements that make this game unique is the exchange of tiles called the Charleston where unwanted tiles are passed multiple times before the first discard.

This style is probably the most common way to play in the United States especially amongst Senior Citizens and the Jewish Community. In my opinion, it is one of the hardest styles to learn but is well worth the effort. Unlike Asian versions, players have to pick a hand on the card so they have less flexibility to change their hand when their tiles are used in exposures and discards. The most important skills for players to learn with this style is when to change their hand and picking the next hand to play in time to win.

Learning Curve 4
Sustainability 4

Next week, I’ll make recommendations.

Mahjong, which style should I learn first? Part 3 Highlights: Japanese Modern, Riichi

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RiichiPhotoLast week, I provided highlights of Cantonese with Hong Kong Old Style scoring. For the third post in this 5-part series, I’ll share my opinion of Japanese Modern, also known as Riichi as played by the European rule-set.

Japanese Mahjong was designed in 1912. In this style, players are required to gather four sets (three in a sequence [chi] and/or three of a kind [pon] or four of a kind [kan]) and a pair to win just like the other Asian variants. One of the things that make this game unique is the use of red 5’s and Dora tiles that can add point multipliers (han) to the winning hand. Another differentiator is being able to declare ready to win (riichi) which raises the value of the hand and allows an additional wager. House rules may vary slightly and there is typically a 1-2 yaku (valued set or combination) minimum required to win.

This style has surprise and strategic elements that make it exciting and more complex than Cantonese style and it’s quickly gaining worldwide and long-term popularity. If you learn this style first, you can quickly learn most Asian variants with a minimal learning curve.

Learning Curve: 4
Sustainability: 5

Come back next week for highlights of American Style. This style is probably the most common way to play in the United States.

Mahjong, which style should I learn first? Part 2 Highlights: Cantonese, Hong Kong Old Style

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CantonesePhotoLast week, I shared a brief introduction of mahjong. Now that you are aware of the basics and know that there many ways to play the game, I’ll highlight Cantonese with Hong Kong Old Style (HKOS) scoring.

HKOS is very close to the original game and it’s the most commonly played worldwide. This style requires each player to gather four sets (three in a sequence [chow] and/or three of a kind [pung] or four of a kind [kong]) and a pair to win. There are two exceptions to this configuration and those are seven unique pairs and a hand called Thirteen Orphans, my personal favorite!

The combination of sets determines a player’s score. In many cases, the closer the combination gets to all one suit, the better the score. For example, all chows with mixed suits is only worth one point but if all of the chows are in one suit with honors the hand would be worth four points and, better yet, if the hand consists of only one suit it would be worth seven points. Honor tiles tend to be coveted because they have a one point value for a pung of dragons and in some cases a pung of winds.

The goal of every player is to be the first to complete a winning combination of these sets. The point structure is short and simple and there is typically a two or four point minimum to be eligible to win.

Some players have house rules that include playing with two jokers. The jokers can be used in place of any tile. If jokers are part of an exposure, another player can take that joker on their turn if they have the tile that it represents.

There are few restrictions with HKOS so it’s the easiest to learn and the most flexible way to play. If you are new to mahjong, this is the best place to start – most people can play independently after an hour or so. If you learn this style first, you should be able to quickly learn how to play other Asian styles with a fairly short learning curve. Because this style is so simple, players tend to tire of it and move on to more complex styles after a playing for a couple of years.

Learning Curve: 2
Sustainability: 2

Come back next week for highlights of Japanese Modern, also known as Riichi. This style of play is quickly gaining worldwide popularity because of its novelty and emphasis on strategy.

New Series: Part 1 Which style Mahjong should I learn how to play?

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MahjongSolitaireMany people know about mahjong through the solitaire game online where the player selects pairs of mahjong tiles off of a multi-level configuration like a pyramid.  This is a solitaire game and, though it may be fun to play, it is NOT Mahjong!

Another misconception about mahjong is that many people think that this game is only played by the elderly.  Though this may be the norm, it certainly is not limited to this segment of society.  As a matter of fact, I currently run a Meetup and we have members ranging in ages from their early 20’s to their golden years.  I myself learned to play the game when I was twelve.

Now that I’ve set the record straight, let’s look at the origins and fundamentals of the game…

Mahjong is a 4-player Chinese tile game that is unknown to most Americans.  The name of the game roughly translates to “chattering sparrow” because the sound of the tiles clacking together when mixed sounds like these clever little birds.

Some say that the game was invented around 500 BC but the earliest archeological evidence dates to the 1880’s.  There are many theories about who invented the game including Taiping Rebellion soldiers, a Chinese princess, a Shanghai aristocrat, two Ningpo brothers and even Confucius himself.  Regardless, it is an intriguing game of skill, strategy and luck that has lasted through the ages.

In the beginning, the game was played only by royalty.  It was actually illegal for commoners to play.  In the 1900’s the restriction was lifted and the game gained popularity throughout Asia and eventually made its way to European countries in 1920.  In 1923, the game was brought to the United States by a man named Joseph Babcock who simplified the game and standardized the rules for Americans.  Today, there are approximately 40 rule-sets being played world-wide.

Most styles use 136 tiles based on Chinese characters and symbols. The tiles are like a deck of playing cards in that there are four suits with four of each tile including Dots, Bamboos and Characters all numbered one through nine and Honor tiles consisting of Winds and Dragons.  Some styles also use jokers, flowers and animal tiles in addition.  It’s much like building a Rummy-style puzzle with three opponents vying for the same pieces.   Players start with thirteen tiles and the object of the game is to be the first player to complete a valid hand by drawing or melding discarded tiles.  Valid hands are determined by the playing style.

Over the next several weeks, I’ll highlight three of the most popular styles being played in the United States:

I’ll include a “learning curve” to show the level of learning difficulty and “sustainability” to show how long the style tends to keep a player’s interest.  The scores will be based on a scale of 1 to 5, 1 being short term and 5 being long term.

Today we covered the origins and fundamentals of mahjong.  Next week you’ll read about one of the oldest and most commonly played versions, Cantonese with Hong Kong Old Style scoring.

Do you know anyone who plays mahjong?  If so, which style?

The Dot Challenge

Dots20140823I’ve noticed that some players mark the hands they’ve won with a pen.  I learned that their goal is to win every combination on the card in a given year. Though not many participate in this method of play, everyone get’s excited when a dot is earned.

In the spirit of personal challenge and friendly competition we’ve launched this as an annual tradition in our Meetup group.

HOW IT WORKS
Any player who decides to participate will mark the hands they’ve won with a pen or sticker.  Since many of our members play with multiple groups we’ve decided that a winning hand at any game qualifies.  Participants are trusted to be on their honor not to cheat.

Any player who wins every combination on the card will be entered in a prize drawing at our annual New Card Party.

WHY DO IT?
I have witnessed a greater level of satisfaction and sense of achievement when a player earns a dot.  They attempt hands they might not have considered if not for The Dot Challenge.  As a matter of fact, I think this is a great training exercise for tournaments when special-hand prizes are up for grabs.

STRATEGY
Everyone has their own strategy.  Some just play the hand that comes and feel that it’s an added bonus if they happen to earn a dot.  Others may start playing a hand they’ve never won before then let it go when they start getting tiles for a dot-hand (e.g. previously won hand).  Me?  I’m tenacious – I only play hands that I’ve not yet won.  If the hand goes dead, I switch to another hand that I’ve not yet won.  Eventually I have to switch to something I’ve won before.

I earned two dots today, both in the singles and pairs category:

The elusive 2014 hand:

SP_2014 and the consecutive hand:

SP_ConsecutiveI have only one hand to go and it’s the 369 hand in the Singles and Pairs category.  Here’s my attempt with only one tile in my drawn hand:

Attempt new hand with a single tileand after the Charleston:

Attempt new hand with a single tile after the CharlestonProof that it can be done!

Do you accept The Dot Challenge?

Introduction

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WordcloudWhen you hear the term ‘table talk’, you might think of unsportsmanlike behavior but, in my circle, table talk is a good thing!

I run a Mahjong Meetup and we enjoy lots of table talk.  At our events you might hear us sharing about our jobs, our kids and significant others or the desire for a significant other.  You’ll hear us talking about a movie we saw recently or goings-on at another social event.  You’ll hear us commiserate over a bad hand or debate technique and strategy.  To be honest, we even work through disagreements with our playmates – sometimes loudly.  This is my kind of table talk and this is what I want to bring to you.  I will be writing about …

  • Technique – tips for all styles
  • Community – culture, etiquette and playing in groups
  • Events – local and abroad
  • Reviews – products and websites

I’m an intergenerational, advanced player and instructor of several styles including Cantonese with Hong Kong Old Style scoring, Japanese Riichi, National Mah Jongg League and Wright-Patterson rules.

As you can imagine, I have extensive knowledge of the game and have much to share.  I hope you’ll visit often.

What topics would you like to see?

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