Many 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:
- Part 2 Highlights of Cantonese, Hong Kong Old Style
- Part 3 Highlights of Japanese Modern, Riichi
- Part 4 Highlights of American, National Mah Jongg League
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?