The “Classical Chinese game” is a bit of a misnomer, as there never was a standardized set of rules when mahjong was first invented in China in the mid-1800′s and then spread around the country, and after the turn of the century 1900 overseas to other countries. Instead the game developed gradually and was played with slightly differing rules in different regions. The following rule set and scoring system however represent a fair picture of how mahjong was played during its first golden age, in the 1920′s when the game also reached the West and spread like wildfire – and, indeed, of how many hundreds of thousands of Europeans still play it today.
Below you find a list of the tiles used in the classic game. Each of the tiles shown, occurs four times in a complete mahjong set, except for the bonus tiles of which there are only one copy of each type.
The objective of the game is to be the first to go out by achieving a “mahjong hand”: a hand where all your tiles form four sets, plus one pair. Any set must consist of either three identical tiles (called a pong),
or four identical tiles (called a kong),
or three Suit tiles in numerical sequence and of the same suit (called a chow or chi).
A pong or a kong must be made up of identical tiles. Note also that a chow/chi must consist of exactly three tiles, no more and no less, and of the same suit.
The pair may be any pair, as long as it consists of two identical tiles.
You cannot form any set or pair with your Bonus tiles! Instead, as soon as you draw a bonus tile, you set it aside and draw a replacement tile. The bonus tiles you accumulate (if any), will score extra points for you at the end.
Note that you may also go out with any of a number of special mahjong hands, which do not necessarily confirm to the “four sets, one pair” rule above! Go to the Special Hands section to see a list of these special hands.
In mahjong, the four players sit at a table facing each other, as when playing bridge or whist. Unlike in these card games, however, mahjong players do NOT play in teams: rather, it is every player for himself.
Each deal begins by shuffling and arranging the 144 tiles in a square 2×18 tiles long on every side, called “the Wall”. Then each player draws (according to a certain ritual) 13 tiles each; the exception is the player in the East seat, who draws 14 tiles. (Here, this entire process is taken care of by the software.)
The players, starting with East who must first discard one of his/her tiles, now in counterclockwise order take turns to draw tiles: either the last one discarded by a previous player (provided certain conditions are met), or the next available one from the Wall. After drawing, that same player must immediately discard a tile, after which it is the next player’s turn.
While drawing and discarding, each player tries to exchange and arrange his/her tiles so as to form them into a mahjong hand (four sets and a pair). The first player to accomplish this declares “Mahjong!”, upon which the game immediately stops. Note that a player declaring mahjong and thereby going out, does not discard a tile in that same turn.
The winning player is then paid by all the others: the more valuable the hand, the more points he/she gets. Then the other players pay off each other for the sets and bonus tiles accumulated so far, after which all the tiles are shuffled together again and another deal begins.
Mahjong is also playable with two or three players instead of four (though the game works best with four), following the same principles as above. On this site you can play express games with two or three players, but for tournaments, the number of players is always four.
As soon as you choose a table here, the software will take you to it and randomly assign you a seat. If you enter a tournament, the software will assign you both a table and a seat at it.
Each player’s seat is designated by a name, the same as for the cardinal directions. Going counterclockwise, the seats are referred to as East-South-West-North.
As soon as a new deal begins, the 144 tiles are shuffled and then arranged in a square: each side is 18 tiles long, and 2 tiles high. This arrangement is called “the Wall”.
With the help of dice, the spot where you “break the Wall” and start drawing tiles is randomly chosen. Fourteen tiles counterclockwise from this position another break is made and these tiles are reserved as the “kong box” or “dead wall”. The remaining tiles are called the “live wall”. All this is automatically handled by the software.
Starting with East taking the first 4 tiles, each player eventually draws 13 tiles from the live wall; the exception is the player in the East seat, who draws 14 tiles. Again, here the entire process is automatically taken care of by the software.
When the tiles are dealt, you will see your own tiles face up on the screen, while those of the other players are seen standing on edge and are hidden from you.
During the game you will draw “normal” tiles from the live wall in clockwise fashion, but drawing any replacement tiles from the the dead wall. The dead wall is always kept at the size of at least 13 tiles by taking a pair of tiles from end of the live wall when needed.
If the live wall is empty and a player needs to draw a tile from the wall, play stops. This is called a “washout” or a “dead hand” (see below).
Each player now examines the tiles he/she has drawn. In turn order counterclockwise, starting with East, the players now declare any Bonus tile or tiles they have, setting them aside face up, and drawing replacement tiles from the Dead Wall.
If any new Bonus tiles are drawn when replacing, these are also set aside and further replacement tiles drawn. After this procedure is completed, the players should once again have 13 tiles each in hand, with the exception of East who should have 14 tiles. Again, this procedure is handled automatically by the software.
Also, if a player is dealt a concealed kong, he/she may declare it immediately – see below.
The East player always takes the first turn, by discarding any of the 14 tiles in his hand, face up within the area of the Wall. If none of the other players claims this tile, South now draws the next tile from the Wall and then discards any of his tiles in the same manner, followed by West, North, East again, and so on in counterclockwise order around the table, drawing and discarding each time in turn.
Note that the tiles from the Wall are drawn in clockwise fashion, while the turn order among the players goes counterclockwise!
The only time that you do not draw a tile from the Wall during your turn, is when you instead claim another player’s recently discarded tile.
If any of the other players discards a tile which you need to complete a pong (three identical tiles), you may say “Pong!” and then pick up this tile. Any player/-s sitting between you and he/she who discarded the tile, are skipped over in turn order.
You must then at once, during that same turn, expose and put on the table (face up) the set you claimed for. After this you as usual discard a tile, and the turn then passes to the next player counterclockwise.
Example: South has two White Dragons in hand, when East discards another White Dragon. South immediately shouts “Pong!”, picks up the tile, and exposes and places his three White Dragons as a set beside him on the table. Then South discards one of the tiles in his hand, and it is East’s turn again. Note that West and North were skipped over in the turn sequence!
If no player claims a newly discarded tile, it is considered “dead”, remains face up on the table, and may NOT be claimed at a later point in the game.
In a live game, it is customary to put the claimed tile sideways in the exposed set, so as to show which of the other players discarded it.
Claiming a tile for a kong (four identical tiles) is performed exactly as when claiming a tile for a pong – see above. The only difference is that the player claiming and exposing the kong must then immediately draw a replacement tile from the Dead Wall, before discarding one of the tiles in hand. (This replacement is done for mathematical reasons: if you do not draw a replacement tile after putting down a kong, it is impossible to form four sets and a pair with the tiles you have in hand!)
Example: North has three tiles of the Four of Bamboos in hand, when West discards another Four of Bamboos. North immediately shouts “Kong!”, picks up the discarded tile, exposes and puts down her set of four identical tiles, draws a replacement tile, and finally discards one of her tiles, after which it is East’s turn. Note that in this example, none of the other players were skipped over in the turn sequence.
As when claiming a tile for a pong, it is customary in a live game to put the claimed tile sideways in the exposed set, so as to show which of the other players discarded it.
Claiming a tile for a chow/chi may ONLY be done by the next player in turn. South may only claim such a tile if it is discarded by East; West may only claim such a tile if it is discarded by South; and so on around the table. Apart from this, the procedure is the same as when claiming a tile for a pong.
Example: South discards the Eight of Characters. West, who is next in turn, happens to have both the Six and the Seven of Characters and therefore immediately shouts “Chow!” and picks up the discarded tile. He exposes his set, puts it on the table, and discards one of his tiles in hand. Now it is North’s turn.
As when claiming a tile for a pong, it is customary in a live game to put the claimed tile in a chow/chi sideways in the exposed set, so as to show which of the other players discarded it.
If completing a chow/chi would also complete your mahjong hand, you may claim this tile no matter which of the other players discards it – just say “Mahjong!” and pick up the tile to your hand.
This may only be done on one condition: that the player claiming the tile thereby immediately can finish his mahjong hand and go out. Under no other circumstances may a player claim a discard to complete the pair (any pair) needed in a mahjong hand.
Note: you are NEVER forced to claim a suitable tile! Instead, you may if you wish just draw the next tile from the Wall, even if you could have claimed the previous discard.
What happens if two players both claim the same tile? Then the claim priority rules come into effect:
Claiming a tile for a pong or a kong has priority over claiming for a chow/chi.
Claiming a tile for mahjong has priority over any other claim.
If two or three players both claim the same tile for mahjong, the player sitting closest in (counterclockwise) turn order after the discarder has priority.
When playing at this site, any claiming options on your turn are clearly indicated on the screen by the software – just click to claim, within the set time limit.
If you do not claim a possible tile before the next player in turn draws a tile from the Wall, you have forfeited your opportunity and may not claim the discarded tile later in the game; this is also the custom in a live game!
If drawing a tile from the Wall completes a pong in your hand, or a chow/chi, or if you are dealt such a set at the start of the game, it is considered concealed and you do NOT need to declare this set before you go out by achieving your mahjong hand: when this occurs, such sets are shown but still considered concealed. Keeping your opponents from knowing whatever combinations of tiles you have in hand during play is a tactical advantage!
Any tiles in concealed sets in hand may of course be rearranged in new combinations, whenever you wish. However, exposed sets may never be touched.
If you already have a concealed pong (three identical tiles) in hand, and draw the fourth identical tile from the Wall, you have a concealed kong. You declare this set by putting it on the table in that same turn. You must then immediately draw a replacement tile from the Dead Wall, after which you as usual discard a tile. It is then the next player’s turn.
If you are dealt a concealed kong at the start of the game, you also declare it in the same way, and draw a replacement tile.
Note that you are not required to declare a concealed kong! You may if you wish keep your concealed pong, and use the fourth identical tile in a chow/chi set instead.
If you have previously claimed a tile to complete a pong, having the exposed pong beside you on the table, and you later yourself draw the fourth identical tile from the Wall, you may add this tile to your exposed pong: this turns it into an exposed kong instead.
Note that you may NOT claim this fourth tile to an already exposed pong, if it is discarded by another player!
When drawing and adding the fourth identical tile, you must as with any declared kong draw a replacement tile from the Dead Wall before discarding.
If you draw a Bonus tile during the game, you simply set it aside with your exposed sets (if any), draw a replacement tile from the Dead Wall, and then discard a tile as usual.
Whenever you draw the last tile you need to complete your mahjong hand consisting of four sets and a pair, you say “Mahjong!”. Show the tiles you have in hand, taking care to mark concealed sets.
You may also claim the last tile you need to complete your mahjong hand, regardless of whether for a pong, a chow/chi, or the pair, and regardless of which of the other players discards it; again, call out “Mahjong!”.
As soon as a player calls out “Mahjong”, play immediately stops after that player has shown his or her hand.
Note that when going out with a mahjong hand, you draw or claim a tile – but this is the only time you do NOT discard a tile during your move!
Now the scoring begins, for both the winning hand and the other players – see the Scoring section for information on this.
Note that you may also go out with any of a number of special mahjong hands, which do not necessarily confirm to the “four sets, one pair” rule above! See the Special Hands section for a list of these special hands, which are called “limit hands” as they score the maximum number of points allowed in the game.
Play continues until a player goes out, or until no tiles remain in the live wall. If the last allowable tile is drawn from the live Wall and no player goes out on either this tile or the discard from the player who drew the last available tile, it is known as a “washout” or a “dead hand”: no-one wins, and no points are scored.
In express games, the seating positions are rotated one step counterclockwise after each hand: the East player now becomes North, the South player becomes East, and so on. This is the case even if the hand was an exhaustive draw or an abortive draw, and regardless of who won.
For multi-hand games, i.e., sit-and-go and multi-table tournaments, the dealer rotation in the following manner:
If east wins, that player continues in the east position for the next hand.
If the hand ends with a washout, the deal is repeated with the same seating.
Otherwise, the deal is rotated.
Each seat (each player, East, South, West or North) has a corresponding wind, called the Seat Wind. If you achieve a pong or a kong in “your own” Wind, it means extra points; see the scoring section.
When the seating positions rotate, so does your Seat Wind, and when each player has played in all the winds the first round is completed. Each round also corresponds to a Prevailing Wind: during the first round, the Prevailing Wind will be East; then, during the following round, it will be South; then West, and finally North, after which four rounds (at least sixteen hands) have been played and the game is over. Just like a pong or kong in you own wind gives you an extra doubling of your points, so does a pong or kong in the prevailing wind.