Rules

In defining a new set of “mind sports” oriented rules for Mahjong, a specially selected group of experts from all over China was appointed, and research was made not only into the regional variants in Beijing, Shanghai, Ningbo, Tiangjin, Hong Kong and others, but also those of Japan and Taiwan. The more complex forms of the game were rejected, and in the end the decision was made to create a pattern-based, additive form of play and scoring. The rules were presented in 1998; and in that same year mahjong as defined by these rules was officially named China’s 255th sport, by the State Sports Commission of China.

This form of the game has since come to be recognized and adopted as the international version of mahjong, whilst undergoing a few micro-changes in the early 2000’s. Also, this form is known variously as Chinese Official (CO), World Mahjong Contest Rules (WMCR), Official International Rules (OIR), or Chinese Mahjong Contest Rules (CMCR), and is now officially (since October 2005) sanctioned and governed by the World Mahjong Organization (WMO).

The game play in International Competition Rules is basically the same as in the Chinese Classical game; it is to your advantage if you already know how the play the latter. The general winning hand structure is the same, “four sets and a pair” – more on this below – but a few other winning hands are also recognized.

Tiles

In International Competition Mahjong, also known variously as Chinese Official (CO), World Mahjong Contest Rules (WMCR), Official International Rules (OIR), or Chinese Mahjong Contest Rules (CMCR), and being officially sanctioned and governed by the World Mahjong Organization (WMO), a set of 144 tiles consisting of the following is used:

The Suit tiles

There are three suits: Bamboo, Character and Circles. Each suit runs from 1 to 9.

 

Figure 1. Bamboo

Bamboo Bamboo Bamboo Bamboo Bamboo Bamboo Bamboo Bamboo Bamboo


 

Figure 2. Character

Character Character Character Character Character Character Character Character Character


 

Figure 3. Circles

Circles Circles Circles Circles Circles Circles Circles Circles Circles


Each tile is replicated four times – thus there are for example four Three of Bamboo tiles, four Seven of Characters tiles, and so on, making up 36 tiles (4×9) in each suit, and 108 (3×36) suit tiles in total. The numbers 2-8 are often referred to as Simples, while the 1’s and 9’s are called Terminals. Note that the One of Bamboos shows a stylized picture of a bird, which beginners may at first confuse with the Bonus tiles; see below!

The Honour tiles

There are two categories of Honour tiles, Winds and Dragons respectively:

 

Figure 4. Winds

Winds Winds Winds Winds


These show the four winds, or the four cardinal directions: East (E), South (S), West (W) and North (N) respectively.

 

Figure 5. Dragons

Dragons Dragons Dragons


These show Red Dragon, Green Dragon and White Dragon respectively.

As with the suit tiles, each Wind Tile and each Dragon tile is replicated four times, making up 16 (4×4) and 12 (3×4) = 28 Honour tiles in total.

The Bonus tiles

There are 8 such tiles, all different, traditionally showing the four Seasons and four Flowers:

 

Figure 6. Seasons and Flowers

Seasons and Flowers Seasons and Flowers Seasons and Flowers Seasons and Flowers Seasons and Flowers Seasons and Flowers Seasons and Flowers Seasons and Flowers


The Seasons depict spring (the number 1), summer (2), autumn (3) and winter (4) respectively. The Flowers are plum blossom (1), orchid (2), chrysanthemum (3) and bamboo (4) respectively.

As the name implies, these Bonus tiles are not used in the actual game play, forming sets and pairs; instead they make up a luck element, as they are set aside and replaced when drawn, increasing that player’s score. Note that if you buy a “physical” Mahjong set, the Bonus tiles may vary widely in design!

Additional notes

A “physical” mahjong set as a rule contains not only the tiles, but also dice, scoring sticks or chips, and sometimes also other objects which are used in the game. Also, regional mahjong sets (in for example Japan, Korea, Vietnam, Singapore, USA etc) will often contain additional and/or different-looking tiles, which often have other functions not covered here.

The object of the game

The object of the game is to collect tiles to form one of the scoring patterns described later and thereby achieving a mahjong hand. A mahjong hand normally consists of four sets of tiles plus one pair of tiles (or as pointed out above, a hand which conforms to another, winning specification).

Any set must consist of either three identical tiles (called a pong),

 

Figure 7. Example pong

Example pong Example pong Example pong


or four identical tiles (called a kong),

 

Figure 8. Example kong

Example kong Example kong Example kong Example kong


or three Suit tiles in numerical sequence and of the same suit (called a chow or chi).

 

Figure 9. Example chow

Example chow Example chow Example chow


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.

 

Figure 10. Example pair

Example pair Example pair


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.

Here is one example (among millions possible) of a finished mahjong hand:

 

Figure 11. Mahjong hand containing three chows, one pong and one pair

Mahjong hand containing three chows, one pong and one pair Mahjong hand containing three chows, one pong and one pair Mahjong hand containing three chows, one pong and one pair Mahjong hand containing three chows, one pong and one pair Mahjong hand containing three chows, one pong and one pair Mahjong hand containing three chows, one pong and one pair Mahjong hand containing three chows, one pong and one pair Mahjong hand containing three chows, one pong and one pair Mahjong hand containing three chows, one pong and one pair Mahjong hand containing three chows, one pong and one pair Mahjong hand containing three chows, one pong and one pair Mahjong hand containing three chows, one pong and one pair Mahjong hand containing three chows, one pong and one pair Mahjong hand containing three chows, one pong and one pair


Again, note that you may also go out with any of a number of special mahjong hands, which do not conform to the “four sets, one pair” rule above! See the section on scoring for a list of these special hands.

A brief overview of the game play

In mahjong, the four players sit at a table facing each other, as when playing bridge or whist. The players are identified by the four cardinal directions: in anti-clockwise order, East, South, West and North respectively.

Note that this does not correspond to the order on a compass! Also, unlike in bridge or whist, 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 of course 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 pick tiles: either claiming the last one discarded by a previous player (provided certain conditions are met), or drawing the next available one from the Wall. After picking a tile, that same player must immediately discard a tile, after which it is the next player’s turn.

While picking 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, or one of the special hands). The first player to accomplish this declares “Mahjong” (or, in modern tournaments, declares “Hu”), 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 his/her opponents, according to the score for the hand: the more valuable the hand, the more points he/she gets. The other players do not exchange points between themselves, unlike in the Classical form of the game.

Mahjong is also playable with two or three players instead of four (though in modern tournaments, the International game is invariably played with four), following the same principles as above.

Determining the seats

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.

Arranging the wall and dealing the tiles

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. All this is automatically handled by the software.

Starting with East taking the first 4 tiles, each player eventually draws 13 tiles from the 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.

Note that you during the game will be drawing “normal” tiles from the Wall in clockwise fashion, but drawing any replacement tiles from the back end of the Wall. If the last tile has been drawn from the Wall without any player managing to go out, play stops and no scoring is made. This is called a “washout” or a “dead hand” – but is a rare occurrence.

Replacing the Bonus tiles

Each player now examines the tiles he/she has drawn at the start. 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 back end of the 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 here by the software.

Also, if a player is dealt a concealed kong, he/she may declare it immediately – see below.

Turn order and basic game play

The East player now 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.

Claiming a tile for a pong

If any of the other players discards a tile which you need to complete a pong (three identical tiles), you immediately say “Pong” and may 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: this is called melding. After this you as usual discard a tile, and the turn then passes to the next player counterclockwise.

Example: East has two White Dragons in hand, when South discards another White Dragon. East immediately says “Pong”, picks up the tile, and exposes and places his three White Dragons as a set beside him on the table. Then East discards one of the tiles in his hand, and it is South’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.

It is customary to put the claimed tile sideways in the exposed set, so as to show which of the other players discarded it.

 

Figure 12. Pong with tile sideways to indicate the claimed tile was discarded by the player to the right

Pong with tile sideways to indicate the claimed tile was discarded by the player to the right Pong with tile sideways to indicate the claimed tile was discarded by the player to the right Pong with tile sideways to indicate the claimed tile was discarded by the player to the right


Claiming a tile for a kong

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 (melding it) must then immediately draw a replacement tile from the back end of the 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 left in hand!)

Example: North has three tiles of the Four of Bamboos in hand, when West discards another Four of Bamboos. North immediately says “Kong”, picks up the discarded tile, exposes and puts down her set of four identical tiles, draws a replacement tile from the back end of the Wall, 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

Claiming a tile for a chow (also called 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 and melding with it.

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 says “Chi” and picks up the discarded tile. He exposes his set, puts it on the table beside him, and discards one of his tiles in hand. Now it is North’s turn.

As when claiming a tile for a chow, it is customary in a live game to put the claimed tile in a chow sideways in the exposed set, so as to show which of the other players discarded it.

If completing a chow would also complete your mahjong hand, you may claim this tile no matter which of the other players discards it – just say “Mahjong” or “Hu” and pick up the tile to your hand!

Claiming a tile for the pair

This may only be done on one condition: that the player claiming the tile thereby immediately can finish his/her 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.

Further notes on claiming tiles

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 technically could have claimed the previous discard.

What happens if two players both claim the same tile? Then the claim priority rules come into effect:

  1. Claiming a tile for a pong or a kong has priority over claiming for a chow/chi.
  2. Claiming a tile for mahjong has priority over any other claim.
  3. 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!

Completing a concealed pong or chow by drawing

If drawing a tile from the Wall completes a pong in your hand, or a chow, 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 of course shown but still considered concealed, not exposed. 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, already exposed sets may never be touched.

Drawing the fourth identical tile when you have a concealed pong

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. (It is still considered concealed.) You must then immediately draw a replacement tile from the back end of the 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 instead.

Drawing the fourth identical tile when you have an exposed pong

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 back end of the Wall before discarding.

Drawing a Bonus tile

If you draw a Bonus tile during the game, you simply set it aside with your exposed sets (if any), immediately draw a replacement tile from the back end of the Wall, and then discard a tile as usual.

Note however that you actually are permitted to discard a Bonus tile, instead of adding it to your exposed sets! No other player may claim it. This is a “desperate” measure when playing defensive tactics in the endgame, and you are trying to prevent another player from going out.

Declaring mahjong and going out

Whenever you draw the last tile you need to complete your mahjong hand consisting of four sets and a pair (or completing another recognized winning hand), you say “Hu” or “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, or any other recognized winning hand, and regardless of which of the other players discards it; again, just call out “Hu” or “Mahjong”, and take the discarded tile.

As soon as a player calls out “Hu”, play immediately stops and that player shows his or her entire 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 – see the scoring section for information on this.

Again, note that you may also go out with any of a few special mahjong hands, which do not conform to the “four sets, one pair” rule above! See the scoring section.

Washout, or dead hand

Play continues until a player goes out, or until the last tile has been drawn from the Wall. If 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.

When the scoring is completed

After each hand, even a washout, and regardless of who won, the seating positions rotate one step counterclockwise: the East player now becomes North, the South player becomes East, and so on. The next hand now begins, in the same manner as above.

In a tournament, the game will in each round stop after a certain time limit. The current hand is then not played to a finish, and the players will score the points they have so far accumulated before the current hand started.

Seat wind and prevalent wind

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. Each round (= consisting of four hands when each player will be in each of the seating positions in turn) also corresponds to a Prevailing Wind: during the first round (the first four hands), the Prevailing Wind will be East; then, during the following four hands, it will be South; then West, and finally North, after which sixteen hands (= four rounds) have been played and the game is over, if not before due to time reasons.

Internet play vs live play

Note that when playing in a live game, there are also a number of other rules governing the players’ physical behaviour, such as the formal procedure to add up the points using previously discarded tiles, penalties for having the wrong number of tiles in hand or trying to go out with a non-correct hand, and so on. The software on this site will of course make it impossible to commit these mistakes, but before playing in a live game it is advised that you familiarize yourself with the entire set of these rules, as set down by the World Mahjong Organization.

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