What is American Mahjong?
American Mahjong, sometimes called Mah Jongg, is an offshoot of the traditional Chinese game of Mahjong. In the 1920s, Joseph Park imported Mahjong sets into the US, and Americanized the classic ruleset with tailored modifications. These rules went on to be the American standard for decades to come, even resulting in the formation of the National Mah Jongg League (NMJL). Now, American Mahjong is played in households and tournaments across the globe, even having a cult following in certain provinces of China.
How to play American Mahjong?
American Mahjong is a 4-player game. All modifications to the rules of classic Mahjong seek to streamline the more complicated parts of Mahjong, resulting in a more fast-paced game.
American Mahjong is a game for 4 players, seated around a square table. All you need to play American Mahjong are:
- An American Mahjong set
- 2 dice
- 4 scoring cards
- Scoring sticks, coins or chips
The American Mahjong tiles, split across the following 4 groups:
|Tile Type||Suit||Tile Count|
|Flower and Season||Flowers||4|
|Flower and Season||Seasons||4|
Tiles from the Dots, Bamboo and Character suits are described by their rank and suit. Most American Mahjong sets have a number on a corner of the suited tiles for simplicity. The ranks are the number shown on the tile, so the ‘3 Bamboo’ tile is the Bamboo tile of rank 3; and the ‘5 Character’ tile is the Character tile of rank 5.
The Wind and Dragon tiles do not have ranks. The Wind tiles describe the 4 cardinal directions in Chinese characters, 東 for East, 南 for South, 西 for West, 北 for north. The Dragon tiles are described by their color, and include the Red 中 (center), Green 發 (wealth) and White tiles, sometimes illustrated with a blue frame, known as the 板.
The Flower and Season tiles are the only tiles without duplicates in the set, and illustrate one of the 4 seasons or the 4 gentlemanly flowers from classic Chinese literature.
Finally, the Joker tiles are the most distinct difference in American Mahjong. The jokers act similarly to how they work in Poker, and can act as a substitute for any other tile in Pungs (3 identical tiles), Kongs (4 identical tiles), Quints (5 identical tiles) and Sextets (6 identical tiles).
The preliminary stages of the game involve the preparation of the board and determination of turn order. This is summarized below:
- All 152 tiles are placed face down and shuffled.
- Each player builds a wall of 38 tiles, arranged 19 tiles across, 2 tiles high. Each wall is placed in front of the building player.
- Each player throws two dice, and the player with the highest number becomes the East Wind player (the dealer).
- Starting from the East Wind player in anticlockwise order, the players are assigned the Winds of South, West and North.
- The East Wind player rolls two dice and counts the number from the right end of his/her wall. The player then breaks the wall by taking 4 tiles (2 stacks from the broken end of the wall).
- In anticlockwise order, each player takes 4 tiles until each player has 12 tiles.
- Each player then draws 1 tile in order, the East Wind player draws an additional tile.
- The East Wind player has 14 tiles, and the other players have 13 tiles.
- Each player arranges their hand to match winning hands from the score cards.
Before the actual gameplay commences, American Mahjong includes a mulligan stage known as The Charleston. This compulsory stage offers players the opportunity to swap tiles with the other players.
The First Charleston proceeds as follows for each player:
- Pass 3 tiles face down to the player on their right.
- Pass 3 tiles face down to the player at the opposite end of the table.
- Pass 3 tiles face down to the player on the left.
Players can ‘blind pass’ up to 3 tiles, which is to take the tiles received and immediately pass them without looking at them.
The Charleston can be repeated a second time if all players agree, and proceeds like the First Charleston, but in reverse order. Finally, one may make a ‘courtesy pass’ at the end of the second Charleston, where two players sitting across the table agree to exchange up to three tiles.
The game of Mahjong now begins.
In American Mahjong, the goal is to assemble a winning hand as listed in the score book. These winning hands generally consist of combinations of sets, each consisting of 2 or more matching identical tiles. The accepted sets are listed below:
|Pair||2 identical tiles|
|Pung||3 identical tiles|
|Kong||4 identical tiles|
|Quint||5 identical tiles, using Jokers|
|Sextet||6 identical tiles, using Jokers|
East commences the game by discarding a tile, and the turn then passes to the next player in anticlockwise order. The next player the draws a card from the wall, continuing where the wall break left off. This turn sequence repeats unless a player claims a discarded tile with a call.
A player may call a discarded tile if it can be used to complete a Pung, Kong, Quint, Sextet or any other combination of an exposed hand. Exposed hands are hands that include sets that have been revealed. Due to the nature of calling in American Mahjong, a player must reveal the set completed with the claimed tile, exposing part of their hand. Calls can also be used to win by completing a winning hand. The turn then passes to the calling player, skipping other players that may have had a turn.
Once a set is revealed, those tiles cannot be changed or discarded for the remainder of the game, except for replacing jokers.
The Joker tiles can be used in place of any tile in a Pung, Kong, Quint or Sextet combinations. Due to the lack of the ‘straight’ sets, or chow from other Mahjong variants, Joker tiles are necessary to complete sets. If another player has an exposed set that uses a Joker tile, you can replace it with the corresponding substitute tile in the following process:
- Draw a tile or claim a discard at the start of a turn.
- Replace the Joker with the substituting tile or tiles.
- Discard tiles to maintain the right tile count of 13 at the end of a turn.
Managing Jokers is key in winning a game of American Mahjong.
The game ends when a player calls Mahjong after assembling a winning hand. Since winning hands consist of 14 tiles, that means one can only win at the start of their turn during the draw or claiming discards.
In the case where all tiles have been drawn from the wall, once the final discard is made without a winning claim, the game ends in a draw.
On the next
game, the player Winds and turn order rotate anticlockwise.
The American Mahjong Rules follow those set by the National Mah Jong League. The main rules cover winning hands and call priority. There are also specific rulings with regards to mistakes made during play.
American Mahjong winning hands are updated annually and published by the National Mah Jongg League.
In the case where multiple calls are made on a discarded tile, the priority is as follows:
- Players who can win via the discarded tile wins the call.
- If no calls are to win, the player closest in turn order wins the call.
When mistakes are made during the game, there are specific rulings for penalties. The list of standard guidelines are as follows:
- Accidental discard has touched the table: The tile cannot be recalled.
- A tile has been incorrectly announced: The tile cannot be claimed.
- A tile is claimed but an incorrect exposure is made: The exposure can be corrected.
- A player has the incorrect number of tiles: The player’s hand is deemed dead and the player is out of the current round. However, the player still needs to pay the winner.
- Three or more players have an incorrect number of tiles: The game is restarted.
- A player’s hand is impossible based on the tiles revealed on the board: The game is restarted.
- A player declares Mahjong incorrectly but has yet to reveal his: The game continues without penalty.
- A player declares Mahjong incorrectly and has revealed his hand: The player’s hand is dead.
In summary, the American Mahjong rules are:
- At the start of the game, each player draws 13 tiles from the wall, the East Wind player draws an extra tile.
- The Charleston stage commences.
- If all players agree, the Second Charleston stage commences.
- If two players agree, they can do courtesy swaps of up to 3 tiles.
- The East Wind player discards one tile.
- The discarded tile can be called with Pung, Kong, Quint or Sextet to complete the corresponding set.
- The calling player must reveal the completed set.
- If the discarded tile is not called, the turn order follows in an anticlockwise order.
- A player wins when a winning hand is assembled as stated in the National Mah Jongg League score card.
- The winning player becomes the new East Wind player and dealer.
- If all tiles are drawn from the wall and no players have a winning hand, the round is a draw.
- The turn order and Winds rotate anticlockwise for the next game.
American Mahjong scoring is done based on the American Mahjong score cards. Certain hands are granted higher score values, and hence receive more during the payout after winning. Furthermore, depending on the conditions of the win, the losing players may need to pay double or even four times the value of the hand.
The payout for each Mahjong is listed below:
- Winning hand off a discard:
- Discarding player pays the winner double, and the rest of the players pay the normal value.
- Winning hand off a draw from
- All players pay double.
- Winning hand off a discard,
has no jokers, and not from the Singles and Pairs category of the score card:
- Discarding player pays 4 times the value of the hand, other players pay double.
- Winning hand off a draw from the wall, has no jokers, and not from the Singles and Pairs category of the score card:
All players pay 4 times the value of the hand.
American Mahjong hands depend on the current NMJL scoring standards and is updated annually. One of the standards list of all winning hands is included in the External Links section of the guide.
As a quick introduction, a few example winning hands from the 7 main hand-types are shown below:
Year hands – based on the current year:
All tiles are of rank 2, 1 and 8. The White Dragon tile acts as the 0.2
Even number hands – based on even numbers in suits:
All tiles are even numbered (2, 4, 6, 8) or from Honor tiles.
Seven hands – based on multiplication and addition of certain numbers:
The 1 and 6 tiles add up to 7, and the remaining tiles are numbered 7.
Quint hands – based on quints which require Joker tiles:
Contains 2 quints, one pung and two singles.
Consecutive hands – consists of combinations of consecutive numbers regardless of suit:
Valid regardless of suit, but cannot wrap around the terminal tiles (rank 1 and 9).
Odd number hands – based on odd numbers in suits:
All tiles are odd numbered (1, 3, 5, 7, 9) or from Honor tiles.
Wind hands – based on the Wind and Dragon combinations:
All tiles are from the Wind or Dragon tile groups. Flower and Seasons are also accepted.
369 hands – Hands based on multiplication of 3 in suits:
All tiles are multiples of 3 (1, 3, 6, 9).
Singles and pairs – specific hard-to-assemble hands that do not allow use of Jokers:
All tiles are pairs, with the final pair completed with a called discard.
- Focus on the Charleston stage, as it offers an opportunity to replace 3 tiles from your hand at a time. Once the game begins, you can only replace a single tile per turn.
- One of the best American Mahjong strategy tips is to think ahead before making moves, as skilled players can predict your hand based on your discard and calls, allowing them to prevent your victory with careful discards.
- Manage your Joker tiles. Since Joker tiles can substitute any tile, do not hesitate to break up your pungs or quints to use the Joker for another set.
- Take care before calling a discard. One your hand is exposed, you cannot re-conceal it. You have a smaller selection of tiles to discard and you lock yourself out of many concealed-only winning hands.
Frequently Asked Questions
I don’t have a Mahjong set; can I still play American Mahjong?
Due to the unique properties of the Joker tiles, American Mahjong cannot be played with Chinese or Japanese Mahjong sets. The alternative is to use an American Mahjong simulator, which are freely available online. A popular simulator is linked in the External Links section of the guide.
How to play American Mahjong with 3 players?
American Mahjong was designed to be played by 4 players. However, the rules are adaptable to be played with any player count from 2 onwards. It should be noted that games might be longer or shorter based on the player count.
Are there alternate rulesets in American Mahjong?
Due to the rapidly changing official ruleset, many players play with older, outdated rulesets. Some players also prefer the special poker-Mahjong hybrid that uses the poker cards on the tiles. This has found success in casinos across the world.
What is the difference between American and Chinese Mahjong?
Chinese Mahjong does not use the Joker tiles, and allows for the formation of the chow combination, which are straights of 3 tiles. Also, Chinese Mahjong involves a more elaborate pre-game to determine the turn order and tends towards longer games.