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Strategy and Tactics in Mahjong

Author: Neha Agrawal

By Dan Glimne, Games Consultant, Mahjong Logic

If you have ever dreamt of winning the world championship in a game, excluding computer games, there are just about 20 different choices. Whether renju, chess or oware is your preferred taste, the title can be yours with hard work and some deep theoretical studies.

Among these games are three which are usually connected with large sums of money changing hands: poker, backgammon and mahjong. Yes, mahjong. If you are like most Westerners, you may have glimpsed mahjong on occasion and perhaps also seen it feature in movies such as Joy Luck Club and Driving Miss Daisy. You will thus be forgiven for associating it with refined social manners, tea-drinking and polite conversation during play. This view of things will bring tears of laughter to the eyes of most Chinese and Japanese, who definitely consider it to a hardcore gambling game.

Indeed, there are over 30,000 mahjong clubs in Japan, over half of them said to be owned by the yakuza, organized crime syndicate, and where the equivalent of the gross national product of Rwanda changes hands every night. During the cultural revolution in China in the 1960's, mahjong was temporarily banned as being "capitalist", "bourgeois" and "reactionary". This did not stop Chairman Mao himself from continuing to play the game in secret, or from in an interview shortly before his death naming it, along with acupuncture and the novel "Dream of Red Chambers", as one of the three great Chinese contributions to world culture.

The Sparrow Game
So what is mahjong? First of all, mahjong the name literally means "sparrow" in Chinese and is truly one of the great games of the world, dating back to around 1860 AD; and with more than 500 million enthusiasts it is one of the most widely played.

Technically, mahjong is a game for 2-4 participants played with 144 tiles. It belongs to the rummy family – which is another Chinese invention dating back several centuries. The object is to draw, exchange and discard to improve your hand of originally 13 tiles, eventually organizing them into four groups plus a pair. A group is either three or four identical tiles, or a short "straight" of three tiles in the same suit; not unlike poker. You may under certain situations claim a tile which an opponent has discarded, and use it in your own hand instead.

Once you have your four groups plus that pair of two identical tiles in front of you, you shout "Mahjong!". The round then immediately stops, and your opponents have to pay you. The better your combinations of tiles, the more expensive it will be for them. The score for each winning hand is calculated in points, but the ratio between points and real money you agree on before the game, for pennies among friends, or for into-the-ionosphere high stakes with other serious gamblers.

And while it may be considered very much a gambling game, mahjong requires a lot of technique and strategy in order to win. It is this underlying quality that has led to a vibrant international mahjong tournament scene today, including the first World Championship in 2002 in Tokyo and the second one in 2007 in Chengdu.

Being truly a folk game, mahjong like chess and backgammon, also exists in a number of national and regional variants. While the scoring systems in these differ, and indeed in some countries special tiles are used which have no functional equivalent elsewhere, they all share the basic game play of drawing, exchanging and discarding. For international tournaments, a common rules set has been hammered out and adapted worldwide.

In this day and age of playing on the Internet, mahjong is seriously expected to be the next "boom" game. A few companies have already established themselves and with roughly ten mahjong players for every poker player on the planet, the potential is absolutely there.

Mahjong thus is a game of judgment and skill, much like poker, backgammon and bridge. Chance does play its part in this game too, but experienced, skilful play will more than balance out the luck element.

So what sort of strategy and tactics do you employ while playing mahjong?

One: Assessing Your Hand
After picking up your starting tiles, the first thing you must do is assess the strength and "direction" of your hand. This is especially true when a winning hand can be assembled in a great number of possible ways from the various scoring elements.

Mahjong also offers the challenge of balancing your play between aiming to go out quickly but with not very valuable sets of tiles in hand, or shooting for more high-paying but harder-to-achieve combinations. Therefore, you be capable of assessing your best options for putting together a winning hand in seconds. Do you keep or discard honour tiles? Is an all-pong hand your best bet? Or one of the chow-based hands instead? Or something more exotic?

The art of assessing your hand is a continuous process as the game develops. You must keep several options open, and be ready to switch your play when need dictates or new opportunities arise. Flexibility is vital.

Two: Know The Odds
Just like in poker, keeping track of your "outs" is important, along with the ability to figure out the odds of actually acquiring them. When faced with a choice as to which tile to discard, nearly always discard the one that will maximize your odds of winning with the remaining tiles inyour hand.

Three: Watch Those Discards
Few skills are more important in mahjong than tracking which tiles your opponents discards; this will say a lot about what sort of hands they are trying to build up, and force you to adapt your play to the circumstances. But don't forget, just as you will watch your opponents' discards, they will be watching yours.

Which tiles are likely to be safe for you to discard? If an opponent has thrown out a West Wind without any drama, you can probably do it too. But has your right-hand opponent so far discarded no Dragons or Winds at all? Careful, it will be dangerous for you to discard such a tile, as they will most likely pounce on it immediately. Or is your left-hand opponent obviously clearing his hand of all Bamboo tiles? That just might be the suit it would pay you to collect instead. In most forms of mahjong, the player who discards the final tile an opponent needs to go out on, will be punished for careless play by paying extra points. Don't let it be you.

Four: To Meld Or Not To Meld
Never automatically claim a tile that an opponent discards, just because it would complete ("meld") a group in your hand. For one, if you claim and complete a group, that group must be exposed on the table for all to see and your opponents will learn more about your hand from your melds than they could from your discards alone. Another is that every time you meld, it narrows the remaining opportunities for your hand in progress. A third reason is that the more of your winning hand you can keep concealed, the more points you will score. If you choose to claim a discarded tile and meld it, make sure you have a solid reason for it.

Five: Defensive Play
As much as you want to assemble the winning hand yourself, at times it might be better to prevent an opponent instead. If you run out of available tiles to draw, that round will come to an end without anyone scoring and a draw beats a loss everytime.

Towards the end when you realize that the odds are heavily against you, it might be better to switch into defensive mode, most especially if it’s from melds and discards and looks like you might be up against a high-scoring hand in the making. Then it is time to ruthlessly break up groups in your hand and discard tiles you judge to be safe, in order to prevent that opponent from going out. A smart reverse strategy can save you a lot of money.

Final Words
If you have not played mahjong before, hopefully this will have engaged your appetite for a game of much deserved appeal and complex beauty, and with deeply attractive qualities. I am still grateful to the young Japanese lady exchange student who taught me the game over thirty years ago, when I was at University; my life has been vastly enriched by it.