mahjong red dragon tile mahjong green dragon tile mahjong blue dragon tile


Mahjong is a four person "parlor" game of Chinese origin. If you've ever played Rummy, then you'll know the rhythm and mechanics of mahjong play, for the western card game was derived from Mahjong. Rummy, however, was adapted to the 52 card Western card set. Mahjong uses 136 colorful tiles – originally made from ivory and bamboo. The Chinese game is both more colorful and more subtle than most card games. The luck of the draw still plays an important part of victory at the game, but keen observation, defensive strategy, bluffing, and good calculation skills add to the excitement. Most daunting of all is the pay-off system, whereby scores increase exponentially!

You'll learn Mahjong mostly through experience. But this manual should guide you through the mechanics and rules of play. Graphic illustrations make it simple for you to visualize the explanations. You'll learn every aspect of the game, from set-up to winning and scoring.

China has always been a fragmented country, with very little inter-provincial communication. Therefore, with many games and customs, local variations exist. The rules explained here are from the popular Cantonese version; specifically, from "Old Style" scoring – that which is still played by hundreds of thousands of Hong Kong people today.

If you're in Hong Kong, walk down the older market streets and keep your ears tuned. You're bound to hear the familiar "clack-clack" sound of a Mahjong game in progress, or maybe the loud shuffling of tiles accompanying the beginning of a hand. Inevitably, behind the market stalls a Mahjong table is set up, and peddlers and older family members will be playing in day time hours. Go to restaurants at night and find a large Chinese banquet – you'll find a half-dozen or so tables at play, occupying the guests before dinner is served. They are at birthday parties and traditional Chinese banquets, but you'll also find Mahjong being played at wedding banquets as well!

Once you get used to playing, you'll see why it's a popular game. Mahjong is just a setting for social conversation, much like Western card game settings. You can chat hours on end while subconsciously keeping track of Mahjong play. And if you're partial to the thrill of gambling, Mahjong's exponential pay-off schedules will keep you on edge, least you lose your hard-earned petty winnings in a single hand ... with an IOU to boot!


Here is a simple description, without the fancy elements and special exceptions.

Mahjong is a four-person game. The 136 pieces start out face down. Each player is dealt a hand of 13 pieces, which they keep hidden. Players take turns drawing from pile, or using the most recent discard, to rearrange their hands into 4 sets of 3 tiles, and one pair to complete the hand. (This totals 14 pieces, so a player finishes upon collecting a final piece to add to the hand).

The 136 pieces consist of 4 each of the 1 through 9 of 3 suits (circles, bamboos, and numbers), 4 winds, and 3 dragons (normally, the "flower" pieces are not used in our version of the game). In completing sets, the combination of three tiles can be formed in two fashions: 3 of a kind (pong); and 3 in a row of one suit – i.e., a sequence of numbers (chee).

Players take turns drawing one piece from the face-down pile, and then discarding a piece. Instead of taken a hidden piece, though , they may take the most recent discard - if it completes a pong. When taking a discard, they must reveal the completed set by placing it face up on the table, and then follow with a discard. Additionally, If the person to their left (their predecessor) discards a piece that can be used for a chee, then they may also take the discard, display the set, and then follow with a discard.

Play continues to rotate in this fashion, successively taking a new piece and discarding a piece, until a person completes a hand, or the face-down pile is depleted. Besides being able to take the most recent discard to complete a pong, or a chee if it's from the player on the left, any player may use the most recent discard to complete a hand, or "go mahjong".

Everybody must play the winner of this hand. The winner's hand is scored from the value of the completed sets. This score is approximately based on the difficulty of getting a particular pattern. The basic score is 1 point, or 1 faan. Everybody pays the winner 2 "dollars" for that 1 point, but the person who discarded (the "boss") the winning piece must pay double, or 4 dollars. If the hand scored 2 points, each player pays 4 dollars, the ' boss pays 8; if 3 points, everyone pays 8, the boss 16, and so on. The pay-off is exponential - p2.

After a hand, the pieces are reshuffled, and a new hand is played. Quite a few games can be played in rapid succession, allowing you to recover from unlucky deals and sizing up your competitors. Play continues as long as you like; officially, games are tracked by rounds of "winds", East, South, West, and North, each a minimum of 4 games. But even if you complete a complete round (typically 3 hours), you can still continue!

So the mechanics are: 13 piece hand; draw 1 new piece; discard one piece; wait for the other three players to do the same; continue on until you get a completed hand, which must be full of 3-piece sets and one pair. That one pair should be stressed, since its an oddity. You needn't get it last, but you can't complete your hand until you have one pair within it beyond the four sets of 3. OK? Now, let's talk in more details about the rules.


Now we really get into the game!

A lot of fun in Mahjong is in its elaborate tradition, intricate rules, and superstitions. Western card games pale in comparison. You'll begin to see the intricacy in the set-up for each hand, a process whereby the pieces are shuffled, arranged to assure randomness and honesty, and 13 pieces distributed to each player. But before you can set-up, you have to choose a seat. Now, don't just sit down at one of the 4 chairs! Nooo, the Chinese have devised a way to assure random seat assignments. This is partially superstitious - some seats could be considered unlucky (if you think you've found yourself in a unlucky seat, you can call for seat reassignment; but only once per complete round. Otherwise, you can wait until the end of the rounds (after North), to be reassigned again).

But random seat assignments also reflect the effect your neighboring players can have on your hand. The player to your left always precedes you. Therefore, she can choose carefully her discards so you can't utilize them. Extremely defensive play from her, and you're likely to find your hand "starved" for more pieces. The player to your right could suffer from your defensive moves, or cause you perpetual agony in devious feints and poker faces. You could, of course, get just the opposite; the player to your left could be cavalier in her discards and the player to your right a relative neophyte. So, you'll want a random seat assignment to fairly distribute the players.

If you don't care about this, then just go ahead and take a seat. But if you want to follow Chinese tradition, then do the following:

  1. Find one of each wind piece;
  2. Shuffle these 4 pieces face down;
  3. Stack them vertically;
  4. Have someone (the host of the party, maybe) roll the three dice. The others should be at tentative positions at each chair.
  5. Total the dice roll, and count off that number around the table counter-clockwise, starting from the host.
  6. Wherever the count ends, that person gets to choose the topmost piece from the stack. The other players follow in turn, taking the other wind pieces.
  7. Whoever obtains the East wind becomes the first dealer. The player may also choose their seat, and the other players sit according to their wind, relative to the dealer's seat.

The final seat arrangement is:


South           North


Notice some of the peculiarities with this procedure. First is the seat arrangement. Not only is East first (old Chinese maps always had East on top), but the compass is backwards! Only if you're looking up from under the table is the arrangement correct to regular map coordinates (normally, West should always be on the left shoulder if you're facing North), That's a peculiar point of view!

The other peculiarity is the count-off from the dice roll. When counting players, you always go counter-clockwise (that's also the rotation of play). Always start the count, however, with yourself. Therefore, if you roll at 5, you'll start by point to yourself as 1, and then count around the table counterclockwise, and back to yourself for 5. Most Western people are used to counting the first player on their right as 1, so take care to adjust to the Mahjong way.


Sufficient chips should be given to each player. Traditional game sets have 3 Red, 4 Green, and 10 Yellow chips for each player. These chips stand for 50, 10, and 1 unit of pay-out, respectively, or Red may be 100.

Shuffle all pieces together, face-down. Each player should then starting building a straight wall, 17 long by 2 high. When completed, the walls should be arranged in a square shape in the middle of the table.

Set the Prevailing Wind Indicator to East.


The dealer rolls the three dice. Counting counter-clockwise, starting with the dealer's wall, the dealer counts off all walls until the number of the dice. Then, count from the right end of that wall each stack, until the number of the dice. Break the wall at that point.

The dealer starts by taking 4 pieces (2 stacks) from the left of the break in the wall. Players in turn continue taking 4 pieces, until everybody has 12 pieces. Then, the dealer takes the top piece of the 1st and 3rd stack of the wall, and every other player takes one piece.

Dealer now has 14 pieces, everyone else has 13. Players should view their pieces, arranging them suitably. Play starts with the dealer discarding one piece, then play continues with the player to the right. When new pieces are needed off the wall, they should be taken off in a clock wise direction.


Pong is 3 of a kind. This may be any of the suit pieces, dragons, or winds. If the player has a pong is his hand, it need not be revealed. However, if the player has 2 of a king, and the latest discard makes the pong, the player may call PONG, take the discard, reveal all three pieces, and then discard any piece. If two players claim the same discard, PONG takes precedence.


Kong is 4 of a kind. This may be any of the suit pieces, dragons, or winds. If the player has a kong in his hand, it need not be revealed. However, the player may choose to reveal it at any time when it is his turn. When doing so, the player takes a free piece from the opposite end of the wall (the counter-clockwise end), and then discards. This extra draw is to compensate for the extra piece lost in the 4 of a kind.

If a player has a hidden pong, and the latest discard matches, the player may call "KONG!", take the piece, reveal the set, draw from the end of the wall, and discard.


If a player has a revealed pong, and draws the 4th piece, he may reveal this piece, draw an extra piece off the end of the wall, and then discard. If, however, the 4th piece is discarded by another player after the pong has already been revealed, then the kong cannot be completed.


Chee (sequence) of 3 tiles

Chee is 3 in a sequence. This may be only of the suit pieces. If a player has chee in his hand, it need not be revealed. If it is a player's turn, and the latest discard may be used to complete a chee, he may take the discard, reveal the set, and discard. If the discard may be used for a chee, but another player called PONG (or KONG), then the pong takes precedence.


If a player draws the last piece for completion, then he may call "MAH-JONG", and complete the game. The player may also complete the game if the last needed piece, whether it be for a chee, pong, kong, or the second piece in the pair, is discarded by another player. Note that the pair needed for completion may be collected in the hand at anytime. Going out (Mah-jong) takes precedence over pong, kong, or chee.


If the play reaches the end of the wall, the game is ended in a draw. All pieces are reshuffled, and the dealer remains the same. The player who draws the very last piece need not discard.


The winner reveals his hand, scores it (see below) and every other player pays according to the score. Other players need not reveal their hands. Then, the pieces are reshuffled. If the winning player was the dealer, the dealer remains the same. Otherwise, the deal passes one player to the right. Another game is played.

When the deal passes back to the starting dealer, the prevailing wind indicator should be changed to the next wind. Winds follow in this sequence: East, South, West, and North. Each time the wind changes, one round of play is considered to be over.

If enough games are played that the 4 rounds are played (each player has dealt with North [the last wind] as the prevailing wind, so the deal has passed back to the Starting Dealer), the games are considered over. If players wish to continue at that point, they should proceed to choose seats again.


See Scoring



If a player, through chees and Pong/Kongs of discards, has revealed 3 sets (nine pieces) of a clear hand, he should immediately call CALLING 9 PIECES (Kau' tseung in Cantonese) This is a warning to other players. Once this has been declared, if any player discards the winning piece for this hand, and the hand is a clear Hand, then the discarding player must pay everyone's payout; not only must he pay double for himself, he must pay for the other two players. Thus, he pays 4 times the pay-out. Since the minimum score for a Clear Hand is 6 points, this is indeed a warning "danger"!


If in the situation of above, and a player throws a piece that makes the calling hand have 4 sets revealed (12 pieces), then that discarded player may be in deeper trouble. For in this case, if the calling hand then self-draws, the discarder must pay everything, on top of the doubling already expected for a self-draw.

Note that in Calling 9 pieces, no single player must pay all if the hand self-draws. Instead, every player must pay double, by normal self-draw rules (Condition I). However, in Calling 12 Pieces (Shap I Tseung), the winning player must remember who gave him the 12th piece, and if he then wins on self-draw, he'll collect the pay-out from this player only. Note that this is a very heavy penalty. Since a clear Hand is worth at least 6 points, and a self draw is worth another, for 7 points, and each player must pay double of the pay-out, the penalty is very heavy.


If a player reveals a hidden Kong, and another player is calling for one of those pieces, he may 'steal' the kong, and win the game. Note this only occurs if the player reveals the kong. If the player instead keeps the Kong hidden, and then wins the game, the only hand who could steal from this would be a potential 13 Scholars Hands.


This rule is not always used. The last 14 pieces of the game are never played. If the game gets to the 15th piece, it is drawn, and if the drawing player does not win on this, the game is a draw. Notice that the last 14 pieces are fluid, since the extra piece drawn after a kong is taken from the end of the wall.


The latest discard is not considered 'dead' until the next player has drawn and also discarded another piece. So, if a player is slow to notice the latest discard, but he needs it, he may call it if the next player has not yet discarded. If the Next player has already drawn and seen the next piece, it must be put back in the same place. For politeness reason, some may dispute ultra-fast draw and discarding plays, as they may make it impossible for anyone to claim the latest discard.


The discarding player must answer correctly if questioned on the identity of the latest discard. Questions on past discards need not be answered.


Formally, if a player mistakenly calls Mah-Jong, and reveals his hand, the game is over and the player must pay everyone maximum (usually considered 128).

If the player's hand is short or long (has 12 or 14 pieces in his hand), and is discovered, the game is over and he must pay 128 to every player. However, it is prudent for oneself not to reveal such a mistake, and just play on; of course, then the player cannot win on such a hand, just maybe hope for a draw.

If a player mistakenly calls Pong of Chee, no penalty is incurred. However, if the player does such a mistake, claims the piece, and no one immediately notices, but later discovers that the revealed hand is incorrect, then the mistaken player must pay 128 to everyone, and the game is over.

If a player draws from the wrong end of the wall (or a wrong piece), he should put back the piece, and draw the correct piece. If, however, he is not corrected immediately, and discards, then he may keep the piece. This may be suspect play, however!

If a piece is knocked off the wall, it is placed back in its same position, even if revealed.

If a player accidently reveals his own piece, he simply covers it back up. If another player accidently knocks down a player's pieces, no penalty is incurred. However, severe ostracism and scorn may be called for!


At any time, if a player feels his seat unlucky, or whatever, he may call for a reassignment of seating. The steps outlined in choosing Seats should be followed. For seriousness, this should not be done more than once during a sitting!


See Glossary


Mahjong Rules for 5 Persons article by our uncle William Pau, Hong Kong

© 2019, Kevin & Connie Lacobie Some graphics by: