Mahjong is a Chinese game of skill, strategy, and mathematical determination. Learn how to play this amazing game with our useful explanation.

Mahjong online how to play

Mahjong is a tile-based game that originated in China in the 1600s and spread throughout the Western world during the 20th century. Many people are familiar with the single-player variant often referred to as Mahjong Solitaire where you must match tiles with the same symbols against the clock.

The more traditional format involves 4 players and 144 tiles. It is akin to the card game rummy in that you must complete sets in order to declare "Mahjong" which means you have won.

There are several variants including Chinese, Hong Kong, Twainese and even American variants. It is claimed that the casino version of Mahjong is among the simplest to learn and play so even if you have very little experience, you'll be able to pick the game up fairly quickly.

Players need to collect combinations of tiles while playing Mahjong. These combinations are called Chows, Pungs, and Kongs:

  • Chow Collection: 3 tiles in consecutive sequence.
  • Pung Collection: 3 identical tiles of the same suit.
  • Kong Collection: 4 identical tiles of the same suit.

Basics of the game and first steps

Those who are new to the game will need to familiarise themselves with the Mahjong tiles prior to playing. There are 36 distinct pieces bearing various Chinese symbols and lettering. There are 4 of each kind which provides 144 tiles in total.

There are three suits of "Simple" tiles: Bamboo, Characters and Dots, all of which are numbered 1 through to 9.

Next, you have two sets of "Honors" tiles. One is Winds (East, South, West and North) and the other is Dragons (Red, White and Green).

Finally, there are 8 Bonus tiles: 4 Seasons and 4 Flowers. Both of these are also numbered (1 - 4).

A game starts with all the tiles being shuffled and sorted into Walls. Two dice a thrown to determine who the dealer will be and he gives each player 13 tiles.

Players then take it in turns to either take a tile from the Wall (one of the remaining tiles leftover after dealing) or by claiming a tile discarded by another player.

A winning hand requires 14 tiles. It consists of four melds. This is a group of three tiles in a specific pattern and one set of eyes - an identical pair. There are some alternative ways to win depending on the exact variant you are playing.

Mahjong Tiles and Types

The tiles in Mahjong are Bamboo, Character, Circle, Dragon, Wind, Flower, and Season. Of the 136 tiles, there are 34 distinct designs with 4 duplicates of each. The tiles are classified as Number tiles and Honor tiles.

The Number tiles with different designs numbered 1 through 9, are in 3 main suits, which are Bamboo, Circle, and Character. The 1 and 9 tiles are "Terminals" and the 2 through 8 tiles are "Simples".

Bamboo tiles are also called "Sticks", the Circle tiles are also called "Dots", and the Character tiles are also called "Actors".

The Honor tiles are the Wind and Dragon tiles. The Wind tiles East, West, North, and South all have 4 duplicates. The Dragon tiles Red, Green, and White all have 4 duplicates.

Each set can be either Concealed or Exposed. Exposed sets are created by claiming discarded tiles from other players. These are immediately shown as each one is created. Concealed sets are created from the player's initial hand and tiles drawn from the wall. These are not shown to other players until the hand is won.

As explained earlier, the goal is to get four sets and a pair. The first player to reach this goal wins the hand. Most of the time, the winning hand will have exactly 14 tiles. If the hand includes Kongs, it will have more than 14 tiles.

Chow

A sequence of 3 consecutively numbered tiles in the same suit. For example, the 7, 8, and 9 tiles of the Circle suit. Players can only build a Chow from discarded tiles of the player to their left, and not from any of the other players. A Chow can be a "Concealed Sequence'"or an "Exposed Sequence". The Exposed Sequence is when a player holds a Chow and claims it aloud; announcing it to the other players.

Pung

A set of 3 identical tiles of the same suit, also known as a "triplet". A Pung can also be 3 Honor tiles. A Pung can be a "Concealed Triplet" or an "Exposed Triplet". An Exposed Triplet is when a player claims it by stating 'Pung' aloud and claims a discarded tile. This player then shows the created Pung set after discarding a tile.

Kong

A "Kong" is a set of 4 identical tiles in the same suit. These tiles are not regarded as a Kong if a concealed hand has 4 identical tiles, instead it is counted as a Concealed Triplet with an extra tile. When a Kong is created using a discarded tile, the player announces "Kong" aloud, showing the created set. If the Kong was formed by drawing a tile from the Wall, the player is not required to expose the set and can continue to hold it concealed. By keeping the Kong concealed, the player can split it later to use one of these tiles to create a Chow if the player wishes to do so. This type of Kong is called a "Concealed Kong". In the event of a Concealed Kong, the player will draw a replacement tile from the wall only upon declaring the Kong.

Pair

Two identical tiles form a Pair. A Pair can be created using a discarded tile only when the player declares "Mahjong". Only 1 Pair is allowed per hand. The final results and the rank of each player is decided upon adding their points on a number of hands. Considering a set of 16 hands being played, the final results are calculated by adding the cumulative points and scores for each hand.

Dice are used to pick the seats and for "Breaking the Wall". The dice count finds the player. For example, if a player throws the dice and the roll adds up to 5, considering the player rolling the dice as number one, moving counter-clockwise, the count of 5 would bring the count back to that player.

Playing Mahjong step by step

Below you can learn how to play step by step:

  1. Picking the Seats
  2. Building and Breaking the Wall
  3. Dealing the Tiles
  4. Drawing the Tiles

Picking The Seats

Initially, 4 players will seat themselves randomly around a square table. They will each pick up a Wind tile and put them face down on the table. Then they take turns shuffling the tiles around randomly, and then line them up side by side, still facing down, in the center of the table. Two tiles, one odd number and one even number, are taken and placed on either side of the shuffled Wind tiles, facing up. Now, the Wind tiles are positioned between the odd and even numbered tiles.

A chosen player at random will roll the pair of dice, and the count on the dice will indicate which player will roll the dice first to pick their hidden Wind tile. The count will be done in a counter-clockwise direction. The indicated player will roll the pair of dice, and if the sum of the rolled dice is odd, the player will choose the Wind tile on the end closest to the odd numbered tile.

In a counter-clockwise direction, each subsequent player will choose the next Wind tile on the end closest to the odd numbered tile, and so on until all 4 players have chosen a Wind tile. If the sum of the rolled dice is even, the player will choose the Wind tile on the end closest to the even numbered tile. In a counter-clockwise direction, each subsequent player will choose the next Wind tile on the end closest to the even numbered tile, and so on, until all 4 players have chosen a Wind tile. The player who chose the 'East Wind' tile will be the seated in the East position, and the remaining players will take their assigned "Seat Wind".

The "East Wind" player is considered the dealer, and after each hand the players will change their seats at the table by moving in a counter-clockwise direction, and therefore be reassigned their wind direction by taking over the wind direction of the player seated there previously. For every hand played, the specific wind direction is determined by where a player is seated and a matching wind tile will increase the player's ability to score more points.

Building and Breaking the Wall

Now that each player has taken their assigned seats, the 136 tiles (144 with the optional Flower and Season tiles included) are placed on the table faced down and shuffled. Each player then selects 34 tiles (36 if the Flower and Season tiles are included) and arranges them in 2 stacks of 17 tiles (18 with Flower and Season tiles included) each. Each of the player's stacks will meet at the corners, forming a square that is known as the 'Wall'.

The "East Wind" player rolls the dice to determine the side where the Wall will be broken. The sum of the rolled dice is counted in a counter-clockwise direction and where the count ends is the side of the Wall to be broken, or opened.
The "East Wind" player rolls the dice again, and the sum of the rolled dice is counted starting from the right end of the side to be broken, and the tiles are shifted apart slightly to show a definitive break in the Wall. These tiles are known as the "Dead Wall". The tiles on the left of the 'Dead Wall' are known as the "Live Wall".

Important Note
the tiles in the Dead Wall are reserved to be used as replacement tiles whenever a player has a Concealed Kong, or whenever a Flower or Season tile is encountered. In Mahjong, whenever a Flower or Season tile is dealt, or drawn from the Wall, the tile is put aside facing up, and a replacement tile must be drawn from the Dead Wall.

If the tile that is drawn from the Dead Wall is another Flower or Season tile, it too, must be set aside facing up, and another replacement tile must be drawn. Whenever a player has a Concealed Kong, this player can retain it to the end of the hand or else he can declare it to pick up a replacement tile.

Dealing The Tiles

The priority wind is the East Wind player, who starts by taking 2 stacks (4 tiles) from the Live Wall, followed by the remaining players each taking two stacks from the Live Wall in a counter-clockwise direction. This cycle continues until all players each have 12 tiles. Then, the players that are not the East Wind player will pick 1 tile each, followed by the East Wind player picking 2 tiles, because this player will be the first to start with the initial formal tile discard.

Drawing The Tiles

The East Wind player starts by discarding a tile. The discarded tile is placed facing up inside the Wall. The South Wind player to the East Wind player's right may pick up this discarded tile, or draw a tile from the Wall. This cycle continues in a counter-clockwise direction with each player. If the discarded tile is claimed by any of the players, the sequence is broken and the game continues from this point.

Mahjong Winning and Scoring

When any player collects a combination of 4 triplets, quadruplets, or sequences, they win. The game's end is activated when the winning player first declares Mahjong, or when there are no unused tiles left. In the case of no unused tiles remaining, there is no winner.

When any player discards a tile, any of the other players may claim the tile to Pung or Kong the tile, except for the Chow, which can only be created from the discards of the players on the left.

In the event that 2 players try claiming the same discarded tile, there is a priority rule extended in the following sequence:

  • Going Out (declaring Mahjong)
  • Kong or Pung Formation
  • Chow Formation

If 2 players try to claim the same discarded tile for Going Out, or declaring Mahjong, the player to the right of the thrower is the winner. When successfully creating and collecting 4 sets of Chow, Pung, and Kong, plus a Pair, the player asserts their win by declaring 'Mahjong' aloud. Winning hands consist of a total of 14 tiles. The winner automatically scores 20 points.

After each round the seating position changes or rotates in counter-clockwise direction, even if there is a dead hand, where there are no winners.

Learning the Mahjong Tiles

There is a total of 136 tiles in Mahjong, with three major suits:

  1. Bamboo: Numbered 1 through 9 = 9 types
  2. Circles: Numbered 1 through 9 = 9 types
  3. Wan: Numbered 1 through 9 = 9 types

There are 7 Honor Tiles

  • Four Winds: East, West, North, and South = 4 types
  • Three Dragons: Red, Green, and White = 3 types

Wan: Numbered 1 through 9 = 9 types

  • The 3 Main Suits consist of 9 types each = 27 out of the 34 types
  • The 4 Winds consist of 4 out of the 34 types
  • The Dragons consist of 3 out of the 34 types

27 + 4 + 3 = 34 types, and 34 types of tiles x 4 of each type = 136 tiles.

There are 8 Special Bonus Tiles:

  • Flower Tiles x 4
  • Season Tiles x 4

136 + 8 = 144 Tiles, as the Symbolic Square of Mahjong illustrates.

Mahjong glossary of terms

To become an expert player, you first need to learn how to speak the language of the game. Practice it here with the glossary of terms:

# B

  • Bamboos: Often called 'Bams' or 'Sticks' this is one of the 3 main tile suits
  • Bonus Tiles: Flower tiles and Season tiles

# C

  • Characters: Often called 'Cracks' for short, this refers to the 3 different tile suits
  • Chicken Hand: This is a hand worth nothing; no points can be acquired
  • China Jade: This is a hand with nothing but green colored tiles
  • Chow: This is a hand with tiles of the same suit in sequence, or knitted tiles
  • Circles: Often called 'Dots' or 'Coins' this is one of the 3 main tile suits
  • Concealed: This is when a tile, or tiles, are drawn from the wall, yet not exposed

# D

  • Discard: This is a tile thrown away by a player, and not picked up by another player
  • Dispersed Kong: A hand with 4 identical suit tiles not in a Kong

# E

  • Exposed: This is a tile that is part of a player's set, or a discarded tile, that is facing up and can be seen

# F

  • Family Hand: This is a hand with the 3 suits, Dragons, and Winds
  • Flower Tile: This is 1 of the 2 Bonus tiles

# G

  • Going Mahjong: This is when a player holds a hand with a value of 8 or more points, that yells "Mahjong"
  • Going Out: This is another term for "Going Mahjong"

# H

  • Head: This is a reference to the pair of tiles that any player must have in most hands in order to 'Go Out'
  • Honors: This is a reference to the Dragon tiles and the Wind tiles

# K

  • Knitted Tiles: This is a reference to tiles numbered '1-4-7' '2-5-8' and '3-6-9' in all 3 tile suits
  • Kong: This is a reference to a player holding a set consisting of four identical tiles

# M

  • Major Tiles: This is reference to 'Honours' and 'Terminals' tiles
  • Matching Chow: This is a reference to matching 2 chows that are in different tile suits
  • Meld: Another term used for a 'Set'

# N

  • Nine Gates: This is a reference to a hand consisting of a single suit, where any tile of the same suit makes the hand complete

# P

  • Progressive Chows: Leveling up Chows by 1 or 2 digits
  • Progressive Pongs: Leveling up Pongs by 1 digit
  • Pong: Another term used for a "Set"

# R

  • Reversible Tiles: Tiles that look exactly the same when inverted

# S

  • Self-Drawn: This is a reference to a tile taken from the wall by a player
  • Sequence: This is a reference to a set of tiles in numerical sequence
  • Set: A Chow, Kong, or Pong
  • Simples: This is a reference to suit tiles that can be anything except 'Terminals'
  • Stepped: This is a reference to when chows are separated by 1 or 2 numbers

# T

  • Terminals: This is a reference to tiles numbered 1 and 9 of the 3 main suits
  • Thirteen Orphans: This is a reference to a player's hand consisting of 1 each of every major tile, and 1 tile that is paired
  • Twin Chows: This a reference to tiles that consist of 2 completely matching chows that are both the same suit

# V

  • Void Suit: This is a reference to a hand missing tiles of 1 particular suit

# W

  • Wall: This a reference to the tiles facing down, and not exposed, at the beginning of the game play
  • Wind, Own: This correlates to a player's position at the table
  • Wind, Prevailing: The wind that makes up the round
  • Wind, Seat: This correlates to a player's seat at the table

Conclusion

Like with all games, Mahjong can seem a little complex to beginners, but it's very easy to get the hang of after a few rounds. It's enjoyable if you prefer to play titles that involve strategy and tactics.

You have to weigh up the choice of taking a discarded tile to help form a set against the fact that all the other players will then know one of your hands. Those players can then adjust their strategy accordingly if required, but of course, you don't know any of their tiles at this point.

While this is a very popular game, it's not available at that many casinos, unfortunately. However, our team has researched the industry to find out where you can play real money Mahjong online.

Last update: 30-09-2019