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Monday, December 8, 2014

Seat Rotation

"Picking time"

Every Friday night I host a game, and I'm fortunate to have a fine group of great players to choose from.  I can fit three tables, although it is more comfortable with two.  I try to limit it to ten people but at some times of the year that's not possible and so we squeeze in three.  That can be up to 15 people.  Everyone plays at the same skill level and everyone gets along.  One thing that adds to the enjoyment is an orderly seat rotation.

How often have you heard:  "Oy, I can't wait to get out of this seat!"  Or, "No jokers in this set?"  Usually the counter is, "It isn't the seat, it's the tush."  But relief is soon near when you know you are going to get up and move to another seat, possibly one that is joker-rich.  

Over the years we have devised a system, and I will share it with you now.  Things vary depending on how many players there are, so we will start with a traditional four or five-player game.  

Four players:  It can get very uncomfortable playing for hours in the same seat.  The National Mah Jongg League has rules for seat rotation known as a pivot.  After two rounds are played and the dice comes back to the original East for the second time, the original East gets up and switches seats with the player on her right.  The dice stay with the seat, and, yes, the original East becomes East next game again.  But at least you are moving.

Five players:  One player stays out while the other four play.  In 1960 my aunt would refer to the player who was out as "the dummy."  Oftentimes she would make a phone call and say, "I can talk for a few minutes.  I'm the dummy."  I was eight years old and would dissolve in a fit of giggles.  Nowadays the dummy is usually a bettor, who makes a bet, then makes a phone call and says, "I'm out," or "I'm betting," and has a little chat, then plays some Candy Crush.  When the game is over, East gets up and the, the bettor, takes her place.

Six players:  This is a little tricky, but we have tried this system and it works.  Four players play.  One player bets.  After the game, East and West get up and the two players who were out sit down.  Repeat.  So you play two games and then are out for one.  When the same two players are out a second time, the player who didn't bet last time bets.

Seven players:  One table plays with four players, and one with three.  (When we play three players we use NMJL rules and eliminate the Charleston.)  When the four-player table has finished a game, East gets up and joins the three-player table so their next game is with four players and the original four-player table now has three players.  Repeat.

Eight players:  When we have more than two full tables we use a method of random selection.  In the beginning, seating is first come-first served.  After things settle down we "pick" for seats.  I have taken an old set and removed the 1, 2 and 3 craks.  I put the tiles in a ceramic jar, pictured above.  When it comes time for seat rotation, if there are eight players, only the 1 and 2 craks are in the jar.  The tiles are shaken up (a cloth was placed in the jar to muffle the racket) and each player selects a tile.  Those with 1's play at table 1.  Those with 2's play at table 2.  Each table plays four games.  At the end of the round we pick again.

Nine players:  Players sit first come, first served.  When the ninth player comes, she is the bettor.  She bets on whichever table is ready for a bet first. When a game is finished at either table, East gets up and the bettor takes her spot.  

Ten players:  Same as with eight players, but we add two 3 craks to the jar.  The first player to get a 3 crak bets at table 1.  The second player to get a 3 crak bets at table 2.  After five games we pick again.

Eleven players:  We try to avoid having seven or eleven, but sometimes it happens that someone cancels at the last minute.  In this event we play two tables of four and one of three.  When East gets up from table 1 she moves to the table of three.  When the game is done at the table of three, East from that table moves to table 2.  East from table 2 moves to table 1.  It's a little tricky, but it works.

Twelve players:  Three tables of four.  After four games, players pick tiles and switch tables.  Three 3 craks are added to the jar, signifying table 1, table 2 or table 3.

Thirteen through fifteen players:  Three tables of four.  Four craks are added to the jar and the 4s signify the bettors.  After five games we pick again.

This system may seem ungainly but it works.  Invariably, however, someone says at the end of the night:  "But I didn't get to play with Rhonda!"  or "I didn't get to play with Estelle."  Also, the number of players may change in that some people come early and stay late, some come late and leave early, some may get an emergency phone call or just not feel well so we need to stay flexible in our arrangements.  Sometimes the room is too cold or too hot for someone so they are allowed to swap their seat assignment if they find a willing taker.  As a great man once said, you can please some of the people some of the time.... 

Other people may have more orthodox or legitimate means of seat assignment, such as a numbering system, alphabet system or other method of insuring that play is orderly and players get to play with as wide a range of players as possible.  And of course in some groups and in tournament play there are many more than three or four tables.  In some tournaments East stays in place while south goes down one, north goes up one and west goes down two; in others East moves along with the rest. Sometimes it can feel like a game of musical chairs.   But we like our little system and tile picking, a solemn event, has become part of our mahjongg tradition.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Throwing hot

"When a player Mah Jonggs on a discarded tile, DISCARDER pays the winner double value."

It's happened to you - the moment comes in your game when Sheila has four six bams and four seven bams exposed on her rack.  You are set for a beautiful pairs hand - there is an excellent chance that you will get that last North; either pick it yourself or some unsuspecting person will throw it, when BLAST IT!! you picked a ......GREEN!!!!!!!!  AAAARRRRRGGGGGHHHH....  WHAT DO I DOOOOO?????  Should I throw it?  Is it hot?  Should I break up my hand?  My beautiful hand?
You close your eyes, take a breath, discard the tile and say in a very low voice...."green?"
THAT'S IT!!!  I NEVER THOUGHT ANYONE WOULD THROW IT!!! HA HA!! MAHJ!!!  Sheila flips her hand onto her rack.  AND JOKERLESS, TOO!!  

As if that weren't bad enough, Rhoda turns to you and says: HOW COULD YOU?  THAT WAS AN OBVIOUS HAND!  YOU SHOULD PAY FOR THE TABLE!!  You only response is to hang your head and say, "But I was set...."

And then you think:  Is Rhoda right?  Should I pay for the table?  What is an obvious hand?  What is a hot tile and what do the rules say about throwing one?  We'll answer these in reverse order.

The rules say nothing about throwing a hot tile.  The rule is what is written above.  Discarder pays the winner double value.  That's it.  Doesn't matter how many exposures, how many flowers are on the table, how many greens are in your hand.  The truth is the National Mah Jongg League does not use the word "hot" anywhere in the official rules, and they are correct not to do so.  Because how does one determine when a tile is hot?

The definition of a hot tile is somewhat shifty.  A tile can be hot if none of its kind have been discarded.  Or it can be hot if it seems as though someone needs it to mahj.  The truth is that hotness is determined by probability and there is no way to know for certain if throwing that tile will cause a win.  An astute player can make an educated guess, but it is nothing more than that.  A hand may seem obvious, but it may not be what one expects.  For example, in the hand above, Sheila may have needed a one or two bam instead of the green.  She may not have had all her flowers.  Even if a person has three exposures out, and they have on their best Cheshire smile, they may not be set.

But some players put on their Wall Street hats and start hedging.  The thinking is:  Why should I, a defensive player, have to pay for the stupid mistake or risky behavior of another?  This is a valid concern, and one that the League does not address, so players have come up with creative techniques to protect their purses.  Some techniques are:
  • If a player has two exposures, no player can throw a tile the player may need.
  • If a player has three exposures, no player can throw a tile the player may need.
  • If a discard is made to two exposures and someone mahjes, discarder pays for all.
  • If a discard is made to three exposures and someone mahjes, discarder pays for all. 
  • If a discarder pays for all, they must pay from their own pocket, not their mahjongg purse.  In this way the discarder won't go pie and will have enough to pay for subsequent games.
  • When play is down to the last wall, no player can throw a tile unless at least two of those tiles are accounted for on the table.
  • When play is down to the last wall, no one can call for mahjongg, and must pick their own.
These are all table rules and must be understood by all players before play begins.  It is unfair to expect a player to abide by a rule that is not an official rule.  Mahjongg etiquette would require that table rules are understood by guest players and fill-ins so that there is no misunderstanding.  

In mahjongg, as in life, we sometimes need to take a chance.  Knowing the consequences will inform our decision.  For me, the risk-reward ratio would favor my throwing that green in the hopes of getting a pairs hand.  For even if I had to pay for all, assuming five players and the hand not bet on, I would pay $1,50, but if my pairs hand came in on a self-pick, I would reap $4. 
And hearing Rhoda screech about it?  Priceless.