"I am not very competitive by nature but I don't want to continue to lose either. Any tips? How long should it take to be comfortable? How long before I can guess what hands others are playing? (these people can) How important to play defensively, that is, by not discarding a tile you may think someone wants? I hate it when my discarded tile gives some one Mah Jongg."
All are excellent questions that need to be asked if one wants to take their game to a more satisfying level.
Unfortunately, I can't say definitively how long it will take to be comfortable. As with anything else in life, results come with effort. I am still wondering when I am going to lose those last ten pounds, but if I don't take steps to count my points, track my food and remember what I had for breakfast, I will not reach my goal. The same with mahj. There are steps to take improve and I will outline some of them.
Now, there are the Ten Commandments of Mahjongg as posted by Elaine Sandberg on her blog. Although it is written tongue in cheek, following these rules will help your game. Ms. Sandberg also offers some specific strategies and I would recommend a read-through. Tom Sloper posts a weekly strategy column on his Sloperama site - read and learn! I will from time to time offer specific hand-based strategy, but for now will contribute my list of do's and don'ts. These are things I have learned over the years and they all have helped to improve my game.
- DO - Pay attention! Watch the table. Know what has gone out and what hasn't.
- DO - Know the card! Study it until you know it by heart. Then you will know what goes with what, what your opponents are playing, what hand is available to switch to, when to break up your hand and when you are still in the game.
- DO - Take risks. Try that singles and pairs hand or push for the quint. The worst that will happen is you will have gone down in flames, but no one need know.
- DO - Play with people who are better than you are. Watch carefully what they do. Emulate them. When you are the bettor, stand behind them and try to figure out how they think.
- DO - Ask questions. Play your hand and then after the game ask another player if they would have made the same decisions you did. You may be surprised by the different perspectives.
- DON'T - Be afraid to make a mistake. Everyone has gone dead or given someone else mahj at one point or another. This is how we learn. Fear and anxiety serve no purpose but to show your opponents that you are fearful and anxious. Playing too cautiously is as detrimental as playing too recklessly. If you have followed the Do's above, you need not worry.
- DON'T - Bring your troubles to the table. Think about the tiles, not about the price of gas or the medical test you are having next week. Although I wouldn't say Mahj is necessarily a relaxing game, it provides an opportunity to pull your mind out of daily life and into an atmosphere where you can succeed by winning a hand.
- DON'T - Talk too much. This takes your attention away from the game. Talk between games. Don't get distracted by gossip or opinions about who should win Celebrity Apprentice.
- DON'T - Make assumptions about what other people are playing. If Lorraine has put up four 1111's don't assume she is playing FF 2011 1111 1111 unless you have other evidence to support your conclusion. There are other hands she could be playing. Know what they are.
- DON'T - Fall in love with the tiles. Yes, you may have three soaps, but do you need them? Will they help you to win? Not if all your other tiles are winds, at least not this year. Grit your teeth and pass them away one by one. Keep one and throw it out first so nobody gets them all. Have control over your hand.