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Wednesday, December 14, 2011

How to Charleston

We of a certain age know what the Charleston is, but what is the etymology as far as its relationship to mahjongg?   Does anyone know?  Does anyone care?  Here is my hypothesis:  Mahj was at the peak of its popularity in the 1920s, and the Charleston, of course, was the popular dance of the day.  If you watch people doing the dance you will see they place their right foot across the left leg and then the left leg across the right.  Sound familiar?  Of course.

Now, in theory passing sounds easy, but practice can prove otherwise.
First right  is probably the easiest, since you've put all your pairs together, looked for families, done all the right things and can easily select three orphans that you want to dump on your opponents.  You can afford to be a little reckless here, since it's anyone's guess as to what tiles are in play.
First across is a little more difficult.  At this point you will be evaluating incoming information and honing the hand.  If you don't have a definite direction, this is the time to find one, no matter how weak it may be.  Mahjongg is about decision making, being firm and precise.  A tile passed on the first across can come back to you on the second left, allowing you to draw some preliminary conclusions about the hands of others.
First left gives you the first opportunity to steal, but only do so if you are squeezed. Often times a steal will backfire, leaving you no better than you were before the pass.  Keep in mind a tile you pass on the first left can come back to you on the option.  Once you receive your first left stop and re-evaluate before passing the second left.

Second Left begins the second Charleston and is done only if no one has expressed a desire to stop the passing.  Ideally as the tiles are passed, players should state which pass is taking place.  State "Right" and then place the tiles to the right, "Across" and then "First Left."  The Second Left is differentiated by stacking one tile atop the other two like a cap or "little house".  Chatting should be kept to a minimum during passing, as it is easy to be distracted.  Keep track of where you are or there will be trouble down the road!
Must across is just as it sounds.  You must pass three tiles across.  I sometimes whimsically refer to it as the Mustard Cross since I like the sound of those two words together and it creates and interesting visual.  But cross you must. If you get back on the second left the same tiles you passed on the first across, just pass them across again.  But if you got something good on the second left you may be reluctant to make this pass.  If you do pass away a needed tile, be prepared to kiss it goodbye and make your adaptations.
What's wrong with this picture?  Answer below.

Last Right a/k/a last rites, is your last chance to get your house in order.  At this stage you should have a strong inkling of what hand you are going for, and a plan B in place in case things don't pan out.  You should not be surprised at what tiles get thrown out in the first few sets of discards, as they will have made their appearance a couple of times in the passing.  Call your bettor over before you do the option.
Option is usually a futile effort, and it is rare you will see anything new; just the same old right-side-of-the-rack debris. Let the bettor see what you got and then start your play.  

Answer to quiz:  The player is picking up her across before her second left!  This will lead to one player having too many tiles while another has too few.  Avoid squabbles and do not pass your across until you see the second left has been taken.   
Last word:  Another common cause of screwups is short walls being mistaken for passes.  Make certain that if you have a wall that ends up with three or fewer tiles that it is added to the next wall so it does not inadvertently get picked up.  If a screwup occurs before East discards, the proper remedy is to throw all the tiles in and start again, which is no fun especially if you have a decent hand.


  1. In the past, my Mah Jongg group had often "screwed up" our Charleston. So now we use the iPhone app called Mah Jongg Groove to keep us on track. It's great! You can get it in the iTunes app store at:

    Or learn more about it at

  2. Should you wait for ALL players to be ready before passing during the Charleston? Are there rules or at least etiquette to guide this part of the game? In our game, people pass whenever they are ready, but that means that each player is on a different passing schedule - some passing right, some passing over, etc....

    1. Hi, Dina - In order to avoid mixups it is a good idea to have some sort of Charleston system. Some people state their intention and say the name of every pass, for example, "first left," then "second left." Others hold on to their tiles until they know that the previous pass has been completed. I, for one, do not pass a first left until I know the players have completed the first across. There's no point in hurrying if you have to throw it in at the end.

  3. is it necessary to preannounce that you may wish to stop the 2nd left pass?

    1. It isn't necessary to preannounce but you should declare your intention before anyone looks at their second left. Once someone has picked up their second left the assumption is that the passing continues.

  4. If you stop the passing after the first left, can you still option and how many tiles?

    1. If the Charleston is stopped then you go immediately to the option. Many people will not give any optional tiles to the person who stopped the Charleston, but that is entirely up to the player.