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Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Jokers - take them or leave them




   A major difference between Asian style mahj and American (NMJL) style mahj is that we use jokers and they don't.  When the game was imported to the U.S. in the 1920's jokers were not part of a set, and for many years flowers were used as jokers.  Check out this information from a chart posted by Tom Sloper.  It lists the card years, and the number of flowers and jokers used that year.  What would make the League go from 20 flowers in 1949 up to 24 in 1950 and back to 20 in 1958?  I will be asking Mrs. Unger that question at this year's Annual Meeting, so stay tuned.     

1937-42    8 Flowers
1943        12 Flowers
1944-45   14 Flowers
1946        16 Flowers
1947-48   18 Flowers
1949        20 Flowers
1950-55   24 Flowers
1956-57   22 Flowers
1958-60   20 Flowers
1960-62   14 Flowers/2 Jokers
1962-66   12 Flowers/4 Jokers
1966-67    8 Flowers/6 Jokers
1967-68   10 Flowers/6 Jokers
1968-71     6 Flowers 8 Jokers
1971 -       8 Flowers/8 Jokers

.This chart also explains why you will see so many flowers in an older set.  And why you might see a flower with nail polish on it to signify a joker tile.  Imagine getting a new set every year to accommodate all the changes?  Oy.

So here are the basics on jokers - from the obvious to the obscure.

  • Jokers can only be used with three or more identical tiles.  You cannot use jokers with 2011, 1223, NEWS or any pair - even if it is your mahjongg tile.
  • If someone throws a joker, it can never be called.
  • If someone puts out an exposure with a joker, you may exchange the natural tile for the joker (yes, even if you are playing a concealed hand)  But first - Pick a tile and think through your strategy.
    • Look at the table.  If your opponent has 2 three craks and a joker, do you see another three crak on the table?  If no, take the joker before someone else does.  
      • If you have the only tile available to exchange, ask the following: 
    • Does the joker open your hand for calling?  If yes, take the joker.
    • Are you playing a jokerless hand?  If yes, wait and see.  If you will be set (one away), throw the tile.  If you go dead, take the joker and open your hand.
    • If you are two tiles away you can benefit by holding the natural tile.  Calling for exposure, then exchanging the joker and claiming mahjongg will give you a self-pick win.
    • Sharon has three flowers out with a joker.  You are playing a hand that needs four flowers and you have three.  No flowers are on the table.  Take the joker before someone else does.
  • A joker is always safe to throw at the end of a game.  Pretend you didn't see it so you won't let on that you are waiting for a pair.  Oh, gosh, you had six craks out?  I thought they were eights!  
  • Do you really want to  expose with a joker at the end of the game when the fourth three bam is not on the table?  Some smart cookie is holding back the tile waiting for the joker to exchange.
  • Don't assume that five jokers guarantees your win, but do try to work your hand around them.  That's what quints are for.
Do you have any joker do's or don'ts?  Share them with us!  And please take a moment to contact your representative about the limitations of the Stop Online Piracy Act.  


30 comments:

  1. jokers make me laugh

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  2. Thanks Linda for this post...it helped clear the webs from my fuzzy memory. I learned this wonderfully addictive game back in NY in the 1960-62 timeframe when a Mah Jongg set had 14 Flowers/2 Jokers and I thought I remembered something about those Flowers being a "wild" card/tile. At that time I was a college student, drafted as a replacement into my mother's weekly game. I hadn't played during the 50 years between now and then, until last summer when I had the opportunity to once again play in a couple of drop-in games in the SF Bay Area where I now live. But among the 50+ players that I now associate with, all of them learned the game much more recently and knew nothing about the 60s era, so I really enjoyed ready this post.

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    1. I also learned in the '60s but don't remember exactly how many flowers there were - just that there were a lot of them and there was total chaos when everyone had to change their sets to accommodate jokers.

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  3. Hi Linda, I wrote to you last spring after taking my mah jongg lessons in Feb and Mar. I am doing o.k. Strangely it seems when I play with my own set I don't do so well as I rarely then draw jokers.

    I always have a lot of questions to ask and the women think I ask weird questions. Today the player to my right played the hand that is four flowers, four each of two consecutive numbers followed by two dragons. She had chosen one and two dots and so of course used soaps. This led me to question if it would be possible to use dots as zeros (filling in with jokers) and ones and of course the two dragons or soaps. I was told no, because zero is not a number.

    However when I got home I remembered that of course we do use zeros as numbers when we play the year 2011 (I'm sure this was also true of the year 2000 and 2001 through 2000 to 2010) If we can use zero as a number there why can't we use it as a zero elsewhere? When we play FFFF 2222 0000 11, aren't those zeros not soaps?

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    1. Your question is very interesting and I brought it up with my group. In my opinion it would not be feasible to use 0 in number hands because it can only be used with dots, so it would have to be in its own category. It would be awkward for the card to say for example, "any three suits unless you are using a zero which can only be used with dots"). The League seems to use zero strictly for year hands and only in the years containing a zero, so it isn't really an all-purpose zero. I remember the confusion the 2000 card caused when soaps were introduced as zeros.
      The League and the card are silent on this as an official ruling but in my opinion as the convention has always been numbers start at 1, and 0 is reserved for years containing a zero, you could not use 0 in a hand that was not a year hand.

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  4. IF YOU NEED 4 SOAPS IN A 2015 HAND, CAN YOU USE A JOKER FOR ONE OF THE SOAPS?

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    1. If you are playing a hand that uses four soaps (either 0000 or DDDD) you may use a joker. It is only for the 2015 grouping you cannot use a joker because that is single tiles, but 0000 or DDDD is a kong, which means four identical tiles, and so a joker can be used.

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  5. I had exposed a kong consisting of 3, 8 craks and 1 joker. Another player discarded an 8 crak instead of exchanging it for my joker. Could I have called the 8 crak, and then used the joker to call Mah Jongg?

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  6. The answer is no. You can only call a tile from the table to use to complete a new exposure.

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  7. Can you call a tile say 3 crack with only jokers (3), then expose the 4 tiles?

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    Replies
    1. Yes - you do not need the natural tile to make an exposure.

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  8. My set has 4 blank tiles and no jokers. Can the blanks be used as jokers?

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  9. If you are playing National Mah Jongg League mahjongg you will need 8 jokers. You can get stickers to put on the blanks - Google "mahjong joker stickers" for some ideas.

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  10. What's the etiquette for 'taking' a joker from an exposure? Do you do the exchange yourself (that is touch someone else's tiles), or hold it out for them to take? This came up at our game today, with someone saying you could not 'touch' someone else's tiles, but I could find anything about that in the rule book.

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    1. There is no "official rule" about not touching someone else's rack or tiles. However, some players are a little sensitive and consider it intrusive on their space. So it is a courtesy when exchanging to hold out the tile and say "exchange," or "replacing," and allow the opposing player to physically make the exchange. Try to avoid putting the tile on the table, unless you make it clear that you are exchanging, as others may interpret it as a discard.

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  11. Hi Linda, thanks for replying to my question. Here's another one:
    Can you take two jokers from an exposure at one time? Scenario: a player has exposed a kong of 2 3 Bams and 2 Jokers. I have 2 3 Bams in my hand. Can I exchange those for both jokers in one turn? (Hope this makes sense ;)

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    1. Hi, Betty - yes, as long as it is your turn, you may exchange for as many jokers as you have tiles for. Sometimes you get very lucky and can take more than one.

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    2. From as many players as you can exchange a tile for a joker? Or just one player at a time?

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    3. As long as it is your turn you may exchange from more than one player. You do it one at a time, but it's all on the same turn.

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  12. I know a joker can NEVER be called. My friend called Mah Jonng when someone discarded a Joker at the end of the game. She says this is the only time a Joker can be called. I disagree. Please inform....

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    1. Sorry, your friend is wrong. You can never call a joker from the table, not even to mahj. For this reason, many players will discard jokers at the end of the game, as they are considered "safe" tiles to throw since they can't be called.

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  13. when did the rule occur where a joker could not be used as a pair thanks

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    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

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    2. While I cannot say with certainty, I would guess 1971 when the standard became 8 flowers and 8 jokers. I have a card from 1969 that states jokers can be used for any tile, but at that time it was 6 flowers and 8 jokers and very few hands had pairs.

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  14. Hi - A question keeps coming up - if you are playing a concealed hand, can you still exchange a tile for another player's exposed joker? There seem to be differing opinions on this. National MJ League indicated no on the rules for online play. Other sites indicate yes.

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    1. The answer to this question was just published in the NMJL 2016 Newsletter: "You may always exchange a tile for a joker, regardless of whether you are playing a concealed or an exposed hand."

      The taking of a joker does not require you to make an exposure, so your hand remains concealed. Could you be more specific about the online rule you are referring to?

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  15. What is the rule of throwing to three exposures? Is this a table rule? Is this an official rule where you pay for the table if you throw the mahjong tile with three exposures?

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    1. The official rule is whoever throws mahjongg pays double. There is no distinction made about how many exposures. Any rules about paying for the table are table or home game rules and not official rules. Of course, in tournaments, you get more points off if you throw to three exposures, but that is a tournament rule not a League rule.

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  16. I have a question concerning jokers. I was playing today and only needed two flowers to complete a kong of flowers for mah jongg. The extra tile in my hand was a 7 bam. The player to my right exposed a kong of 7 bams which included a joker. The next player took her turn and then the player before me picked from the wall and discarded a flower. Now it was my turn. Could I pick up the discarded flower, exchange the 7 bam for the exposed joker, then expose my kong of flowers for Mah Johngg? Every example I read of exchanging a tile for an exposed joker, begins with picking a tile from the wall first not the previously discarded tile. What are your thoughts?

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    1. You did not have enough tiles in your hand to call for the flower. A discard can only be claimed to complete an exposure. The joker can only be exchanged after the full exposure is made, or, as you say, after you have picked from the wall. Sorry!

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