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Thursday, March 15, 2012

You better, you bettor, you bet!

Okay, you all know what's going to happen in a couple of weeks, so get your last licks in and kiss the old, tired card goodbye.  Newbies, now's your chance.  There is a window of opportunity that lasts a few weeks, when the playing field is somewhat leveled - experienced players must slow down to absorb the changed patterns of the new card.  Yes, us old hands (pun intended) will recognize some recycled favorites, but it would not be unusual for a long time player to make a mistake, such as exposing on a closed hand or putting out too few tiles.  So new players, get cracking as soon as you get the card - memorize it!  Put flash cards on your smartphone!  Have your loved ones drill you on the hands and all their variations!  Because how will you know who to bet on if you don't know what they're playing?

What follows is a primer on betting. Since betting for money is illegal in some states, I will use the word "points" instead of "cents" but whether you use chips or matches or something else, the principles are the same, and I've heard tell that some folks will take the plunge and start betting when the new card comes.

We start with four players and a bettor.  After a player is East, she becomes the bettor and the prior bettor sits in the seat East vacates.  (At one time players bet with chips which were kept stacked on the posts at the end of the rack.  A set came with five racks, and when the bettor got up, she took her rack with her.)

After the players have completed all passing (including optional) the bettor circles the table and makes a bet.  How do you know who to bet on, your ask?  As with every other facet of this lovely game, you will need to make a complicated decision in a brief time, and you must do it in silence.  Every "hmmm" or "oy" is telling, so when you do the "bettor's walk" keep your opinions to yourself.  Even saying "this is a hard bet" will influence the course of history.  And players, there is no need to "show and tell".  It's really to your disadvantage to be bet on, as you end up with less mon -- fewer points.  Be aware that an observant player can gauge the strength or weakness of a hand by how the player reacts to the bettor's gaze.

So what to look for?

  • Who's got the jokers?
  • Who's got their pairs?
  • Who's got whose tiles?
  • Who's the only one playing winds?
  • Who's been running hot?
  • Who has a great hand but doesn't see it?
  • Who has a calling hand?  A closed hand?
Sometimes a bet is easy.  A player is in position to call every pung or kong and no one else is playing their tiles.  No guarantees, of course - we've all been undone by the errant flower.  In a way, the bettor is a demigod.  You have the big picture, although you can't see everything in the wall, and you can only make a decision based on what you see in front of you.  This is where knowledge of the card comes in, because more often than not, the hand at the end is not the hand at the beginning so knowing the switching potential of a hand is important.  

Sometimes a bet is hard, and oftentimes we make a decision based on the player, not the hand.  A player with a proven track record of making a hand out of nothing is a surer bet than a cautious player who only feels comfortable with open 25 cent -- point hands.And a bet on a wall game is always an option. Bear in mind that a few good bets will make up for losses at the table, so the value of a hand being played can be a factor in your decision.

For those not used to betting, the payoffs can be confusing, so let me go through them.   Assume player A is the winner and she was playing a 25 cent -- point hand.  Do the math to get the results for higher scoring hands.

  • She picked her mahj herself and was not bet on    All players including bettor give 50.  (Total to player A = 2.00)
  • She was thrown her mahj tile and was not bet on.  All players including bettor give 25, thrower gives 50.  (Total to player A - 1.50)
  • She picked her mahj herself and was bet on.  All players give 50 to player A and 50 to bettor.  Or, alternatively, all players give 1.00 to player A and she splits it with the bettor. (Total to player A = 1.50, bettor gets 1.50)
  • She was thrown her mahj tile and was bet on.  All players give 25 to player A and 25 to bettor.  Thrower gives 50 to player A and 50 to bettor.  Or, alternatively, all players give 50 to player A and thrower gives 1.00 to player A.  Player A splits with bettor.  (Total to player A = 1.25, total to bettor 1.25)
  • If player A's hand has no jokers at the end (jokers can be taken from exposures) then all values are doubled again.  E.g. she picked her own mahj, had no jokers at end, all pay 1.00
  • If the thrower was bet on, the bettor pays whatever the thrower pays.
So bet responsibly!  Most games set a limit, called a pie.  If someone loses the total amount in the pie, they keep playing but don't have to pay anymore.  Yes, it's a handout, but tt happens to us all and it's nothing to be ashamed of.  May the 2012 card come quickly and keep your purse jingling!


  1. Good stuff Linda. I especially like WHAT TO LOOK FOR.

  2. I'm impressed by your title! :D and the quote:

    "What follows is a primer on betting. Since betting for money is illegal in some states, I will use the word "points" instead of "cents" but whether you use chips or matches or something else, the principles are the same, and I've heard tell that some folks will take the plunge and start betting when the new card comes."

  3. There is a great new iPhone app that helps you keep track of which player you bet on. You can find it here:

  4. You say that there is no need for the players to "show and tell" their intentions to the bettor. However, one of our players says that the bettor AND the players must be silent. Is it against the rules for the players to show their plans to the bettor?

    1. While the official rules are silent about this, players might be alert to the fact that if you are bet on you receive less $$ in total since you have to share with the bettor - so why make it easy? Some of our players intentionally mix up their tiles and just sit and smile when the bettor takes out her card to figure out the hand.

    2. Can the bettor call a player dead?

    3. No. The bettor cannot interfere with the game in any way.

  5. I have been playing mahj for over 40 years. This just came up and it was open for debate. We were 5 players. THe Bettor bet on me. I threw someone mahj in the hot wall. The tile was clearly hot. The winner not only mahjed but she did it wihout jokers. I now owe the winner $2.00. Does the bettor pay the $2.00 also (since I threw hot) or do I have to pay for the bettor also.

    1. If you are playing by NMJL rules, the card says "Bettor pays same as player bet on" so the bettor must pay the $2. The League does not have any rules about the hot wall, so if your group has a rule about that it is something you must decide for yourselves.

  6. Replies
    1. Having a "hot wall" is not an official National Mah Jongg League way of playing. Some players like to change the rules for the last wall of tiles and say that you cannot throw a tile that might give someone mahjongg - a "hot" tile. There are different ways they prohibit this, but none of this is official. You would have to consult the folks you are playing with to see how they handle the last wall of tiles.

  7. If a player loses all her money, and cannot pay a winner, then continues to play, and gets a mahjongg, does she owe the person she couldn't pay previously?

    1. It is customary when a player "goes pie" (loses all her money) that she continue to play. If she wins later on, she is not obligated to pay prior winners. However, apart from the bettor being paid the same as the winner, the League doesn't address this issue, so there are not "official" rules. You will have to decide with your group (ahead of time!) if you want to make this a table rule.

  8. Using a bettor (5 players)-Do all players put in a quarter if there is a wall game? Or is this a house rule?
    And on the next game the winner receives the wall game $- what does the bettor receive if she picked the winner?

    1. Using a kitty for a wall game is a house rule, so you can make whatever arrangements you like. In our group we do put in a quarter and the next player to win gets the pot. If she is bet on, she shares the pot with the bettor.