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Wednesday, March 22, 2017

The National Mah Jongg League RULES.

Saying goodbye to the 2016 card...

The League will shortly give the word for the new 2017 card to go out.  This is a time of great anticipation among the membership as we eagerly await the new configuration of the hands.  But it is not only the hands that we receive, it is the Rules, which are printed on the back of the card and demarcates the National Mah Jongg League as the rulemaking body for National Mah Jongg League mah jongg.  

I receive e-mails during the course of the year containing questions about rules and I have noticed some confusion regarding whether rules are "official" or not.  It can be disruptive to a game when there are disputes as to rules, which does happen from time to time.  This stems from the fact there are really three sets of rules.  They are:
  • Official National Mah Jongg League rules
  • Tournament rules
  • Table rules
The rules set forth by the National Mah Jongg League provide the basis for all games played with the National Mah Jongg League card.  These rules can be found on the back of the card and in the rule book "Mahjongg Made Easy (2013)," which is sold by the League.  There are also rule books that have been published and available online, most notably Tom Sloper's "The Red Dragon and the West Wind."  The League sends a newsletter to members in early January containing answers to questions about rules.  The newsletter also contains rule updates, so it is a good idea to read the Q/A section, as some rules may change.  If you do decide to buy a rule book, note its publication date - some rules may have changed since it was written.  

Tournaments are played around the country and while they use the NMJL card and play by the official rules, tournament directors have the discretion to add rules that are unique to tournaments.  These rules are implemented as a way of calculating points, or in an effort to eliminate cheating.  Some notable tournament rules are:  -10 points if you look at a blind pass; +10 points for a wall game; minus points if you throw to a second exposure and minus even more if you throw to a third exposure.  Most tournaments now have adopted the rule that you must place a called tile on top of the rack and not in the rack.  Because these rules vary from the official rules and they vary from tournament to tournament, they are usually spelled out in a rules sheet provided to each player.  Any disputes are mediated by the tournament director and not the National Mah Jongg League.

And then there are table rules.  I get many e-mails from players who are told by "experienced" players that they must pay for the table if they throw to three exposures.  Some players learned that tapping a tile on the rack is the equivalent of racking.  Some players have never stopped playing with 14 tiles.  And while there is nothing so terrible about playing this way, it should be understood by all who play that these are not official rules, but rules agreed upon by the house, or by the table.  Table rules should also be spelled out clearly before the game starts, so as to avoid disputes.  But in order to know whether you are playing with a table rule, you need to know which rules are the "real" rules promulgated by the National Mah Jongg League as the standard by which to play.

As many of you will know, the League suffered a great loss in 2015 with the passing of president Ruth Unger and treasurer Marilyn Starr, beloved women who formed the core of the association.  In the last year-and-a-half, Larry and David Unger have worked tirelessly to uphold the standards that we have come to know.  This meant finding members to serve on the rules committee, write the new card and issue rulings both over the phone and by mail; not an easy task by any means.  

In the next few weeks, the card will come and we'll all hunker down and learn it using the rules of the League.   The League stands ready to answer your questions and work to ensure that for the next 365 days we get our $8 or $9 worth of enjoyment and comaraderie playing the game we love.  Bring it on!


  1. nice article
    I would love to see the league step up and be more reachable with a modern website, so all the "rules" things could be address in a day to day manner

  2. Thought it was always a rule to place a called tile "on" the rack as opposed to "in" the rack. Didn't know there was an option.

  3. We all want to know. Are you bringing NEWS back??

  4. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  5. Can someone tell me if there is a rule regarding the discard of a tile and if someone is allowed to yell "wait" if the next person has already picked up a tile and about to rack it. It seems we have a lady who always wants to win and she holds up the game a lot.

    1. A discard may be called up until the time the next player picks and racks or discards. Being "about to rack" is not racked. It must be fully in the rack. Any player can call for a tile but they are not obligated to take it until they either place it on their rack or expose tiles from their hand. Some people rack very quickly to avoid the problem you have described above. Good luck!

  6. Thanks Linda for your clarification. But, I guess my real question is does the person picking up the tile have to hold from racking if someone yells "wait" and then she decides after a few minutes not to call for the tile but held the game up for her to think about it. This happens often and I know it is annoying to many playing at the table.

    1. Yes, if someone says "wait," then the player who picked the tile should put the tile back in the wall she picked it from and not hold it in her hand. If the player who called says "never mind," or decides not to take the tile, then the next player picks and racks. There is no rule to prevent someone from saying "wait" and holding up the game while she thinks about it. It's a matter of courtesy to other players and if she is taking too long then you may want to speak to her about it, or create a table rule that you can only call if you are sure you want the tile. But unfortunately, the rules are in her favor.