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Sunday, January 30, 2011

Road Map to Table Rules

     It's amazing to me how many different table rules are out there.  As you know, many variations of  mah jongg exist, but there is only one National Mah Jongg League Mah Jongg.  We don't need to know Chinese rules (they allow chows; i.e., runs like 123 or 456) or Fillipino rules (you declare a kong and everyone gives you money) or Japanese Riichi rules (you have to declare when you are "set").  But we all should know the rules of the game as sanctioned by the League, and realize there are table rules which people play by in order to make the game faster, more interesting, higher-stakes, or to avoid changing from the way they played in 1961. 
     When you are a guest in someone's game, "when in Rome" applies.  Be sure to ask before you start playing what the table rules are.  Otherwise, you may end up paying $10 for one hand like I did not too long ago.
     Here are some table rules that I have come across in my travels.  Some make sense and some I have yet to figure out.

  • Unlimited pie.  Ladies, I'll go as high as $10.  That's as much change as my mahjongg purse will hold.
  • Doubling the card.  Beware of this, especially if it is an unlimited pie.
  • Paying double when you throw a double.  This is popular as doubles are considered lucky.
  • First game and last game are double.  This could lead to trouble.  Think about it. If they double the card, it's the first game and East throws a double and it's picked and jokerless and bet on, a .25 hand  can turn into $6.  
  • East doesn't throw dice, wall is broken at 8.  Lost the dice?  Too lazy to throw?
  • A joker is placed face up in east's wall to guarantee a joker in the pick.   Yes, Lorraine, that's you.
  • At the end of the Charleston, unwanted tiles are "mushed" up in the middle of the table.  You take out as many as you put in.  These are usually the same unwanted tiles that went around in the Charleston.
  • Atomic hand.  If you open with no flowers and no jokers you may play a hand of any seven pairs. You must declare you are atomic, and if you pick a flower or joker, you are no longer atomic.
  • Throw, then pick.  You can look at your "future" tile.  Phased out how many years ago?
  • Throw, then pick, no looking allowed.  See above.
  • Pick immediately after throwing.   Sometimes three people have to return the tile if a discard is called.
  • Calling a tile after a second tile has been discarded.  Going back two means tiles must be returned to their rightful owner.
  • Playing with 14 tiles in your hand.  I'm not sure how this one works, but they do it in Florida all the time. 
  • If you throw to two exposures you pay for the table.  A harsh penalty for taking a risk.
  • If you throw to three exposures you pay for the table.  The theory is you should know better.
  • If you throw to two or three exposures you pay for the table out of your pocket, not your purse.  This is so that you don't go pie and shortchange winners of other games.
  • If you throw to an obvious hand you pay for the table.  This can lead to disagreements about what "obvious" means. 
  • Hot wall/cold wallLots of different variations on this one.  When you get to the last wall:
    • You can't throw a tile unless you can count two of them on the table
    • You can't throw a tile unless you can count three of them on the table
    • You can't throw a tile unless you count two on the table and one in your hand, etc., etc.
    • You can't call any discard
    • You can only call a discard for mahjongg
    • You can't throw a "hot" tile, and you should know what's hot.
    I'm sure there are more that I've forgotten or haven't come across yet, but these are some of the most common ones (except for the joker face up in the wall, which I've only seen in one game).  I repeat, make sure you know the rules before you sit down to play, lest you be unpleasantly surprised when you do something wrong.

     In closing this week, I would like to share with you a letter to the editor that was published in The New York Times in March, 2000 in response to a letter about mahjongg.  I think it's appropriate in light of the above:

To the Editor:

Re ''Mah-Jongg Memories'' (letter, March 23):

My Aunt Margery used to play mah-jongg with some friends on the porch of the summer home of Herbert Maass, chairman of the board of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J. Albert Einstein was a frequent visitor to the Maass home.

One day while the women were busy clicking the tiles, Professor Einstein wandered by, puffing on his pipe. He watched for a while and then asked Aunt Margery what was going on.

''Mah-jongg,'' she replied.

''I can't follow it,'' Einstein responded. ''It's too complicated.''


New York, March 23, 2000

Sunday, January 23, 2011

The League, Inc.

By now you should have all gotten your Mah Jongg League newsletter and sent in your order for next year's cards.  I had mine sent back because I made a mistake in the math.  I will send it back promptly along with a new check for the right amount.  I always order extra cards in case a new player comes along and needs one.   The League donates the proceeds to excellent and worthy causes.

Of course you know that when you order your card you become a member of the League.   As such, you are requested to sign a proxy statement on the bottom of the newsletter when you send your card back.  When you sign you are granting power of attorney to directors of the league to make decisions on your behalf at the annual board of directors meeting, to be held this year on February 7 at 9 a.m. at 440 West 57th Street, New York, NY.

Now, I live in New York and I have always wanted to attend an annual meeting of the National Mah Jongg League.  Every year I say I will go, but I chicken out.  The newsletter says at the bottom that it is important to sign the proxy if you do not intend to be present at the meeting.  Does that mean we are all invited?  For some reason I think the ladies of the League will not be welcoming if all the members showed up for the meeting, but my thought is we are legally entitled.

Well, I didn't sign my proxy.  This year I will do it.  I will take a few hours off of work and attend the meeting.  Ooh!  I'm excited!  Do they vote on the card???  I am sure I will vote in favor of everything they do, because they are the big machers and have done it all right for all these years.  I am a mere peon of a member who wishes to observe the workings of the Great League.  I will report back to my faithful readers on what I observe.

Until then - happy mahj!

Sunday, January 16, 2011

It isn't easy being mean - or - There are no friends in Mahjongg

I have been getting a lot of e-mail from players all over the country and I love answering their questions and corresponding with them.  One question in particular caught my attention and I thought I would address it in my blog.  The writer gave me permission to publish it, but requested her name be withheld.  Here it is:

"Hi there.  I have just recently learned how to play mah jongg and have a lot to learn.  I was just playing this morning and called an opponents hand "dead" as she put up the wrong tiles for any hand to work. Another player at the table told me that was "mean" to call someone dead. Is there a rule on calling someone "dead" or is it mean to do it?  Thank you for your help."

Well, is it "mean" to call someone dead?
Firstly, we have to look at mahjongg as a strategy game.  In this sense, it is like a little war - think of checkers and chess.  The object of the game is to be the first to complete a hand, and if we are to accomplish that, we have to admit that we are competing against others, some of whom may be our close friends or relatives, and as with many other things in life, our gain may be their loss.  So we may feel a little queasy about calling them dead or letting them know that we have their tile and they're not getting it.
Now, in the instance above, another player tried to make the letter writer feel bad for declaring someone dead.  So this makes things more complicated.  What's the declarer to do?  Dead is dead, right?  Does the declarer cave in for the sake of keeping the peace, or does the declarer say, "I'm sorry, but the hand is dead.  Rules are rules."

An interesting thing is that a few days after I got this letter, the following scenario took place in my Friday game.  I was set with:           7777 888 999 DDJ     (7 dots were exposed and I was waiting for a 9 dot)
A 9 dot was discarded and I called mahjongg.  I picked up the tile from the table, exposed my hand and went to put the tile I picked up into my exposed hand when I realized I accidentally picked up an 8 dot from the table instead of the 9 dot that was thrown.  OMG!  I said "What's this 8 dot doing in my hand?  I didn't have an 8 dot!"  One player declared me dead, and I started stuttering - but-but-but was an ACCIDENT!  Another player wanted to give me the benefit of the doubt and said it was up to me whether I was dead or not.  Now, I could have taken the out, but friends, I knew I was dead.  Was it mean?  YES!  Did it hurt?  YES!  BUT - it was true.  In fact, it was so true that another player pointed out that in this year's Mah Jongg League newsletter they addressed this very issue.  It was an incorrect exposure.

So, let's get back to our topic.  When you jump a checker, are you being mean?  When you knock off a pawn in a chess game, are you being mean?  Mahjongg is war.  Your tiles are your little soldiers.  They fall.  Great armies fall because they make mistakes.  And we win because we take advantage of their mistakes.  And weaker players learn from their mistakes and when they are called dead, you can be assured they will not make that mistake again, so rather than being mean, you are really strengthening that player for the next battle.

Mahjongg is inherently schismatical in that we are not only playing with our friends, we are playing against our friends.  This often leads to an interesting group dynamic where personalities come into play and often can matter more than the tiles we have in our hand.  

As Sun Tzu says in "The Art of War" - 知彼知己,百戰不殆;不知彼而知己,一勝一負;不知彼,不知己,每戰必殆  - or - Know the other, know the self, hundred battles without danger; not knowing the other but knowing the self, one win one loss; not knowing the other, not knowing the self, every battle must be lost.

Till next time ... Happy mahj!


Sunday, January 9, 2011

Remember, we were all new players once

A common complaint I hear is this: How can a new player get up to speed if no one wants to play with a beginner? It's a variation on the theme of how can I get hired if they only want people with experience? Let's take a look…

My beloved Aunt Sally played with anyone. She taught me when I was nine years old years *ahem* years ago and she taught anyone who came along and was willing to sit and learn. Everyone remarked on how patient Sally was, how wonderful and saintly, but looking back on it now, I think I know what she was doing. She was cultivating players - players that became lifelong friends and players that accompanied her to tournaments and cruises and filled in when someone was needed. Too often I see players with great potential shut out of the opportunity to improve their game, and the Mahjongg table becomes a closed cocoon of "us" (the great players) who would never stoop so low to play with "them" (the learners).

Ladies, let's be real. Number one, mahjongg is not rocket science.  And when you play with the same people week after week, how are you improving your game? You already know that Esther plays 3,6,9 every chance she gets and you better not pass dragons to Frieda. When a tile gets thrown out and Debby turns a tile upside down, doesn't that tell you something?  How about opening your game to a trainee? Let her watch and learn. Before you know, it Frieda will go to Florida or Esther will be in the hospital and are you going to stop playing? Doubtful. But where will you look?

And newbies, here's what you can do on your end. Study the card. Make sure you know what the hands look like. A good exercise is to take a set and lay out the tiles to form all the hands on the card. When you play, keep up the pace. It doesn't matter how many mistakes you make in your hand, you may be the only one who knows you have nothing, but pretend you know what you're doing. The other players will appreciate it. If you have a question, ask at the end of the game. If you know the card well, you can make educated guesses about what other players are doing and be alert about what not to throw.

Be pleasant, ladies. Play nice. We all love mah jongg. You don't need the patience of my sainted aunt, but recognize the social attributes of the game. It is just a game, after all, no?

Monday, January 3, 2011

Oops! I meant to say "flower"

Now, usually the mistake is that someone throws a 1 bam and calls it a flower.  This time W (I'm going to stick with E,W, N and S initials to protect the innocent) threw a flower and called it a 1 bam.  What followed caused a little bit of  confusion.
E pointed out to W that the tile was misnamed and was really a flower.
N said, oh, I want the flower.
S said, you're too late, I already racked my tile.
N said, oh, well, never mind,  I don't want the flower.  The game's almost over, forget it.  Besides, I would have had to put the flower up with three jokers.
S said, well, now, if you don't want it,  I want the flower.  She misnamed it, I should be able to put my tile back and call it. 
We thought about it and consulted the rule book, Tom Sloper's The Red Dragon and the West Wind, which stated that if a tile is misnamed and then correctly named, the correctly named tile may be called.  But it made no mention of if the following player picked and racked. 
We then resorted to the window of opportunity rule, which states that if a tile is discarded, it may be called until the next player picks and racks, so nobody could call the flower.
S was upset because the flower would have set her. 
Then the discussion was about paying attention to the table.  If someone was looking as opposed to just listening, they would see the tile was a flower and would not have picked and racked.  Just as an FYI, in Japanese and other style mahjongg, the tiles are never named and are just silently placed on the table.  So misnaming never happens.  But for some unknown reason, we must name what we discard, which often times leads to mishaps such as above.  Once I played with a woman who said "South" in such a way it sounded like "Soap".  She had to let everyone in advance know that it could mess things up.  So always pay attention!

So in this case both S and N were out of luck and we ended up playing to a wall game.