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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


  1. Could you clarify the rules for playing atomic? My group would like to try this. Can you pass flowers or jokers during the Charleston and still be atomic? Thanks.

  2. Throw then pick may have been phased out a long time ago, but there are still a lot of people playing that way. I'd love to hear from people who play using a "future" tile. We'll never play in tournaments, but it's a fun, challenging way to play.

  3. I started playing Mah Jonng in 1973.There was no such thing as a cold or/ hot wall.
    However there was a dead wall. You had to pick your tile for mah jonng. If a tile was thrown that would have been your mah jonng, you cannot call it for mah jonng.

  4. I moved to South florida and everyone and I mean everyone plays 14 and throw and pick. Stupid way of playing.

  5. It seems that everyone "down south" here in FL plays 14 tiles....what is that all about?? 13 was what I played up in NJ and now I'm on a facebook mahjongg group and they all the same? The game changes as you pass the Mason Dixon line someone said LOL

    1. 14 tiles was the standard back in the '60s. Some folks don't want to change and still teach it that way, but you can find a 13-tile game if you look. The "new generation" is sticking to the rules.

  6. Hello - yes, I do see comments on old posts as I am notified by email. I may not keep the blog updated as frequently as before, but the rules have not changed. A joker can *NEVER* be used in a pair under any circumstances. Happy mahj!

  7. Thank You! I will show them your reply the next time we play. I have been enjoying poking around in your old posts.

    1. Feel free to email me if you have any mj questions ( or if you want to shoot the breeze about other stuff.