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Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Picking a Hand

Here is an e-mail I received:
I just started playing Mah-Jongg and I have a hard time deciding what
hand on the card to go for. I have looked at my odds and evens and also my suits
and then on the card hands, but can't seem to pick the right hand to go with.
I thought maybe you could tell me how you do it.
Thanks for your help! I like your rules.  
Name withheld by request

I will say that the moment you throw your initial 13 tiles onto the rack is the most crucial moment in the game.  What do you see when you look at your tiles?  What does a trained and experienced eye see that the novice eye does not?  How do you know what you're looking at?  How do you know what to play?  Why do some people take a short moment to pass to the right while others think and think and think?
Let's try to break it down.
A new player will see a hodgepodge of tiles with no relationship to each other, whereas an experienced player will know which tiles go together.  For example, a new player may see three two dots and two nine dots and think it great that they have so many dots and sets of like tiles.  The experienced player will know that one of those sets will have to go - there is no hand that holds them both.
I am convinced the key to knowing which hand to play is how well you know the current card.  I say current card because, as we all know, the relationships change.  So one year you may have winds with dragons, and the next year you don't.  Everything is about relationship and knowing what goes with what.  Last year, you were in bad shape if you had like numbers, this year you're in good shape.  So the first rule is:  Thou shalt know thy card!

Even if you know the card by heart you still will have to make decisions about what to keep and what to give away.  But what criteria should you use?  I can only list some strategies, none of which are guaranteed to produce results.  Why?  Because all players know you need to be lucky as well as skilled.  Your skill level will come into play when evaluating what hands to play, what tiles to pass, what your chances are of picking the tiles you need.  The tiles you pick are determined by luck of the draw, and this is what makes the game unpredictable.

My advice to new players is to pick a hand a stick with it.  When you first look at your tiles evaluate them in terms of the categories on the card - do you have more even-numbered tiles?  More odd?  Lots of winds?  Lots of dragons? If nothing jumps out at you right away, take a count and determine where to go from there.
If you have the same number of odds as 3,6,9's, for example, just pick one and collect those.
Within each category are levels of hands - some are easier to make than others.  It is basic knowledge that a hand you can call is easier to make than one you can't - the points value will tell you how hard a hand is.  At first select the easier, calling hands.

I have played with people who only play consecutive runs, or winds and dragons.   One player I knew consistently went with the big hand, whether she had a soap or not!  It's OK to stay within a narrow framework at first, but once you get comfortable with a hand and how it comes together, expand your repertoire.  While you will not want to keep tiles from different categories (known as playing two hands), it is not a bad idea to have plan A and plan B.  So if you stick with even-numbered tiles and want to do a calling hand, if in the passing you come across even-numbered tiles that are part of a closed hand, keep them, unless you are forced to give them away.  The more tiles you have in a particular category, the easier it is to switch from one hand in the category to another.  The card is built to accommodate these switches, that's the beauty of it.  If you go dead on 22 444 44 666 8888, you can possibly switch to 222 4444 666 8888. It may seem basic, but sticking to a category is a key strategy.

Pay attention to what you are passed.  If your neighbor passes you a 2, a 6 and an 8, it is unlikely she will be playing evens (although she might just not be playing those evens).  When you pass tiles to another player, watch if they put them in their hand.  It might give you some idea of what they are playing, so you can make adjustments accordingly.  There is a reason for everything in mahjongg, and if no one is passing winds, there is a good chance someone is collecting them.  If the 8 dot doesn't come back to you, someone kept it.  Are they using it?  Maybe, maybe not, but if it doesn't show up soon in the discards, you have a clue what others are doing.  These clues give you information about your own hand, information that should not be disregarded.  In the beginning you have limited information on which to base your hand selection, but over time all is revealed.

So there you have it.  Know the card, pick a category on the card and stick to it and pay attention to what is going on around you.  Practice and experience will broaden your familiarity with the hands, and your confidence in your judgment.  Over time you will get a feeling for what mah jongg players call "decision time," the do-or-die moment when you must make a commitment to your hand and defend it with the cool ferocity of a world-class gambler, keeping under wraps how fast your heart is beating. The rest is mazel.


  1. Would like to have some online mj friends. My online name is Blossom and I play a low table number since my internet pc reaction time is slow. I usually go online around 7:00am or 4:00pm.

  2. Are there any good visual cheat sheets to download which I can use to help me teach my friends and kids how to play the various hands? I've scoured the internet and not coming up with anything good. I bought a couple books at barnes and noble but they too are not good. As an alternative is there any good instruction books I could buy with all the various hands laid out visually? Thanks, holly

    1. Holly: I do not know of any books that would lay out the NMJL hands, since the card changes every year. The best advice I can give you is to take the card and sit down with your set and create the hands with the tiles in your set. Try to do each variation, so if it's two suits, use bams and craks then do it in dots and bams, then craks and dots. When you have laid out a hand, look in the same category and see how you can change the hand - so if, for example, you have FF222444666888, take away the FF, one 2 and one 8, and add DDDD to make a different hand in the same suit. Try a different category every night, then try switching categories - an evens hand to a consecutive run, for example. This way you can see what the completed hands will look like and give you some idea of which way to go when you need to make a switch.

    2. Thank you for this information! It is just what I have been looking for as a beginner. I really appreciate your help in learning this wonderful game!

  3. Great article, Linda. As true today as when you wrote it.
    I share this article with my students.
    Many thanks,

  4. Thanks for the great article. I’m a newbee. Wish me luck.

  5. Being an senior newbee Picking and sticking to a suit is my problem!,

  6. What is a good way to keep track of the Charleston.
    It seems it's easy to forget which direction is next when passing. Any suggestions? Much appreciated.

    1. Thanks for posting such a timely question. I have answered it in a separate post.