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Sunday, June 26, 2011

Luck v. Skill

In his book "Foster on Mah Jong" Dr. Foster devotes an entire chapter to the relationship between luck and skill.  (I don't know if he really is a doctor, but I am making him an honorary DMJ - Doctor of Mah Jongg).  The basic principle is this:  Luck governs what is drawn from the wall; skill governs the decisions made in regard to those tiles.  He takes it a step further, however, and states:  "It has been well said that for the first five or six draws from the wall the game is all luck.  After that it is all skill."

American mah jongg in the 1920s differs from NMJL mahj in several ways: There was no Charleston, there were fewer tiles, and of course there was no card with standardized hands.  Hands were made by making a combination of pungs, kongs, and chows (a run like 123) and one pair.  Everyone scored points for their hand; each pung and kong received a value.  It was possible to score higher than the player who went "woo" (declared mahjongg).  This is closer to the classical Chinese game of mah jongg than the game we play, but certain principles pertain. The elements of luck and skill still determine a winning outcome.

We can say that luck rules when it comes to the tiles we are dealt. Safeguards are built into the way we roll dice and break the wall so that things cannot be prearranged.  Occasionally a tile will be flipped over when wall building.  It should be tucked back into a random spot in the wall.  An observant player will remember where the last 2 bam is.

I like to think of the initial 13 tiles as something of a predestiny.  (I'm not sure if that's really a word, but it fits.) We are all born into this world with the seeds of our future - some with an embarrassment of riches, others with a talent that will blossom with the proper nurturing.  When we look at our hand we can think "Oh, another crap hand, the story of my life!"  or we can see a hidden potential that with work and effort will yield a winner.  There is never a guarantee that your luck will change, but your hand certainly will.

Here is an example of  how decision making works with luck.  I was playing the singles and pairs winds hand recently and was doing rather well, I thought:

F NNEWSS 556778  (dots)

Looks good, right?  It was early in the game, no 6 dots were out.  I had opened with no jokers, a string of dots and a couple of winds. It looked like I had my work cut out for me, but I was able to put this together.  I then picked and discarded another 8 dot, and realized a few seconds later what a mistake I had made.  Why? All I needed was a flower and a 6 dot, I thought, so who needs another 8?  But in hindsight I saw:

F NNEWSS 567788
was better than:
F NNEWSS 556778
the reason being that if someone called a six dot and exposed three of them, I was out of luck in doing 556677. If I picked a six dot I would be set for a flower either way. But if I picked a 9 dot and got rid of the other five, I would have 
F NNEWSS 677889
thus I would have had breathing room on either side.  So if someone called the six dots I had an option.  If someone called the 9 dots I could still go with the sixes.  If I picked a nine I could throw away the six and if I picked a six I could throw away the nine.  If I picked a flower, well, then I would have to see if any sixes or nines had gone out and make a judgment based on what I could see on the table or surmise from exposures.

This is where skill comes into play.  It is so much more than the tiles in your hand.  We have to judge odds and probabilities and try to see the future, much as we do with all decisions in life, within the limits of available time and information.  So luck handed me an 8 dot and I carelessly overlooked an opportunity.  But, as luck would have it, neither the sixes or the nines ever got thrown and the game ended up playing to a wall.   Better luck next time!  (Or should I say better skill?)

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