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Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Tales from the Tournament

Last Sunday I attended a tournament.  I hadn't been to one in awhile, but what better way to spend the first day of winter than sitting around playing mahjongg, especially in a well-run tournament with familiar faces.  Of course one doesn't know ahead of time how one will be feeling the day of, and last Sunday happened to be Day 7 of my pre-winter not-so-common cold.  So I had a bit of laryngitis and as a result brought along some accoutrements that would allow me to play in comfort.  These included a padded cushion, a cup holder, cough drops, tea with lemon and a small bottle of Purell.  I didn't expect anyone to have a problem with it.

Most people didn't.  There were 13 tables.  I started at 5 West and moved up two tables as west does, ending round 8 at table 6.  Round one was a bust until the fourth game when I made the NN SSS 11 111 1111 hand.  East gave me 25 points, but as I was bringing the score sheet up (West's job) I realized it was a 30 point hand.  Fortunately it was corrected, no harm done.  "Sometimes that five points makes the difference," I said, knowing that to be true.  

Then, round two, I made The Big Hand!  Not bad for a sick girl.  I got $20, 75 points and started feeling pretty good.  So I was a little cocky when I got to round three.  "Whaddya, movin' in?" said East when she got a load of my cushion and cup holder.  I was a little taken aback, but proceeded to make myself comfortable when South put her hand over her mouth and said to East in an exaggerated whisper, "I bet you that one is slow," referring to me.  Did she really think I couldn't hear her?  Well, I got up to get a cup of tea.  "Hey, we're all ready," said North.  I pretended I didn't hear.  I sat down to play, put the teacup on the cup holder, which promptly fell all over the floor.  Whoops.  Oh, well.  I managed to win two games, even after calling for a 3 dot which East, having picked before North discarded, said, "too late, I racked it."  I then picked three jokers in a row, threw out all my 3 dots and called for mahj when East threw a 6 crak.  So there.

The next few rounds were uneventful.  What's interesting about a tournament is that the sets are as varied as the personalities.  I played with the nicest set I ever saw, pistachio-colored tiles:
And then I played with a set that gave me the biggest headache - the "mazel-tov" set.  
Somehow I thought the Star of David was a joker symbol and it looked like I had 13 of them.  It just sort of threw me.  That and East asked me to wash the Purell off my hands so I wouldn't get it on her tiles.  Here I thought I was doing something nice being germ free and coughing into my elbow.

Well, the computer program was broken so a handwritten score sheet was going around.  When I looked at round 7, I was in second place!  Shut the front door!  I had 395 points but knew I was no match for the first place player - she had over 500.  I played my best, continuing my strategy of making the best hands I could and not throwing mahj.  So you see aside from the "Big Hand" all my hands are 25s or 30s, once or twice picking a 25 myself and getting ten extra.  I was set a couple of times for better hands; once a quint and once a pairs hand, but other people made it and all I could do was sigh.

The last round I played opposite the first place player.  One of the things I have learned about tournament play is players who are in the running generally do not announce it.  Maybe they "don't wanna give no kneina hura, pooh-pooh-pooh," or maybe they know that things can change in a minute.  But I knew a "Randi" was in first place and I heard someone call this woman "Randi," and I didn't think there was another "Randi" around and sure enough Randi was a consummate, quiet player, so that I only managed to make one mahj at her table.  But it was enough - enough to tie me for second/third place with another player and split the pot with her.

But wait!  After everyone had packed up and left and I was putting away all my junk, I realized something.  I don't know why I realized it then but it suddenly occurred to me - This tournament gives an extra 10 points for a singles and pairs hand.  The "big hand" is a singles and pairs hand.  
I was short changed ten points and it made the difference, as I said in round one, unaware that I was foreshadowing the events of the day.  Of course it was too late to do anything about it, and of course I have no one to blame but myself. Although East should have known to give me 85 points instead of 75, I nevertheless initialed my score as accurate, forgetting about the bonus.

There is a lesson in here somewhere and I will leave it to you to find it.  Always read the rules?  Always follow the rules?   C'est la vie?  C'est la guerre?  Or how about C'est la mahj?

Monday, December 8, 2014

Seat Rotation

"Picking time"

Every Friday night I host a game, and I'm fortunate to have a fine group of great players to choose from.  I can fit three tables, although it is more comfortable with two.  I try to limit it to ten people but at some times of the year that's not possible and so we squeeze in three.  That can be up to 15 people.  Everyone plays at the same skill level and everyone gets along.  One thing that adds to the enjoyment is an orderly seat rotation.

How often have you heard:  "Oy, I can't wait to get out of this seat!"  Or, "No jokers in this set?"  Usually the counter is, "It isn't the seat, it's the tush."  But relief is soon near when you know you are going to get up and move to another seat, possibly one that is joker-rich.  

Over the years we have devised a system, and I will share it with you now.  Things vary depending on how many players there are, so we will start with a traditional four or five-player game.  

Four players:  It can get very uncomfortable playing for hours in the same seat.  The National Mah Jongg League has rules for seat rotation known as a pivot.  After two rounds are played and the dice comes back to the original East for the second time, the original East gets up and switches seats with the player on her right.  The dice stay with the seat, and, yes, the original East becomes East next game again.  But at least you are moving.

Five players:  One player stays out while the other four play.  In 1960 my aunt would refer to the player who was out as "the dummy."  Oftentimes she would make a phone call and say, "I can talk for a few minutes.  I'm the dummy."  I was eight years old and would dissolve in a fit of giggles.  Nowadays the dummy is usually a bettor, who makes a bet, then makes a phone call and says, "I'm out," or "I'm betting," and has a little chat, then plays some Candy Crush.  When the game is over, East gets up and the, the bettor, takes her place.

Six players:  This is a little tricky, but we have tried this system and it works.  Four players play.  One player bets.  After the game, East and West get up and the two players who were out sit down.  Repeat.  So you play two games and then are out for one.  When the same two players are out a second time, the player who didn't bet last time bets.

Seven players:  One table plays with four players, and one with three.  (When we play three players we use NMJL rules and eliminate the Charleston.)  When the four-player table has finished a game, East gets up and joins the three-player table so their next game is with four players and the original four-player table now has three players.  Repeat.

Eight players:  When we have more than two full tables we use a method of random selection.  In the beginning, seating is first come-first served.  After things settle down we "pick" for seats.  I have taken an old set and removed the 1, 2 and 3 craks.  I put the tiles in a ceramic jar, pictured above.  When it comes time for seat rotation, if there are eight players, only the 1 and 2 craks are in the jar.  The tiles are shaken up (a cloth was placed in the jar to muffle the racket) and each player selects a tile.  Those with 1's play at table 1.  Those with 2's play at table 2.  Each table plays four games.  At the end of the round we pick again.

Nine players:  Players sit first come, first served.  When the ninth player comes, she is the bettor.  She bets on whichever table is ready for a bet first. When a game is finished at either table, East gets up and the bettor takes her spot.  

Ten players:  Same as with eight players, but we add two 3 craks to the jar.  The first player to get a 3 crak bets at table 1.  The second player to get a 3 crak bets at table 2.  After five games we pick again.

Eleven players:  We try to avoid having seven or eleven, but sometimes it happens that someone cancels at the last minute.  In this event we play two tables of four and one of three.  When East gets up from table 1 she moves to the table of three.  When the game is done at the table of three, East from that table moves to table 2.  East from table 2 moves to table 1.  It's a little tricky, but it works.

Twelve players:  Three tables of four.  After four games, players pick tiles and switch tables.  Three 3 craks are added to the jar, signifying table 1, table 2 or table 3.

Thirteen through fifteen players:  Three tables of four.  Four craks are added to the jar and the 4s signify the bettors.  After five games we pick again.

This system may seem ungainly but it works.  Invariably, however, someone says at the end of the night:  "But I didn't get to play with Rhonda!"  or "I didn't get to play with Estelle."  Also, the number of players may change in that some people come early and stay late, some come late and leave early, some may get an emergency phone call or just not feel well so we need to stay flexible in our arrangements.  Sometimes the room is too cold or too hot for someone so they are allowed to swap their seat assignment if they find a willing taker.  As a great man once said, you can please some of the people some of the time.... 

Other people may have more orthodox or legitimate means of seat assignment, such as a numbering system, alphabet system or other method of insuring that play is orderly and players get to play with as wide a range of players as possible.  And of course in some groups and in tournament play there are many more than three or four tables.  In some tournaments East stays in place while south goes down one, north goes up one and west goes down two; in others East moves along with the rest. Sometimes it can feel like a game of musical chairs.   But we like our little system and tile picking, a solemn event, has become part of our mahjongg tradition.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Throwing hot

"When a player Mah Jonggs on a discarded tile, DISCARDER pays the winner double value."

It's happened to you - the moment comes in your game when Sheila has four six bams and four seven bams exposed on her rack.  You are set for a beautiful pairs hand - there is an excellent chance that you will get that last North; either pick it yourself or some unsuspecting person will throw it, when BLAST IT!! you picked a ......GREEN!!!!!!!!  AAAARRRRRGGGGGHHHH....  WHAT DO I DOOOOO?????  Should I throw it?  Is it hot?  Should I break up my hand?  My beautiful hand?
You close your eyes, take a breath, discard the tile and say in a very low voice...."green?"
THAT'S IT!!!  I NEVER THOUGHT ANYONE WOULD THROW IT!!! HA HA!! MAHJ!!!  Sheila flips her hand onto her rack.  AND JOKERLESS, TOO!!  

As if that weren't bad enough, Rhoda turns to you and says: HOW COULD YOU?  THAT WAS AN OBVIOUS HAND!  YOU SHOULD PAY FOR THE TABLE!!  You only response is to hang your head and say, "But I was set...."

And then you think:  Is Rhoda right?  Should I pay for the table?  What is an obvious hand?  What is a hot tile and what do the rules say about throwing one?  We'll answer these in reverse order.

The rules say nothing about throwing a hot tile.  The rule is what is written above.  Discarder pays the winner double value.  That's it.  Doesn't matter how many exposures, how many flowers are on the table, how many greens are in your hand.  The truth is the National Mah Jongg League does not use the word "hot" anywhere in the official rules, and they are correct not to do so.  Because how does one determine when a tile is hot?

The definition of a hot tile is somewhat shifty.  A tile can be hot if none of its kind have been discarded.  Or it can be hot if it seems as though someone needs it to mahj.  The truth is that hotness is determined by probability and there is no way to know for certain if throwing that tile will cause a win.  An astute player can make an educated guess, but it is nothing more than that.  A hand may seem obvious, but it may not be what one expects.  For example, in the hand above, Sheila may have needed a one or two bam instead of the green.  She may not have had all her flowers.  Even if a person has three exposures out, and they have on their best Cheshire smile, they may not be set.

But some players put on their Wall Street hats and start hedging.  The thinking is:  Why should I, a defensive player, have to pay for the stupid mistake or risky behavior of another?  This is a valid concern, and one that the League does not address, so players have come up with creative techniques to protect their purses.  Some techniques are:
  • If a player has two exposures, no player can throw a tile the player may need.
  • If a player has three exposures, no player can throw a tile the player may need.
  • If a discard is made to two exposures and someone mahjes, discarder pays for all.
  • If a discard is made to three exposures and someone mahjes, discarder pays for all. 
  • If a discarder pays for all, they must pay from their own pocket, not their mahjongg purse.  In this way the discarder won't go pie and will have enough to pay for subsequent games.
  • When play is down to the last wall, no player can throw a tile unless at least two of those tiles are accounted for on the table.
  • When play is down to the last wall, no one can call for mahjongg, and must pick their own.
These are all table rules and must be understood by all players before play begins.  It is unfair to expect a player to abide by a rule that is not an official rule.  Mahjongg etiquette would require that table rules are understood by guest players and fill-ins so that there is no misunderstanding.  

In mahjongg, as in life, we sometimes need to take a chance.  Knowing the consequences will inform our decision.  For me, the risk-reward ratio would favor my throwing that green in the hopes of getting a pairs hand.  For even if I had to pay for all, assuming five players and the hand not bet on, I would pay $1,50, but if my pairs hand came in on a self-pick, I would reap $4. 
And hearing Rhoda screech about it?  Priceless.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Wall Breakers - a Casual Study

The rules state:  
EAST ROLLS DICE and total number thrown designates where East breaks wall.
We see this on the back of the card, but, in typical National Mah Jongg League fashion, information is scant. We know where to break the wall, yes, but do we know HOW to break the wall?????

I have done a study, at first covert, and learned that there are multiple ways to carry out East's important responsibility.  Though players never give it much thought, if you watch closely, especially at a tournament, a myriad of styles exist.  I have stepped out of undercover mode and filmed, with the gracious consent of the Friday night players, some of the possibilities.

There are common steps to breaking the wall, which include, but are not limited to:  count tiles, move rack back, move rack forward, take four tiles, hold back tiles, push tiles forward.  Some configurations are more efficient, others more creative.  The videos below show some variations.

All are correct - except one.

NOTE:  If you want to watch a video more than once, click on the "refresh" icon on the video.
It looks like  this: Or reload the page if you don't see the icon.

1.  Count, move rack forward, hold back, take four.

2.  Count, move rack back, take four, move rack forward

3.  Count, move rack back, take four, push with hand.

4.  Count, push rack forward, pull rack back with tiles, take four.

5.  Pull back rack, count, take four, push tiles with hand

6.  Count, take four, move rack forward

7.  Count, move rack back, move rack forward, take four.

Whilst they may seem the same, there are subtle variations.  What kind of wall breaker are you?

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Things are Seldom What they Seem

Things are seldom what they seem
You get soaps when you want greens
Fours and ones they go together
One-two-three hand gone forever

Monday, March 24, 2014

First Impressions of the New Card

Somehow I knew the card would come today.  My new table was just delivered!  I specifically selected a round table that wouldn't require a back-wrenching stretch to pick a tile.  New table, meet new card.  It's kind of funny that it came exactly one year (March 24) after the 2013 card.
So without further kvelling, here's my third annual side-by-side comparison:

There's one brand new hand in this category and the other four are substantially similar, the difference being 4's take the stage while 3's recede.  The wind hand has been altered to a kong of norths, a kong of souths and a single EW.  Yay!  No more going dead on pairs of Easts!  The third, fourth and fifth hands in this category match the 2013 card.  Change the three to a four and you've got it.  The new hand is interesting.  Two pungs (2's and soaps) and two kongs (1's and 4's)  Will come in handy when your twos and fours don't match for an evens hand!

Some interesting mixups here.  The pattern has been changed on the first hand.  You still need a kong of dragons but pairs of 2s and 4s, pungs of 6 and 8.  Second hand down flip-flops.  Instead of pairs of 2, 4, 6, 8 with kongs of eights, it's now kongs of 2s and 6's in one suit with a pair of fours and two pairs of eights in the second two suits.  FF 2222 44 66 8888 is now out of the rotation.  We had two years with it, so time to go.  The 22 444 44 666 8888 hand has been changed, so beware!  It's now two pairs, two pungs and a kong.  The last, closed hand is the same, and, as I had feared, my favorite 22 44 66 8888 8888 is out and a new hand is in:  222 888 DDDD DDDD in three suits.

Both hands are scrapped in favor of  four flowers with two kongs and a pair of like numbers.

The sevens are back only now they add up with fours, fives and sixes to make 11, 12 and 13.  There's going to be lots of competition for fours.  I would say Four is the new Flower.

None of the quints are the same.  The like number quint is out!  This is shocking since it has been a staple for many years.  We have a consecutive run:  two twos three threes four fours five fives, which we have seen before.  Three consecutive numbers in three suits, and an "any" hand:  Any wind, any number with four flowers.  Which is good because I kept playing that hand anyway even when it wasn't on the card.  Last quint makes up for the like numbers and dragons being taken away - it's any like numbers in two suits with a kong of dragons in the third suit.  Something new, at least for me.  Nice!

The 2013 card had six consecutive run hands; 2014 has seven, all of which are old favorites.  The classic hand appears, though the pattern has changed.  It's two pairs, two pungs and a kong.  Three hands that remain unchanged are 111 2222 333 4444, the "sandwich" hand with the pairs in the middle (Arlene says "Yay") and Four Flowers ones, twos, dragons, which is making its third appearance, I believe.  An old favorite of mine, which I call one-two-one-two-three has replaced one-two-one-two-dragon and is an open hand and the closed hand in consecutive run is a reprise of what our group called "the Margaretann hand" - a consecutive run followed by two pungs of dragons in the second and third suit.

A hand has been eliminated from the odds - it's the pesky pairs hand.  There is now only one closed hand in odds, the combo 111 3 555 555 7 999.   The odds with the dragons in the middle are out, but Ones-nine-dragons has made a comeback in one suit or three.  If you see four nines and four dragons it can only be this hand.  The Four flowers one-three five and five-seven-nine are unchanged, as is the classic 111 3333 333 5555 and its partner in 579.  But there's a mirror image to the pattern in evens with an odds hand that has two pairs, two pungs and a kong in either one-three-five or five-seven-nine.

The biggest change this year is in the wind hands.  We still have six wind hands but two are closed!  And no hand has the complete single set of NEWS.  The first hand is unchanged but the rest are different.  There are three hands that take four flowers; one is four flowers, kong of north, pair of red, kong of south and one is four flowers, kong of east, pair of greens, kong of west.  The closed hand is a play on the like numbers and dragon hands only now it is like numbers and winds:  Two norths, two odds, three souths three like odds, four like odds; and east and wests with evens.  These hands being closed will present a challenge.  Remember the rule:  East and Wests with evens (or greens); Norths and Souths with odds (or reds).  The four flowers and dragons in three suits is still in place.

Last year's 369's I felt were somewhat limited.  I'm a big fan of 369's.  This year they are spruced up a little bit, and although my favorites aren't there (33 666 DDDD 666 99 or 3333 66 66 66 9999) I can live with the selection.  We've got a pair/kong/pair/kong/pair pattern with flowers, 369 and dragon, which is a little different and will take some getting used to.  Interesting, though, that the pattern on the three-six-six-nine has changed, but the pattern in one-three-three-five has not.  Confusion will reign!  It's now two pungs and two kongs in three-six-six-nine whereas it used to be pung/kong/pung/kong.  One-three-three-five is STILL pung/kong/pung/kong so mind your P's and K's!  To make up for the loss of my friend 22 44 66 8888 8888 we have 33 66 99 3333 3333  with the added sweetness of using kongs of 3, 6 or 9.  Still worth x30.  Uh-oh, what's this?  A similar hand, 333 66 999 333 333, also using 3, 6 or 9.  Eeek!  Do I put out four three's or three?  I know this one will cause problems.  The two flowers kong of three-six-nine is out in one suit but remains in three, and the closed hand is the one I've been looking for for a year and just got used to it being out.  Well, I'll get used it it being in again for sure.

All our singles and pairs are old friends.  Pairs of winds with pairs of like numbers return from hiatus. Consecutive run with pair of dragons and odds with like numbers carry over from last year, as do consecutive pairs.  You can't keep a good hand down!  Also returning from an extended vacation are FF 224688 224688 and, since there was no 369 pairs hand last year, 336 33669 336699 fills the space where 998 99887 998877 used to be.  And, of course, we have our Big Hand, pair of flowers with 2014 in three suits.

So now you know - and if you've read this far I would like to ask a question.  How do you celebrate the new card?  Do you have anything special that you do?  This year I think I will start a new money jar and throw in my winnings just to see if I could make a living playing mahjongg.  If you don't have a New Card ritual - start one!  It's not unlike new year's eve when the card comes out so send up a cheer when yours comes in the mail.

Happy mahj!

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Official NMJL mahjongg on iPads and Tablets!

The original online game was made for Windows computers but players have been clamoring for a way to play on other devices.  Sigma Software, the official developer of the National Mahjongg League, has developed a new version of the online game which can run on PCs, MACs, iPads, Androids and other tablets.  Here are the instructions for setting up the new game on your device.


1.  Become a member of the League
    You MUST be a member of the League.  if you are a subscriber to the original online game you already have a membership number, account number and access code.  If you have bought your mahjongg card directly from the League, then you have a membership number.  You will find your membership number on the mailing label of the newsletter or if you do not have a record of it you may call the League at 212-246-3052.  If you are not a member of the League, you will need to purchase a card from  Even if you already have a card, if you buy one from the League a membership number will be generated and you will receive the yearly newsletter.  Make sure to store the number where you can find it again.  
2.  Subscribe to the Online game
     Once you have this number, go to the League website and click on "online game" to subscribe to the Official NMJL Online Mahjongg.  The cost is $45 and a subscription purchased after January is good until NEXT March 31.  When you subscribe, you will receive an account number and an access code.  Keep these numbers together with your membership number.  These numbers will give you access to BOTH VERSIONS of the online game.


If you want to play the ORIGINAL game, you must have a PC running Windows or a MAC running a Windows emulator, such as CrossOver.  Open your Windows browser, go to the League website and click on Online Game, then Download.   Once you have put in your membership number, account number and access code, the game will install.  To play the game, click on the Official NMJL Mahjongg icon.


3.  Install browser

After you have subscribed to the online game and received your account number and access code, your next step is to make sure your device has the right kind of browser.  A browser is a program or app that lets you brows the internet.  Some devices already come with a browser.  Apple products come with a browser called Safari, Internet Explorer comes with Windows and Silk comes on a Kindle Fire.  But in order to run the online game your device must have either the Firefox or Chrome browser installed.  If your device does not have Firefox or Chrome, you will have to download it as you would any other app.  Firefox is preferred, but does not run on all devices.  (NOTE:  FIREFOX DOES NOT RUN ON AN iPAD)  Chrome is made by Google and an be installed on most devices.

To play the NEW ONLINE GAME you do not need to click the Download button on the NMJL site.  You will only need to download and install the Firefox or Chrome browser if you do not have it already installed.  The game will run on ANY device that uses one of these browsers - laptops, PCs, tablets, but NOT PHONES!   To install the browser on your tablet, go to your app store or Google Play and search for the browser, then install.  Both Firefox and Chrome are free.  If you are using a laptop or desktop, you can download Firefox from or Chrome from  Both are reputable sites and the browsers are free.  You can continue using your regular browser and only use the new one for mahjongg by saying "no" when you are prompted to make the browser your default browser.  

4.  Set up the game

Once you have downloaded your browser, open it and type the following in the address bar:
The browser will open a page that automatically sets up the new game.  You will be asked to input your membership number, account number and access code.  That's all there is to it!

5.  Play online mahj!

There are many new features that have been added.  There are tutorials, practice play areas and fun games to help you remember hands.  You can set the pace to your liking.  A description of the features can be found at http//  As more people begin to play the new version, it will be easier to populate tables.  If no one is around, play with robots!  New features will be developed over time.  You can bookmark the game in your browser or type in the address bar to return.

The NEW version is SEPARATE from the original Windows online game.  When you play on the browser-based game you are not playing with the same people who are playing on the original game.  But anyone who has the correct browser and code numbers can play the new game.

Try it and let's hear some feedback.  You may also send freedback directly to:  Include your membership number and account number, but NEVER your access code.

Hope to see you online on the iPad!  My user name is Linda Fisher.