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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.


  1. Very helpful Linda, but I have a question after trying out your suggestion for 7 players today. 2 people at each table ended up staying in their seats, not rotating. So while it worked to play 2 games with 3 people, and 2 games with 4 people, 2 people at one table I never got to play with, and myself and the person across from me didn't change seats. How can we do this AND have the 4 people also change tables/seats as well???

    Thank you!!!

    1. The only way to do this is to play more games. If you play 8 games, all users will change seats. I wrote up a little chart with the rotation:
      Game 1: ABCD (table 1) EFG (table 2)
      Game 2: BCD AEFG
      Game 3: EBCD AFG
      Game 4: ECD BAFG
      Game 5: FECD BAG
      Game 6: FED BACG
      Game 7: GFED BAC
      Game 8: GFE DBAC

      (I used a letter designation for each person, rather than using NEWS) Sometimes it does happen that one person doesn't play with another the whole time. If it really bothers someone, then we mix it up and people agree to change seats so others can play with the ones they missed.

  2. Replies
    1. When we get into the higher numbers, we use index cards instead of tiles. Each card has a table number on it, and one has an E. So, for example, for table 5, we have three cards with a 5 and one card with E5. We have as many "Bettor" cards as there are tables. First player to get a "bettor" card bets at table 1, second at table 2, etc.
      15 players - three tables of five. After five games, players pick cards. Players can swap places if desired.
      16 players - four tables of four - Players pick cards after every round or hour.
      17 players - Four tables, one bettor. Bettor sits down when an East gets up.
      18 players - Four tables, two bettors - Bettor 1 bets then sits when an east gets up, then bettor 2 does the same.
      19 players - Four tables, three bettors - can play three tables of five, one of four and pick cards after five games or hour.
      20 players - Five tables of four or four of five - use the card system. While it may not guarantee that all players play with all other players, the random draw mixes things up. Good luck!

  3. Are the seat rotation rules for "4 Players" your rules or the actual National Mah Jongg League Rules. I've played in a game for 25 years where "East" stays and everyone moves around her. Now I'm in a different game and was told everyone moves including East.

    1. In Mah Jongg Made Easy, the NMJL rule book, page 27, under "Four-Handed Mah Jongg," it states: "The original East is the pivot for the day. After each round, which consists of four games, the pivot who is the original East changes seats with the player to the right. The pivot takes the dice to the new seat." So after every four games, the original east switches seats with the player to the right. This appears in the 2020 version of the book.

    2. Thanks for your reply Linda. I have the 1984 version of the book and it's very different. It states: "The original East is the Pivot for the day. Play two rounds and then just before it becomes the Pivot's turn for the third time, the Pivot exchanges seats with the player who is sitting on the right who then becomes East. Play two more rounds and again, just before it becomes the Pivots' turn, the Pivot exchanges seats with the player who is now sitting to the right who then becomes East. This pattern continues throughout the game". The 2020 version seems much simpler I guess!

  4. We roll for east which is highest on dice. We play until you get back to original east with the dice and then we start rotation like this and it’s foolproof. East takes dice with her and goes to seat 2. Person in seat 2 goes to seat 4. 4 goes to seat 3 and 3 then goes to east. It sounds complicated but all you have to remember from then on is who you follow all day when you move. You follow the same person all day. No one site still and you pass to different people all day. It works!!!