"I have nothing!" This is the common lament of many Mahjong players once they rack their initial tiles. It's true that luck has a large part to play in the game, but having a good grasp of strategic and tactical moves can increase your chances of turning this "nothing" hand into a winning one.
In this article, we will discuss various strategies to help you make the most of your tiles and how to win mahjong games more often. This post will focus on American Mahjong (National Mah Jongg League rules) because this is the style we are most familiar with, though many of these tips will apply to all styles of mahjong. We will not focus on a specific year's card but rather provide more general advice that can be applied when using any card.
The tips listed in this article have been gathered over many years from our own experience and from the wisdom imparted to us by more experienced players. We are thankful to all those who have helped us to improve our game.
Please bear in mind that there is rarely a "best mahjong strategy" for a given situation. Often there are several options and you’ll need to pick one and run with it. We will provide hints along the way to help steer you in the right direction, but remember these strategies are not rigid rules to follow. Flexibility is the name of the game.
This post assumes you have mastered at least the basics of American mahjong and are familiar with its rules and practices. If you're new to the game click here to learn the fundamentals.
Since many of our tips depend on the phase of the mahj game you are currently in, we've broken this post down into the following sections:
This is a fairly long post but we wanted to be thorough and provide as much value as possible for all skills levels. So sit back, get yourself a cup of coffee or a glass of Manischewitz and let's get started!
The first (and arguably most important) piece of advice we'd like to give you is to prepare for the game. Mahjong is a fast-paced game and if you take too long to think through your options, you’ll feel your stress levels rising, you’ll make goofy mistakes and win fewer games. On top of all that, you’re likely to feel the frustration of your fellow players, who wish to keep the game moving and this is likely to raise your blood pressure even higher!
So it's important to familiarize yourself with the current year’s card. You need to know not only the general categories in order to narrow down your initial hand, but also the idiosyncrasies of each. Yes, this is tedious but it's a worthy investment of your time, because being able to quickly "pattern-match" between your tiles and the available hands (without having to look at all possible options) will give you the edge over others.
Here are a few strategies to help you master the card:
For other interesting forms of practice, check out Michele Frizzell's youtube channel
Do not grab all discards early to make pungs or kongs as it reveals your game to others and narrows your options. More on that later.
Keep your options open (at least initially) and be willing to switch to another hand based on discards and exposure (hence the need to be observant).
We often hear in various sports “The best offense is a good defense” and that's true in mahjong as well. We would argue this is what differentiates the average players from the great players. Again, keep close tabs on what others are playing, determine their hands and watch your discards accordingly.
If you realize you cannot win, switch to full defensive mode, actively doing everything you can to prevent others from winning. This is all part of the game and in no way unethical (more details here)
Try to not overtly give away your game by:
The way you organize your tiles on your rack is a matter of personal preference and there's no official right or wrong way. But here are a few tips to help you be more efficient:
When you receive your tiles, it's important to organize them so you can start identifying patterns.
Once faced with your initial tiles, choosing which direction to go seems like a daunting task, especially for beginners. How do I make sense of this jumble of tiles and match them to one of the ~50 possible hands? This section gives a structured approach to choosing a hand or a set of potential hands.
The first thing to realize is that, at this early stage in the game, you don't need to settle on a specific hand. You just need to determine which section(s) of the card (evens, odds, consecutive runs, etc) your tiles lend themselves to.
Look for things that may be harder to come by later.
See which of these combinations (pairs, singles combinations,...) go together. You may be excited to get two pairs, but if no hand on the card can use them both, one of them is useless (but may be used later as joker bait). But if you are able to use the two pairs in one hand, you have a strong contender
Next, look at hands that use your base combinations and see how many of your other tiles work with them. This is where your knowledge of the card comes in handy, as it helps quickly determine which combinations work together. If you have to look at each hand line-by-line, you’re only going to increase your stress level!
If you're lucky enough to have two or more jokers, consider the quint section (since you will need jokers to make those hands). But also see how they can complement your existing combinations.
If you have no pairs or singles combination, then look for a trend in the tiles. For example, do you have:
Again, remember that at this point, you only need to pick a section (not necessarily a hand).
If you have a few potential options, you may not need to make a final decision yet. As long as you have three tiles that definitely do not fit into any of your options, just pass those first and see what comes your way in the Charleston.
If you feel you have too many options, try to narrow them down to two using the following criteria.
If no clear winner (or even potential option) emerges, pick the 3 tiles that are the least likely to fit with the rest and pass those (hoping a better pattern emerges during the Charleston).
The Charleston is your chance to:
Though you are narrowing down your options, you don't necessarily need to come out of the Charleston with a specific hand to play. Through each step of the Charleston, you are eliminating options and getting a more precise direction of where you're going. Though it's good to keep options open, do not keep too many options as it will only lead to confusion.
Using the strategy described in the previous section, you will pass the three tiles that fit the least, based on your current assessment. Then given the three tiles you receive, you go through that same process again. Rinse and Repeat.
Remember that as long as you have three tiles to pass, you don't need to lock yourself into a particular hand just yet. But if you have only two or fewer (and you can't blind pass) you will be forced to pick one potential hand over another.
Besides discarding tiles that do not help your hand, you also need to be careful what you are passing to others. Your discards could potentially help other players to get ahead, so it would be wise to avoid passing tiles that could be valuable, such as:
Also, it's best to not pass groups of tiles that naturally fit together in a section. In particular, avoid passing:
Though your main focus in the Charleston is to strengthen your hand, it is also important to pay attention to the tiles being passed. Remember that the defensive part of mahjong is an important aspect of excelling at the game, and this involves being able to identify what your opponents are playing (and not playing).
To that effect:
After the first Charleston, there is an option to do another three passes during a second Charleston. Alternatively, players can decide to skip the second Charleston and move on to the Courtesy pass.
Some people seem to systematically do a second Charleston (some even get angry if you stop it, even though the rule book clearly allows it). Some players always want to stop after the first Charleston and move to the Courtesy pass. However, the second Charleston should be a conscious decision, based on the tiles in your hand. The main reason for stopping the Charleston is that you have a strong hand or two strong contenders and cannot afford to give away three tiles.
So, if you have at least three obvious tiles to discard, it's best to continue the Charleston. Worst case, you get nothing useful in the remaining passes but you're no worse off. The only awkward scenario can occur on the second "across". If you only had three discards and you received a useful tile, you find yourself having to pass a valuable tile. In this case, discard a tile that will be the easiest to replace. For instance, if the tile you just received completes a pair, then pass another tile (which may have previously been part of a pung or kong) because you have a good chance of being able to replace it from the discards or with a joker later. So even in this case, you're better off opting to go ahead with the second Charleston.
We're done with the Charleston. Now it’s time to start the game proper. We've divided our advice by phases of the mahjong game (early, mid-game and towards the end) since strategy will vary depending on how far along in the game you are. These phases are defined for teaching purposes only. In a real game, there is no fixed boundary between them and you certainly should exercise judgment when transitioning from one to the next. Think of them as a continuum rather than three rigid and disparate phases.
As a beginner, it is tempting to pick discards to make a pung or kong as early as possible in the game. It feels like you're making progress and often locks in your hand choice, removing the mental strain of potentially tracking several options. But it is generally not a good idea to do this early in the game.
By picking a discard, you are exposing part of your hand. Experienced players will be able to determine what hand you're playing (or at least narrow it down to a subset) and will actively work to thwart your efforts.
By exposing early, you also lock yourself into a hand (or small subset of hands) which may prove fatal if that hand does not pan out (which may very well be the case, since other players will be managing their discards to kill your hand).
Finally, you lose the ability to play a concealed hand.
Early exposure is made even worse if it includes jokers. This is because:
If you are playing with inexperienced players, they may not be able to figure out your hand even with an exposure (they have a hard enough time keeping up with their own hands - let’s face it, we’ve all been there!). So, you could argue the risk of being "found out" is smaller in that case. However, the points about locking yourself in and exposing jokers still stand.
In summary, be patient and don't pick discards until your hand is strong enough (typically 7 or 8 tiles towards Mah Jongg).
As we know, pairs are more difficult to make. So if you have a pair at this stage of the game it’s best not to grab a discard to turn it into a pung. The exception would be if you already have a definite hand chosen and that hand (and any potential fallback) would never need that pair. But even in that case, picking discards early is still risky as detailed in the previous section.
This early in the game, there are rarely hot tiles (tiles needed by opponents to complete sets or - God forbid - mahj). So you don't need to be overly concerned about accidentally discarding something valuable. On the contrary, you should actively aim to discard tiles others might want but can't pick up yet as described in the next two sections.
In the Charleston section above, we discussed avoiding passing in-demand tiles such as flowers, white dragons and other tiles (depending on the year). Since we are in the early phase of the game, now is the time to dispose of them (assuming, of course, you don't need them for your current hand or any fallback). At this stage, combinations are less likely to be at a point where opponents can claim those discards, even though they may desperately need them. Additionally, opponents may not have solidified their choice of hand and, therefore, may just not be ready to claim discards at this stage of the game.
If you've paid attention to the tiles being passed and kept by each player during the Charleston, as well as the tiles discarded thus far and possible early exposures, you may have a good idea of hands (or at least section) opponents are pursuing, even fairly early in the game (see reading mahjong hands for details)
If you do figure out someone's hand and you have tiles you know they need, then discard them at this early stage (unless you need them yourself, of course). In particular, if the hand in question requires a pair, discard those tiles as early as possible.
It's likely your opponent won't be able to claim these discards because their combinations may not be far enough along and/or they don't have enough jokers at this stage. If you wait until later in the game, you may be offering your opponent a valuable gift and potentially a win.
Let's say you've settled on a hand, but a few tiles you need have been discarded. Beginners often panic and give up on the hand, switching to another (potentially more challenging) hand and making negative progress. This early in the game, there is still a good chance to pick up those tiles (keep in mind there are 8 flowers, 8 jokers and 4 instances of all other tiles). So, don't give up too soon. This is particularly true if those discarded tiles were for a pung or kong. For a pair, it's a bit more tricky and there are cases where switching may be the right call.
Towards the middle of the game, the strategies outlined in the early game section need to evolve. Start being more careful with discards and consider a change of hand if needed. There are also more clues as to what hands our opponents are playing and we should act accordingly.
In the previous section, we cautioned against picking discards too early. At the same time, you cannot hold off forever and pass up tiles you really need. So, now is the time to consider picking discards and exposing (unless you're playing a concealed hand, of course).
It's important to keep track of how many of each of the tiles you need that have already been discarded, as this will determine when it is wise to start exposing. With two or more exposures, it's likely others will know what you're doing. You'll need to weigh this risk vs the risk of not getting anywhere at all.
Ideally, you should aim to have at least seven tiles towards Mah Jongg before you call a tile and expose.
Early in the game, discards are less likely to be picked up. But at this stage, the chances increase. If you've paid attention to your opponents' moves, you should have a good idea of what they're playing (see reading hands for details) and be cautious about your discards. That being said, waiting until the end of the game is too risky (and potentially fatal). In general, if the player has only one exposure, you may be safe; a second exposure increases the risk that their hand will be known.
One factor to bear in mind is how many of the tiles you are considering discarding are already on the table. If two have been discarded you are likely ok to discard, but if there are none or only one, the discard is more risky.
We warned against changing hands too prematurely. At the same time, you should not wait until close to the end of the game to change hands, since there will be limited time to start building the new hand. So this mid-game section is the right time to pivot, if you need to.
If you've played wisely, you will have a "plan B" option in case you're not getting anywhere with your initial choice.
Here are a few reasons which might prompt you to switch your plan at this stage:
While changing hand is sometimes necessary and even wise, refrain from changing repeatedly, as it will only lead to confusion and probably loss.
As the end of the game draws closer, a more defensive approach is required.
As the last wall gets shorter, the stakes for bad discards are progressively higher. Of particular concern are discards of tiles that have not already been discarded, as well as flowers.
By this stage of the game, you should either know, or have a very good idea of the hands your opponents are playing. Avoid discarding tiles you think someone else needs to win the mahj game. There will be cases where you have only one tile you can discard and you suspect it may be another player's mahjong tile. The right approach depends on how certain you are that this is their final tile. If you're sure, you are better off breaking your hand and discarding a tile that would be of no use to them. If you're not sure, it's a gamble and the decision will depend on your style, how risk-averse you are or how close you are to mahjongg yourself.
If you realize there's no way you can win, then you should switch to full defensive mode and try to prevent others from winning. Again, you should have a very good idea of each player's hand at this stage, so make sure you discard only tiles that they do not need. That means potentially discarding tiles that were crucial to your hand and jokers. Try to keep your body language under control as you do, so that you don't give yourself away.
But what if you're not dead but only a tile away from mah jongg and there are only a few tiles left in the wall. Unless you're playing with beginners, your opponents will know what hand you're pursuing and are unlikely to discard your winning tile. So, you're down to hoping your last tile is one of the few remaining in the wall. The odds are therefore really low and you may be better served playing defensively, unless you are sure your discard is not one of your opponents' mahj tiles.
If you realize a player is dead, it is generally in your best interest to call them "dead". One could argue that this player may have the tile you're missing to mahj, and by calling them dead you would be missing out on that tile. Though it's true that it's a possibility, the odds are quite low. Also the dead player will likely have determined your hand and will purposely not pass that tile (as described in the previous section). On the other hand, by calling the player dead, you are preventing them from picking tiles from the wall, which increases your number of picks and therefore your odds of getting what you need.
Once you get past the initial stages of learning and you've mastered the rules and the general mechanics of the game, an important skill to develop is the ability to determine what hands others are playing. There are a number of clues that will help you figure it out as detailed below.
The key to being able to determine other people's hands is a thorough knowledge of the card. When a clue is given (in the form of Charleston pass, discard or exposure), you need to be able to quickly assess where those tiles belong. In the course of a normal game, you will not have time to look for a match on the card line-by-line.
For example, familiarize yourself with things like:
During the Charleston, pay attention to the tiles you receive from each player and which of the tiles you passed end up coming back to you. This will be the first clue as to what type of hand each player is considering.
Note that at this stage, hands are usually tentative. For instance, if someone passes you winds, you might assume they're not playing a wind hand. But it's entirely possible that they switch to a wind-heavy hand at some point (for instance, if they start receiving a lot of them later in the Charleston or through picks). So, only consider these early clues as hints to be confirmed later, rather than definite conclusions.
Exposures are the most obvious way to figure out a player's hand. That's why we recommend you refrain from exposing too soon. Given one exposure, you may not always be able to determine the exact hand being played, but you can narrow it down to a few possibilities. With two exposures, it’s usually possible to figure out the exact hand being played.
Here are some examples:
Sometimes a given exposure will lead to quite a few potential hands. You can narrow them down by correlating them with your Charleston analysis (see section above) and the player's discards (see section below).
Discards are another clue to help you identify others players' hands. It does require you to have a good memory in order to recall who discarded what, but it can provide valuable insights. Discards on their own may not always provide you with a definite hand, but can be used as clues along with exposures to narrow down possible hands.
Be careful not to jump to a conclusion too quickly based solely on discards. For instance, if someone discards a North Wind, don't assume they're playing a hand with no North Winds. It's possible they already have all the Norths they need and are discarding the "excess".
Jokers can be life-savers in mahjong and it's difficult to win without them. So we added a special bonus section with advice on dealing with jokers.
If you would like to learn more about mahjong strategies, check out:
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We hope you found these strategies helpful. We welcome your feedback both positive and negative. If you have thoughts on any of the above mahjong tips, or suggestions for new ones, please email us at email@example.com
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