Beginner's Guide to American Mah Jongg
This article will cover all the basics required to get started with American Mah Jongg.
We will discuss the rules and mechanics of the game so that those new to Mah Jongg can get up and running. Once these have been mastered, please check out our Complete Guide to American Mah Jongg Strategy document for tips on strategic decision-making.
Mahjong is a 4-person game of skill and chance that originated in China. There are many variations of the game, but in this article, we focus exclusively on the American version, following National Mah Jongg League (NMJL) rules. This version is usually spelled "Mah Jongg" and often simply called "mahj".
Each section in this guide will be illustrated with screen captures of tiles from our Online Mah Jongg Game. Note that there is a wide variety of tile designs available, so the tiles in your set may look different from the ones pictured here.
An American Mah Jongg set consists of 152 tiles of different types.
These tiles have a symbol (based on the suit) and a number. There are 3 suits (cracks, dots and bams) and the numbers run from 1 to 9. There are 4 instances of each tile.
Note: the one-bam is usually represented as a bird.
There are 4 types of wind tiles: North, East, West, South. There are 4 instances of each wind tile in the game.
There are 3 types of dragons: Green Dragon, Red Dragon, White Dragon (also called Soap). There are 4 instances of each dragon tile in the game.
Each dragon is associated with a suit
- Bams with Green Dragons
- Cracks with Red Dragons
- Dots with White Dragons (Soap)
We will discuss these associations in more detail when we discuss how to read the card.
Note: the white dragon is also used to represent a zero in the game.
There are 8 flower tiles in the game. In some sets, they are represented as different varieties of flowers and may also have seasons printed on them. These differences are irrelevant for American Mah Jongg and all flower tiles are interchangeable. This illustration is the flower used in the I Love Mahj online game.
In addition to the regular tiles mentioned above, a Mah Jongg set also includes 8 jokers. Jokers are a wildcard and can substitute for any tile when building a hand. However, there are some restrictions. More on that later.
Contrary to other styles of mahjong, American Mah Jongg uses a card that describes the winning combinations of tiles (called "hands"). The goal of the game is to match your tiles with one of these combinations.
This adds an interesting twist to the game since you have to know the card well enough to be able to quickly pattern-match with the tiles you're dealt. To make matters worse, a new card is published each year. So, just when you think you've memorized and mastered the card, you have to start over and learn a new one!
There are a few organizations that produce cards, but the most prominent one is the National Mah Jongg League (NMJL). Due to copyright restrictions, we cannot show you the card. You will need to purchase your own from the NMJL. However, this section will teach you how to read the card, so you can understand which tile combinations are valid.
Each line on the card represents a winning hand. Each hand is made up of 14 tiles. Colors and notes help define the hand specifically.
The card uses the following abbreviations:
- 1 - 9 : numbered tiles
- D: dragon
- F: flower
- N, E, W, S: North, East, West & South winds
- 0: soap (white dragon)
A given hand is broken into groups of identical tiles:
- Single: 1 single tile
- Pair: 2 identical tiles
- Pung: 3 identical tiles
- Kong: 4 identical tiles
- Quint: 5 identical tiles
- Sextet: 6 identical tiles
- A pung of West winds will be represented as WWW
- A kong of 3s will be represented as 3333
- A quint of flowers will be represented as FFFFF
Note that these are combinations of identical tiles. The card sometimes includes groups of tiles that are represented together, but since they are made of different tiles, they should really be considered as individual tiles. For example, NEWS is not a kong but a set of each of the 4 individual wind tiles. Similarly, a year hand (eg: 2020) is a set of 4 single tiles. This often confuses beginners, and it would certainly help to avoid confusion if the NMJL would mark these with a space between each tile on the card.
Three colors are used on the card: blue, red and green. Those colors do not designate a particular suit. Any color can represent any suit, but within a given hand, each tile of a given color should be in the same suit.
Example: 222 444 6666 8888
The 2s and 4s need to be in the same suit and the 6s and 8s need to be in another suit. For instance, your 2s and 4s could be dots and your 6s and 8s cracks; or your 2s and 4s could be bams and your 6s and 8s dots, etc. All these combinations are equally valid.
When dragons are included in a combination and they are marked in the same color as the rest of the hand, they need to match the suit used:
- Green Dragons with Bams
- Red Dragons with Cracks
- White Dragons (Soap) with Dots
Example: 22 444 DDDD 666 88
In this example, all characters and numbers are in the same color, so they need to be in the same suit, with matching dragons. For instance, a winning hand could be a pair of 2-cracks, a pung of 4-cracks, a kong of red dragons, a pung of six-cracks and a pair of 8-cracks.
Sometimes, the dragon is in a different color to other combinations, indicating it should NOT match the other suits (this is called "opposite dragon").
Example: 22 44 666 888 DDDD
Here we will need to use one suit for the 2s and 4s, another suit for 6s and 8s and dragons should match the 3rd suit. For instance, a winning hand could be a pair of 2-dots, a pair of 4-dots, a pung of 6-cracks, a pung of 8-cracks and a kong of green dragons.
The hands on the card are grouped in sections, which are mostly consistent from year to year:
- <year>: these hands include the current year expressed with numbered tiles and soaps
- 2468: these hands include only even numbers
- Any Like Numbers: in these hands all numbers are the same (eg: all 3s).
- Quints: as the name implies, these hands include quints (5-of-a-kind)
- Consecutive runs: these hands include numbers in increasing order (eg: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5)
- 13579: these hands include only odd numbers
- Winds and dragons: as the name implies, these hands include mostly winds and dragons (though some include numbers as well)
- 369: these hands include the numbers 3, 6 and 9
- Singles and pairs: these hands include only single tiles and pairs of tiles (no other groupings of tiles are included)
- Some cards also include a section based on multiplications or additions
(eg: FFFF 5555 x 3333 = 15)
- In each section, a hand may also include dragons and/or flowers
- For Any Like Numbers, the numbers are represented as 1s, but can be any number.
- For Consecutive Runs, the numbers are represented starting from 1, but could be any sequence of numbers (unless otherwise indicated).
For example, for FFFF 1111 22 3333, a winning hand could be a kong of flowers, a kong of 4-cracks, a pair of 5-cracks and a kong of 6-cracks.
Some hands are marked with an X (which means exposed) and some with a C, which denotes a concealed hand. When playing a concealed hand, you cannot call a discarded tile (more on that in the "Calling a Tile" section).
Each line on the card has a clarifying note in parenthesis next to the hand. When there's ambiguity in the hand representation, the note explains what is actually permitted and what is not.
For example, line 1 of consecutive runs generally includes the note "These numbers only". As discussed earlier, for consecutive runs, any sequence of consecutive numbers can usually be used, but for this one, only these specific numbers are allowed.
Another example is FFFFF DDDD 11111. Since the numbers are in a different color than the dragons, you may assume they have to be different suits. But the note says "Any number, any suit, any dragon", which means suits are irrelevant in this case.
So, make sure to read the notes carefully.
The final piece of information on the card is the number of points for each hand. This indicates how many points you will receive if you win with this hand. It’s possible to also earn bonus points (these will be described later).
Playing the game
So far, we've discussed the various tiles and how to read the card to determine the winning combinations. Now, it's time to play! There are several steps to a game and we'll cover each in turn.
When playing online, the set-up of the game is done for you, and you can just start playing. For those playing in person with physical sets, here are the steps to set up the game:
- Arrange the 4 players around a small square table
- Lay a rack in front of each player
- Place all tiles in the center face down and shuffle them
- Each player builds a "wall" of tiles, 19 tiles long and 2 tiles tall, in front of their rack
- Players roll dice and the highest score is designated as "East"
- East rolls the dice and breaks their wall at the position indicated by the dice (starting from the right)
- East takes the next 4 tiles after the break in the wall
- Moving in a counter-clockwise fashion, each player takes 4 tiles, until they all have 12 tiles. Tiles are initially picked from East's (partial) wall, then from the next wall (in clockwise order)
- East takes 2 more tiles from the wall (the first and third on top of the wall) and other players (in counter-clockwise order) pick 1 tile each
- East now has 14 tiles and the other players have 13
- Tiles are placed on the tilted side of each player's rack (visible only to them)
At this point, players will start ordering their tiles on their racks, analyzing their options and planning their hands. For advice on strategy, please check out our Complete Guide to American Mah Jongg Strategy.
The Charleston is unique to American Mah Jongg and involves passing unwanted tiles between players in the following fashion:
First Charleston (mandatory)
- All players pass 3 tiles to the player on their right
- All players pass 3 tiles to the player across from them
- All players pass 3 tiles to the player on their left. However, this time, players do not need to pass their own tiles. They should choose between 0-3 of their own tiles and any shortfall should be made up of tiles received from the player on their right. These tiles should be passed without first looking at them. This is known as a "blind pass".
Second Charleston (optional)
If all players agree, another Charleston is conducted, starting with a pass to the left this time. If one or more players wish to stop at this point, players move to the Courtesy Pass directly (see below).
- All players pass 3 tiles to the player on their left
- All players pass 3 tiles to the player across from them
- All players pass 3 tiles to the player on their right. This can include 0-3 of their own tiles, supplemented with tiles received, as before (see note above regarding "blind passes")
Each player tells the person opposite them how many tiles they wish to pass (0-3 tiles). Players exchange tiles equal to the lower of the two numbers.
Note that jokers cannot be passed during the Charleston.
Once the Charleston has been completed, players move into the game proper. As stated previously, the goal of the game is to end up with a set of tiles matching one of the hands on the card.
Order of Play
This section will cover the general order of play. Subsequent sections will explain each part and the rules associated with them.
Since East has 14 tiles, this player starts the game by discarding a tile. The turn then moves to the player on their right who picks a tile from the wall, then discards a tile. Any player can decide to call a discard to make an exposure (see below). The calling player then discards a tile. Play continues in a counter-clockwise direction, with each player picking a tile from the wall and discarding a tile until someone calls Mah Jongg or there are no more tiles to pick (this is called a “wall game”). We’ll cover the various aspects in a little more details below.
Walls are pushed out in turn once all tiles have been picked from the previous wall. This process moves in a clockwise direction, with the right-most end of the wall being pushed towards the center of the table, leaving the left-most end closest to the player pushing out.
Drawing & Racking
A player starts their turn by drawing a tile from the wall that is currently in play. This tile is selected from the end of the wall closest to the center of the table and it is placed on the tilted side of their rack (visible to them only). The racking of a tile is the signal that the previously discarded tile can no longer be called.
Once all tiles have been picked from the active wall, the next wall (in clockwise order) is pushed out. Tiles are then picked from this wall.
In some online games, the tile is automatically drawn and given to you; in others, you have to click a button to expressly request it.
After drawing at tile (or calling a discard), players will re-examine their hand and decide what tile they wish to discard next. In an in-person game, the player would place this tile on the table, face up, and announce it verbally (eg: "one bam" or "north").
In online games, you usually discard a tile by double-clicking it or dragging it to the center of the game, and the tile is announced by the computer.
Once a tile is discarded it cannot be taken back. Discarding a tile signals the end of that player’s turn.
Calling a Tile
Once a tile has been discarded, players have the option to call it prior to the next player picking a tile from the wall. You would call the tile if you required it to complete a combination for the hand you are aiming for (ie, pung, kong or quint).
To call a discarded tile:
- Announce the call verbally (saying "call" is sufficient)
- Place the called tile face-up on top of your rack and add matching tiles (which can include jokers) from your rack to make the combination you require. This set of tiles is called an "exposure".
- To complete your turn, discard a tile from your hand
- Play now moves to the person on your right, unless your discarded tile is called
If a player calls a discarded tile and it’s the last tile needed to complete their hand, they would call "Mah Jongg" and place all their tiles on top of their rack (so that others can verify the hand is indeed valid).
There a several rules governing the calling of a tile:
- You can only call a tile between the time it is discarded and the time the next player racks their pick from the wall
- You can only call the most recently discarded tile (not previously discarded ones)
- You can only call a tile to complete a combination of 3 tiles or more (pung, kong, quint) and not for a single or pair UNLESS this is the last tile you need to complete Mah Jongg
- You may use jokers in place of regular tiles in your exposure. For instance, if you're calling a 5-crack to make a pung, the exposure can be three 5-cracks, or two 5-cracks and a joker, or one 5-crack and two jokers.
- You can never call a discarded joker
- You cannot call a tile for a concealed hand UNLESS this is the last tile you need to complete Mah Jongg
- Once you have exposed, you can edit this exposure (for instance, from a pung to a kong) until you discard a tile. After that, the exposure cannot be removed or changed.
- If 2 players call for the same tile:
- The player closer to the discarding player (in counter-clockwise order) takes precedence
- If a player is calling for Mah Jongg, they take precedence over players calling for an exposure
Jokers can substitute for a regular tile, but only in combinations of 3 or more tiles (ie, pungs, kongs, quints), never for singles or pairs. Remember that sequences like NEWS or 2020, though represented together on the card are really 4 single tiles. So you cannot use a joker for these.
Swapping a joker
When it is your turn (either naturally based on order, or because you've just called a tile), you may swap an exposed joker for the corresponding tile in your rack.
For example, let's say Mary has exposed two 5-cracks and two jokers. If you have a 5-crack, you can exchange this tile for Mary's joker. If you had two 5-cracks you could exchange these for both jokers. You can also swap a tile you have in your hand for a joker in one of your own exposures.
Note that in-person, you would request the joker from another player, rather than just taking it from their rack.
When a player has 14 tiles that match one of the hands on the card, they can declare themselves the winner by calling “Mah Jongg”. They should announce it verbally and place all their tiles on top of their rack.
The winning player is awarded the number of points for that hand (as noted on the card), plus bonus points if the hand is jokerless or the last tile was self-picked (rather than a call). Players discarding the winning tile may be penalized.
There are payout rules for people playing for money and point accrual rules for tournaments. Some online games have their own rules as well. It is beyond the scope of this tutorial to discuss the various payout options.
If players run out of tiles from the wall before someone reaches Mah Jongg, the game results in a draw. This is called a "Wall Game".
There are situations where a player's hand may be declared dead by other players. When this happens, the player stops participating in the game (ie, they can't pick from the wall, discard or call tiles) and the game continues with the remaining players.
Here are some conditions that would render a hand dead:
- You call for Mah Jongg in error. For example, you claim Mah Jongg, but your tiles do not match a hand on the card, or they match a concealed hand when you have exposures
- Your hand is no longer viable. For instance, your exposures indicate you can only be playing one particular hand, and that hand requires a pair of North winds. If there are already 3 North winds in the discards or exposures, there's no way you can complete your hand. So it is effectively dead.
- You incorrectly call someone else's hand dead. Your hand is now dead.
- You somehow end up with an incorrect number of tiles. You should have 13 tiles most of the time and 14 when it's your turn or when you call Mah Jongg.
This was a quick run down of the basics of American Mah Jongg. Here are some resources to learn more:
- For advice on strategy, see our Complete Guide to American Mah Jongg Strategy
- Buy a book from our recommended list
- Find a teacher in your area
- Download our American Mah Jongg Cheat Sheet and keep it near you when you play
- Sign up for I Love Mahj, the online American Mah Jongg game, and practice, practice, practice!
- If you've never played online before, let us help you get started to play American Mah Jongg online