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FAQ 8. Mah-Jongg Strategy

Q: "I need some strategies to improve my game!"

A: There are many valid strategies that can be used to play Mah-Jongg. Some strategies apply only to particular styles of Mah-Jongg, and some strategies apply across the board.

Note: You can find much more information on American and Chinese Official strategy (and on etiquette and error-handling) in my book, The Red Dragon & The West Wind. Also see my weekly column.


INDEX - Click the letter to jump to the desired section


General strategy pointers for BEGINNERS studying ANY form of mah-jongg:

o Don't grab the first discard that completes one of your sets. Many beginners think they are doing good if they're making lots of melds (Chows, Pungs, Kongs) -- they don't realize that melding is an onerous duty, not a sign of success! If you watch experienced players, you will see that they do not necessarily grab the first Pung opportunity that comes along, for several reasons:

In general, don't take somebody else's discard unless you have a clear plan for your hand, and that particular discard advances your hand closer to a win.

o Keep a Pair. It's harder to make a pair if you have only one tile than it is to make a Pung if you have a pair. So if you have a pair, don't be too quick to claim a matching tile to form a Pung.

o Have Patience. When first learning to play, it's typical to grab every opportunity to meld a Pung or Chow. In the early stages of a game, you should instead keep in mind that there are a lot of good tiles available for drawing from the Wall - and by not melding your tiles, you don't clue everyone as to what you're doing, and you stand a chance to get a Concealed Hand.

o Be Flexible. As you build your hand, be ready to abandon your earlier thinking about how to build it as you see what kind of tiles others are discarding. If you are playing Western Mah-Jongg with restrictions on winning hands, don't be too quick to form your only Chow; there will be other chances.

o Don't Let Someone Else Win. As much as you want to go out yourself, sometimes it's wiser to keep anybody else from winning. Especially, you don't want to "feed" a high-scoring hand. If a player has melded three sets of all one suit, that's especially dangerous (you might feed a Pure or Clean hand, and have to pay a high price); thus the player announces the danger when making a third meld in one suit.

o Watch the discards and watch the number of tiles in the Wall. As it approaches the end, the tension increases - and it's more important to be careful what you discard when there are fewer tiles remaining to be drawn. If the number of tiles in the Wall is getting low, don't discard any tiles which you do not see in the discard area.

Below you will find strategies written specifically for American, Japanese, Chinese, and other forms of mah-jongg.

NOTE: American mah-jongg is completely different from all other forms. So I refer to those other forms as "un-American" as a shorthand way of saying "forms of mah-jongg other than the American variety.".


General Strategies for "Un-American" Forms of Mah-Jongg

o The "1-4-7 rule" is a good playing strategy (for all forms of Mah-Jongg except American (style similar to NMJL) in which there are no "chows"). If the player to your right discards a 4, and you don't have another of those to discard, you /might/ be all right if you discard a 1 or a 7. Remember that these number sequences are key: 1-4-7, 2-5-8, 3-6-9. Between any two numbers in these sequences there can be an incomplete chow; if a player throws one number, then that player probably does not have a chow that would be completed by that number or the number at the other end. Discarding tiles IDENTICAL to what another player discards is always good, if you can. This 1-4-7 principle also applies to any five-in-a-row pattern (assuming the hand is otherwise complete - you have two complete sets and a complete pair, waiting to go out with a five-in-a-row pattern as shown by ** in the table below).

o Try to go out waiting for multiple tiles (not just one). Imagine that you have three complete sets and two pairs. Imagine that one pair is 2 Bams, and you draw a 3 Bam from the wall -- which tile do you discard now? In this situation, many experienced players will discard a 2 Bam, keeping 2-3. A two-way incomplete chow call is better than a two-pair call.

Learn to shape the hand into calling patterns that give you multiple chances to win, such as the following:


Tiles in hand     Call for
 
2223              134
2224              34
2223344           2345
2223334           2345
2223456           14736
22234 RR          25 R
23456             147**
34567             258**
45678             369**

Highly skilled players of un-American mah-jongg (since American style alone does not use "chows") know these patterns by heart. More complex call shapes are mostly extensions of these. Although the American game does not use chows, the strategy of having a multiple-tile call still applies to that game as well.

Of special interest is the complexity of the pure hand. If you're working on a pure hand, it can often be difficult to tell what all the tiles are that can complete the hand. For instance: 1-2-3-4-5-5-5-6-6-6-7-8-9 (5 chances); 1-2-3-4-5-5-5-5-6-6--7-8-9 (5 chances); 2-3-4-4-4-5-5-5-6-6-6-7-8 (7 chances); and of course 1-1-1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9-9-9 (9 chances).

o When playing styles of Mah-Jongg that include Chows (IOW, any style except American/NMJL), keep in mind the profound difference between terminals ("ends," ones and nines) and simples ("non-ends," twos through eights). By their very nature, terminals can be used in far fewer potential melds. Therefore, if it is too early to form a strategy, get rid of a few terminals, and your hand will usually take shape enough to form a strategy. Most good players often go for an "all simples" hand or a "many terminals" type hand -- keep an eye on your opponents' discards to try to discern which they're doing. This will help you late in the game where you have a choice between several potentially dangerous discards -- remember that the terminals are usually in less demand. Most one-away hands are not waiting for terminals.

o Develop a Poker Face (or "Poker Body Language") -- When I started out playing this game, I was told that I looked too honest, that I didn't have a poker face. Experienced players hardly ever look up from their tiles -- much less look up to see the expression on an opponent's face. So I think a better phrase for what I didn't have, rather than "poker face," might be "poker body language" -- one's posture, not only one's facial expression, can give one away.
Steve Lin advised: "One thing you can try is to treat each discard as a tile you need, as if you are waiting. Essentially you're waiting anyway, just not for the 'out' tile, but a possible pung or kong. Another thing you can do is on a real lousy hand, where you're playing safe, try to act as if you're waiting. Remember to see/hear every discard clearly, and draw each tile deliberately. It's always better to let people think you're waiting, so they'll have to play conservatively. One way to disguise the tile you're waiting for is to make sure that you spend an equal amount of time on each drawn tile before discarding. One of the most common mistakes a beginner makes is to study the combination before discarding a tile, and letting everyone know what suit and approximately what number he needs. By speeding up the combination study and slowing down the discard of useless tiles, it should make it much harder for experts to figure out what you need." "While you're at it, you should also try to figure out what tiles the other players are waiting for. By doing this and verifying after each hand, you can pick up valuable experiences. Maybe by concentrating on this, you'll forget you're waiting, and your body language wouldn't be so obvious."

o Learn the three stages of a Mah-Jongg hand. I am still working on this strategy. I've always thought of it as two stages (as can be seen by various mentions of "early in the hand" and "late in the hand" in this FAQ). If you think of the hand as occurring over three stages instead of two, your strategy is moving nicely towards the upper levels. (NOTE: the Charleston would be "stage zero" so is not included in this strategy.)

1. Opening --> DEVELOP
2. Middle game --> ATTACK
3. End game --> DEFEND

Opening: DEVELOP your hand by removing isolated pieces. Keep your options open; much depends on what you draw.
Middle game: ATTACK with your hand by deciding on a goal (choosing one option), and building your hand towards that goal.
Endgame: DEFEND your game by making sure no one else wins. Your great hand will be useless if someone else wins!

The boundaries between the three games is not a mere count of discards, of course. You have reached the middle game when your hand is "clean" are you are thinking whether a danyao strategy is better or a pinfu strategy is better. You have reached the endgame when you are worrying more about discards than draws.

Here's another (more detailed) view on the three stages and how they apply to strategies described in this FAQ:

STAGE ONE -- Opening (FIRST SIX TURNS +/-) -- DEVELOP:

Evaluate the potential of your hand. If you have a lot of pairs, plan to try for an all-pairs hand or an all-pung hand. Determine as early as possible what hand you think you can get. Consider whether you want to throw away terminals or simples.

In this stage, don't take somebody else's discard unless you have a clear plan for your hand and that discard advances the hand closer to a Win.

Be mindful of your wind and the prevailing wind. Hang onto those winds in the early part of a hand until you can see that they're hopeless or your hand is shaping another way.

Your wind (when it's not the round wind) may well be an "anpai" (Japanese: "safe tile") to discard. If a pair of dragons has already been thrown, the third and fourth are probably safe to discard (it's rare, but not unheard of, for someone to go out waiting for a dragon pair). Keep it to use later when it's getting dangerous.

Try to go out waiting for multiple tiles (not just one). A two-way call is better than a one-way call. Learn to shape the hand into calling patterns that give you multiple chances to win.

American game, or games that use jokers: Save your jokers for later in the game. Early melding of jokers just lets others redeem them.

American game, or games with a set of required hands: After someone exposes a pung or kong, study the card carefully and see what the player is doing. If it is early in the game, discard tiles which you think they may be able to use but probably can't call.

STAGE TWO -- Middle game (AFTER THE 6TH TURN +/-) -- ATTACK:

Keep a Pair. It's harder to make a pair if you have only one tile than it is to make a Pung if you have a pair.

Be flexible. If your Stage One plan is not working, switch plans.

If you're getting close to going Out, don't let your body language give that fact away.

Redeem a joker from someone else's hand even if you don't need it. You can always throw it out and prevent someone else from getting it.

STAGE THREE -- Endgame (AFTER THE 12TH TURN +/-, or as the wall is down to the last section) -- DEFEND:

If you realize you won't be able to make your targeted hand, focus on preventing others from winning. Especially, you don't want to "feed" a high-scoring hand. Never discard to a third exposure, even if you have to break up a good hand.

Know what's safe to discard. The "1-4-7 rule" is a good playing strategy (for all forms of Mah-Jongg except American/NMJL in which there are no "chows"). If the player to your right discards a 4, and you don't have another of those to discard, you /might/ be all right if you discard a 1 or a 7. Discarding tiles IDENTICAL to what another player discards is always good, if you can.

Watch the discards and don't discard any tiles which you do not see in the discard area.

Throw away your jokers if you don't have anything safe to throw, and you know you're not going to win.


From the Mah-Jongg Q&A Bulletin Board...



Chinese/Hong Kong/Western Mah-Jongg Strategies

1. Go for the high-scoring combinations (pure, clean, and if applicable, special hands). You only need a few high-scoring hands to win the game.

2. Be flexible. If one plan is not working, switch plans.

3. Be careful of what you discard later in the game. Even if there is no penalty for throwing the winning tile, your secondary goal should still be to prevent others from winning.

4. Don't be too quick to chow or pung. Even if chicken hands are OK you stand a better chance of getting a good score if you keep your hand concealed. Laying your tiles down (melding) lets people see what you're doing, too.

5. Watch the discards and try to figure out what other players are holding. Remember that other players can do that too.

6. Be mindful of your wind and the prevailing wind. Hang onto those winds in the early part of a hand until you can see that they're hopeless or your hand is shaping another way.

7. If you're using flowers and playing for minimum fan scores, watch your flowers. If you have the right flowers, you can go out with an otherwise chicken hand if necessary.

8. Watch the flowers and the seasons. Be aware if it's possible for anyone to get a bouquet (all 4 Flowers, or all 4 Seasons). It might affect your plan.

9. Don't let Kong opportunities sway you from your targeted hand. My first draft of the FAQ said that Kongs were good things (because they let you get an extra draw from the wall) but it was kindly pointed out: "Kongs are especially worthless, since they do not contribute to your hand (except in variants where they earn extra value, or if you Win, or if you are trying for the All Kongs special hand that some variants recognize)." - Kong from a discard gains you nothing unless the kong has value or you go out on the supplement tile.* - Kong from self-pick is different. The Kong is considered concealed in many forms of Mah-Jongg, and it does afford you an extra pick from the wall. - Conversion of a melded Pung to a Kong is likewise not bad, but it is subject to being Robbed.

* It also costs nothing because it is still your draw. That is, if you have three white dragons in hand and the player before you discards the fourth, you gain by making a kong if the kong is worth more than the pung (which depends on the form of Mah-Jongg that you are playing). You'll still get to draw the same tile, and you'll have an exposed kong instead of a concealed pung. (You do lose if exposing the kong puts you at a disadvantage for other reasons.) If the kong is not worth more than the pung and you aren't ready to go out, there's no point in making this kong; you don't need to tell everyone else at the table that you have a kong of white dragons.

10. Get more cautious as the wall gets lower and lower. Don't discard tiles that haven't previously been discarded.

11. Another strategic reason for not claiming discards to make a meld -- making melds means you make fewer picks from the wall. If you use Flowers/Seasons as bonus tiles, and if your Flowers/Seasons have not yet been used up, you want to increase your chances of picking these tiles from the wall.


12 Strategies for Japanese Mah-Jongg (Listed in no particular order)

1. Early on, evaluate the potential of your hand. If you have a lot of pairs, plan to try for an all-pairs hand or an all-pung hand. Consider whether you want to throw away terminals or simples.

2. Determine as early as possible what yaku you think you can get. Know if you have Dora or not but don't count on it for a yaku (it isn't). Don't forget that Reach is a yaku too.

3. Do not be too quick to jump on somebody's discard -- take it only if you've already got a plan for what yaku you're shooting for. (See next two for specifics.)

4. Don't meld Chows unless you have a definite yaku plan.

5. Don't meld Pungs unless you decide Reach is out of your reach.

6. Shoot for the really really big yaku hands. Pure, Clean, All Honors, etc. You only need one "really really big" hand to win the entire game. Two "just really big" hands can win the entire game too.

7. Know when to give up on your plan -- watch the discards and melds to see if it'll be impossible to get the tiles you want.

8. As the wall decreases, wariness and caution should increase. Late in the hand, do not discard anything that nobody else has discarded. Even tiles discarded early in the hand can be dangerous, late in the hand.

9. If you can't win, at least try to go tenpai -- but not at the expense of letting somebody else win. When there are 20 or less tiles remaining, and your hand isn't that good, consider melding like mad so you can at least be tenpai (but watch out what you discard).

10. If your chances of winning are low (and/or if your score will be low) shift your strategy to defense. Try to figure out what other players need to win, and do not discard that, even if it means having Noten.

11. Know your wind and the prevailing wind. Hang onto those tiles until you think they can't be used or conflict with your shaping hand.

12. The 1-4-7 rule is a good playing strategy. If the player to your right discards a 4, and you can't throw an identical tile, it might be "not too unsafe" (^-^) for you to throw him a 1 or a 7. Remember these sequences: 1-4-7, 2-5-8, 3-6-9. ... A player pointed out to me: "[it's] only really safe going from 4 to 1, or 6 to 9. A discarded 1 is not from 1-2-3, but could be from 1-3-5, which is a combination worth holding for a while." Discarding tiles IDENTICAL to what another player discards is always good, if you can.

(I lied about there being 12 strategies)

13. Be aware of your ranking among the other players at the table. If you are in 3rd place, it's better to have the 2nd-place player to have to pay you off than the 4th-place player.

14. New one. Don't do what I do! If you're playing against real players, think real good about whether or not your hand really is one tile away from complete before declaring Reach. You don't want to have to pay a Chombo penalty! Computer games may or may not allow you to make Chombo, but in real life it's real easy to do! :o(

15. Try to go out waiting for multiple tiles (not just one). Imagine that you have three chows and two pairs. One pair is 2-bams, and you draw a 3-bam from the wall -- which tile do you discard now? In this situation, many experienced players will discard a two, keeping 2-3. A two-way call is better than a one-way call. (And this example would also put you in line for pinfu (all chows), a popular and easy yaku.)

16. Be aware of how many tiles you need to become tenpai (such tiles are called "shanten" by Japanese players) and work to get that number (the shanten count) increasingly lower and lower. The best way is to try to increase the number of possible winning tiles.

17. Win. If you get a chance to declare "Ron" or "Tsumo", you'd better do it.

18. At times it is important to ignore these strategies. You might never make certain special yaku if you never take chances that go against the prevailing wisdom.


American Strategy (NMJL, AMJA)

1. As soon as you get the first deal, sort your tiles on the sloping front of your rack. If you take a look at my weekly strategy column, you can see how I organize my tiles -- flowers at the left, then by suit (numerically within each suit), then dragons and winds and jokers. Suits are extremely important, so you always need to separate the tiles by suit. Suit order (which suit at the left, which suit at the right) is not important at this stage.

I recommend you read the weekly column if you are reading this. There's a link to the column in the nav frame at left, and there are purple banners linking to the column on many pages of this website.

Once your tiles are sorted, look for pairs and triples first, and see if they suggest a particular section of the card. If not, see if any of the singles do. If you have ones and eights and nines, you might go for the 1998 section. [Note: that was written in 1998.] Look at your winds and dragons and flowers -- do they suggest any particular section of the card? Most players don't find uses for winds in particular, and you probably don't either, but what if other players were to pass you winds in the Charleston? But don't spend too much time thinking -- the others want to move on to the Charleston.

2. During the first Charleston, pass tiles that don't help you make a hand in the section of the card you have targeted. See if the tiles that get passed to you do help.

3. During the second Charleston you'll most likely see mostly the same tiles you saw in the first one. So consider whether you ought to change your hand based on the tiles that are being passed.

4. Don't be too quick to take a discard in the early part of the game. Most likely there will be more chances later. You don't want to tip your hand too early. Sometimes one meld will tell everybody very clearly exactly what hand you are targeting!

5. Save your jokers for later in the game. Early melding of jokers just lets others redeem them -- you don't want to help your opponents, now, do you?

6. As you near the end of the hand, watch the discards -- and do not discard any "raw tiles" (tiles that are not present among the discards) later in the game.

7. If you realize you won't be able to make your targeted hand, focus on preventing others from winning. Throwing away your jokers is a very safe move when you just don't want somebody else to win.

8. Try to keep your hand concealed. Same reasoning as described for other Mah-Jongg games, above.

9. Go for the high-scoring hands. You won't succeed most of the time, but you only have to get a few good scores to be the big winner! Lose small and win big.

10. Jokers are safe to discard (since nobody can ever claim a discarded joker). And sometimes it's necessary (when you can't use it, because you need to complete a pair or fill a single). When discarding a joker, many people say "same." It's encouraged to say "same" because the practice encourages other players to keep their eyes open, not only their ears. You can even just say the name of the previous tile (you don't even have to say "same"). And there is a strategic reason for not just saying "joker" when discarding a joker. An opponent who is foolishly only listening, and not looking, will probably miss the fact that you have discarded a joker, and won't even know it until she happens to see it on the discard floor later. Or when she hears you say "same," she might think you had discarded a joker, and will scan the table looking for it, then might even ask what just happened. Either way, by saying "same," you have taken advantage of some players' bad habits.

11. Did you know I write a weekly mah-jongg column? Learn special strategy tips, like "joker bait"! See http://www.sloperama.com/mahjongg/column423a.htm. Bookmark the column and read it every week.

Here's more American strategy, from Linda Fisher:

1. After someone exposes a pung or kong, study the card carefully and see which hands are possibilities. If it is early in the game, discard tiles which you think they may be able to use but probably can't call because they've either used their only joker on the first exposure or haven't collected enough tiles to make a second exposure. However, discard to a second exposure at great risk and never discard to a third exposure, even if you have to break up a good hand.

2. During the Charleston, pay attention to which tiles *don't* come back to you. Try to determine (without being too obvious) which tiles the recipient keeps.

3. If you play with the same people on a regular basis, try to determine their playing style (i.e., are they cautious, always playing "easy" hands? Do they take risks?)

4. Try to find one hand and stick with it. The best advice my aunt gave me was "You can't play everything."

5. Study the card at a time when you're not playing. Knowing which way to go on the fly can give you an advantage.

6. Redeem a joker from someone else's hand even if you don't need it. You can always throw it out and prevent someone else from getting it.

7. Remember that the pairs are the most difficult to get since they cannot be exposed. It's better to play a hand where the pairs are in place and you need a kong or pung rather than the reverse.


So there you have some strategy pointers. Just keep these things in mind:
- There is a difference between a rule and a strategy. If you see somebody violating a strategy, you cannot call her out on it and tell her, "you can't do that." If you want to help her with some strategic pointers, do that away from the table, not during a game, and do it with a clear awareness that strategies are not rules.
- One strategy can be trumped by another strategy. A strategy can be trumped by circumstances. Hardly any strategy should be used 100% of the time under any or all circumstances.


Got a question? Ask it on the Mah-Jongg Q&A Bulletin Board! You'll get answers!

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THANKS to the following folks for their contributions to this FAQ:

J. R. Fitch
Alan Kwan
ksr (Tanaka Keishiro)
David Grabiner
Wei-Hwa Huang
Steve Lin
Linda Fisher
[Your name can go here!]

Update log:
June 23, 1999 -- further differentiated "American" from other forms of Mah-Jongg
October 18, 2000 -- added header info indicating thegameguru.net home of these FAQs
December 8, 2000 -- changed FAQ URL to sloperama.com
June 25, 2001 -- Converted the FAQ to HTML format. Fixed a typo (changed "the" to "they".
Subsequent updates are logged at http://www.sloperama.com/mjfaq/log.html



This FAQ copyright 2000, 2001, 2005, 2009, 2010, 2012, 2013 by Tom Sloper. All rights reserved. Replication/reproduction by permission of the author only.

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