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FAQ 9. Mah-Jongg Etiquette -- the goal is HARMONY

Note: Although I often tell readers on my Mah-Jongg Q&A Bulletin Board that I don't withhold information from these FAQs, this FAQ and FAQ 8 (Strategy) are exceptions to that rule. You can find much more information on American and Chinese Official etiquette and error-handling (and strategy) in my book, The Red Dragon & The West Wind. Also see my weekly column for occasional etiquette and error-handling pointers as well.

To be honest, nobody ever actually asks me about mah-jongg etiquette, but the answers below come up a lot -- usually in response to a completely different question. These completely different questions usually start something like, "My mah-jongg group got into a heated argument about..."

When players adhere to certain "rules of etiquette," the result is a friendlier game, a better atmosphere in which to enjoy the game and each other's company.

You don't have to believe me -- and these "rules" (in quotes because etiquette is very different from the rules of a game) are not hard and fast -- but if you try these out, you will see for yourself that an improved atmosphere can result from following these guidelines.

1. Be polite if a penalty has to be imposed. If you have reason to declare a player's hand dead, just be matter-of-fact about pointing it out. Don't be vindictive, or in-your-face, or even overly apologetic.

2. Be polite if you are on the receiving end of an unpleasant game event. If you are called dead or have to pay a penalty, accept it. It's just a game, and you want to play with these folks again!

3. Politeness is always good -- be considerate of other players' needs. If another player is having a difficult time concentrating if there is conversation going on, then try to limit conversation during the Charleston and during play. On the other hand, if another player greatly enjoys conversing while playing, and you want her to cut down the conversation, ask politely.

4. If you were playing mah-jongg on the internet and used foul language a lot, you would likely get "booted." So the same thing goes in the real world -- try not to use four-letter words too much, even if the other players are using them a lot. The game would probably be more congenial without those words. Occasionally you may need to have outsiders join in -- what would they think to join a table of "longshoremen"? (^_^)

5. ... oh, the heck with numbered items! Here's part of an article I wrote in the newsletter of the AMJA some time back:

Tom Sloper's Philosophies of Mah-Jongg, Part One.

Philosophy #0: Everybody plays mah-jongg differently, all around the world. We should be tolerant of other forms, and not put them down as inferior just because we don't understand them.

Philosophy #1: Everybody who adheres to a particular form of mah-jongg uses different table rules, so be flexible. The day after mah-jongg was created, it was played at a second table, with a second set of rules. You can use any table rule you like, so long as it's agreeable to all your players, and you are all prepared to deal with possible conflicts, and you are all prepared to suspend your table rules at a different table or when playing in a tournament. There is no "mah-jongg police" who's going to come after you if you change the rules.

Philosophy #2: Resolving conflicts or disagreements often involves perpetrating an unavoidable unfairness (or a perceived unfairness) on someone. Seek the smallest unfairness to the smallest number of players.

Philosophy #3: When ruling on conflicts or situations or questions arising out of someone's error, first determine who made the error.

Philosophy #4: If you make a mistake, you are the one who should suffer its consequences, not everybody else at the table. You can ask for, but not demand, a second chance. There is no rule that says, "mistakes must be forgiven by the other players."

Philosophy #5: How to decide when mistakes may (or must) be taken back:

Philosophy #6: Harmony is more important than winning. If a conflict was ruled against you -- or if your request for a chance to do something over was turned down -- or if you had to throw in a potentially great hand because of someone else's error, then accept it graciously and move on. And no grousing about it later. You want to play again another day, right? That means you want others to enjoy playing with you. If all you care about is winning, nobody will want to play with you. Good gamesmanship is about much more than just winning. It's about getting along, too.

Philosophy #7: Not only is it important to lose graciously, it's also important to win graciously. Don't smug too much when you're on a roll.

Philosophy #8: Another aspect of being a good sport is complimenting others when they win or make a good move. Don't rub someone's face in her bad luck or low skill. If playing with a newbie, help her learn so she'll get better (you want her to get better so you can enjoy playing with her again later).

Philosophy #9: Adjunct to Philosophy #1. When playing with a new group, you need to be flexible. Find out what rules they use. If you want them to do something differently, you can ask, but they can refuse. Conversely, if someone new joins your table, tell her what table rules you use. Listen if she wants you to consider doing something differently. You can always try it her way, and you can always change it back if you don't like the new rule.

See FAQ 14 for more about table rules.

And here's more... from another column I wrote for the AMJA newsletter (thus most of this applies mainly to the American game):


I have played mah-jongg with many different people in my mah-jongg "career." And I've observed problems that resulted from bad habits. Now, one person's bad habit might be another person's table rule, so you have to be able to distinguish between the two.

DISCARDING AHEAD -- When I play with my Japanese friends, they yell at me if I claim a discard and then make the exposure before discarding (nobody can play until I discard, and they want to PLAY!). But when I play with my American friends, they call me dead if I discard before making the exposure. One person's bad etiquette is another person's official rule! Why it's a bad habit -- Do it with players who strictly follow the rules (like in a tournament) and you'll be called dead.

PICKING AHEAD -- Many American players think "picking ahead" (AKA "playing with a future") is the correct way to play. But when these players come to a tournament... watch out! Old habits die hard. And picking ahead is the surest way I know to get called dead in a tournament. In case anybody's been living in a cave, picking ahead is a no-no. That other mah-jongg association (I'm not naming names, but their initials are NMJL) HATES picking ahead! Read their rulebook and yearly bulletin sometime if you don't believe me. Why it's a bad habit -- (1) It causes too many conflicts when someone wants to claim a discard. You might think that it makes the game go faster, but it really doesn't. (2) Do it in a tournament and you'll be called dead.

RESTING THE HAND IN THE PLAY AREA -- First time I encountered this was at a recent tournament. One lady habitually would rest her right hand over her rack and in the center of the table. Why it's a bad habit -- (1) Your hand or wrist obscure an area where there might be tiles people want to see. (2) Putting your hand there lets you play faster, which puts other players at an unfair disadvantage. You should play at the same speed as everybody else, giving everyone an equal opportunity to claim discards, on each player's turn. If everybody at your table agrees to rest their hands in the play area too, then fine. Otherwise, you're just being selfish.

LOOKING AT THE PICK IN TABLE CENTER -- Some folks take the tile from the wall and look at it right there, rather than first bringing it to their rack before looking at it. When they do this, I get a glimpse of the tile. And I figure it's not my fault I saw it. Why it's a bad habit -- (1) Other people can see your tile. (2) It increases the possibility of a conflict if someone wants to claim the tile discarded just before you looked at it. Consider -- it often takes folks a second to decide to claim a discard, right? So if you grab a tile really soon after a discard is made, chances are that after you look at the tile somebody will call the previous discard. What if it was a joker? Too bad for you! You have to put it back if the claim was made before you racked or discarded.

FREQUENT EXCURSIONS FROM TABLE -- The appropriate time to get up from the table to get food or drink or whatever is during the interval between hands. Not during play. Why it's a bad habit -- Should be obvious. (1) While you are up, you could easily peek at other folks' tiles. Everybody has to either trust that you won't, or cover their tiles with their cards. (2) Nobody can play while you're up. On each discard, somebody has to holler to you, "Hey, there's a One Crak on the table! Do you want it?" Come on, be considerate of the others, will ya???

EATING -- Everybody eats during mah-jongg (and I for one, am getting overweight because of it). But it shouldn't interfere with the game.

MAKING EVERYBODY WAIT -- It's normal to need a moment or two to think occasionally. But some players make a bad habit of it. If you think you might want a discard, it's OK to say, "Wait a second." But don't stretch it out to a minute. We give you a second and you take an hour? That isn't nice! Say, "Wait a second." Then, within a second or two, make a decision one way or another. And apologize for the interruption if you decide to pass. (By the way, you've also given away a lot about your hand, but that's your problem.) Why it's a bad habit -- when delays are injected into the game, people forget whose turn it was. During a Charleston, somebody thinking too long is the single greatest cause of mixups. The longer somebody ponders, the greater the chances of a Charleston misstep.

KVETCHING (AND ITS OPPOSITE, GLOATING) -- Some players vent their frustrations about missed opportunities and bad luck. That's OK if it's kept to a minimum. But some players make it a lifestyle. (If only Dr. Laura could give these players a piece of her mind!) If all the players kvetch and it's a common trait between them and they all enjoy it, then fine. But then let one of these players win a game, and now they can't shut up about that!!! Why it's a bad habit -- Silence is golden. It lets players think about their own tiles. The world doesn't revolve around you and the tiles it's been your bad luck to have been dealt.

SLIDING DEALER'S WALL LEFT -- After the deal, some dealers like to slide their remaining tiles to the left, butt up against the rack plate. This can cause people to start dogging too early, when they still have a chance of winning. Why it's a bad habit -- When the dice showed a high number, there's no problem, but when the dice showed a small number, there's only a really short wall in front of the dealer. Right? So if you move this short wall all the way to the left, you leave a very long gap between the last long wall and the dealer wall. People often gauge their chances of success by measuring the length of the remaining wall. And if there's a long gap, people might well forget that the last dealer wall is even there. I've even seen this happen to the dealer who did it! She was the one who slid the short wall to the left, and she was the one who destroyed her hand by throwing jokers even though she still had a chance. So as though it wasn't bad enough you could be fooling someone else into dogging their hand, you could even fool yourself.

EXCESSIVE SHUFFLING -- I've met players who have to get the last shuffle in. After they've shuffled and shuffled and shuffled the tiles, if you stick your hand in and shuffle something, they just have to shuffle again. You stick your hand in again, they stick their hands in again. Why it's a bad habit -- This is more amusing than it is annoying.

OVERLY FORCEFUL SHUFFLING -- It is possible to shuffle the tiles gently, so that they all stay mostly face-down. The goal is to mix the tiles up, not to simulate the effects of a tornado. Why it's a bad habit -- When you don't use any finesse in shuffling, you can turn over more tiles than is necessary. More often than not, you'll overturn a joker. Then it becomes necessary to shuffle some more. Turn over even more tiles in the process, and it never stops! Do you want to shuffle, or do you want to play?

OVERLY FORCEFUL DISCARDING -- Some players like to flick the tile after it's down, to get the tile mixed well in among the others. Forcefully flicking a tile can often cause it to hit the active wall, knocking the wall down and either causing a mixup or exposing something prematurely. There's no need for such force. Be careful of the walls when placing discards.

PATTERN DISCARDING -- Some players lazily place all their discards in a small area right in front of their rack. Why it's a bad habit -- It gives the other players an easy visual record of what you've discarded. Very useful in figuring out what you're doing. Why do you think other folks go to such lengths to make sure all the discards are haphazardly placed?

CARELESS PLACEMENT OF THE DICE -- After the dealer rolls the dice, the resulting number should be preserved when placing the dice aside. (1) The rolled number should be left visible. (2) The dice should be placed to the dealer's right (at the next dealer's left). Most players don't bother. They just scoop the dice and put them somewhere out of the center of the table. Why it's a bad habit -- (1a) Sometimes you need to be able to determine if some misplay has occurred. It is sometimes useful to be able to rehash events, starting with reviewing the number that had been rolled. (1b) Some players like to double the score if doubles were rolled. How are you going to remember that doubles were rolled if you don't preserve the rolled number? (2) Putting the dice somewhere else on the table can cause confusion as to who just dealt and who is supposed to deal next. Who was supposed to take the "first and third" tiles, and who is responsible for this mess I've been dealt???

GAPS IN RACKED TILES -- Lots of players like to put gaps in their tiles, grouping their completed concealed pungs and kongs separate from one another. Why it's a bad habit -- It gives the other players clues about how much progress you are making. You are only hurting yourself.

PREDICTABLE PLACEMENT OF JOKERS -- One player I know always puts her picked jokers at the left of her rack when she gets them. It wasn't hard to figure out the pattern, with a little observation. Why it's a bad habit -- It tells the other players how well you are doing. You are only hurting yourself.

TACTLESS ERROR NOTIFICATION -- Use a little tact when you see someone make a mistake. One time I missed the chance to redeem a joker, and didn't even know it. Another player sarcastically said to me, "Hello-o!!" I had no idea what she was telling me. The right way to do it: "Oh, no, Mary. Surely you didn't mean to pass up that joker?" Just be nice. Why it's a bad habit -- You want other players to play with you. Be nice and they will want to.

UNCLEAR TILE ANNOUNCING -- I myself am guilty of snapping a discard on the table simultaneously with announcing the tile's name. The sound of the snap sometimes obscures my words. Some folks mumble their tile announcements. Then somebody has to request an encore. Why it's a bad habit -- The game moves more smoothly when everybody can hear all the tile announcements.

DISREGARD FOR WALL NEATNESS -- Some players stack the tiles along the front of their racks and then don't run a hand along it to straighten it up. The result is a jagged uneven mess that's just plain unsightly. Why it's a bad habit -- Most of the other players are probably "neat freaks." Mah-Jongg is all about creating order from disorder. And here you go flaunting your sloppiness in front of the others. It causes a subtle consternation among the other players. And that's not nice. Give them a little peace of mind and straighten your wall.

CARELESS DISCARDING -- I've often seen players place a discard and not even notice that they placed the tile on its side or leaning against another tile. Invariably, someone else will reach in and lie the tile flat on its back. Wake up, will ya? Look what yer doing! Place the tile flat! Why it's a bad habit -- All players need to be able to see all the tiles lying flat on their backs, face up and readable. Somebody else shouldn't have to tidy up after your carelessness. It would serve you right if they left it that way and it came back to bite you later on.

EXPLAINING HAND TO BETTOR -- When playing with five, and one is a bettor, it's best to remain silent while the bettor is viewing your hand. And when you are the bettor, it's best to remain silent while viewing other players' hands. Some players feel it necessary to explain their hands to the bettor: "I could go this way, or..." (sliding some tiles) "...I might go this way." Some bettors feel it necessary to narrate the process: "Oh, okay, I see what you're doing. Or it could go that way. And your hand... uh, huh..." Why it's a bad habit -- (1) How the bettor sees what you might do is of no consequence to you. Keep your plans to yourself. The other players don't need to know how many ways you might go, or how good your chances of making it are. (2) Certainly when you're the bettor you don't need to give the players any clues about whose hand is better.

IMPATIENCE WITH BEGINNERS -- Some folks have no patience for beginners. They forget, apparently, that they were beginners once themselves. Be nice to beginners and you can enjoy playing with them after they improve their playing skills. Be nice to beginners and they'll want to play with you after they improve.

UNWILLING TO ADAPT TO TABLE RULES -- Every table has their own way of doing things. That's just the way mah-jongg is and always was. The day after mah-jongg was invented, it was played at a second table with a second set of table rules. Your table rules are, of course, the correct table rules. (For you, anyway.) But your regular group isn't the only group you'll ever play with. If you want to play with anybody else, you can't expect everybody else to bend to your way of doing things. You need to be able to adapt to other rules. It isn't hard to adapt -- you just think it is.

"VIEWER-UNFRIENDLY" HAND EXPOSURE -- When you expose all your tiles (when you've won the hand), put your tiles all one way up, and put the groupings in the order shown on the card. Make it easy for the other players to see what hand you made. Some folks never bother. Why it's a bad habit -- You want everybody to see what hand you made so you can get the proper score, right? Help them see it.

DISPLAYING THE HAND TOO SOON -- Player A: "Mah-Jongg!" Player B: "Oh, darn. Just LOOK at this beautiful hand!"
How often have you heard that? Some folks just can't help themselves. As soon as somebody goes Out, these folks have to commence the postmortem show-and-tell.
Why it's a bad habit -- (1) It distracts everyone's attention from examining the winning hand. Maybe that was your subconscious intention, but let the winner have the spotlight for a second. She deserves it. (2) What if the winner's hand is no good? Not only is she dead, but now you are too!

NOT LOOKING AT WINNER'S HAND -- After somebody declares mah-jongg, everybody starts the postmortem show-and-tell. "I was THIS close, is that gorgeous or what?" Then they throw in their tiles and start shuffling. Then they remember to ask how many points were earned so they can pay up. Why it's a bad habit -- It's very easy to forget what hand was made. This sort of information is strictly "short term" memory. Calculate the scores, and pay up, while the hand is still up. I was in a tournament once, and the scorekeeper had given me the wrong score despite my telling her three times that I'd made a 40-point hand (30 points on the card, and 10 for jokerless). She'd been so busy with the show-and-tell that she'd never even bothered to look at what hand I'd made. Convincing her to change it after the fact was a lot more work than it would have been if she'd just looked in the first place.

"WHO THREW THAT?" -- When you're paying up, you need to know how much to give the winner. But to ask "who gave that to you" is a somewhat tactless way of doing it. If it wasn't you who threw the winning tile, all you're doing is rubbing salt in the fresh wound of the person who did. Instead, you should say, "How much do I owe you?" (Of course, it goes without saying that it would be even better if you just paid attention, listened when the player announced the score in the first place, and verified the hand against the card for yourself.)

BEING OVERLY STRICT -- When you're playing in a tournament, strict enforcement of the rules is expected and proper. But if you have a friendly group, you can be a little looser with the rules. I know one group that wanted to adopt the strict "you touch the wall tile, it's yours" rule, and another group that says "as long as you didn't look at it, you can change your mind and take the discard." I am adaptable to either rule. The latter rule is more friendly, and I like it better. But when I'm in a tournament, stand back. You touch that tile, it's yours!

LAST ONE: TRYING TO ENFORCE ETIQUETTE ON OTHERS -- I've had a lot of fun here, writing about the bad habits of others. But I don't go around trying to convince everybody to change to my point of view. If I did, I'd probably find myself without anybody to play mah-jongg with. Please don't take this article as a license to try to change peoples' habits. The way to get people to use good etiquette is to use it yourself. Set an example for them to follow. Everybody will want to play with you if you show them how to be a good player.

And here are some pointers contributed by J. R. Fitch (creator of the computer game Hong Kong Mahjong Deluxe):

- Most important: pay attention and play as quickly as everyone else.

- When you are the person whose job it is to serve the wall, don't make others ask you to do it. Pay attention, and when the end of the wall is getting too far from the center of the table, serve the wall to make it easy for others to reach.

- When East loses he should immediately pass the dice and "jong" to the next banker.

- East should remove the dice from the center of the table immediately upon determining the count (just to get them out of the way of those who are grabbing stacks and pushing Walls).

- Also, there is an issue regarding players who discard before they pick from the Wall. This is very agressive and is sometimes banned. Where it does not come under the rules, it is then a matter of manners, right? This style of play is subject to approval by the rest of the table.

- When playing with folks who speak Cantonese, never say: "Say ba paw!"
Why it's a bad habit -- It means:"You mean old woman!". (^_^)

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

Archive-name: mjfaq09.htm
Posting-frequency: n/a (It's on the web)
Last-modified: June 6, 2001
Version: 1.00

Update log:
July 16, 2000 -- FAQ under construction.
January 18, 2001 -- Incorporated material from my old AMJA newsletter articles
January 26, 2001 -- did a little touchup
March 1, 2001 -- added the rule on table rules
June 6, 2001 -- deleted the rule on table rules (it's its own FAQ now)
Subsequent updates are logged at


(c) 2000-2017 Tom Sloper. All rights reserved.

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