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FAQ 19

American Mah-Jongg FAQs

(Frequently Asked Questions)

Latest update: May, 2014

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INDEX - Click the question to jump down to the answer

Most questions that I get about American mah-jongg are rules questions. It's strongly recommended that every table have a rulebook handy, to deal with those odd situations that sometimes arise. Below, after each answer given, I offer references for further clarification if needed.


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Q: When is a tile down?
A: A discarded tile is "down" when it touches the table OR is completely named, whichever occurs first. If you pick a tile from the wall, then touch it to the tabletop, it's "down." You must say its name and take your hand off it. Likewise, if you say the name of the tile in full, it's "down." You must put it down and take your hand off it.

Q: Can I change my mind after my discard is down?
A: No. When a tile is "down," it is too late for the discarder to take it back. If you've said its name, you must put it on the tabletop and take your hand off it.
Q: Darn! I shouldn't have thrown it away! Well, can I call it back and make a meld or win with it?
A: No. "Down is dead." Well... The tile is dead to you, anyway - as long as it's not a joker, any other player except its discarder can call it. Nobody can ever take back a tile she just discarded, in any way, shape, or form. You can't make up rules to undo a blunder you've made.

See FAQ 19AM for more "change of heart" rules, and see FAQ 9 for the Tom Sloper philosophy of how errors should be handled.

Q: When is it too late to claim a discard?
A: The "window of opportunity" (during which a player may claim a discard) opens when a tile is "down," and closes when next player either racks, discards, declares mah-jongg, or exchanges a joker.
If you pick a tile from the wall and are just looking at it and thinking about it, or reaching with it anywhere, another player can still call the live discard, and you have to put your picked tile back on the wall. Read also answer #AT. If you need an even more detailed discussion on the very important "window of opportunity" rule, scroll down to the bottom of the page; also read column #458.

Q: Can I claim any discard?
A: Only the most recently thrown discard is available for play (and only while the window of opportunity is open) - all previous discards are "covered" (dead) when a new one goes down.

Q: Can I kong a 201x or a NEWS?
Q: Jokers are wild, so they can be used for ANYthing, right?
A1: A discard may only be taken to make a PUNG, KONG, QUINT, or SEXTET - or, of course, to make mah-jongg. A discard may never be taken to expose a pair, or a grouping consisting of singles and/or pairs.
A2: As it says on the back of the NMJL card, the only groupings in which jokers may be used are: PUNGS, KONGS, QUINTS, and SEXTETS. Let's define those terms just to make sure this point is perfectly clear:

Can I say mah-jongg on a discard if I'm waiting for a single or to complete a pair?
A: Yes. If you are waiting for mah-jongg (you just need one tile), then - no matter how the tile is used in the hand (for a single, a pair, to complete a NEWS or a 201x, NO MATTER WHAT - as long as it is not a joker), you can say "mah-jongg" if anybody discards it.

Q: Can I use a joker in an S&P hand?
A: There are NO exposable groupings in the Singles & Pairs section of the card, and since, as it says on the back of the NMJL card, jokers cannot be used in a pair or to represent a single, it's impossible to use jokers in the hands in this section of the card. Any groupings you see on the card that are made of non-identical tiles are only grouped closely together because space is limited on the card.

Q: (1) Can I claim a discarded joker? (2) Can I claim a redeemable tile? (3) Can I claim "same" tile when a joker is discarded? (3) Do I have to say "same" when discarding a joker?
A1: Once a joker is discarded, it is DEAD. "Down is dead." Nobody can claim it and use it. Period. End of story.

A2: Once a redeemable tile has been discarded, it can only be taken for mah-jongg or to create a new set for exposure. It is NOT permitted to take the tile in order to redeem it for a joker.

A3: When discarding a joker, many people say "same." Some say "joker", and some say the name of the previously discarded tile. All three are legal practices. 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.
It used to be permitted to claim the "same" (the named tile, not the joker itself), but that rule was abolished long ago. NOW, when somebody discards a joker and says "same," there is NO claimable discard - ALL the discards on the table are dead: the joker itself, and the previous ("same") tile included.

Q1: Who gets a discard if two want it for the same thing? ("Conflicting claim")
A1: When two players claim a discard for exposure, the player whose turn would be next in order of play (counterclockwise from discarder) gets the tile. Likewise when two players claim a discard for mah-jongg.

Q: Who gets a discard if one wants it for mah-jongg?
A: When one player claims a discard for exposure, and another claims it for mah-jongg, the player who needs it for mah-jongg takes priority.

Q: What if the player who took the tile for mah-jongg turns out to have been in error, and now she's dead? Does the other claimant get to take the tile now?
A: It depends. If both players wanted the tile for mah-jongg, then yes. The second claimant takes the tile to win. But if the second claimant wanted the tile for exposure, no. She may not have it; it stays in the dead hand.

Q: What does "any suit" mean when there are two colors? When there are three colors?
A: Here is the Tom Sloper philosophy of how to interpret the card:

Q: Am I dead if I put the discard in my hand when declaring a win? I was playing in a tournament and they told me I was dead!
A: Tournament rules are stricter than home rules. Every tournament establishes their own rules. Always make yourself aware of the rules before the tournament starts! When claiming a discarded tile, many tournament organizers say that you must not put the taken discard into your hand - you must put it atop your rack. It may be that they think it's possible to cheat if you put a taken tile into the hand. (Note: Not all tournament organizers (or players) impose a death penalty for this.)
New rule, 2013: The NMJL issued a rule in the January 2013 bulletin stating that it is permitted to put the taken discard into the hand just prior to exposing the hand for a win. Important to keep in mind: tournament organizers might (or might not) keep a rule against this, for their own purposes. Tournament rules are stricter than home rules. Oh, right: I said that already.

Q: 1. Do I have to have a natural* tile to expose? 2. Can I have a set that's all jokers?
* (A "natural" tile is a non-joker tile.)

A: 1. No, you don't have to have a natural concealed within your hand prior to claiming a discarded natural for exposure.

When claiming a discarded tile to make an exposure, the exposure can contain any number of jokers. For example, if you have three jokers and someone discards a tile, you may claim it and expose a kong with the discard and your three jokers.

A: 2. Yes, you can have a concealed set in your hand that is all jokers.
So when you go maj, it is perfectly OK to have a pung, kong, quint, or sextet that is nothing but jokers (containing no natural tiles at all).

Of course, you can't make an exposure comprised of nothing but jokers, because you can only claim a non-joker for exposure. See FAQ G1. Someone has to discard a natural (a non-joker; not a joker) in order for you to be able to claim it. The rest of your tiles for that subsequent exposed set can be all jokers, as stated above.

Q: 1. When can I redeem a joker? 2. Can I redeem a joker before I take a discard? Can I redeem a joker after I take a discard for exposure? 3. Can I redeem a joker atop my own rack?
A: 1, 2. You can redeem a joker only when it is your turn. When it is your turn, you must first bring a 14th tile into the hand, before you can redeem a joker. There are two ways to bring a 14th tile into the hand - by picking from the wall OR by taking a discard for exposure. THEN, after picking (or after taking and exposing a COMPLETE* exposure), you may redeem jokers from atop anyone's rack (including your own).

3. Can I redeem a joker atop my own rack?
A. Yes, I just said you may redeem jokers from atop your own rack. It also says that on the back of the NMJL card.

Q: Can I redeem more than one joker in a turn?
A: Yes. You are permitted to redeem multiple jokers (from multiple racks) during your turn (after taking a 14th tile into the hand, either by picking or calling - and before discarding). You can redeem as many as 8 jokers (since there are no more than 8 jokers in the mah-jongg set) in one turn! It's legal! Unlikely, perhaps, but permissible.

Q: Do I have to expose when I redeem a joker? If I'm playing a hand that must be concealed, am I prohibited from redeeming a joker?
A: No. Redeeming a joker is not the same as claiming a discard - you are not required to make an exposure when redeeming a joker. So of course you can redeem a joker if your hand is marked "C" (concealed) on the card. (By the way, have you also read answer AR below?)

Q: Can I redeem a joker from a dead player's rack?
A: When a dead player has jokers exposed on her rack, some of her jokers might be redeemable, and some might not, depending on whether the joker was exposed properly or not.

Q: Counterclockwise, clockwise? I'm so confused!
A: Beginners are often confused by the sequence of picking tiles from the wall, and also selecting tiles in turn. Look at this picture.

There are two directions happening simultaneously - counterclockwise (the players taking tiles in turn) and clockwise (the tiles disappearing from the wall). During the course of play, players always take turns counterclockwise (even during the deal) - and tiles are always removed clockwise from the wall (even during the deal). And in American mah-jongg, players serve the wall diagonally into the center of the table as the wall is used up.

Q: My group plays with the fourteenth tile, and a question came up...
A: I cannot answer any questions that arise from the use of illegal rules like "picking ahead" or "playing with a future." You are using an unofficial table rule, and you have to figure out the answers to questions arising from your table rule. Read FAQ 14. I have only seen two rulings from the League about this style of play: (1) rule #1 on the back of the NMJL card says, in all caps, "NO PICKING OR LOOKING AHEAD." That rule has been on the back of the card for decades! (2) In the January 2014 bulletin, the League said, "NO... The fourteenth tile does NOT belong to the Player picking ahead...it only becomes their tile when it is their turn."

Q: I played long ago. We used to play futures all the time back then. When were futures outlawed?
A: "Picking Ahead" (aka "Playing With A Future") has been against the official NMJL rules since 1956. As far back as 1947, the yearly card said "No looking ahead." I assume that means that before 1956 players picked the tile before the previous player discarded, but were not supposed to look at it. And that from 1956 on, picking the tile before your turn has been, and still is, against the official rules. If you pick ahead in a tournament (if you pick from the wall during another player's turn -- before she has discarded), you'll be declared "dead."

Q: Two historical questions about jokers...

Q1: When were jokers introduced? Was it always eight jokers?
A1: Before 1961, there were no jokers. Flowers were wild, and the number of flowers fluctuated between 8 and 24. Joker tiles were introduced into the American game in 1961. The number of flowers and jokers fluctuated for several years, finally stabilizing at 8F/8J ten years later, in the 1971-72 card. See answer AI below, and column 509 for more on this.

Q2: I played long ago, and we could use jokers for anything. When exactly were jokers outlawed in pairs?
A2: As far as I can tell by checking the old NMJL cards in my collection, the rule that jokers could not be used for singles or pairs may have been introduced in 1984. But if you want to know for sure when that rule was introduced, you could ask the League.

Q: Why are so many players of American mah-jongg Jewish?
A: I don't have any hard facts on this, but I can make some educated guesses. From what I've been able to learn, some (but not all) of the founders of the NMJL were Jewish. Many of the women who joined the League and stayed with it and supported it were mainly Jewish women (or perhaps the Jewish acceptance of the game grew) throughout World War II. The League contributes a portion of its earnings to numerous charities (including Jewish charities).

As far as I know, the Jewish-mahjongg connection (the prevalence of Jewish players) is primarily an American phenomenon. Sure, there are Jewish mah-jongg players outside the U.S., but in my opinion the sizeable Jewish demographic among mah-jongg players is something one sees only in the U.S., where American-style mah-jongg seems to be the dominant variant. In other countries, where other forms of mah-jongg are played, the demographics are a bit more diverse.

In the 1920s the game became a fad in general. Eddie Cantor sang a hit song about mah-jongg ("Since Ma Is Playing Mah Jong") at that time. He was Jewish, if I recall correctly. So perhaps the Jewish connection to mah-jongg began as early as the 1920s.
It might have happened in China, when Jews left Russia during the 1917 revolution and migrated in large numbers to Shanghai and Hong Kong, or during the holocaust and diaspora of the 1930s and 1940s, when more Jews found refuge in China.
And, perhaps, as Bill H. suggested on Feb. 1, 2011, it began on Manhattan's Lower East Side, where many Jewish folk lived near New York's Chinatown in the early 20th century. Right across the East River is Brooklyn. Even today, and even here in Los Angeles where I live, it's not unusual to hear Brooklyn accents among mah-jongg players. And, as Supreme Court Judge Elena Kagan famously noted, Jewish folk frequent Chinese restaurants, paralleling the Jewish/mah-jongg connection. Perhaps both predilections (Chinese food and mah-jongg) took hold in the Jewish community around the same time. The modern American style of mah-jongg (regulated by a central organization who issues a yearly card) did not yet exist in the 1920s. It seems likely that the Jewish connection really took hold with the popularity of the NMJL in the late 1930s and into WWII.

Q: Why are so many players of American mah-jongg female?
A: The majority of American players are female because the American game was designed by women, to be enjoyed by women. American mah-jongg is completely different from all other forms of mah-jongg because of changes that female players made in the game during the 1930s (and made official when the National Mah Jongg League was formed in 1937). The female players threw out "chows," restricted the hands to groups of similar tiles as listed on a card, changed the use of the flowers, and the NMJL issued a new card every year.

Q: Why are so few players under 30?
A: It used to be that daughters picked up the game from their mothers, but there was a gap during the 1960s. Daughters decided then that they'd rather burn their bras than play a game their mothers and grandmothers played. After those daughters grew up, had kids, and their kids left the "nest," then they needed something to do. So we're seeing a resurgence of the game among baby boomers. The majority of players of the American game do seem to be over 40, but a lot of thirtysomethings are picking up the game too. I guess the twentysomethings have lots of other things to do with their spare time, and don't see a good reason to socialize with the older generations.

Q: 1. How does payment work? 2. What is "pie"? 3. How do we use these plastic "coin" things? 4. How does "betting" work?
A1: Most American players play for actual money, in the form of coins exchanged immediately upon a win. The hand values given on the NMJL card range from 25 to 50. That equates to 25¢ and 50¢. The score is double for the discarder (non-discarders pay single value). The score is doubled again if the hand has no jokers (not including the hands in the singles and pairs section of the card) at the time mah-jongg is declared. Complete scoring information is on the back of the card.

Q: I hear Chinese mah-jongg is harder!
A: When you say "Chinese mah-jongg," I assume you mean "any kind of mah-jongg other than American." Because there are, in fact, around forty known mah-jongg variants - and more than a dozen Chinese variants! See FAQ 2B. Oh, and no. Those other variants are not harder to learn than American mah-jongg. American is the hardest to learn of them all. I should know - I've learned several variants.

Q: Is there a special prohibition against, or penalty for, throwing the winning tile when the wall is short and/or the winner had exposures showing?
A: No. There is no "hot wall" or "cold wall" or "pay for the party" rule in the official NMJL rules. The official rules do not penalize throwing into exposures. Under the official rules, the discarder of the winning tile always pays twice what the other two non-winners pay the winner (this is clearly stated on the back of the yearly card -- first rule, stated at the upper left corner).

Many groups adopt a "table rule" to stipulate a penalty for discarding the winning tile during the final stage of a hand. Invariably, these table rules are called "cold wall" or "hot wall" or "paying for the party." Many tournaments penalize throwing the winning tile into two or three exposures; but these penalties are not part of the official rules. Other than the discarder double payment, the official NMJL rules do not stipulate any prohibition against, nor penalty for, throwing the winning tile, under any circumstances, no matter the number of exposures or the length of the remaining wall.

Q: What is a "cold wall"? And what is a "hot wall"? What's "paying for the party?"
A: "Cold wall" is a table rule that prohibits either discarding or calling a "hot tile." "Hot wall" is a table rule that penalizes discarding a "hot tile." The definition of "hot tile" and "safe tile" vary, depending on the table rule. Usually "hot tiles" are defined as those that come from the last short wall remaining in front of the dealer, but there are various table rules (all unofficial). "Paying for the party" means that the non-winners who didn't discard the winning tile don't have to pay anything (the discarder takes on that debt, and pays on their behalf). These are all table rules. That means these rules are NOT part of the official rules as governed by the NMJL. Read FAQ 14 to learn more about table rules. And read FAQ 21 to learn about how some tournament organizers set their rules (which necessarily differ somewhat from the official NMJL rules, since playing for points in a competitive tournament setting is different from paying for coins between a foursome playing for fun).

Q: Must exposures be in card order?
A: Experienced players don't need to see exposures to be shown in card order. It's standard practice to put exposures in order made (first one at player's left, next one to the right of that one, and so on), with spaces between each exposed grouping.
In fact, there is a good defensive reason for not putting exposures in card order - while a newbie might wish to have the visual hint, the player who's exposed part of her hand wishes her opponents won't figure out exactly what hand she is making. Sometimes two exposures can be ambiguous, and that is an important part of the game. So newbie players just have to "put up" with the fact that exposures are displayed in chronological order rather than card order.
Upon completion of the hand (having won), however, it is standard practice to organize the groupings in card order to aid the others in reading your winning hand.

Q: Can a player call another player dead?
A: In American mah-jongg, there is a rather harsh rule that permits any player to call any other player's hand "dead" (paragraph 2 of the middle pane of the back of the NMJL card). A player may make a "death challenge" for a number of reasons:

Q: Someone called me dead (pursuant to AA above) but I'm not dead. What now?
A: If a player has erroneously issued a death challenge, or if a player has erroneously denied a death challenge (which can be determined at the end of the hand), the erring player must pay value of the cheapest hand on the card (25) to the other player.

Q: Can I call myself dead?
A: As I interpret the NMJL stand on this, you are not supposed to call yourself dead. You are supposed to play defensively until someone else calls you dead (and this is the wisest course, strategically speaking). However, I sometimes wish someone would hurry up and call me dead so I could do something less frustrating, like go get something to nibble on for a minute. (So I sympathize with those who would want to call themselves dead.) When I feel that way, I think about making a really obviously wrong exposure to force someone to call me dead so I can take a break and cool off. But I haven't actually done that.
If you happen to blurt out that you are dead, you aren't officially dead yet (you haven't been called dead, so you cannot stop playing) - you must continue playing until somebody obligingly calls you dead. Then you can take a break.

Q: Two questions about picking and racking very quickly.
1. I was taught to pick and rack very quickly, but my friends complain that I don't give them enough time to claim a discard. Do I have to change what I do?
2. Tapping the tile on the top of the rack counts as racking, doesn't it?

For much more on pickandrack and the window of opportunity, click here or scroll down.

Q: Do I have to use dots in a 201x grouping?
A: No. Read the NMJL card. Zeros are suitless. That means zeros can be used with any suit.

Q: Can I add to an exposure later?
A: Not after initially exposing and discarding, no. The time to add to (or subtract from) an exposure is before you discard. Don't stop reading yet.

Q: So you're saying I can make changes to my exposure if I haven't discarded yet?
A: Yes. As I just said, the time to add to (or subtract from) an exposure is before you discard. For instance, if you claim a flower to make a kong, and you accidentally add a joker to it (making it a quint) and your targeted hand requires a kong, you can take the joker back if you do it before discarding. Once you make an exposure and discard, the exposure will remain, as is, for the duration of the hand. You cannot later (after discarding) change a pung to a kong, quint, or sextet. You cannot change a quint to a sextet, kong, or pung. And so on.

Q: Then can I change my mind about making an exposure at all, if I haven't discarded yet?
A: Now you've asked Frequently Asked Question 19AM. Click here.

Q: How does the Charleston work? When can I stop the Charleston? When can I blind pass?
A: The Charleston was a dance popular during the Roaring Twenties (when mah-jongg first became a craze). Imagine that you have a dance card with two names on it, and you're going to dance twice: first Charleston with RALph (Right-Across-Left), and the second Charleston with LARry (Left-Across-Right). The first dance is compulsory and the second dance is optional. If after you dance with RALph you decide that you've met "Mister Right," you don't have to dance with no stinking LARry! But if you start to dance with LARry, you have to do the whole dance. So there's just one brief moment during which you can stop the passing: after completing the first dance, and before beginning the second dance. The Charleston is a group dance (four people all participate). Anybody can choose to stop the dance, but only during that very brief interval between the first left and the second left.

  • First right - you must pass 3 tiles right.
  • First across - you must pass 3 tiles.
  • First left - you may blind pass up to 3 tiles, and now you have danced with RALph.
  • Do you want to stop the Charleston now? You or anybody else may stop the Charleston, for any reason whatsoever (and does not have to state a reason), before anybody picks up and racks her second left. If nobody stops the dance after the first Charleston, you are going to dance with LARry. Once somebody has picked up and looked at her second left pass, it's too late to stop the Charleston.*
  • Second left - If nobody stopped the Charleston after the first left, everybody must pass 3 tiles left (this means you, too).
  • Second across - you must pass 3 tiles across. This is often the sticky pass!
  • Last right - you may blind pass up to 3 tiles. Now the dance with LARry has ended.
  • Courtesy - In the courtesy, opposite players may exchange up to 3 tiles. For full details on the courtesy pass, see FAQ 19AH below).

    *Note: If you stop the Charleston after the first dance, other players will probably get mad; it's a fact of life. But you don't owe them an explanation, even if they do get angry. The rules say you can stop the Charleston after the first dance, for any reason at all, or for no reason at all, and you do not have to say why. But I recommend that you do not stop the Charleston too often - if you make a habit of constantly stopping the Charleston nearly every hand, the other players are likely to ban you from their otherwise pleasant game. (It's up to you to draw a fine line between adhering to the rules and being reasonable and a fun playing companion.)

    Q: 1. How does the courtesy pass work? 2. Do we still do the courtesy if somebody stopped the Charleston? 3. She wants to pass two but I want to pass three!

    A.1.: The Charleston consists of three dances.
    - The first dance (R,A,L) is compulsory.
    - The second dance (L,A,R) is optional; it can be stopped by any player; if it's stopped, all players must stop.
    - The third dance (the courtesy) is optional on an individual basis; no player is required to exchange any tiles if she doesn't want to, but if two opposite players want to exchange they may do so, regardless of whether the other two are exchanging or not.

    A.2.: Cancelling the second dance has no effect whatsoever on the courtesy. It's not unusual to call off the second dance yet still have one or two tiles to trade in the Courtesy. Even if the person who stopped the Charleston has no tiles to pass (in which case she and her opposite don't exchange), that still does not prevent the other two players from exchanging if they so desire.

    A.3.: No player is required to pass more than she wants to in the courtesy pass. If she only wants to pass two, you may not force her to give you three. Besides, you don't really expect anything new to get passed at this point, do you? Get real!

    Q: I have an old set that has 22 flowers. They don't even match. Why did somebody do that?
    A: As you can read in the timeline in FAQ 11, the NMJL varied the number of flowers and jokers for several decades early in the league's history. People had to cobble together sets to make the number of flowers required. They'd even take whole sets, paste flower decals on all of them, and pass them around to their friends. Flower tiles often didn't match the rest of the set, so a whole schtick evolved called "planting flowers." There wasn't any mystery about which tiles in the wall were flowers, but they would place flowers at pre-arranged spots in the wall - and probably apportion a certain number of them to each player as part of the deal. See answer S above, and column 509, for more on this.

    Q: What if there's no parenthetical? For instance, if the card shows N EE but there's no parenthetical saying "these winds only," then can I make a single of any wind and a pair of any other wind?
    A: There are two possible parentheticals that were not written (not only one). If the card makers wanted you to mix-and-match the wind tiles this way, then there would be a parenthetical saying "any wind tiles" or something like that. Here are three principles about how the card is to be interpreted:

    1. When a card shows you some color-coded symbols like 11 222 3333 444 55, then the card means exactly what it says. Pair ones and pung twos in one suit, kong threes in second suit, and pung fours pair fives in third suit.
    2. When the card has a parenthetical, the parenthetical might be clarifying the color-coding, or might be describing trumping exceptions or modifications to what the color-coding said. It might say "any 3 suits" (which would only clarify that the kong doesn't have to be the suit of craks but could be any suit as long as it's a different suit from the other sets -- not that any such clarification should be necessary), or it might say "any 5 consecutive nos." (which would mean that the first pair doesn't have to be ones). Principle 2 is that principle 1 can be trumped by a parenthetical.
    3. When there is no trumping parenthetical, then principle 1 hasn't been trumped - so principle 1 holds true. This ought to go without saying (there shouldn't have to be a principle 3).

    Q1: I read in 19J what "any" means in the parenthetical. But what if the word "any" is not used? For instance, a 13579 hand is shown as 11 333 5555 777 99, and it doesn't say "any 3 suits" in parentheses. Then don't the ones and threes have to be in bams, the fives have to be in craks, and the sevens and nines have to be in dots?
    A: No. Never. It means "pair ones and pung threes in one suit, kong fives in second suit, and pung sevens, pair nines in third suit." Always. The clarifying phrase "any 3 suits" is always unnecessary, in my opinion - precisely because the color-coding indicates the number of suits required, without being specific as to how the suits should be assigned. A three-color hand is always three suits, and the card never requires a specific suit be associated with a specific color. The absence of an unnecessary word or phrase does not have any significance whatsoever.
    Q2: Can I make that hand with just any old number of suits?
    A: No. Read the back of the card. 1 color means 1 suit. 2 colors means 2 suits. 3 colors means 3 suits.
    Q3: Same question, as regarding consecutive numbers. There's no parenthetical saying "any nos." but can I use any numbers?
    A: No. Read 19AJ (above) carefully. When there is no parenthetical saying "any nos." then the indicated numbers must be used.

    Q: Can I "reverse-redeem"? That is to say, if I have a joker in my hand can I put it in somebody's exposure and take a natural tile from that exposure?
    A: No.

    Q: 1. Can I change my mind about picking from the wall? 2. Can I change my mind about taking a discard? 3. Can I change my mind about discarding a tile? 4. Can I change my mind about redeeming a joker?
    A: Before I answer those "change of heart" questions, I need to say something about etiquette and table rules. Please bear with me. I will answer those three questions right after this.

    Q: Who pays double when I win? Does somebody always pay double?
    A: Yes, somebody always pays double. There are only two ways you can win: by discard or by self-pick. If you take a discard to win, the discarder always pays double. If you pick it yourself, everybody always pays double. If you win by redeeming a joker, you picked it yourself (everybody pays you double) - nobody "gave" you the joker (nobody discarded it - you TOOK it, with a tile you picked yourself).

    Q: When the card parenthetical says "Kongs 8s Only" or "Pungs 6s Only," does the use of the word "only" mean that you cannot use a joker?
    Or - the card says "Kong 8s," does that mean I cannot use a joker?
    A: No. It means you can't make that pung or kong from any number other than the specified number. Some parentheticals permit using "kong any even number," or "pungs of 3, 6, or 9," and the card designers deemed it necessary to clearly state that only a particular number could be used in hands not permitting multiple possible numbers. Jokers are permitted to be used in ANY pung, kong, quint, or sextet on the card. You know what "any" means - and now you know what "only" means.

    Q: My group doesn't roll dice. Our way is better. For one thing, when you play with a hot wall, rolling dice randomizes the length of the hot wall (not that I know why that's a good thing, we don't use a hot wall in my group). Besides, it's easier and faster to just start dealing from the right end of the dealer's wall. Why do other people think it's necessary to roll dice?
    A: Because it's very easy to cheat using your method. When you know you're going to be dealing, all you have to do is put up to four Jokers at the right end of your wall. The use of dice to determine where the wall will be broken is a very good practice, because it prevents cheating.
    The practice of rolling dice was not created so there could be "hot walls" or "lukewarm walls" or "superfrigid walls" or anything of the sort (wall "temperature" is an unofficial table rule that is not recognized by the official rules - see FAQ 19Y, above). Rolling dice exists solely as a cheating prevention measure.

    Q: I know that the X and C stand for eXposed and Concealed, but what do the terms "exposed" and "concealed" mean exactly?
    A: Concealed means "all concealed, win by discard permitted." And Exposed means "exposures are permitted."
    Whereas a Concealed hand must not be exposed prior to declaring mah-jongg, the player is permitted to make melds (exposures) from discarded tiles while the hand is in play if her hand is marked X on the card.
    A Concealed hand (C) must be displayed all at once when declaring mah-jongg, but an Exposed hand (X) may be displayed piecemeal.

    Q: Can I use a joker in a hand that must be concealed?
    A: Yes. If the hand has pungs or kongs, of course jokers may be used in those pungs or kongs. The only hands that may never contain jokers are, of course, hands that have no pungs, kongs, quints... in other words, hands that are made of singles and pairs only. (By the way, have you also read entry
    O above?)

    Q: How can we play with three players?
    A: Read
    FAQ 13A and column 532.

    Q: The Window Of Opportunity for another player to claim the previous discard wasn't closed yet. Does that mean I have to put my picked tile back on the end of the wall where I got it from, when someone calls the discard?
    A: Yes. Read FAQ 19C (above) and More about the Window Of Opportunity (below) and Column #458. You have to put it back on the wall, if you have not yet racked the tile, or if you have not yet discarded it (you have not yet touched it to the discard floor, you have not yet said its name in full), or if you have not exchanged it for a joker, or if you have not yet declared mah-jongg. You put it right back where you got it, on the end of the wall, for the next player to take.
    Q: Even if I saw the tile?
    A: Even if it's Sunday, even if the moon is full, even if you're playing by candlelight. You may have seen the tile, yes - but you have not yet racked, discarded, or exchanged it, so it goes back for the next player to take. The rule has been stated, without qualifying exceptions. It shouldn't be necessary for the rulebook to have to give 20 "even ifs."

    Q: In parentheses on the card, it says "like pungs" - what does that mean?
    A: "Like" means "similar." It means that the pungs must be alike. They must be of the same number value. The color coding probably tells whether the pungs must be the same suit or different suits.

    Q: I have a question about this year's card from the National Mah Jongg League...
    A: Read
    FAQ 16 (click here).

    Q: It's okay to peek at the tile when I steal during the Charleston, right?
    A: Firstly: no.
    Secondly: it's not called "stealing." It's called the "blind pass." It doesn't make any sense whatsoever to call it "stealing," and the name "blind pass" should be self-explanatory. (See... it's not called the "peek pass.") Read my
    column 353.

    Q: Does it matter where I place jokers within tile groupings, or put space between groupings?
    A: This isn't a rules question - it's a question of strategy or etiquette.

    Regarding placement of jokers:
    - In the case of exposures (on the horizontal top of the rack), it's a matter of etiquette to put the jokers embedded within the exposure, so all other players can easily see which exposure a joker belongs to. The goal is to maximize harmony.
    - Within the hand (on the sloping front of the rack), it's a matter of strategy. You should place the jokers in a place where you can most easily imagine them used in any of the possible places in the hand. Other players couldn't care less where you place them, since they can't see them anyway.

    Regarding spaces between groupings:
    - In the case of exposures (on the horizontal top of the rack), it's a matter of etiquette to put spaces between your exposures, so all other players can easily see what your exposures are. The goal is to maximize harmony.
    - Within the hand (on the sloping front of the rack), it's a matter of strategy to keep your tiles all together, without any spaces. If you put spaces between your groupings, other players can deduce clues as to what you're doing and how close you might be to making mah-jongg.

    Errors resulting from misnamed discard: (1) For mah-jongg; (2) For exposure only.

    Q: How does "Atomic" (or "Nuclear") work?
    A: You get to decide that for yourself. It's a
    table rule. Some players permit seven pairs of anything. Some players say the hand can only be made if the player never had a joker in the hand. Some players also say flowers invalidate the atomic hand. Some players say the player has to declare "atomic" (or an equivalent announcement) when going for the hand, and declare "nuclear-free zone" (or words to that effect) when the hand becomes void due to having picked a joker or flower. You and your group get to figure out those details and how much the hand is worth, if you and your group want to use the table rule at all. Read FAQ 14.

    Q: How do we handle a slow player?
    A: First, have a talk with the other players. Make sure you have their support in talking to the slow player. Then at the beginning of your next session, talk to your slow player.
       - Tell her that the time for thinking is during other people's turns. Before she picks from the wall, she should decide what she's going to discard next - nine times out of ten, that won't be changed by what she picks. (There is that one time out of ten, and that happens to everybody.)
       - Buy her my book. On page 109, highlight the line, "Keep the game moving!" On page 110, highlight the italicized sentence, "It is more important to avoid disruption of the game than it is to win." Put sticky notes on those pages so they stick out of the book. Write something nice on the notes, like "We love you dearly and we want to keep playing with you!"
       - Print FAQ 9 for her, highlight the parts about keeping people waiting, harmony being important, and frame it for her.
       - Use the Marge Simpson "gentle nagging" approach. After she's picked a tile, about 15 seconds after her thinking and producing smoke out of her ears, start saying, "please discard. Please discard. Please discard. Please discard..." Say it in a very soft, gentle, sweet voice.
       - Get one of those little sand timers (I see that
    http://www.gameparts.net/sand_timers.htm has them for 8 seconds, 10 seconds, 30 seconds...) and turn it over every time she picks a tile. When the time is up, make her throw a tile, any tile.
       - Give her 30 days notice, she has to pick up her speed or she's out.
    - If you can't have a talk with her, then I can't help you. The only way to improve the situation is to talk to her.
    - If after a month or a year with all of you urging her to speed up and pay attention, she still can't see anything beyond her card and she still plays slowly, there's nothing more I can offer you. She is what she is. Take her or leave her. There are other fish in the sea.

    Q: How does seat rotation work?
    A: Here's how the NMJL says it's done: "Original East" is called "Pivot." Play 2 rounds. (A round is when the deal moves all around the table.) Then just before pivot's turn, she switches seats with the player on the right, who then takes the deal. Every other time the deal comes back to Pivot, repeat the process (Pivot switches seats with player on right).

    However, if you analyze this, you find that this scheme results in one player getting an extra deal. So I recommend instead the way that my group does it. When Pivot switches seats with the player on the right, the Pivot takes the dice (and the deal) with her. And we don't switch every 2 rounds - we just rotate every round (every time the dice come back to the Pivot player). In our group the Pivot is the current week's host or hostess.

    Q: Is it true Chinese sets don't have numbers and letters on them?
    A: No. They do have numbers and letters. It's just that they're Chinese numbers and letters.

    The suit of craks ("characters") most definitely has numbers:

    And the winds and dragons most definitely have letters... well, technically, words:

    The technical term for those little Roman letters and Arabic numerals in the upper left corner of a tile: "indices" or "indicia." Yes, it's true that Chinese sets (sets made for use in China, and not for export to the West) don't have Western indices on them. If you can't read Chinese, and if you don't want to learn how to read the numbers and wind names, then you shouldn't buy a Chinese or Japanese or Vietnamese mah-jongg set.

    Q: If I'm playing a concealed hand... (1) Is it okay to redeem a joker? (2) Is it okay to win on a discard?
    A: (1) Yes. (2) Yes.

    Q: What the heck does "Opp. Dragons" mean?
    A: You know what "matching dragons" are, because that's explained on the back of the card. Check the color-coding on the hand you're asking about. It's not shown in one color. You know what multiple colors means, since that's explained on the back of the card too. So therefore, you know you shouldn't be using "matching dragons" with this hand. You should be using... "opposing dragons" ...instead. "Opposing dragons" (or "opposite dragons") means "NOT-matching dragons."

    Q: What if somebody passes me a joker in the Charleston?
    A: You know it's against the rules to pass a joker in the Charleston. As for being on the receiving end? Well, the official rules don't say explicitly. But the implication is that it's also against the rules to receive a joker in the Charleston. Give it back to her immediately, and tell her "I can't take this. It's against the rules." (Say that loudly enough that everyone can hear. Nobody in that group will ever pass you one again.) There are good reasons why you shouldn't accept it -- all kinds of bad things could happen to you should you listen to that devil on your shoulder. I wrote about them on
    The Mah Jongg Q&A Bulletin Board on April 7, 2009.

    Q: I read on page 33 of Elaine Sandberg's book that a "neutral" tile "can be used with any tile." Does that mean they're like jokers?
    A: It's unfortunate, but she used the word "tile" when she should have used the word "suit." All she's saying is that winds and flowers (like zeroes) are "suitless."

    When you look on the NMJL card, you see that winds and flowers are always shown in blue ink. But you have to understand that in a multi-suit hand, the blue color of the winds and flowers (or zeroes) does not indicate that a particular suit be used. In fact, winds and flowers don't belong to ANY suit. And neither do zeroes. The color-coding principle (that "colors are merely symbolic") is not trumped by the presence of winds or flowers or zeroes.

    To illustrate the concept of "suitlessness" (or "neutrality"), consider this imaginary 3-suited hand:

    FFFF 5555 + 5555 = 10

    In the above imaginary example, there are 3 suits used: one suit for the first kong of fives, another suit for the second kong of fives, and the third suit for the 1. The 1 can be ANY SUIT. Dots or bams or craks. It doesn't matter which suit. The first kong of fives can be any suit EXCEPT the suit used for the 1. The second kong of fives has to be the remaining suit. Depending on which suit was used for the first kong of fives and the 1, the second kong of fives might be dots or bams or craks.

    Note that I didn't mention the zero or the flowers in that discussion of suits. Why? Because flowers and zeroes (and winds, as well) are SUITLESS. Or, as Sandberg puts it, "neutral."

    Q: Can I use a zero in a Consecutive Run, like zero-one-two instead of one-two-three?
    A: No. The use of white dragons as zeroes is the solution to the League's problem "how do we make a year that has a zero in it?" It's also conceivable that the League might make a hand that uses tens or something, like:

    FFFF 5555 + 5555 = 10

    ...or something like that. If they made a hand like that, then the white dragon would need to be used.
    It's really only when you see a "0" on the card that the League intends for anyone to use a white dragon as zero. You can't make up consecutive runs with zeroes.

    Q: Can I look at my tiles while the deal is still going on, or do I have to wait until all the tiles are dealt?
    A: There is no written rule stating that you mustn't look at your tiles during the deal.
    That said, though, there's a good reason for not looking at your tiles during the deal. If there's any kind of error during the deal (heaven forbid), having looked at the tiles could well cause a disturbance in the harmony. Someone might resent the fact that tiles from the wall -- or tiles that were supposed to go to someone else -- had been seen. So, whether it's a hard and fast rule or not, I recommend not looking at the tiles until the deal is completed successfully.
    Unless you are playing with a "hurry up and play" kind of group, that is. If everybody else is looking at their tiles during the deal, then they're probably gonna want you to hurry up and get with the program.

    Q: What if I'm dealer and I have a complete hand before the Charleston?
    A: Ah, yes, "Heavenly Hand." I wrote about it in Column #476, then wrote a letter to the League requesting an official ruling. The ruling: Heavenly Hand is indeed recognized. It's valued the same as a self-picked mah-jongg (everyone pays dealer double value of her hand). But Heavenly Hand is the sole exception to the standard Charleston rules; once the "first right" pass has occurred, the standard Charleston rules apply. Mandatory (compulsory) passes are still mandatory; you can still blind pass when you're normally permitted to blind pass; you can still stop the Charleston after the first left. You can refuse to exchange tiles during the final Courtesy exchange as usual.

    Q: I can't find this rule anywhere! I checked the back of the NMJL card and the official NMJL rulebook and I even checked your book. A player in our group said [something; whatever]. Is that true, is that really a rule?
    A: When you can't find a rule in writing anywhere, that usually means it's not a rule! You can ask me your question, though. (Just saying.)

    Q: Am I required to put a tile in my rack? Three variations on this question:
    (1) We have a player who picks a tile, then discards a tile without ever putting the picked tile on her rack. Is she allowed to do that? Aren't we always required to rack the tile after picking it?
    (2) We have a player who doesn't put the tile in the rack right after picking; she stands it on her card while she thinks about what to discard; is she allowed to do that?
    (3) I like to stand some of my tiles on my card; another player complained; am I allowed to do that?

    Q: How should exposures be oriented atop the rack?
    A: There is no rule governing this. Some players orient an exposure so it looks readable from the player's own point of view -- some players orient an exposure so it looks readable from the opposite player's point of view. Whichever one you think best. Unless sight-impaired, players are expected to be able to read tiles atop another player's rack without needing any specific orientation. See also FAQ 19Z: Must exposures be in card order?

    Q: Should I telephone the NMJL with my rule question?
    A: No. I have frequently heard from confused players who say they got conflicting rulings when phoning the League. You should send your question in writing, in order to get the answer in writing. There are six chances to get the information all screwed up, when you ask rule questions on the phone:

    1. You might word the question imperfectly, causing the person on the other end of the phone to misunderstand what exactly you're asking.
    2. The person on the other end of the phone might misunderstand the question (thinking you're asking something else), even if you don't misstate it. (The problem might be in her ears, not in your mouth.)
    3. She might word the answer imperfectly.
    4. You might misunderstand the answer, even if she doesn't misstate it.
    5. When you report the answer back to your group, you might err in the wording of your report.
    6. Even if you word the answer perfectly to your group, they still might misinterpret your words. And you can't prove that you really got that answer, if it's not in writing.

    With all those chances for something to go wrong, something probably will go wrong! If you get the NMJL's answer in writing, though, then you stand the best chance of having the definitive answer. So snail-mail the question, with a self-addressed stamped envelope.

    Q: When someone calls a discard and redeems a joker and wins, which tile gave her mah-jongg?
    A: Which domino rang the bell? The first one you pushed, or the last one that actually made the bell go ding? If only one tile can be said to have completed the hand, then it has to be the one that actually physically touched the bell -- not the one that initiated the cascade. Once you know which tile filled the last remaining place in the hand, you know who should pay double (explained in FAQ 19AN, above).

    Q: Who plays next after erroneous mahj?
    A: The player who made the erroneous mahj call made a play. That means she took a turn. So, even though it was an abnormal play or turn, and all she accomplished was to kill herself, the play now devolves to the player seated to her right. Just like with a normal play or turn.

    Q: We play with 14 tiles...
    A: That's a very confusing way of saying that you "pick ahead" or that you "play with a future tile." The way it's supposed to work (in the official rules) is that each player normally holds 13 tiles while the other players are playing, and she gets a 14th tile during her turn. If you're playing that you normally hold 14 tiles, but discard one during your turn, then you're picking ahead. Read FAQ 19R, and read the back of your NMJL card (see rule #1).

    Q: How would this be ruled in a tournament?
    A: The National Mah Jongg League hasn't codified tournament rules, so tournament organizers set their own. Tournament rules can vary. So I may not be able to tell you how a particular situation would be ruled in a tournament. When you have a ruling question in a tournament, see the tournament rules, or ask the tournament judge for a ruling.

    Q: What If Everybody Wants To Blind Pass?
    A: Read Column #534

    Q: What does it mean if we get a lot of wall games? Does it mean we're getting better at playing? Does it mean we're playing defensively?
    A: I don't know what it "means." I can't know without seeing your group play. The fact that you're asking this may be an indication that your group recently learned the game. (Experienced players usually take wall games in stride.) The vagaries of chance can sometimes result in a larger than usual number of wall games for a time. It may be that new groups get into a wall game phase as part of the growth process; just play on, and let the game settle into its natural rhythms. Experienced players also get wall games - if a lot of wall games, it may just mean that the players are equally skilled and yes, are playing defensively.

    Q: Why doesn't the new card come out in January? Why is it that it doesn't come until late March or early April?
    A: I have no idea. You would have to ask the League. Their contact information is printed on the card.

    Q: If we get the new card in March, do we have to wait until April to start using it?
    A: No, of course not. Don't be silly! Start using it as soon as everyone at the table has the new card.

    Q: What if three players go dead? Who pays the survivor?
    A: It depends on how the players went dead. If one player erroneously declared mah-jongg, which caused a cascading lemminglike leap to death (in which two other players throw their hands in before it's realized that the mah-jongg was improper), then the erring declarer (who initiated the cascade) pays the surviving player twice the value of the declarer's hand (the hand she thought she was making).
    If the three players went dead by any other means, then the survivor throws in her hand (nobody gets paid). Shuffle, deal (next dealer takes over), and play another hand.

    Q: A wall tile was seen; now what? Tiles were knocked off the wall; now what?
    A: When a wall tile is accidentally exposed, it's just too darn bad, but it goes right back where it was. Once the wall is built, whenever something happens to the wall, best efforts must be made to preserve the original order of tiles in the wall, regardless of how much information was revealed to any players.

    Q: How does the color-coding work on the card?
    A: Read the back of the card. Left pane, just beneath where it says "STANDARD BASED ON EIGHT FLOWERS AND EIGHT JOKERS" (1st and 2nd lines). It says, "1 color--any 1 suit; 2 colors--any 2 suits; 3 colors--3 suits." "Any" means "any." Red does not necessarily mean craks must be used; green does not necessarily mean bams. The color-coding allows great flexibility.

    Q: What does it mean when a zero is green or red?
    A: The color is meaningless. It's a zero. Zeroes are explained on the front of the card, right up there at the top (use white dragon, also called "soap"). I suppose the thinking is that since zeroes are suitless, they "go with" any suit, so zeroes can be printed in any color.

    Q: The dealer deals tiles to the other players, right?
    A: No. The term "dealer" is misleading. East (also sometimes called "dealer") rolls the dice to determine where the wall is to be broken, and serves out the first wall. After that, each player takes her own tiles (starting with East herself).

    Q: What is the purpose of the numbers on the flower tiles?
    A: In Chinese mah-jongg, the numbers correspond to the seat positions of the players seated around the table. At the end of a hand, flowers add to the score depending on whether the number on the flower corresponds to your seat position. If East has flower #1, he gets extra score. If South has flower #2, he gets extra score, and so on. If you're reading this, you play American mah-jongg (not Chinese), so you don't need to know this!

    Q: What if two players go dead in a three-player game?
    A: It depends on how the two players went dead. Two players going dead in a 3P game is the same thing as three going dead in a regular 4P game. Read FAQ 19-BW, above.


    MORE About Commonly Misunderstood Rules

    The Window of Opportunity

    What is the rule when somebody wants to claim a discarded tile for exposure after the next person has already picked a tile from the wall?

    This question is about what I call the "window of opportunity" rule. The "window of opportunity" is that brief moment in time during which a player may claim a discard. When does the window of opportunity open, and when does it close?

    Opening the Window of Opportunity
    The tile is "down" the instant a discarded tile is either named... or it touches the table top, whichever happens first. When the tile has been named and placed on the table top and the player has withdrawn her hand, the "window" opens. The discarded tile is available for claiming by another player. (And the discarder can no longer change her mind and take it back.)

    Next Player Picks From the Wall
    The next player (the player to the right of the discarder) now reaches (ideally allowing other players a reasonable moment in which to claim the live discard), takes the next tile from the end of the wall, and looks at it. She cannot change her mind and put the tile back, but the window of opportunity is still open on the most recent discard. Her taking and looking at the picked tile did NOT close the window of opportunity on the live discard - anybody can still call it!

    If another player claims the live discard before the window of opportunity is closed, the picker must put the picked wall tile back on the end of the wall (the same place where she got it), so the next player can take it, whether or not it has been seen.

    Closing the Window of Opportunity
    Any other player can claim the current discard right up until one of the following events occurs:
          The next player racks her picked tile (putting it among the other tiles in her hand);
          The next player, having picked from the wall, exchanges a tile for a joker atop someone's rack;
          The next player discards her picked tile;
          The next player declares mah-jongg with her newly picked tile.
    Once any of the above has occurred, the window of opportunity CLOSES on the discarded tile we've been discussing. It's now too late for another player to claim that tile for exposure or for mah-jongg.

    One Window Closes, Another Window Opens
    When a player picks and discards without racking (#2 above), the window of opportunity shuts resoundingly on one tile, and opens instantly on another, when she either fully names the newly discarded tile or it touches the table top, whichever happens first. Only the current discard is available for play. That old discarded tile is now "dead," and is considered "covered" by the new discarded tile.

    You can also read Column #458.

    "Pickandrack" - Following Logically From the Window Rule
    From Our Q&A Bulletin Board

    More About Pickandrack


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