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FAQ #20. Commonly Misunderstood Rules of Asian Forms of Mah-Jongg

It is recommended that every table have a rulebook to settle rule disputes. Variant-specific books are listed in FAQ 2b. Details about the books are given in FAQ 3. Websites are listed in FAQ 4b.

Beginners often bring concepts from other rummylike games to the table when starting to learn mah-jongg, and they invariably ask the same kind of questions when first learning the game...


Play Mah-Jongg Right Now!

While you have to expose a completed set when taking a discard, you do not have to expose a complete set that's concealed in the hand. If you have a complete chow or pung in your hand, you don't WANT to expose it for all to see. Mahjong isn't Rummy - the goal isn't to get rid of the tiles in your hand, it's to build a complete hand (hopefully without letting on to other players how complete your hand is). So when you have a complete chow or pung in your hand, keep it hidden in your hand as your happy secret.

You can take a discard to make a chow only when it is thrown by the player at your left. BUT... To make a pung or kong, or to declare mah-jongg, you can take anyone's discard (even when it isn't your turn).

NOTE: When you are ready for mah-jongg, you can win by discard no matter what the tile is used for (chow, pair, pung, single). That portion of the set completed by that tile might have to be scored lower, but the win is valid (even if the hand is supposed to be concealed, unless the hand specifically must be won by self-pick).

When someone claims a discard to make a pung, the regular order of play is interrupted. After the punger has discarded, play order resumes from the punger (not from the discarder who gave the punged tile).

A kong is a special pung. The typical hand is "four groups and a pair" - fourteen tiles (a "group" is usually "three tiles"). So when a group is a kong (four tiles), then it messes up the tile count. If your hand has four groups, and one of the groups is four tiles, say because you just picked a fourth from the wall, you don't have a tile to discard because now you have "four groups and a single." With me so far? So to preserve the hand's integrity, a replacement tile must be taken. Usually it is taken from the back end of the wall (just as is done with flowers) - unless your rulebook defines a "kong box" separate from the "flower wall."


This is a kong - four of a kind. All four of a single tile = "kong." It counts as a special sort of pung.

Speaking of flowers... Flowers don't count as part of the hand. When counting your tiles (either to see if you need to pick or to discard, or to check if your hand is dead or not), count only your exposed groupings and your concealed tiles - don't count the flowers. And if you have a kong, count that as three tiles (not four).

No, you cannot make a four-numbers chow (four sequential numbers in a row). A chow is "three consecutive numbers in a row," end of story. A four-number sequence pattern is useful strategically (in building the hand), but it's not an exposable set, and cannot exist by itself in a completed hand.


You cannot do this in a finished mahjong hand. This is not a chow, and it is not a kong.
Three in a row = "chow." Four of a kind = "kong." There is no such thing as "four in a row" in any form of mah-jongg.
Rummy yes. Mah-Jongg no.

No, you cannot make a chow from three different dragons or three different winds or three consecutively numbered flowers. There is no such thing. A chow is made from numbered suit tiles only.

When one player claims a discard for chow, and one claims it for a pung, then the pung call overrides the chow call.

When one player claims a discard for exposure, and one claims it for mah-jongg, the player who needs it for mah-jongg takes priority.

When two players claim a tile for mah-jongg, as long as both claims were spoken within a reasonably short period of time, the player whose turn would be next in order of play (counterclockwise from discarder) is the one who gets the tile. It's not a race; the player who verbalized the claim first does not necessarily get the tile. There are exceptions to every rule: Some forms of mah-jongg (such as Japanese) allow both players to win. And some forms (such as HKOS) may allow a claim for a high-scoring hand or special hand to take precedence over another winner's claim.

Going counterclockwise around the table, players' winds are East, South, West, North.

In Chinese mah-jongg, seat winds do not correspond to the expected compass directions on a map (East, North, West, South) as if looking down on the table from the heavens. They were never intended to!

Q: I know that some hands are permitted to be exposed and some must be concealed, but what do the terms "exposed" and "concealed" mean exactly?
A: Concealed means "all concealed, win by discard permitted." And Exposed means "there is at least one exposure (meld)."
So, if a player is displaying one or more melded exposures, which kind of hand is the player holding...? Exposed. If a player says mah-jongg without having previously melded any exposures, which kind of hand did the player have...? Concealed.

No player may ever take a discard and put it into the concealed hand. The price for taking a discard is that you must complete a set with it, and you must expose that completed set (without ever putting that taken discard into the concealed portion of your hand).

Only the most recent discard is available for taking. Once another player has picked a tile from the wall and used it or discarded it, that "old" discard is considered "covered" by the new discard. In card games, when one discards a card, one places it on a pile, right? Well, we can't do that with mah-jongg tiles because the tiles are so thick -- the increasingly tall stack of tiles would quickly become unstable and fall over. In forms of mah-jongg in which discards are simply placed randomly on the discard floor, a player has to simply keep an eye on the table and know which discard is the most recent one.

Q: If the next player has already picked a tile from the wall and someone else wants to claim the most recent discard, does the player have to put the tile back on the wall?
A: Ah, a question about the "Window of Opportunity" in which a discard may be claimed. It depends on how much time has passed. If the picking player is playing speedily, and very little time has passed since the tile was discarded, then yes, he needs to put it back and allow the call to be fulfilled. But if more than 3 seconds have passed since the tile was discarded, then the call is deemed to be too late. (This is the official rule in Majiang Competition Rules, and could rightly be argued to hold sway in other Asian forms of mah-jongg as well.) For more on this, scroll down.

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: Why are there numbers on the flowers?
A: The numbers correspond to seat positions of the players. East (dealer) is seat 1; South is 2; West is 3; North is 4. If you use flowers (I didn't want to go into flowers because they add a complexity to the rules), then your score is doubled if you have a flower with your seat number on it (I also didn't want to go into scoring because there are so many different Asian scoring systems - this FAQ is about simplified rules).


MORE About Commonly Misunderstood Rules - From Our Q&A Bulletin Board

Name: Tom Sloper
Date: 20 Aug 2003

Comments

Hello Vivian M (vm28), you wrote:

>Our group has not been able to establish the sequence of picking tiles from the wall, and also selecting tiles in turn. We have a problem with direction.

Yes, many have asked this before. 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).


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?

Your 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? NOTE: Most rulebooks of Asian forms of mah-jongg do not include this level of detail. Thus the principle described below, adapted somewhat from American mah-jongg, is not enforceable if the players have a different way of doing things. American mah-jongg and Chinese Majiang Competition Rules have detailed written rules, but many forms do not. That said, the following is still good food for thought, for players of all variants. - Tom

Opening the Window of Opportunity
The window opens the instant a discarded tile is either named (if your group announces tiles when discarding) or it touches the table top, whichever happens first. The tile is now "down," and is available for claiming by another player. (And the discarder can no longer change his 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. He cannot change his mind and put the tile back, but the window of opportunity is still open on the most recent discard. His taking and looking at the picked tile did NOT close the window of opportunity on the live discard - anybody can still call it!

Closing the Window of Opportunity
Any other player can claim the current discard right up until one of the following events occurs:
      The current player puts the picked tile among the other concealed tiles in his hand;
      Three seconds have passed since the tile was discarded;
      The current player discards his picked tile;
      The current player declares mah-jongg with his 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, that old discarded tile is now "dead," and is considered "covered" by the new discarded tile.

I recommend that all tables have a copy of a good rulebook. See FAQ 3 for a list of books on numerous types of mah-jongg, and see FAQ 2b if you need to identify which type you play...


Name = Minette
Email = brogal
Comments = >Continuing discussion about the "window of opportunity" re: discards
>It seems that it would be smart for a player picking from the wall to immediately rack the tile (in her hand)- & "close the window of opportunity" on the previously discarded tile, - & then discard that picked tile or another. True?

True, it does seem that that would be smart. However... would it be nice?

If you are playing against a bunch who is much faster and sharper than you (you are totally outgunned by a bunch of mah-jongg "sharks"), then by all means "pickandrack" is a reasonable defensive strategy. HOWEVER... if any of your opponents are slow thinkers, or new players still struggling with the concept of the game, then "pickandrack" would be a highly aggressive way to act. Who's the mah-jongg shark now? (^_^)

Some authors who write about the Chinese Classical game actually go one step further and set a rule that the player to the right of the latest discarder should pause for a beat before reaching to take the next tile from the wall. And I even heard some mention of this idea (that players should pause for a beat before picking) at a recent American tournament here in Los Angeles. It's a kinder and gentler way to play! ...
May the tiles be with you! - Tom
Tom Sloper
Los Angeles, CA
Date = March 13, 2004


Can I declare mah-jongg from anyone, if my last remaining uncompleted set is a chow?

>From: Beverly Cox
>Sent: Thursday, August 30, 2007 8:38 AM
>Subject: Mah-Jongg Q+A
>My mah-jongg question or comment is:
>We play the classical Chinese version of Mah-Jongg (more or less…we are trying). But we cannot find a definitive answer to this question: Is it possible for a player to chow from someone other than the discarder at the left in order to MJ? This is the quote from FAQ #20:
>“You can take a discard to make a chow only when it is thrown by the player at your left. BUT... To make a pung or kong, or to declare mah-jongg, you can take anyone's discard (even when it isn't your turn).”
>I found the same information in Millington’s “The Complete Book of Mah-Jongg”, but several rule books and web sites state that only to declare mah-jongg, it is permissible to take anyone’s discard to complete a chow.
>One of our group plays an online version of Mah-Jongg where it is possible to chow from any player in order to MJ, and has also found the information quoted below (that I find even more confusing!) We all agreed that you are our definitive source and will abide by your suggestion. I do understand that we can decide among ourselves how we wish to play, but two of us would really like to know the “official” classical Chinese rule as it applies to chow and MJ.
>Thank you again for your expertise…
>Bev Cox
>
>-----------------------------------------
>The following quote came from Berrie Bloem's Mah Jongg - The REAL Game!(TM) Rules
>*  When the player to the immediate left of a player discards a tile the player can pick this tile up to make a Chow - that is, to make a combination of three consecutive tiles of the same suit. A player cannot make a Chow by picking up a tile that has been discarded by any other player than the player that is to the immediate left of a player. The only exception to this rule is explained in the next point.
>*  If a player wishes to pick up a discarded tile to make a Chow AND to go Mah Jongg at the same time then a player can pick up a tile that has been discarded by any player. If a player is not allowed to pick up the discarded tile under these circumstances then see Precedences for further information. Here are the Precedents:


Precedents
In cases where two or more players want to pick up the same discarded tile, the following rules can be applied.
The player who wants the tile for:
Mah Jongg with a Special Hand - will get the tile, if not;
Mah Jongg with a Pung - will get the tile, if not;
Mah Jongg with a Chow - will get the tile, if not;
Mah Jongg with a Double - will get the tile, if not;
Kong - will get the tile, if not;
Pung - will get the tile, if not;
Chow (but only if the tile is discarded by the player who is to the immediate left of the player who wants to pick up the tile).
In cases where this is still not decisive, the player sitting nearest to the player who discarded this tile in the playing direction, will get the tile.

Hi Beverly,
I guess this concept is hard for everyone to explain, not just me. I thought I said it clearly, but I guess not.
To make a chow, the discard must come from the player at your left. EXCEPT when your chow completes the hand and makes you mah-jongg. THEN you are allowed to take the discard from any player (not only the player at your left). You aren't saying "chow," you're saying "mah-jongg." Mah-jongg always overrules chow.
I hope I've stated it clearly enough now? If not, I'll try again...

Tom Sloper  /  トム·スローパー   /   湯姆·斯洛珀   /   탐 슬로퍼
Los Angeles, CA (USA)
August 30, 2007
Author of "The Red Dragon & The West Wind," available at bookstores and Amazon.com


Claiming a discard for a pair

> From: Terence L.
> Sent: Monday, February 24, 2014 3:29 PM
> Subject: Mah-Jongg Q+A
> My mah-jongg question or comment is:
> When a player is going for “seven sisters” or seven pairs, can that person take a discarded tile from the player before them if they can pair it with something in their hand? Some of us think you must pull all of your own pairs to get seven sisters while others think it is okay to pick the discarded tile from the payer before you. If you can clarify this it would be greatly appreciated.
> Thank you, Terence L

Hi, Terence.
I guess I didn't include this in FAQ 20. You can take a discard only for the following:
To complete a pung (you must expose it);
To turn a concealed pung into a kong (you must expose it);
To complete a chow (only on your turn, from the player at your left, and you must expose the chow);
To make mah-jongg (you must expose the entire hand).
You may never take a discard to make a pair, unless that pair completes your hand (in which case you're doing #4 above). Your group needs to have a book to which you can turn when rules questions arise. I can't tell for certain which mah-jongg variant you play, but I believe Amy Lo's book might work for you. See FAQ 3 for the complete title.
May the tiles be with you.
Tom Sloper

Creator of the weekly Mah-Jongg column and the Mah-Jongg FAQs -- donations appreciated.
Author of "The Red Dragon & The West Wind," the definitive book on Mah-Jongg East & West.
Los Angeles, California, USA
February 24, 2014


Can I chow to win? Or do I have to self-pick?

>From: Charles/Cordelia Christopher
>Sent: Wednesday, March 05, 2008 4:11 PM
>Subject: When you mah jongg in Classical Chinese Rules, is it permissable...
>Hi Tom
>When you Mah Jongg using Classical Chinese rule set:
>If you have 4 sets of 3 and 1 green dragon, and a player discards a green dragon, can you Mah Jongg to make the pair or do you have to hope to draw the second green dragon from the wall?
>Also:
>If you have 4 sets of three and in your concealed hand you have a pair and a 2 number chow, if any player discards the 3rd number for your chow, can you mah jongg picking up the tile to complete the chow or do you still have to follow the rule of picking up a chow only from the preceding player on your left?
>Thanks
>Cordelia Christopher

Hi Cordelia,
Your 2nd question is answered in FAQ 20 (above left).
Once you know the answer to your 2nd question, I think you'll know the answer to your 1st question too.
But if I'm wrong, you know where to ask.
So... do you have a book that you use as your Chinese Classical "bible"? If so, if you tell me which book it is (tell me author's name, that's usually more important than the title, which mostly all sound alike), I can show you which page your answer is on.
Tom

>From: Charles/Cordelia Christopher
>Sent: Wednesday, March 05, 2008 4:49 PM
>Subject: Re: When you mah jongg in Classical Chinese Rules, is it permissable...
>So I can pick up any tile, including a tile to complete a chow, to complete a Mah Jongg hand; so I can also pick up the green dragon, in question 1, as long as I mah jongg?  Thanks-I thought that was true.
>Although I play Wright-Patterson I've taught people in myAsheville, NC little mountain neighborhood and here in Hilton Head Island where we can play outside.  I found the rules on-line although I have an old Babcock book at home that I think I am mostly using except for the last step of scoring where you subtract your score from the winners.  But I don't have a printer here in Hilton Head so at home I printed out  a rule set-a one pager for simplicity for new players and it's by Paul E. Jaeger, Nov. 23, 2004.
>Thanks again for your wonderful web site.  We are mostly retired in my groups and new people to the game really enjoy it-especially those who played years ago in a NMJL group.  They feel so free of penalty-and the fact that you can collect scores without actually winning by Mah Jongg is really enjoyable, especially for beginners. 
>Sincerely,
>Cordelia Christopher

Cordelia, you wrote:

Thanks-I thought that was true.
You're welcome - you thought right! (^_^)

I found the rules on-line although I have an old Babcock book
OK, well, that online page you found obviously sucks. Use a different one. And as much as we all owe Babcock for popularizing the game in America and Europe, his simplified rules (assuming you have the more common paperback pamphlet, not the hardcover book) don't go into enough details. Better you have a Foster or a Harr or a Millington.

a rule set-a one pager for simplicity ... by Paul E. Jaeger, Nov. 23, 2004.
Well, obviously that's no good either, at least not for when you need to know how things work.

And I'm so glad you're spreading the joy of mah-jongg! And that's really cool that ex-NMJL players are enjoying the classic! Keep it up, girl! (^_^)
May the tiles be with you.
Tom Sloper  /  トム·スローパー   /   湯姆 斯洛珀   /  탐 슬로퍼
Los Angeles, CA (USA)
March 5, 2008
Author of "The Red Dragon & The West Wind," the definitive book on mah-jongg East & West. Available at bookstores, BN.com, and Amazon.com.


Winning by discard for a chow

> From: Todd H
> Sent: Sunday, February 16, 2014 4:35 AM
> Subject: Hong Kong Mahjong: Chow for the Win
> Hello Tom,
> My question is about Hong Kong (Old Style) Mahjong and claiming a discard for a Chow.
> Now I understand quite clearly that the rules state that only the person seated to the right of the discarder may claim a discarded tile for a Chow. However, when looking at the precedence order (Pung/Kong claims take precedence over a Chow), one can see that a claim for a win/mahjong overrules all other claims. Does this mean that anyone (East, South, West, or North) may claim a discard if it's for the win, even if that discard creates mahjong by completing a Chow?
> I think the confusion may lie in the fact that I learned the American style of Mah Jongg first, which permits the claim of any tile for the win. See FAQ 20L (you can link to the FAQs above left).
> Thanks in advance for your response,
> Todd H
> Cambridge, New York

Hi, Todd.
In ALL forms of mah-jongg, "mah-jongg overrules everything," and the player may claim the mah-jongg tile, no matter what part of the hand it completes. In some Asian forms, some sets (parts of the hand) might technically be considered "exposed" thereby, but that just affects the scoring of the hand -- winning on the discard is perfectly valid. I'm amending FAQ 20B to include this frequently asked question.
May the tiles be with you.
Tom Sloper

Creator of the weekly Mah-Jongg column and the Mah-Jongg FAQs -- donations appreciated.
Author of "The Red Dragon & The West Wind," the definitive book on Mah-Jongg East & West.
Los Angeles, California, USA
February 16, 2014


Can one not only have one's cake, but eat it too? (Japanese riichi/dora majan)

From: "Richard W Emrich"
Sent: Friday, January 25, 2008 2:07 PM
Subject: Mah-Jongg Q A
> My mah-jongg question or comment is:
> At our weekly Japanese MJ game, one player went Ron with 7 pairs (we were
> taught to call it Niko-Niko).  With his 7 pairs, he had 2x1 crack, 2x2
> crack & 2x3 crack. (2 identical chows or Iipeikou)  Can he claim a Fan for
> Iipeikou as well as 2 Fan for the 7 pair  ?
> I have not had much exposure to the 'correct' terms of Mah-jongg so I hope
> this is OK
> Thanks
> Richard W. Emrich
> Chino Hills, CA

&西: Hi Richard,
Let me draw you a picture to show you why the answer is no.

This shows "2 sets and 4 pairs." There's no such hand structure! You can only make "4 sets and 1 pair" or "7 pairs" or "12 singles and 1 pair" (kokushimusou).
The answer is no. Those 6 tiles are either 2 chows OR 3 pairs - they cannot be both at the same time. And as you can see by the illustration above, the 2 chows option is not a valid option. They can only be 3 pairs in this case.
I think I'll tack this onto FAQ 20.
May the tiles be with you.
Tom Sloper  /  トム·スローパー   /   湯姆 斯洛珀   /   탐 슬로퍼
Los Angeles, CA (USA)
January 25, 2008
Author of "The Red Dragon & The West Wind," the definitive book on mah-jongg East & West.
Available at bookstores, BN.com, and Amazon.com.


How does the "concealed kong" work?

>Date: Wed, 29 Sep 2010 13:43:13 -0700 (PDT)
>From: "J. Yuen - iteachmahjong
>Subject: Chinese MJ Question
>Tom - In Chinese version MJ, how does a player play a concealed (hidden) Kong combination? Are they required to reveal it on the table or do they tell the other players they have it but keep it concealed?

Hi J. Yuen,
I guess I should add this to FAQ 20. When you have a concealed triplet in the hand, and you pick the fourth tile, you are permitted to declare a "concealed kong." You certainly have to MELD it, not just tell the others. They have to see why you've got the right to have an extra tile in the hand. But the way most Chinese variants do it, the meld is face-down.

The players can all see that you have a melded kong, but they can't see what it is. It is "concealed." Once you've made the meld, you are permitted to take a replacement tile from the back end of the wall. Now you have 15 tiles in the hand, and that's OK because you've got a kong.

May the tiles be with you.
Tom Sloper
トム·スローパー
湯姆 斯洛珀
Author of "The Red Dragon & The West Wind," the definitive book on Mah-Jongg East & West.
Los Angeles, California, USA
September 29, 2010


Penalty for erroneous mah-jongg

>From: J. Yuen W
>Sent: Wednesday, December 17, 2014 8:00 AM
>Subject: Penalty for False MJ Claim
>Tom - our group plays the Chinese version MJ purely socially. I've reviewed your FAQs and Q & A boards seeking an answer without finding it. Please help. When a player calls a false mahjong hand what is the appropriate penalty? Does that player fold up their tiles and is eliminated from further playing that hand or does that player continue actively playing their hand but, can not win that hand? Again, thank you for your help.
>Jon

Hi, Jon.
It's the latter. Taking a player out of the game (calling the player "dead" as is done in American mah-jongg) is not done in any Chinese variant I've seen. Depending on which variant you play (and whether or not your players use points - you said you play "purely socially," which I take to mean "no money"), there may also be a points penalty.
May the tiles be with you.
Tom Sloper
トム·スローパー
湯姆 斯洛珀
Creator of the weekly Mah-Jongg column and the Mah-Jongg FAQs -- donations appreciated.
Author of "The Red Dragon & The West Wind," the definitive book on Mah-Jongg East & West.
Los Angeles, California, USA
December 17, 2014


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