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By Tom Sloper
September 13, 2009

Column #423

American Mah Jongg (2009 NMJL card). In numerous previous strategy columns, I've mentioned a ploy I call "joker bait," but I've never specifically described the ploy. It's high time I did so. Here's how joker bait works...

Let's say you have an extra pair. That is to say, a pair of matching tiles that you don't need because they don't go with your hand.

Say, for instance, you'd been trying to make Elevens #3 but never got enough flowers, and your fallback hand was Consec. #4, and now you've picked a second R. There always comes that moment when you have to pick a direction. At this juncture, with the above example, you decide to go for Consec. #4 and forget about Elevens #3. You can discard either F or 1D (breaking up the now-unwanted pair).

Since you'd been having so much trouble getting enough flowers, a couple of other players are probably using them. Chances are that if you throw F somebody will call it. So throw it, already! The sooner you get that out of your hand the better. Early on, the chances are that another player will call it for exposure only (not for mah jongg). If you hang onto it, it'll only get hotter and hotter (the chances of someone calling it for mah jongg increase with the passage of time).

Besides, the 1D pair can be useful as joker bait.

And the joker bait ploy should not be assayed too soon, anyway. The best time to trot out a joker bait play is at or about the halfway point. Although the dealer wall varies in length, you can generally do it when the game has gone into the last long wall.

Throw the first 1D. If anybody needs it for her hand, she's most likely to want to call it now (and probably isn't yet ready for mah jongg). And she could put out a joker with it.

Then, on your next turn, you can redeem the joker. That's joker bait! It doesn't always work; it's highly risky with flowers or pungs because someone else might grab the joker before you. But it works often enough to make it worthwhile.

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Question or comment about this column? Email and the discussion will be posted on the Mah-Jongg Q&A Bulletin Board.

Where to order the yearly NMJL card: Read FAQ 7i.

Need rules for American mah-jongg? Tom Sloper's book, The Red Dragon & The West Wind, is the most comprehensive book in existence about the American game. AND see FAQ 19 for fine points of the American rules (and commonly misunderstood rules). AND get the official rulebook from the NMJL (see FAQ 3). Linda Fisher's website is the only website that describes American rules:

Watch the video by Jay Firestone of the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles, about a young man (himself) learning to play American mah-jongg. You can see it at

© 2009 Tom Sloper. All rights reserved.