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

Including British/Western/Australian rules, Hong Kong rules, Taiwanese, Shanghai, Chinese Classical, CMCR, Japanese, etc.

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...

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 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.

- When you have four identical tiles concealed within the hand, you have the option of melding them, declaring the four to be a kong that counts as concealed. Different rules have different norms for how a concealed kong is to be displayed (all face-down, or the two end tiles face-down, for instance).
- When you have three identical tiles concealed within the hand, and an opponent discards the fourth, you may claim it (the same as you would pung a discard) and expose the completed kong.
- When you have an exposed pung and you pick the fourth tile from the wall, you have the option of promoting your exposed pung to an exposed kong. (You may not take the discard to add to your exposed pung.)
In all cases of kong declaration, a replacement must be taken from the back end of the wall.

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 (a run of 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 a run of four 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


  • Simplified rules for "basic Chinese" mah-jongg - FAQ 10!

  • Ask your question about mah-jongg on the Q&A Bulletin Board!

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