How to Play Mahjong – Mahjong Rules & How to Win

Learning how to play Mahjong can be a very intimidating task, especially if you’re unfamiliar with the game. Thankfully, we’re here to help explain the Mahjong rules, how the game works, and how to play. After reading our guide, you’ll be ready for your first Mahjong game.

What is Mahjong?

Mahjong is a tile game that is generally played with four players and dates back to the mid-1800s at the end of China’s Qing Dynasty. The game was originally developed in Southern China and is believed to have spread throughout the Western world in the early 1920s.

According to the New York Times, American businessman Joseph P. Babcock brought the game to the United States after living in China and falling in love with the famous Mahjong tile game.

Mahjong is a game that, like many card games, depends on the mix of chance and skill.

Mahjong is played with 144 tiles, with each tile displaying one of five, sometimes six, illustration categories. Each of these “illustration categories” are based on Chinese symbols or characters.

In each Mahjong tile game set, there are three main suits called stones, characters, and bamboos. Sets also include two honor suits (winds and dragons), and one bonus suit (flowers).

The popular Mahjong tile game has been conveniently adapted for online play too, which we’ll dive into later on.

How to Play Mahjong – Rules & Objective

Mahjong Set
Image: eBay/Lot4best

A game of Mahjong has 144 tiles and is almost always played with four people.

A typical Chinese Mahjong set will contain the following tiles:

  • Suit of stones (also known as dots) numbered 1 through 9. There are four of each tile for 36 tiles in total.
  • Suit of bamboos (also known as bams) numbered 1 through 9. There are four of each tile for 36 tiles in total. Note that the ‘1’ bam usually depicts a bird.
  • Suit of characters (also known as craks) numbered 1 through 9. There are four of each tile for 36 tiles in total.
  • There are four different winds (East, South, West, North). There are four of each tile for 16 tiles in total.
  • There are three different dragons (White, Green, Red). There are four of each tile for 12 tiles in total.
  • There are also eight flower tiles, which can have a number of depictions. They are separated into two colors and numbered 1 through 4. Some games do not include these tiles as they are bonus tiles.
  • Some Mahjong sets, like the one pictured above, will also contain spare tiles. Dice may also be included.

A hand will usually take around 10-15 minutes to complete, with four hands per round and four rounds per game. This means a full Mahjong match will usually take between 160-240 minutes (2 hours and 40 minutes to 4 hours) to complete.

If a hand results in a draw, the entire hand will be replayed.

How to win at Mahjong is quite simple: score the most points at the end of all 16 hands. It’s worth noting that only the player who wins a hand can score points.

Depending on which style of Mahjong you play, there are radically different scoring systems, but they all reward a higher point total for rarer events.

To win a hand, a player must form four melds (or sets) of three tiles and one pair, which takes a total of 14 tiles. There are three different types of melds that a player can make:

  • Pong – A set of three identical tiles.
  • Kong/Gong – A set of four identical tiles.
  • Chow/Chi – A sequence of three tiles of the same suit.

In layman’s terms, the objective is to pick up and discard tiles to form melds and pairs.

How to Play Mahjong – Step-by-Step Guide

As for the rules of the game, we will do our best to keep this as simple as possible.

1. Each player rolls a pair of dice. The player with the highest roll becomes the dealer for that round while the person to their right will play first and begin the first hand.

2. Place all the Mahjong tiles face down and the dealer will give them a good shuffle.

3. Each player rolls a pair of dice. The player with the highest roll becomes the dealer for that round while the person to their right will play first and begin the first hand.

4. Each player selects 36 tiles and forms a pair of 18-tile walls. Space is left open in the middle of the table for discarded tiles.

5. The dealer will roll the dice and count that many tiles from the right edge of their wall. The dealer will then separate the wall at that point and begin dealing tiles from the left of that specific spot and go clockwise.

6. Each player will receive 13 tiles and the player that begins the game will begin by drawing a tile. They will then discard a tile.

Mahjong - how to play Mahjong
Image: Cangjie6/Wikimedia Commons

7. When a player discards a tile, any player may pick up the tile to form a Pong or a Kong meld, which is a set of three or four identical tiles. If a player wants to form a Chow meld, which is three tiles in sequential order, the tile must be discarded by the player to your left. When a player picks up a discarded tile, the meld must be announced and exposed to the rest of the table. Melds formed from the draw pile do not have to be announced.

8. Play continues until one player achieves four melds and a pair, which requires a total of 14 tiles. The skill in Mahjong comes from knowing how to score big and outplay your opponents.

9. The winner then has their points calculated for that hand. Most games play by house rules or if they are in an official competition, they go by their rules. The Asia Pacific Mahjong scoring rules, for example, have a total of 49 different ways players can win a hand, ranging from five points all the way up to 480 points.

Mahjong Game Variations

How you play Mahjong will specifically depend on the variation of the Mahjong game that you’re playing. We’ve covered classic Chinese Mahjong, now we’ll look at the different versions you can play.

American MahjongJapanese MahjongKorean MahjongSingaporean Mahjong

American Mahjong

This game contains jokers, the Charleston (passing your turn to receive more tiles), and five-tile melds. Mahjong purists usually dismiss this game and separate it from Mahjong completely.

Japanese Mahjong

Many online players use this as their default game. This is called Riichi in Japan, and many video games and anime series feature this style of Mahjong.

Korean Mahjong

Commonly played with three players as the bamboo set is removed. Melded chows are also forbidden.

Singaporean Mahjong

Similar to the common Hong Kong/Chinese Mahjong except there are scoring rules that provide points after certain conditions are met, such as making a kong.

mahjong tiles
Image: joeannenah/Flickr

How to Win Majong – Mahjong Tips

We scoured the internet for the five best Mahjong tips and strategies that you can use to improve your game immediately. We want you to get out there on your next trip to Asia and be prepared to battle in the streets.

Always Hold a Pair in Your Hand

You need a pair at the end of the game and you’re able to upgrade your pair to a Pong meld anytime your opponent discards a matching tile.

Watch What Your Opponents Are Discarding

This will let you know what they need and what will be readily available to collect.

Practice Regularly

You can’t get better at anything if you don’t put in the hours.

Have a Backup Plan

You won’t always be able to get your hands on the tiles you need. Have an exit strategy or attempt to minimize your losses by holding onto tiles that you know your opponents are looking for.

Go After Maximum Points

It’s not often that you’ll find yourself in a position where incredibly high points are within reach. Sometimes you’ll want to risk losing the hand in order to try and win the match.

Where to Play Mahjong Online

There are plenty of websites offering free Mahjong online, where you can play by yourself and get ‘hints’ from the computer to help you play.

While you won’t find your classic Mahjong games at typical online casinos (they have yet to figure out how to play Mahjong against the house), you’ll be able to find a number of Mahjong-inspired slots instead.

Currently, Lucky Block is offering a four-piece of Mahjong slots action, including a personal favorite of mine: Mahjong 88.

mahjong 88 - slot game
Image: Play’n GO

The serene music and the phenomenal gameplay had me playing the demo version for a lot longer than I’d like to admit. It’s a fun game that has a healthy 96.62% RTP (return-to-player) and is a cluster pays-type slot that’s chock-full of bonus features.

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Blaise Bourgeois
Poker and Gambling Expert

Blaise is an Expert Gambling Writer and a professional poker player in Brazil. He has played and traveled throughout Latin America for the last four-and-a-half years and recently won his first WSOP Circuit ring! He received his Master's in Sport Management and Sports Analytics from St. John's University. Blaise also holds a Mathematics and Computer Science degree from SUNY Purchase, where he still holds the school's Men's Soccer record for goals in a season. Blaise has worked for Catena Media, OddsSeeker, WSOP, PokerNews, and Poker.Org in various capacities. He has a passion for extensive research and aims to provide accurate…