In the mid to late 1800s in the courtesan houses and social clubs of Shanghai and Beijing, a cultural phenomenon emerged: mahjong. In the early 1920s, Standard Oil businessman Joseph Babcock was working in Soochow, China, when he and his wife discovered the game played with tiles resembling dominoes. Joseph enjoyed it so much that he decided to promote it in America by re-branding it “Mah-jongg,” a term he trademarked, and by penning Rules of Mah-jongg, a book of simplified rules for American audiences.
Mahjong caught on in many different social circles, from high society ladies with time on their hands to Chinese Americans preserving a link to their roots. Jewish societies embraced the game as well. In fact, a group of Jewish women established the National Mah-Jongg League in 1937. The league issues yearly rule cards governing American play. Today, mahjong is enjoyed worldwide. Thanks to features in movies, television, and books, its popularity continues to flourish.
Mahjong has 40 varieties, including Chinese, Taiwanese, American, Western/British, Filipino, Vietnamese, and Malaysian, all with different rules. It is traditionally played at a table of four people, but the number can be adjusted. American mahjong uses 152 tiles. As with the name of the game itself, tile names differ from place to place. There are dots or circles; bams, bamboo, or sticks; and Chinese characters or cracks. Each of these have four sets, numbered one through nine. The four sets of “wind tiles” are made up of East, South, West, and North. Four sets of three different honor, or dragon, tiles — white, green, and red — may depict Chinese symbols, or they may feature dragons, especially if they are from an American set. Eight flower tiles are decorated with flowers from different seasons, with an animal, or with an image. American sets often include joker tiles, used as wild cards.
A game of mahjong is prefaced by shuffling the tiles. Players all pitch in by turning the tiles face down and scattering them around the table, causing the game’s hallmark clattering sound that resembles bickering sparrows. Shuffling complete, players form walls two tiles high on each side of the table, and then dice are thrown to establish the first dealer. That position is called East. The person to their right is North, followed around the table by West and South. Players take turns drawing tiles from the wall, beginning with the dealer and going counterclockwise until everyone has drawn 13 tiles. The dealer draws a 14th tile and play begins.
Similar to the card game rummy, the object is to create groupings of tiles. A winning mahjong hand consists of four groups and a pair. In basic play, groupings consist of a pung, which is three of a kind, or a chow, which is a sequential run in the same suit. Players can choose the last discarded tile, or they can draw from the wall. They must then discard a tile unless they have a winning hand. Play moves to the person on the right. A win is declared by turning one’s hand face up and announcing “mahjong.”
Mahjong seems relatively straightforward, but strategy is involved. A player should discard with caution because his discarded tiles may reveal the hand he seeks to build. Other players might then withhold tiles based on this knowledge because while winning is the objective, so is keeping others from winning. Strategy can include claiming another player’s discarded tile. A player can claim a discard only to form a chow or a pung. The group must then be laid on the table face up, revealing the type tiles the player is collecting. One can only take a discarded tile to form a chow on their own turn. Any player can claim a discarded tile to form a pung or to win. If two players vie for the same discarded tile, a pung takes priority over a chow, and a winning hand trumps them both.
The social aspect of mahjong is as important as the game itself. It provides an opportunity to visit while engaging in fast-paced, strategic decision making. Movies like the comedy Crazy Rich Asians tap into this element of mahjong. At the end of the movie, a mahjong parlor is the setting for a contentious exchange between Rachel, the main character, and her boyfriend’s disapproving mother, Eleanor. As they play, the women parse their differences. Rachel notes the older woman’s strategy when she completes a pung early in the game. When she draws the tile both she and Eleanor need to win the game, Rachel sacrifices her own victory for Eleanor’s benefit.
Mahjong games are not combative in real life. Rather, they are an opportunity to engage in competitive, spirited fun with friends and provide the perfect alternative for a round of spades or bridge.