Most people think of mah-jong as "that Chinese game with the noisy tiles." And they'd be right. Also known as mah-jongg, ma-diao, mah-cheuck, baak-ling, and pung-chow, playing mah-jong can be as complicated as figuring out what to call it, but it's also exciting, challenging, and a great gambling alternative to poker. But just because mah-jong can be intense doesn't make it impossible. In fact, you can learn the basics of how to play mah-jong simply by reading this SYW. But take heed: you'll never be as good as us.

(By the way, we chose to use the modern spelling of "mah-jong" because it's the easiest to say without completely botching the pronunciation -- how do you pronounce "jongg" with two g's, anyway?)


A brief history of mah-jong

The history of mah-jong dates back 4,000 years to a time when Chinese aristocrats were the only people on the planet to play the game. The ruling class was so snobby about keeping the game to themselves, that they kept the rules a secret from the Chinese peasants. Mah-jong only became public knowledge when China became a republic in 1911.

The game was subsequently introduced to the United States in 1920, quickly gaining popularity and spreading across the country. Since the rules came from across an ocean and had to be translated from Chinese, most Americans played with whatever rules they managed to grasp and made up the rest of them. As a result, several different sets of rules emerged. Fortunately, a standardized set of rules was set up in 1925. Today, the official rules of American mah-jong are determined by the National Mah-Jong League.

The basic concept of mah-jong

You will discover when you get into the rules of mah-jong that the game is actually just a version of gin rummy, albeit much more complicated; it's about grouping tiles (in place of cards) together by either suits or sequences. So if you know how to play gin rummy, you're 95% there.

Mah-jong must be played with four players. A player's basic goal is to discard and claim tiles to form combinations, until all of his/her tiles fit a certain pattern. Just like with cards, a mah-jong player's set of tiles is called a "hand" and the game goes around in a circle so that each player gets a turn to organize their tiles into a winning hand.

Points are involved in mah-jong, so it often happens that gambling is involved. But before you slap your paycheck on the table, realize that while mah-jong is mostly about practice, precision, and proficiency, there is also quite a bit of luck involved (a lot of your success depends on the tiles you draw at the beginning of the game). But just as in poker, in the long run, better players tend to win more often.