Is your friend group looking for something new to do? Have you exhausted your attempts at a book club, or the knitting circle that fell apart quicker than the lopsided scarves did? You might be ready for mahjong. If you’re not familiar, mahjong is a game played with sets of tiles that was introduced to Americans by Chinese immigrants in the 1920s. It is a game that can be won with a combination of strategy and luck, and can be great fun as long as you have three people to play. 

What is Mahjong?

The game originated in 19th-century China, where each province had its own regional name and style of play. The name mah-jongg was coined and copyrighted by Joseph P. Babcock, an American resident of Shanghai, who is credited with introducing the game to the West after WWI. He wrote a modified set of rules, gave English names to the tiles, and made them more like Western playing cards to create a sense of familiarity. So, if you look up the rules for mahjong, you will typically see them categorized into “American rules” and “Regional Variations.”

Close-up image of Mahjong tiles, which are white, plastic domino-esque blocks. They have chinese characters and images printed on them.Sets have 136 or 144 illustrated tiles about the size and shape of dominoes. (The number depends on whether the flowers or seasons are used — this will make more sense later.) Suits are composed of 36 characters, 36 bamboos, and 36 circles. These are, in turn, divided into four sets of numbers 1 to 9 in each suit. There are also 16 wind tiles and 12 dragon tiles. The sets that have 144 tiles include four flowers and four seasons, but those aren’t needed in the basic American game. In the mahjong community, the bamboo tiles are often called “sticks” or “bams,” the circles are “dots,” and the characters are “cracks.” 

The object of the game is similar to gin rummy; you need to obtain sets of tiles to win. There are three kinds of sets: chow, which is a run or sequence of three of the same suit in numerical order;  pung, a sequence of three tiles of the same suit and rank, such as three dragons of the same color or three identical winds; and kong, a pung plus the fourth matching tile. The winner is the first player to hold a complete hand — a mahjong — which is four sets and a pair of like tiles. 

How to Play

Although the rules initially seem complicated, learning Mahjongg really comes down to developing a sense for the rhythm of play. Once you’ve got that down, you can work on strategy, which is both offensive and defensive in nature. You want to be the first person to complete a high-scoring winning hand, but you can also block other players by not discarding tiles you think are useful to them.


Determine a starting dealer. In Chinese tradition, the four wind tiles are shuffled face down and dealt to the players. Players then sit according to their tile and sit clockwise in the order north, west, south, east. East starts as the dealer. (You can also do away with this method and simply roll dice to determine who deals.)

Overhead image of card table with people playing mahjongShuffle all the tiles together in the center of the table, and then each player builds a wall of 36 tiles face-down in front of themselves. (The wall should be 18 tiles long and two tiles high.) The result is a large square wall of tiles.

The dealer rolls the dice and counts that many tiles from the right edge of their wall. This is the point at which they separate the wall to begin dealing tiles from the left of that spot and going clockwise. (See what we mean about being confusing until you get the hang of it? Eventually, this is probably like second nature.) Each player receives 13 tiles (except for the dealer, who gets 14) and arranges them in a rack so no one else can see them.


    • Play starts with the dealer discarding their extra tile and moves in a counterclockwise rotation.
    • Woman triumphantly raises her hands and looks smugly at the people she is playing mahjong with at the kitchen tableBefore you take your turn you need to give the other players a few seconds to claim the most recently discarded tile in case they have priority. Priority is given to any player who can use the tile to complete a mahjong; if they can do this, they claim the tile and reveal their winning hand. 
    • Calling Pung: Failing that, any player can claim the discarded tile to complete a pung. The player has to say “pung” and then reveal the two matching tiles that match the discard. (For example: if the discarded tile was the 7 of bamboo, and the player had two more bamboo 7s on their rack, that player would call “pung.” They then turn the completed pung — all three bamboo 7s — face-up on the table, discard a different tile, and the turn passes to the right.
    • Calling Chow: If nobody claims the discarded tile but it completes a chow for you, you may claim it at the beginning of your turn by saying “chow.” (In other words, you can only form a chow meld if the tile has been discarded by the player to your left.)You must then turn your chow face up, revealing the completed run, discard a different tile and play continues as normal.
    • Calling Kong: Not everyone plays with a kong — four of the same tile — but if they do, the same rules for claiming a discarded tile apply.
      • If the discard does not complete a set for you, on your turn you draw the next tile from the wall going left. Unless this gives you a mahjong, you then discard a tile face-up.
      • Note: Only the most recently discarded tile can be claimed.
  • The hand ends when somebody declares mahjong and reveals a complete 14-tile hand of four sets and a pair. If nobody has a mahjong by the time the wall runs out of tiles, the game is considered a draw and the dealer redeals.


If you follow simple scoring rules, one point is awarded to whoever achieved the mahjong and won the hand. Players play to a predetermined number of points — typically 16 — or until players agree that they’re done. [Make sure that everyone agrees to a scoring method before playing a game; since tons of variations of complex scoring arrangements exist, it’s important to all be on the same page from the start.]

Who to Play With

group of people playing mahjong at an outdoor patio table in the summer timeIf you don’t have a group of friends that would be into mahjong, fret not. One of the best ways to learn is to join some people who already know how to play. The Capital Region Mah Jongg group meets regularly, and their schedule can be found at the link. You can also find groups through your local community centers, churches, and libraries as well. (When looking on the web, be sure to try all the different spellings for the game, i.e.: mah jong, mahjongg, mahjong.) There are also several apps you can download so you can play online, but then you miss out on the fun of social interaction.

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