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Mahjong is a game of skill, intelligence, calculation and luck – and is usually played by four people. The game originated in China, and is used for gambling purposes in many countries. The Chinese word literally means “hemp general”. In English, the name often takes on variations such as Mah Jong, Mahjongg, Majong or simply M-J.
The game pieces or tiles and scoring rules used in Mahjong differ slightly, depending on regional variations. However, the game play in general is very similar in all versions of Mahjong: players compete to build sets including the highest point value.
The object of the game of Mahjong is to build complete suits (usually of threes) from either 13 or 16 tiles. The first person to achieve this goal is said to have won the game. The winning tile completes the set of either 14 or 17 tiles.
The more common types of Mahjong include:
- Chinese Traditional Mahjong – oldest type of Mahjong; introduced to America in the 1920’s.
- Hong Kong Mahjong (also Cantonese Mahjong) – most common form of Mahjong; very similar to the Chinese Traditional
- Japanese Mahjong – most common Mahjong found in Japan, and can also be seen in video/arcade games; Japanese Mahjong uses riichi and dora rules.
- Western Classical Mahjong – descendant of the version of Mahjong introduced to America in the 1920s; uses the Wright-Patterson rules.
- American Mahjong – form of Mahjong standardized by the National Mah Jongg League; has the greatest divergence from traditional Mahjong, with the introduction of Joker tiles, the Charleston, as well as melds of five or more tiles, and eschewing the Chow and the notion of a standard hand.
- Other variants include Fujian Mahjong (with Dadi Joker), Taiwanese Mahjong (each player would have 16 tiles), Vietnamese Mahjong (with 16 different kinds of joker), and Filipino Mahjong (with Window Joker).
In Japan, Mahjong arcade machines have been developed which can be connected to others over the Internet, allowing play against computer or human opponents.
In the interest of changing Mahjong from an illegal gambling game to an approved ‘healthy sport’, a new set of rules were published in 1998, now referred to as International Tournament rules. The rule principles are: no gambling – no drinking – no smoking. The governing bodies of Mahjong now often host exhibition games and tournaments.
In 2002 the first World Championship in Mahjong was organized by the Mahjong Museum, the Japan Mahjong Organizing Committee and the city council of Ningbo, China. One hundred players participated, mainly from Japan and China, but also from Europe and the United States. Miss Mai Hatsune from Japan became the first world champion.
In 2005, in the Netherlands, the first Open European Mahjong Championship was held, with 108 players. The first prize was won by Masato Chiba from Japan.
The popularity and demographic classification of Mahjong players today differs from country to country. However, Mahjong culture is still deeply ingrained in the Chinese community. Chinese movies have always included scenes of mahjong games. Mahjong Movie is a subgenre of Chinese gambling films that focuses on Mahjong games and over-the-top tile-playing skills – the movies are often released during the Chinese New Year.
A set of Mahjong tiles differs from place to place, utilising at least 136 tiles usually and 144 most commonly, although sets originating from America or Japan will have more. Mahjong tiles include:
- Circle suit – named as each tile consists of a number of circles; each circle represents copper (tong) coins with a square hole in the middle.
- Bamboo suit – named as each tile (except the 1 Bamboo) consists of a number of bamboo sticks; each stick represents a string (suo) that holds a hundred coins.
- Character suit – named as each tile represents ten thousand (wan) coins, or one hundred strings of one hundred coins.
- Wind tiles – East, South, West, and North.
- Dragon tiles – red, green, and white.
- Flower tiles – typically optional components to a set of mahjong tiles; often contain artwork.
When setting up the board to play Mahjong, shuffling of the Mahjong tiles is needed before piling around the table. All players throw three dice and the one with the highest total would be the dealer. Players pick up their own tiles after rolling the dice.
Scoring in Mahjong involves points, and when gambling with Mahjong scores are often directly translated into sums of money. Poker chips are used in transaction throughout the playout.
Points are obtained by matching the winning hand and the winning condition with a specific set of criteria, with different criteria scoring different values. The points obtained may be translated into scores for each player.
A player wins a Mahjong round by creating a standard mahjong hand. Some variations may also require that winning hands be of some point value. A full game of Mahjong ends after 4 rounds.