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how to play mahjong

How To Play Mahjong For Beginners: Mahjong Rules & Important Tips To Win Big This CNY

Mahjong rules

The game of mahjong needs no introduction – we’ve seen it in classic Hong Kong films, witnessed our grandparents at their weekend marathons, and now plenty of us young’uns have hopped on the bandwagon too. But for those who’re unfamiliar with the game, ‘fret not, as we’re here to help turn you into a mahjong master. 

We break down various mahjong rules and throw in tips on how to earn the biggest bucks. Pay close attention as this guide will contain all the nitty gritty details you need to know about the game. Now let’s get this party started.  

What are the types of tiles in mahjong?

You must learn to walk before you can fly. In preparation for your first game, you’ll want to familiarise yourself with the different types of tiles in a typical mahjong game. 

how to play mahjong - type of tiles

There are a total of 148 tiles, with 3 main suits – Circles, Bamboos, and Characters. Each of these suits run from numbers 1-9, and there are 4 of each number.  

how to play mahjong - type of tiles

There are also other playing tiles that you can incorporate into your hand. These are the 4 Wind tiles – East, South, West, and North; the 3 Dragon tilesHong Zhong, Fa Cai, and Bai Ban. Finally, you have the Flower and Animal tiles. There are 2 sets of the former numbered from 1-4, while the latter has 1 set of a Cat, Rat, Rooster, and Centipede tile.

How to set up the play sequence?

how to play mahjong - play sequence

Whether you’re a Superstitious Sally or someone who believes in the power of their own juju, seating positions can sometimes make or break your game. Just think about it – if you’re sitting next to someone who plays aggressively, chances are you’ll have to take one for the team and block them. 

The first player, AKA the dealer, will have first dibs on where they want to sit. There are various ways to decide who the dealer is, depending on the house rule. For example, it can be as simple as whichever player rolls the highest number on the dice. The player who rolls the second highest number will be the 2nd player, and so on.

how to play mahjong - seating position

Once the dealer has been established, they can choose their preferred seat. The first player is labelled as number 1 and East, and this will come into play later during the game. Following player 1, the second player (number 2, South) will sit on his/her right. The third player (number 3, West) will sit opposite the dealer, and the last player (number 4, North) will take the final seat. 

The dealership doesn’t always stay with one player – it will be passed on to the second player if the dealer loses the round. So if you win every round continually, you can retain your dealer status.

The playing sequence will also follow this order – meaning that once the first player draws and discards a tile, the second player will go next. 

What are the rules of mahjong?

Now that the tiles and you are basically one, it’s time to learn how to play mahjong. While there may be a handful of ‘em, you’ll come to learn that the rules are pretty straightforward. And hey, you don’t even need to be fluent in Chinese to understand them. 

game formation

To start each round, players will assemble all the tiles into the communal rows. Players 1 and 3 will build 2 rows of 19 random tiles, while players 2 and 4 will build 18 tiles. The dealer will roll 2 or 3 dice, depending on preference, to decide which common row players will draw their tiles from. Players will take turns drawing 4 tiles each, until everyone has 13 tiles on hand. 

Being the dealer comes with its advantages, as they will have 14 tiles at the start. They will start the game by discarding 1 tile, without drawing from the common row. Player 2 will continue by drawing a new tile, then discarding 1 to close his turn.

sequence of play

Each player can choose to draw a new tile from the common row, or take another player’s discarded tile. And if you draw any Flower or Animal tiles, you will have to display those in your “garden” at the front of your hand, and draw a replacement tile from the common row. 

how to play mahjong - combinations

The main objective here is to assemble a winning hand, and the 3 most common combinations you can form in a hand are: chi, where it is a sequence of 3 same suited tiles; pong, where it is 3 of the same tiles; and gang, where it is 4 of the same tiles.

But forming these combinations is not as easy as it seems. While you have both options of either drawing your preferred tiles from the common row or taking an opponent’s discarded tile, there are exceptions to note. Those forming a chi combination will only be able to take a discarded tile from the player before you. For pong and gang, you are free to take from anyone.

If you have taken a tile from another player to complete your combination, you will have to display your finished set in your “garden” as proof. That being said, if you achieve a combination by drawing from the common rows, you are not required to show your set.

How do you win a mahjong game?

how to play mahjong - example of winning hand
An example of a basic winning hand – 4 sets of completed combinations, and a pair of “eyes”.

We promised lessons on how to win, so here they are. The round ends when a player has put together a winning hand, or if you run out of tiles in the common rows. And the more tais AKA points – you accumulate, the more money you’ll win.  

Different winning combinations

There are plenty of ways to accumulate tais, ranging from the basic Ping Hu to the 13 Wonders you often see on TV. But before we list out the different winning combinations, it’s important to remember that the amount of tais each combination gets is dependent on the respective house rules, so it’s best to clarify and agree on the terms prior to the game. 

Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, here are the common winning combos you can assemble: 

how to play mahjong - winning combinations
how to play mahjong - winning combinations
how to play mahjong - winning combinations

What are the various ways to earn more money & tais?

Earn instant money

accumulate tai

Winning a round isn’t the only way to earn cash. There are ways in which you can pocket a couple of bucks during the game. For one, you’ll get paid instantly when you gang. Here are other ways you can collect moolah immediately: 

  • When you draw both of your allocated Flower tiles. 
  • When you complete a set of the Flower tiles. You also get an extra tai for each completed Flower tile set.
  • When you draw a pair of the Animal tiles – the Cat and Rat; or the Rooster and Centipede (‘cause you know, predator and prey). You also get an extra tai if you draw all 4 Animal tiles.

Increase number of tais

Besides collecting Animal tiles and your corresponding Flower tiles, you can also accumulate more tais to increase your winnings. Here are some methods you can use to boost the number of tais you have: 

  • When you pong any of the Dragon tiles. 
  • Zi Muo – when your final winning tile is self-drawn from the common rows, and not taken from your opponent’s discarded tile. 

how to play mahjong - ways to win
You’ll also get 1 tai if you pong the shared Wind. 

  • When you pong your corresponding Wind tiles
  • Men Qing – when you did not take any players’ discarded tiles throughout the whole game. Your final winning tile must also be self-drawn from the common rows.

How to calculate each game’s payout?

So you’ve finally won a round – good job! Or, you might’ve shot the winning tile for your friend. Regardless, it’s time to O$P$. While there are many payment systems you can adopt, the most common ones would be the 30¢/60¢ or the $1/$2 practice. 

There are also 2 types of house rule when it comes to payment – colloquially known as “Shooter pay” or “Everyone pays”. The former means only the person who shot the winning tile will pay. For the latter, all 3 players are required to pay, and the person who gave the winning tile will pay more.

mahjong payment system

Tips from avid mahjong players

Much like every game, mastering the art of mahjong takes time and practice. After playing regularly, you’ll start to form your preferred methods and the best way to triumph over your opponents. To help speed up the process, we’ve compiled several tried-and-tested tips from long-time mahjong players for your consideration:

  • If you want to go for Ping Hu, weigh out the odds by checking how many Flower tiles have appeared on the table. If there are very few, it means that there is a high chance you will kena a Flower tile. While Flower tiles aren’t necessarily bad, it does reduce your hand to a Smelly Ping Hu – which has fewer tais.

how to play mahjong - tips on how to win
If you choose to gang 7 Characters, then you won’t have any more to complete your 8 and 9 Character tile set. 

  • For Circle, Bamboo, and Character suits, take a moment to consider before you gang as sometimes keeping the 4th tile will help to build your chi sets.
  • If you’re desperate to earn quick cash, prioritise retaining your dealership when it’s your turn – go for 1 tai instead of building up to 5 tais because you can keep enjoying the advantages of a dealer.

how to play mahjong - tips

  • During gameplay, rearrange your tiles occasionally so you can experiment with different combinations and choose the one that maximises your winnings. 

Huat big & slay your mahjong kakis

how to play mahjong

There you have it – the survival guide to mahjong, and to CNY. And while there are various versions of mahjong, this one covers the Singapore Mahjong styles and rules which can differ from the other variations. So before you start any game, remember to clarify with your opponents on their style of playing. 

And yes, we know – mahjong can seem daunting at first. If it helps, there are also other resources you can use including Facebook groups and Telegram channels like The Mahjong Diary that have open-ended discussions about more complex rules and playing styles. Time to impress your ah gong and ah ma this CNY. 

More games for you and the gang to enjoy:

Photography by Afiqah Amir.
Article originally published on 20th January 2023. Last updated on 7th February 2024.