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Vintage Mahjong Tile SetMahjong, Mah Jongg, Majiang - regardless of the spelling, it's an ancient Chinese tile game of skill and strategy similar to Rummy or Bridge.  The name of the game roughly translates to "sparrow”.  

Some say that the game was invented around 500 BC but the earliest archeological evidence  dates to the 1880's.  There are many theories about who invented the game including Taiping Rebellion soldiers, a Chinese princess, a Shanghai aristocrat, two Ningpo brothers and even Confucius himself.  Regardless, it is an intriguing game of skill, strategy and luck that has lasted through the ages.
In the beginning, the game was played only by royalty.  It was actually illegal for commoners to play.  In the 1900's the restriction was lifted and the game gained popularity throughout Asia and eventually made its way to European countries in  1920.  In 1923, the game was brought to the United States by a man named Joseph Babcock who simplified the game and standardized the rules for Americans.  Today, there are approximately 40 rule-sets being played world-wide.
Mahjong Tiles
Tile images courtesy of Martin Persson
Most styles use 136 tiles based on Chinese characters and symbols. The tiles consist of 4 suits with 4 of each tile including Dots, Bamboos and Characters all numbered 1 through 9 and Honor tiles consisting of Winds and Dragons.  Some styles also use jokers, flowers and animal tiles in addition.

Players start with thirteen tiles and the object of the game is to be the first player to complete a valid hand by drawing or melding discarded tiles.  Valid hands are determined by the rule-set.  It's much like building a puzzle with three opponents vying for the same pieces.

Following are the styles most commonly played in the United States:

Cantonese/Hong Kong Old Style: This style requires each player to gather four sets (three in a sequence [chow] and/or three of a kind [pung] or four of a kind [kong]) and a pair to win. House rules may vary slightly and there is typically a 4-6 point minimum required to win.  This style is the closest to the original way to play and is the most widely known. It is a fast and flexible way to play and it's the easiest style to learn.
Japanese/Riichi: This style requires each player to gather four sets (three in a sequence [chi] and/or three of a kind [pon] or four of a kind [kan]) and a pair to win. One of the things that makes this game unique is the use of red 5's and Dora tiles that can add point multipliers (hans) to the winning hand. Another differentiator is being able to declare ready to win (riichi) which raises the value of the hand and allows an additional wager. House rules may vary slightly and there is typically a 1-2 yaku (valued set or combination) minimum required to win.  This style has surprise and strategic elements that make it exciting and it is quickly gaining worldwide popularity.

International Competition Scoring: This is a set of hands developed by a consortium of Mahjong experts from around the world.  Tile combinations were taken from Cantonese, Japanese, British and European styles. Players are still required to gather four sets (three in a sequence [chow] and/or three of a kind [pung] or four of a kind [kong]) and a pair to win (with a few exceptions). This style is typically played by the Mahjong Connoisseur - one who sees Mahjong as an art form and has a penchant to learn all there is about the game.

American/National Mah Jongg League: This style was created by the National Mahjong League (NMJL) in the late 1930s. Each player uses a card that describes approximately 30 pattern-based hands. The card is published with new patterns every April and can be purchased at the NMJL website. The hands are arranged in categories like 2468, 369, 13579, and consecutive numbers. This style requires the player to gather singles, pairs, pungs (3 of a kind), kongs (4 of a kind), quints and/or sextets to match one of the hands on the card. Flower tiles are used in many of the hands and there are eight joker tiles that can be used for anything but singles and pairs. One of the elements that makes this game unique is the exchange of tiles called the Charleston where unwanted tiles are passed multiple times before the first discard. This style is probably the most common way to play in the United States especially amongst Senior Citizens and the Jewish Community. In my opinion, it is the most challenging to learn but well worth the effort.

  Tile sets can purchased locally at:

Judaica Corner
2185 Briarcliff Rd NE, Atlanta, GA 30329

Monday - Thursday 10-5
Friday 10-2
Sunday 11-4

Wright-Patterson: This style was created by the Officer's Wives Club at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in the early 1920s. It has elements of Cantonese and NMJL styles but uses Classic Chinese scoring. This style is typically played by Air Force dependents so many people have never heard of it.  It is equally as challenging to learn as the American style and is also worth the effort.

How can you learn to play?
Teach yourself how to play Mahjong but, be forewarned, this can be arduous.  Below are a few recommended sites:
Or, you can take lessons. We guarantee that this will shorten your learning curve significantly.  Mahjong Central instructors have advanced experience playing and teaching the styles described above.  Live public and private lessons are available within a 60 mile radius of Atlanta.

For those outside Atlanta, a list of teachers can be found at Sloperama.
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