Guide on How to Play Mahjong: Basic Rules, Variations, & Strategies

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Want to learn how to play mahjong? Then you’ve come to the right guide! Mahjong is a game that originated in ancient China. Also known as Majiang in Pinyin, this tile-based game is unbelievably fun with high stakes. A game of both luck and skill, Mahjong is a game with depth and complexity. In fact, many elders even say that they can tell the personality of a person from the way they play mahjong!

Mahjong is so popular that there is a saying that goes “In a population of one billion, 900 million are playing mahjong while the other 100 million watch the game (十亿人民九亿麻,还有一亿在观察). In this guide, we will be looking at the basics, rules, variations, strategies, and tips of this marvelous game that has withstood the test of time. 

Basic Rules of Mahjong

Mahjong is commonly played by three or four players depending on the variation of the game. It is often played in parts of China, South Korea, Japan, and Southeast Asia. Due to its popularity, this game has spread throughout the world since the early 20th century and has even been adapted into widespread online entertainment. 

Unlike mahjong solitaire, mahjong is said to be similar to the western card game of rummy, making it a game of luck, skill, and strategy. To distinguish it from mahjong solitaire, it is sometimes referred to as mahjong rummy. 

What Does A Mahjong Set Include?  

Generally played with a set of 144 tiles that are traditionally made of bone and backed with bamboo. However, modern sets of tiles can be made from various plastics. Featuring Chinese characters and symbols, there are some variations that omit certain tiles or add unique ones. The set is then completed with the addition of wind, dragon, flower, and season tiles. 

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Here is a look at the complete set:

Tile TypeTile NameDescriptionNumber of Tiles
SuitBamboosNumbered 1 to 9 – 4 of each36
Suit Circles / DotsNumbered 1 to 9 – 4 of each36
SuitCharactersNumbered 1 to 9 – 4 of each36
HonorWinds North, South, East, West – 4 of each16
HonorDragons Red, Green, White – 4 of each12
SpecialFlowersPlum Blossom, Orchid, Chrysanthemum, Bamboo4
SpecialSeasonsSpring, Summer, Autumn, Winter4

Note that the tiles in each set depend on the variation of the game. For example, parts of Northern China do not use flower tiles and season tiles, making the full set at 136 tiles. Meanwhile in Sichuan Province, players do not use dragon tiles and wind tiles, bringing the total tiles to only 108.

Getting Started

In most types of mahjong games, the game begins with each player receiving 13 tiles face down. Players then draw and discard tiles until they complete a hand using the 14th tile. Players can also win through a small class of special hands. A game takes at least two hours with most players likely to play 8 to 12 rounds per gathering. 

Reading the Tiles

Some of the mahjong tiles use Chinese characters that can be difficult for beginners to understand. The table below shows the Chinese characters and its meanings:

Chinese CharacterTile TypeMeaning
Characters suitone
Characters suittwo
Characters suitthree
Characters suitfour
Characters suitfive
Characters suitsix
Characters suitseven
Characters suiteight
Characters suitnine
DragonRed Center / Red Dragon
DragonGreen Wealth / Green Dragon
DragonBlank / Blue Frame or White Dragon


Typically, a session of mahjong includes the following rounds: East, South, West, and North. Each player takes turns being dealer. It is determined by each player drawing a wind tile. The player that draws “East” acts as the dealer. Players then take their turns clockwise. 

The Goal

The goal of the game is similar to poker where players make matching sets and pairs. To win at mahjong, players must form a combination of four sets and one pair. A “faan” is a point and players generally need a minimum of three points to win. Here are some combinations in the game to score points:

  • Pong or Pung – 3 identical tiles
  • Kong or Kung – 4 identical tiles
  • Chow – 3 tiles in sequence from the one suit

Based on these combinations, you can build a winning hand. These sets can also be made by stealing discarded tiles from the table by calling out the relevant phrase as soon as your opponent discards the tile. You do not have to wait for your turn. Once you know you have a winning hand, you can say “mahjong!”

Common Terms

In mahjong, there are some common terms that players should know. They include:

  • Charleston

Charleston refers to the act where during the first exchange, three tiles are passed to the player’s right. In the next exchange, these tiles are passed to the opposite player, followed by three tiles to the left. It is a distinctive feature of American Mahjong.

  • Jokers

Some variations of Mahjong use Joker tiles where it can be used as a wild card or substitute for any tile in hand. Some variations allow joker tiles to replace part of an exposed meld. It may or may not have an impact on scoring. 

  • Faan

A faan is a term that refers to a point. In Cantonese Mahjong, it typically takes at least three faans to win. To win, players will need to create mahjong hands that have the minimum base value required for the variant.

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    Mahjong Variations

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    Despite the many versions of mahjong that exist, most follow the same basic rules including how a player draws and discards a tile, obtaining a tile from a player, the use of suit tiles and honor tiles, the melds allowed, and more. Although mahjong can be hard to master, it is a fairly easy game to learn to play. 

    Here is a brief overview of the main variations of mahjong games:

    American Mahjong

    Considered to be similar to the card game gin rummy, American Mahjong is a variation standardized by the American Mahjong Association and National Mahjong League. It includes the use of joker tiles, Charleston, and melds of five or more tiles. Mahjong purists claim that this makes it a separate game. 

    Chinese Mahjong

    Chinese Mahjong is the official version recognize by China’s State Sports Commission as its 255th sport. Created to merge the rules of many different Chinese versions of the game, it was the first version introduced to the world to become the model for other forms to develop. 

    Hong Kong or Cantonese Mahjong

    One of the most popular mahjong variants, Hong Kong Mahjong is very similar to American Mahjong. However, it does not include joker tiles or Charleston. It differs in minor scoring details from the classical Chinese version. Another main feature is that it does not allow multiple players to win from a single discard. 

    Taiwanese Mahjong

    Also based on the classical Chinese version, Taiwanese mahjong has several unique rules that set it apart from the other variations. One of the major differences is the use of 16 tile hands instead of 13. It also features recurring dealerships, bonuses for dealers, and allows multiple players to win from a discarded tile. 

    Japanese Mahjong

    Commonly played in Japan and by the Japanese, Japanese Mahjong uses standardized rules and scoring guidelines often seen in video games. This is the mahjong variant that is sometimes seen in tournaments. It includes the presence of “riichi”, a ready hand. 

    Comparison of Mahjong Variants

    There are many other acknowledged mahjong versions including Australian, British Official, Canadian, Chinese Transitional, French, Dutch League, Italian Official, German, Korean, Mahjong Masters, Wilmington Advanced, and many more. 

    Here is a comparison of the different variations of the game:

    VariationHong KongClassicalJapaneseKoreanTaiwanMalaysian, Singaporean3 Player MahjongAmerican
    BambooYesYesYesNo or only terminalsYesYesNo or only terminalsYes
    Scoring BaseFaanMultipliersMultipliersSimpleSimpleSimpleSimpleAmerican
    Scoring EastWinnerAllWinnerWinnerWinnerWinnerWinnerWinner
    Sacred DiscardNoNoYesYesNoNoYesNo
    Melded ChowsYesYesYesNoYesYesNoYes

    Mahjong Tips & Strategies

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    If you are keen on winning at a game of mahjong, here are some helpful tips and strategies that may aid you in the game:

    Count Discards

    One of the most important mahjong strategies, players should count discards as there are four duplicates of each tile in the set. Since Pong is the commonest way to score, you should plan out your discards and keep an eye on your opponents’ tiles.

    Chows over Pongs

    Chows are usually easier to form compared to Pongs. If your draw from the wall gives you the possibility of a Chow, consider breaking up your Pongs. However, note that Chows are worth less in some point-based mahjong variants.

    Rearrange Your Hand

    Experienced players know the importance of constantly rearranging your hand. This is important as skilled players can analyze and read your hands. By moving your tiles constantly, you are decreasing the likelihood of your opponent discerning your tiles.

    Go for Kong

    If you are already lucky enough to have three matching tiles (Pong), keep an eye out for the fourth identical tile so you can “Kong” and earn bonus points in the game.

    Know When to Give Up

    It can be hard to give up your hand. However, be sure not to give out the winning tile by throwing out tiles that have already been discarded. Take note of the potential hands your opponents are building and calculate the points in hand to see if it is worth discarding risky tiles.

    Pace Yourself

    Mahjong is a game that consists of at least 16 games. This means that it is a marathon, not a sprint. Instead of going all out on all games, feel free to play defense when required and charge forward in full force when you have the potential of having a good hand.

    Have Fun

    Mahjong is more than just a game. For many players across the world, it is a game that promotes the bond between players. Be careful with your bets and bankroll and you will find that you enjoy the game more than the ability of making a profit.


    Mahjong Tournaments & Standardizations

    Due to the many variations of mahjong, a new standard of rules was employed in 2002 for the first World Mahjong Championship. This was done with the combined efforts of the city council of Ningbo, China; Mahjong Museum; and Japan Mahjong Organizing Committee.

    There are also Annual Mahjong World Championships that are held in Hainan, Hong Kong, and Beijing respectively. In 2005, the western version of the World Mahjong Tournament known as the Open European Mahjong Championship was held in the Netherlands with more than 100 participants.

    Despite the standardization of the game, it has not gained much popularity compared to the classical games. Purists have commented that the new rules have made the game more complicated while advocates state that the new rules help to set a specific standard for new players.



    Mahjong is an ancient game that has spread across the world. Developed into many different variations, beginners to mahjong will find that it is a game that is easy to learn but difficult to master. Not only is a game of mahjong fun, it can also teach you valuable skills that can be applied to everyday life!