Posted by: sea2stars | May 18, 2010

Mahjong 麻將

I love the randomness that is Taiwan. When I first came I was at a scooter shop trying to get my oil changed. As I tried to pantomime what I wanted, this girl came up to me and helped me explain to them what I needed. Her English wasn’t great but she mostly understood me and I usually figured out what she was trying to say to me. We exchanged numbers and went out a few times for language exchange but our schedules got busy and we lost touch.

This weekend I went down to the burger joint, across the street from where I live, to get a quick refreshing smoothy and I ran into her again. She was having lunch with all of her friends. They all spoke some English and I sat down with them while I waited for my drink. We talked for quite a while and eventually they invited me to come over to their house and learn Mahjong. I was thrilled, I’ve been wanting to learn.

Mahjong 麻將 is a very traditional game here in Taiwan. The closest thing I can relate it to is poker. I’m going to explain the game of mahjong here partly for you to read if you are interested but mostly so I can remember how to play it. In case I ever come across it again.

4 people play at a time. To determine where you sit you use 4 pieces that say North 北 South 南 East 東 and West 西. One person roles 3 dice. Whatever number comes up you count around the table from the person that rolled the dice and that person then picks the first piece and then everyone else picks. Whoever has north gets to decided where they sit and then everyone else has to sit around the table according to north, just like a compass.

There is no way to cheat in this game. They do everything possible to prevent this. First you turn all the pieces upside down and you mix them all up like you are going to play go fish. You then pick 36 pieces and make two rows of 18 and stack one row on top of the other. Don’t worry about picking carefully like you do in scrabble because you don’t get to keep your pieces anyway. Everyone then puts their stack at a diagonal in the middle of the table.

Someone at the table is the Banker. The bankers main purpose is to start the game and distribute money if you decide to play that way. Everyone gets to be the banker at some time. The banker then roles 3 dice. Again you add up the total and count clockwise around the table. That is then the starting point. You then use that persons stack and count the amount on the dice down the stack and you separate the stack. The person to the left takes the first 4 from the separation, then the next person takes 4, then the next person takes 4, and the next person takes 4. You go around the table and everyone takes 4 pieces 4 times. At this point everyone has 16 pieces.

I should note that it took them about a half hour to simply explain this set up process to me. It goes very fast once you understand it, but it sure is a lot of steps to keep from cheating.

Now you are read to play. Their are 5 categories of pieces: flowers, words, numbers, balls, and sticks. The flowers are only significant if you are playing for money. If you have a flower in your stack of 16 pieces you put it down and grab another piece from the other end of the stacked rows. You always keep 16 pieces in the playing stack. You then have numbers, balls, and sticks that all go from 1 to 9. With these pieces you can get three of a kind or three in a row. The word pieces you can only get 3 of a kind. The goal of the game is to be the first person that gets 5 sets of 3 and 1 set of 2.

The banker starts the play by picking up a piece. You can chose to keep the piece or discard it, If you keep it you have to discard another piece. Any piece that is discard can be taken by another player by a pong or chu. A pong is when you want someone else piece to complete a three of a kind. Once you complete the three of a kind you have to lay it down for everyone to see because you used someone else’s piece to complete the set. A chu is when you want a piece to complete 3 in a row. However you may only use a chu for the person to your left. Lets say you have a 6 and 7 piece and you are waiting for a 5 or 8 piece. If the person to your left lays down a 5 you can pick it up and complete the three in a row. If the person to your right lays down a 5 you can’t pick it up.

It took the entire game until I figured out the difference between a pong and chu. I’d say pong and then they would tell me it was a chu and I couldn’t have the piece.

So you play like this until someone wins. It’s actually a lot of fun and I had some beginners luck and won the first two rounds. They tried to explain to me about how to score when you are using money but it seemed very complicated and I was already tired from learning the rules with broken English. It has something to do with the flowers, the higher the number on the flowers the more you get. If you win a lot and then you loose you have to pay more to the winner. The banker also has to pay more if he looses. Their is something about regular money and special money, I have no idea what the difference is. Either way it was an enjoyable day and I got to learn a new game.



  1. i dont understand how to play mahjong 😦

  2. Wow, it looks really cool. You should definately bring it home! We can play for pennies!

  3. sounds kinda like rummy. bring it home. Try to play it a few more times so you really understandit =)

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