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#852Basics: A beginner’s guide to Cantonese mahjong

By Nicole Hurip 18 April 2020

Header images courtesy of Nicole Hurip and @sinitar (Shutterstock)

Mahjong originated from the Qing dynasty; a tile-based game of strategy and chance involving four players, similar to the game of gin rummy. It is popular amongst the older generation and remains an integral part of family gatherings and important celebrations in Hong Kong, such as the Spring Festival. There are a great number of ways to play, but let’s start with the most basic style: Cantonese mahjong.

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A brief introduction

There are 144 tiles in a mahjong set, comprising of three suits of numbered tiles, two sets of honour tiles, and two sets of bonus tiles. You will also need two or three dice and a Four Winds indicator dice plus holder. Chips may also be used to keep track of points scored for each game.

Suits

The suits make up the bulk of a mahjong set. In each suit, there are nine tiles in ascending value, from one to nine, with four identical copies of each tile. There are 36 tiles in each suit, 102 tiles in total. The three suits are: Circle (筒子, pronounced as tung zi), Sticks (索子, pronounced as sok zi), and Ten Thousand (萬子, pronounced as man zi).

Honour tiles

There are two sets of honour tiles, Winds and Dragons, with four identical copies of each tile. There are 16 Wind tiles and 12 Dragon tiles in total. The Winds consist of East (東風), South (南風), West (西風), and North (北風), while the Dragons come as Red (紅中), Green (發財), and White (白板) tiles.

Bonus tiles

There are two sets of bonus tiles, Flowers and Seasons. There are four Flower tiles and four Season tiles, with just one copy of each tile, numbered from one to four in the corner. The Flower tiles are Plum Blossom (梅, numbered as one), Orchid (蘭, numbered as two), Chrysanthemum (菊, numbered as three), and Bamboo (竹, numbered as four). The Season tiles, as expected, are Spring (春, numbered as one), Summer (夏, numbered as two), Autumn (秋, numbered as three), and Winter (冬, numbered as four).

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To start

The game requires four players, each seated on one edge of a square table. The dealer position is called the East seat, and each player takes turns being the dealer. If the dealer wins a game, he is allowed to hold on to the East seat until he loses. If the game is a tie, the dealer also holds on to his seat.

The seats rotate counter-clockwise with each game, and one round is completed once every player has held the dealer position. The rounds are also denoted according to the Winds, starting from East.

Seating arrangements

The game starts with determining who the dealer, or East, is going to be. The players choose one side at random, and one player (determined at random) throws the dice. Starting from the player that rolled the dice, count counter-clockwise to the number that is rolled. That side is the East seat, going counter-clockwise in the order of East, South, West, and North.

Shuffle one of each of the four wind tiles, face down, and stack them on top of each other. The person standing on the edge of the East seat throws the dice again. Starting from the player that rolled the dice, count counter-clockwise to the number that is rolled. That player takes the top tile from the stack, going counter-clockwise until each player has a tile. The player with the East tile will sit on the East seat, the one with South will sit on the South seat, and so on.

Setting up

Shuffle the tiles face down and start building your row, which consists of 36 tiles stacked in 18 columns of two. The rows are pushed forward to form a quadrilateral, with enough space in the middle for discarded tiles and space for you to arrange your hand in front of you.

Drawing tiles

To determine which row to draw from, East throws three dice and counts counter-clockwise according to what is rolled, starting from himself.

5, 9, 13, 17: Start with the row of the player who rolled the dice

6, 10, 14, 18: Start with the row of the player to the right

3, 7, 11, 15: Start with the row of the player from across

4, 8, 12, 16: Start with the row of the player to the left

You do not draw from the first tile of the determined row; instead, you will have to count from the right-hand end up to the number rolled, and start drawing clockwise from the break. For example, if a 14 is rolled, start drawing from the fifteenth stack from the right. Imagine that the order for drawing tiles go around like a train, where you draw from the beginning of the break all the way to the end.

Starting with the East player followed by South, West, and North, each player takes two columns, or four tiles, going around the table until everyone has 12 tiles (three rounds). The East player then takes the first and third tile on the top row, the South player takes the first leftover tile on the bottom row, the West player takes a tile from the top row of the subsequent column, and the North player takes the leftover tile from the bottom row of the same column. East should have 14 tiles, and everyone else should have 13.

Initial hand

Flip your tiles to face yourself; if you see any bonus tiles in your hand, flip them over and reveal them to the other players. Starting from the East player followed by South, West, and North, draw replacement tiles from the end of the tile train.

If you do not have bonus tiles, say pass or ‘please’ to indicate that the next player may draw, if need be. If you draw more bonus tiles from your replacement ones, wait until the initial drawing has completed the full round before drawing again, still starting from the East player followed by South, West, and North.

Usually, the end of the tile train is indicated by placing a lone tile or a die on top of the row, to distinguish from the beginning of the train.

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Gameplay

The objective of the game is to put together a complete hand consisting of four sets of threes, plus a pair. A complete hand consists of 14 tiles, not counting any bonus tiles you might have. The game ends when someone achieves a winning hand, or there are no more tiles to draw.

There are two ways to form the sets of threes: as a sequence of the same suit (上, pronounced as serng), or having three-of-a-kind (碰, pronounced as pung). The sequence sets can only be formed with tiles from the three suits (Circle, Sticks, and Ten Thousand), while the three-of-a-kind sets can be formed with tiles from the three suits as well as the honour sets.

For example, a sequence can be formed with One Stick, Two Sticks, and Three Sticks, as well as Forty Thousand, Fifty Thousand, and Sixty Thousand. A sequence can only go up to Seven-Eight-Nine; Eight-Nine-One is not a viable option. Examples of a three-of-a-kind set include three Eight Circles, three South Winds, or three White Dragons.

The game begins with the East player determining if he already has a winning hand, an occurrence known as a “Heavenly” hand. It is an extremely rare hand to have, so don’t be discouraged if you don’t get it. If the East player doesn’t have a “Heavenly” hand, then he discards an unwanted tile face up at the centre of the table. 

Turns go counter-clockwise unless a discarded tile is claimed by a player invoking three-of-a-kind, in which case the turn will jump to that player, and continue counter-clockwise. This rule also applies to when a tile is claimed by a player invoking four-of-a-kind (槓, pronounced as kong). 

After the East player discards his first tile, all players will have to evaluate if the discarded tile completes his initial hand to form a winning hand, known as an “Earthly” hand. This is also a rare occurrence and is only possible at the start of each game.

With each turn, a player can either: draw a tile from the start of the tile ‘train’ or take the tile discarded by the player on his left to form a sequence set, which you will have to display face up in your corner. If neither option gives you a winning hand, discard an unwanted tile.

You can only claim a discarded tile to form a sequence if that tile is discarded by the player on your left, but you can claim a discarded tile by any player to form a three-of-a-kind. In the case of two players trying to claim the same tile, the one going for three-of-a-kind or four-of-a-kind trumps the one going for a sequence.

When to draw from the end of the tile train

If a bonus tile is drawn during the game, it is revealed face up and put to a corner. The player immediately draws another from the end of the tile ‘train’ to replace it in their hand. If the replacement tile also turns out to be a bonus tile, draw again from the end of the tile train.

Having all four tiles in a suit is called kong (槓), which counts as one set in your hand. If your kong is achieved through your own means, either as part of your initial hand or as a product of drawing tiles, you may choose to separate it face down from your hand (暗槓, also called a hidden kong) and draw an extra tile from the end, or leave it in your hand.

A hidden kong can only be played if it is your turn, and only after you have drawn a tile. If your kong is achieved through claiming a discarded tile, you are required to have the tiles face up in a corner, and to draw an extra tile from the end. This is called an uncovered kong (明槓).

You may also choose to add the fourth tile to a pung if you happen to draw it, but remember to draw an extra tile from the end as well. This is not mandatory, as the extra fourth tile may be used to complete a sequence as another set. Note that you cannot claim a discarded tile and put it into your hand—you have to reveal the set it completes.

How to win

When you have a complete hand of four sets and a pair by either completing a self-draw (when you draw the winning tile yourself from the tile ‘train’) or by claiming a discarded tile.

At any point in the game, you can claim a winning tile by saying sik wu (食糊), which ends the game. If two (or more) players want to claim the same tile to declare a win, the player whose turn is the soonest takes the win. This is called snatching the win, or jit wu (截糊).

Sometimes, you find that you do not have the right number of tiles in your hand, either because you neglected to draw an extra tile when needed or you forgot to discard a tile. Having too many tiles is known as a “long hand” (大相公). Having too few is known as a “short hand” (小相公). In both cases, the player cannot claim any discarded tiles or a win during the game.

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Standard winning combinations

Basic hand (雞糊)

The most basic winning hand is a mish-mash of sequence and three-of-a-kind sets plus a pair, called a gai wu (雞糊), with the first character translating to ‘chicken’.

Common hand (平糊)

In a common hand, also called ping wu (平糊), every set is a sequence.

All triplets (對對糊)

In a hand of dui dui wu (對對糊), every set is a three-of-a-kind, plus a pair.

Mixed one suit (混一色)

With a mixed one suit hand (混一色, pronounced as wun yat sik), your hand is made up of tiles from one suit plus the honour sets (Winds or Dragons).

All one suit (清一色)

With an all one suit hand (清一色, pronounced as qing yai sik), your hand is made up of tiles from only one suit (either Circle, Sticks, or Ten Thousand).

Great Dragons (大三元)

In a Great Dragons hand (大三元, pronounced as dai saam yun), your hand consists of three sets of Dragons, plus any other set and a pair.

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Small Dragons (小三元)

In a Small Dragons hand (小三元, pronounced as siu saam yun), you would have two sets of dragons, with the third dragon as the pair, plus any two sets.

Great Winds (大四喜)

In a Great Winds hand (大四喜, pronounced as dai sei hei), you would have four sets of Winds, plus any pair.

Small Winds (小四喜)

In a Small Winds hand (小四喜, pronounced as siu sei hei), you would have any three sets of Winds, with the fourth Wind as the pair, plus any set.

Thirteen Ends (十三么)

Considered one of the most difficult hands in Cantonese mahjong, the Thirteen Ends hand (十三么, pronounced as sup saam yiu) consists of the first and ninth tiles from each of the suits (One Circle, Nine Circles, One Stick, Nine Sticks, Ten Thousand, and Hundred Thousand) and one each of the four Winds and three Dragons, plus one more of any of the above 13.

Ends (么九)

The Ends hand (么九, pronounced as yiu gao) consists of pongs or kongs of only the One and Nine tiles from the suits.

Heavenly hand (天糊)

In a Heavenly hand (天糊, pronounced as tin wu), you would have a winning hand from your initial hand, which is only possible for the player in the East seat.

Earthly hand (地糊)

In an Earthly hand (地糊, pronounced as dei wu), you must achieve a winning hand from the first tile discarded by the East player.

Points allocated for each winning combination varies from player to player, so as long as you agree on a metric for your group, you’re good to go!

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Nicole Hurip

Travel editorial director

Never content with sitting still, Nicole has turned her passion into a career. Hong Kong is her home, but she’ll always have a soft spot for L.A. and London, where she spent her college years. She loves exploring hidden places, hunting for cool vintage pieces, and talking to interesting people. Her vices include consuming excessive amounts of wine and cheese, a debilitating weakness for sparkly things, and spending too much time on Instagram.

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