| Cold winter nights and tight budgets call for indoor social gatherings and game nights. But there are only so many puzzles, board games and Texas Hold 'Em you can play before the excitement wears off. The age old Chinese tile game mahjong (sometimes spelled Mah Jong) is the antidote for these spells of boredom as it is game for everyone that can be played into the wee hours of the night. For centuries, the game was exclusive to the royal class in China. In fact, for a commoner to be caught playing or wagering on the game was punishable by decapitation. Once reserved for the elite and wealthy in Asia and banned by the Chinese government in 1941 as a "consumerist game" it is now available to the masses of the world. Popular in the States during the 1930s depression, it is again gaining steam across the world. If you hear the jubilant yells of Chow, Pong and Kong accompanied by loud clamoring, don't be alarmed; it's just a group of people playing the Chinese version of Gin Rummy. What's so great about mahjong is that it provides fun and entertainment for the whole family and doesn't cost a dime once you have purchased a set.
How did this phenomenon get started?
All the theories seem to agree on where the game came from, somewhere in Asia, but none agree on who invented it or when it was invented.
In China, one theory that has been passed down for generations is that Confucius invented a draw-and-discard card game and called it mahjong, meaning "clattering sparrows" after his favorite birds. Archaeological evidence dismisses this claim because the oldest tiles that have been discovered are from around the turn of the 19th century, a good 2000 years after Confusions' time.
Another theory suggests that the game got its name from the ruckus and commotion that the tiles and people playing it make. Some they say it sounds like clattering birds.
Regardless of who invented the game, it is undeniable that it has evolved into a hugely popular competitive pastime.
What type of game is mahjong?
The rules change depending on who you ask, what country you're in and what books you refer to. But in the Americas and Britain, the rules are extremely similar to the domino game of gin rummy. Rather then black dots, various suits or images are engraved into the tiles. A local lumber merchant from San Francisco named W. A. Hammond introduced us to mahjong in the early 1920s and began importing the game. Since there is no patent on mahjong, it's impossible to tell how old the game truly is, but Hammond's merchandising of the game does mark a time when it mahjong became especially popular in the "Western" world. This is when the numbers were added to the tiles to make the tiles easier to read and speed up the pace of the game.
Part of the fun of this game is the sound the tiles make while being speedily discarded to the center of the table. The more anxious you can make your opponents the more likely they are to throw you a tile you need to potentially win the game.
Much like rummy, pairs and sets of tiles are what you need in order to win the game. And in some circles winning the game not only earns you bragging rights it also means winning the money pot.
How is mahjong played?
Each set includes between 136-152 tiles. These tiles were originally made of ivory but are now mainly constructed from wood, ceramic or plastic due to a trade embargo ban on ivory in 1970, to the delight of PETA and elephants throughout the world.
Each mahjong game includes four sets of three suits. Nine sticks, dot and character tiles make-up the primary suits. There are other tiles called honor suits that offer the players bonus points. Every set also includes dice and tile racks that keep each player's tiles private, just like in Scrabble.
Now that we know what we are playing with, where do we begin?
A game is played with four people, one for each direction and everyone gets to snatch 36 tiles from the center of the table to create a barrier of tiles. Similar to rummy, walls of tiles are made in front of each player. Eighteen pieces are laid face-down in a row in and the remaining 18 are placed on top of them.
To determine the wind or direction positions (and who goes first), each person rolls the dice and whoever gets the highest combined total is the person who takes the position of the east and is dealer for the duration of the game. The number the dealer rolls also determines which tiles everyone is dealt. Starting with the wall in front of the person in the newly appointed east position, count in a counterclockwise manner from the furthest tile to the right of east's wall.
Whatever wall is landed on determines the origin or "dead" wall. The dealer takes the first two stacks of tiles and then deals two stacks to each player until each has a total of 12; the dealer is the only person who will have 14 tiles. After this process is done, the dealer gives each player (starting with the north) one more tile so everyone else will have 13 tiles. The rack provided allows each player to keep their hands organized and private. The exception to keeping the hands hidden are bonus tiles, in which case must be laid out face-up for the rest of the table to see. If players have bonus tiles, they must pull from the origin point and replace them.
The person in the east starts the game off by discarding one for their 14 tiles. The game is played in a counterclockwise manner. If a combination using the tile that the previous player threw out can be made, the next person calls out the combination out and use it. They must then lay the set out for the other directions to see. If the tile from the previous person won't create a pong, kong, chow or pair they must choose the next tile from the dead wall.
What are the combinations I need to win?
- To win, a person must have three combinations plus a pair and must call out mahjong.
- A chow is made up of three consecutive tiles of the same suit.
- A pong is three-of-a-kind.
- A kong is a set of four identical tiles.
- An eye is a pair of identical tiles or a pair.
Honor suits are made up of flower, dragon and wind/direction tiles and can be added to hands to increase the value.
It sounds easy enough, but with speed being an important factor, you have to be completely aware of what your competitors are throwing out. If you don't, you may accidentally give them the winning tile which will cost you even more points.
Even though the holidays are over, you can still have family time around a mahjong game. And for those of who didn't get the perfect gift for the holidays, now is your chance to buy yourself the gift that will keep you entertained throughout the entire year.
For more detailed descriptions of how to play and win this game we offer a beginners guide along with a beautiful mahjong set that comes in an antique-looking leather carrying case. It is a great game to pass your time with and even better when you win! There are sets that rang from $35-$200 depending on the style and materials used to make the set. Now you know a game that you can teach your elders when they continuously beat you at Canasta and Bridge.
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