The beginner's guide to the greatest pastimes: Mahjong

A good vibes game of senses and strategy.

A good vibes game of senses and strategy

(Credit: iStock/Getty Images)

"Mahjong" (or MJ for short), translates roughly as "the game of sparrows". It's a rummy-like game played with 144-tiles, traditionally made out of ivory or bone with a bamboo base. The pleasures of mahjong are both sensuous — the feel and sound of the tiles clicking against one another — and intellectual. It is a game of great strategic complexity, demanding constant attention and analysis to play well. In fact, it has been shown to have many of the same cognitive benefits as chess and bridge.

According to Tristan Choa, president of the University of Toronto Mahjong Society, Mahjong's greatest trait is its capacity for bringing people together. Clubs and tournaments have sprouted up around the world. In 2007, a Canadian helped to found an international World Series of Mahjong which is played annually in Macau. The Canadian championship, run by the Canadian Mahjong Association, is called the "Maple Cup". Mahjong is also on the rise among young people. Universities are a popular place for MJ, with thriving clubs at U of T, UBC, and others


Some legends hold that Mahjong was invented by the ancient Chinese philosopher Confucius. Historical evidence, on the other hand, shows that the game evolved from similar card games in the late 19th century. It grew rapidly in popularity, being played by men and women, rich and poor, and in the country and cities. Despite its wide appeal, or perhaps because of it, Mahjong was often a target of criticism by moralists and reformers. For example, in 1927, a Chinese writer named Hu Shi argued that MJ posed a major social threat, in the same category as footbinding and opium! Mahjong has never quite shaken the early associations it had with gambling and houses of ill-repute. In the 1940s, the Communist government banned Mahjong outright because it encouraged gambling and because it was considered a pastime of the bourgeoisie. This law, however, was quite difficult to enforce and the ban was eventually lifted in 1985.

Mahjong arrived in America in the 19th century, and had blossomed by the 1920's. Abercrombie and Fitch were the first company to sell Mahjong sets, selling about 12,000 in total. Americans developed and play by a local variation of the rules, and the National Mah Jongg League is 350 000 members strong. Currently, Mahjong is played around the world, with major tournaments across Asia, Europe, and North America. It is also a popular online game.

What you need to know to get started

Mahjong is a lot like rummy. You draw and discard tiles, aiming to complete a hand with playable sets. However, instead of a 52-card deck, Mahjong is played with a 144-tile set. There are three main types of tiles. "Simples" come in three suits: dots, bamboo ("bams"), and characters ("craks"). Then there are honour tiles, which represent the four winds and red green and white dragons. Finally, there are flowers and seasons. These are bonus tiles, and they play a slightly different role than the other tiles in the game.

A winning hand is made up of 14-tiles consisting of some combination of melds or pongs (sets of three identical tiles), kongs (sets of four identical tiles), chows (runs of three tiles in the same suit), and eyes (pairs). When you complete a winning hand, you call "Mahjong!"

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There are many variations of Mahjong rules. In Canada, the most popular is Cantonese or Hong Kong style Mahjong, and we recommend starting with this. The rules can be found here. If you think that you might take this hobby very far, the official international competition rules can be found here. Ideally, however, you will find an actual person who knows how to play. Then you should just learn whatever variation they play by.

What you need to have to get started

You need a set of tiles. Mass-produced sets can be had fairly easily online at a range of prices, including quite cheap plastic sets. Some artisans in China still make handcrafted sets from ivory and bone, though they are harder to come by than in the past. However, the real treasures are the antique sets which can be found at auctions, antique shops, and the dusty shelves of grandparents. The tiles are so beautiful that they have even inspired designers such as Louis Vuitton to make ultra-luxe Mahjong sets. Much of the pleasure of the game, enthusiasts say, comes from simply handling the beautiful sets of tiles.     

Once you have a set, you just need three people to play with you.

What you need to do to get started

The first thing you need to do to get started is to gather three other people, open your Mahjong set, and start washing (shuffling) the tiles.

Many people begin by learning how to play from family and friends. However, if your group doesn't play Mahjong yet, you can also contact a local club. For example, the University of Toronto Mahjong Society welcomes non-students to join them to learn and play the game. Finally, online Mahjong is massively popular, and a great way to get started.

Top tips:

  • Have patience: This applies within the game, because you must often wait a long time for the tiles you need. But it also applies to learning the game. The unfamiliar tiles and rituals may make it confusing at first, and you are bound to make mistakes. Don't worry. You'll have the hang of it after a few rounds.
  • Don't separate your tiles: It is tempting to arrange one's hand into the melds, kongs, and chows that are already complete. However, separating your tiles transmits important information on what's in your hand to your opponents. Keep them together is the Mahjong version of holding your cards close to your chest.
  • Watch what other players discard: This can help you guess what tiles they don't need. It's often smart to discard tiles that have already been discarded.
  • Practice: Playing regularly is the only way to move from that awkward stage of trying to remember the rules and recognize the tiles to actually focusing on strategy. Like most games, Mahjong is a lot more interesting when the basic ground-rules become second-nature.

Clifton Mark is a former academic with more interests than make sense in academia. He writes about philosophy, psychology, politics, and pastimes. If it matters to you, his PhD is in political theory. Find him @Clifton_Mark on Twitter.