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By Tom Sloper (湯姆 斯洛珀)
October 21, The Year Of The Dragon

Column #542

I wrote in FAQ 8 about the way strategy changes over the three phases of a hand, and today on the bulletin board I discussed strategy depending on the phase:

1. Opening phase: DEVELOP your hand by removing isolated pieces. Keep your options open; much depends on what you draw. Don't spend a lot of time thinking about what the other players are doing. Focus on your own tiles, to see what your hand might shape towards. This phase moves very quickly; everyone is picking and discarding rapidly.
2. Middle game: ATTACK with your hand by deciding on a goal (choosing one option), and building your hand towards that goal. You can switch mental energies to calling tiles you need if they emerge. The speed of the overall game slows a bit.
3. Endgame: DEFEND your game by making sure no one else wins. While players are trying to keep their hands alive they are also trying to consider what their discards might give to opponents, so this is when the game really slows down.

When playing a type of mah-jongg in which the practice is for a player to place his or her discards in orderly rows of six, such as Majiang Competition Rules or Japanese riichi/dora majan, it is easy to visualize these three phases. Simply look and see how many rows of discards are present. One row: opening phase. Two rows: middle game. Three or more rows: endgame.

But in American mah-jongg and most other variants, the practice is to place discards haphazardly, making it less easy to determine at a glance the phase one is currently in. Another visual cue is the length of the remaining wall. Immediately after the deal, you can mentally divide the wall into three. Because dice can vary where the wall is broken, the phase lines are blurry (indicated by blended colors in the illustration below). And some variants use a dead wall, making the phases even shorter. In the diagram below, white indicates dealt tiles (and unused tiles in the dead wall), blue indicates the opening phase, yellow indicates the middle game, and red indicates the endgame.

In the diagram, I show the broken wall at the bottom; mentally rotate the diagram to place the phases relative to where you are seated.

From the diagram, a clear pattern emerges: at the juncture between the two long walls, you are in the middle game. Some time after entering the last long wall, you should think defense. Sooner for a short dealer wall, later for a long one.


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© 2012 Tom Sloper. All rights reserved.