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By Tom Sloper
July 31, 2016

Column #657

This week's column was inspired by a question I was asked on the Mah-Jongg Q&A Bulletin Board the other day. A player was challenged on an error she'd made, and she was defending herself against a penalty proposed by the other players. She pleaded, "It was an honest mistake." This is a defense that's often set forth, not only in mah-jongg, but I just want to say a few words about how useless a defense it is.

1. All mistakes are honest.

By definition, a mistake is unintentional. Actions made without intent are "honest." defines "mistake" as "an error in action, calculation, opinion, or judgment caused by poor reasoning, carelessness, insufficient knowledge, etc." That isn't the entirety of the definition, but it suffices for the purposes of this week's diatribe. Nobody intentionally mistakes a 1B for a flower, hoping others won't notice (at least, I never heard of someone doing that). Nobody intentionally picks up an incorrect tile from the discard floor or intentionally picks from the wrong end of the wall. Mistakes are "honest," i.e. without intent.

2. Mistakes can be subject to penalties.

Games have rules, and some rules define penalties for incorrect actions. Incorrect actions may or may not be intentional. Unintentional incorrect actions are, of course, mistakes. Some mistakes have greater consequences than others, thus incur greater penalties. The "honesty" of the mistake is a non-issue.

A common mistake is to expose one's hand after another player has declared mah-jongg, without first verifying the validity of the other player's win. It's a minor mistake that affects only one's own hand (and does not screw up the game for everyone), but it still incurs a penalty: in official Chinese rules, 10 points must be paid to each other player, and the player must discard all the exposed tiles on subsequent turns; in American rules, the player's hand is declared dead, and she must stop playing. This mistake is "honest," but as you can see, there is a penalty regardless.

3. There's no such thing as a "dishonest mistake."

Dishonesty implies intent. By definition, a dishonest act is intentional behavior (e.g. lying, cheating). If someone lies or cheats, that's not a mistake. We sometimes hear criminals or ex-cons say "I made some mistakes," but should we therefore accept this usage of the word "mistake" into our lexicology? I don't think so. Unintentional mistakes are honest. Intentional "mistakes" are not mistakes; they're dishonest acts.

If someone makes an intentional "mistake" in mah-jongg, that person is a cheater and should be barred from the game, not just penalized.

To sum up, then. If someone challenges you for doing something wrong and indicates that a penalty is forthcoming, don't bother saying "but it was an honest mistake." Everybody already assumes it was honest.

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Need rules for American mah-jongg? Tom Sloper's book, The Red Dragon & The West Wind, is the most comprehensive book about the American game, including official rules not in the outdated official rulebook. AND see FAQ 19 for fine points of the American rules (and commonly misunderstood rules). AND get the official rulebook from the NMJL (see FAQ 3).

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© 2016 Tom Sloper. All rights reserved.