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By Tom Sloper

Column #751

American Mah Jongg (2021 NMJL card). This column was prompted by a question from Karen L this past Tuesday on the Mah-Jongg Q&A bulletin board. Some information she included with her question indicated to me that she must be playing with a group who picks ahead. And that pulled the rug out from under the answer I'd given her.

There are lots of people who, in the belief that it quickens the game for the better of all players, develop table rules called by various names: (1) "picking ahead"; (2) "playing with a future tile"; (3) "playing with fourteen tiles." It's perfectly fine to use table rules. Knock yourself out! So what's the problem? Why do I always have to reply to table rule questions like picking ahead with "Sorry, I can't help you"? Why does the League do the same? Can't I just find that rule written down somewhere in a coherent description that'll satisfy all questions? No. I can't. The official rules describe the game in a lot of detail, but nowhere is there a written description that spells out how to play with a future tile. I have never played at a table that picks ahead, and I don't want to, and I certainly don't want to play with futures at a hundred tables so I can collect the variations and derive some rough statistics. But there may be another way to collect such information; ask people who play at "futuristic" tables.

So what do we need to know... First, how many tiles do the players take in the deal? Thirteen, fourteen to the dealer? Fourteen to all? Something else?

Second, is the first play in a turn to discard a tile? If so, are there any other possible alternate plays, like declaring mah-jongg or redeeming jokers? If the first play in a turn isn't to discard, is it to pick or call? Or is it neither of the above? A brief description of how play normally progresses: dealer discards, then player 2 does what, for instance. (In the official rules, dealer discards, player 2 picks, player 2 discards, player 3 picks, player 3 discards...)

Third, how does a player claim/call a discard? Is the window of opportunity the same as in the official rules? (FAQ 19-C.) What's the procedure for not only the caller but other players who may be holding a future tile? Is there a reverse-pick sequence, replacing picked tiles back onto the wall? Are there penalties for errors in the process?

Fourth, how does a player redeem a joker when using futures? Do other players have to replace picked tiles?

Fifth, how do the "backsies" rules work with futures at your table? The League has spelled out detailed rules on when a move may or may not be taken back. How do the picking ahead rules get along with various "do-over" request situations (FAQ 19-AM)?

Sixth, what else do new players need to learn when joining your table and its unofficial rules? What have I missed?

I invite readers to send me your answers to these questions, if your group picks ahead. I'll share them on the bulletin board. Maybe we'll learn something fun!


Question or comment about this column? I often, um... intentionally... "miss" something; maybe you'll be the first one to spot it! Email and the discussion will be posted on the Mah-Jongg Q&A Bulletin Board. Hit me with your best shot!

Join Johni Levene's popular Facebook group, "Mah Jongg, That's It!" for lively conversations about American mah-jongg and all things mah-jongg.

Where to order the yearly NMJL card: Read FAQ 7i.

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, a good supplement to the League's official rulebook. AND see FAQ 19 for fine points of the American rules (and commonly misunderstood rules). AND every player should have a copy of Mah Jongg Made Easy, the official rulebook of the National Mah Jongg League (see FAQ 3 for info on mah-jongg books).

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