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By Tom Sloper

March 18, 2007
Column #310

American Mah-Jongg. This column was prompted by a question on the Q&A Bulletin Board this week. Bill Nachenberg, co-host of last weekend's tournament at Temple Ahavat Shalom in Northridge, CA, reported on a strange occurrence, which of course prompted a strange question.

A player threw a tile, then realized that she herself needed to claim that selfsame discarded tile! She tried to claim it after discarding it, and the other players objected, asking for a judge's ruling. The player reasoned, "Anybody can claim a discard. And that includes me." Bill's wife, Judi, and the other players at the table "just laughed it off," Bill says. But when Bill was asked for a second opinion, he said he'd look into it. So he asked me what I think.

I replied that it wasn't a question of what I think: "It's a question of what the NMJL says. And the NMJL has made a clear ruling on this. Rule 7 on page 18 of your rulebook," I replied. Once a player has discarded a tile, she may not take it back. "Down is dead." In my book, which is coming out in June from HarperCollins, I call this one of several "change of heart" rules. Only in American mah-jongg, it seems, does it frequently occur that a player asks to undo a move she'd just made. The NMJL has had to come up with rules governing when a "change of heart" retraction is permissible. Those rules are stated in either the official NMJL rulebook, "Mah Jongg Made Easy" (available only directly from the NMJL in New York), or the yearly January bulletin. Everyone should keep the yearly bulletins, because they effectively serve as updates to the rulebook (which hasn't actually been updated since 1984).

Bill argued, "but the lady doesn't want to take it back -- she wants to call it."

My response: "Hogwash. She blundered, and she's floating a new rule so she can recover from her stupid move." Imagine for a moment that the tile had been needed for mah-jongg, not for a simple exposure. And imagine this happened in a home game instead of at a tournament. If she declared win by self-pick on the tile, she'd collect 50 from each player (total, $1.50). But once she discards the tile and claims it herself, the other three players only pay her 25. Then she has to pay herself 50 for throwing the tile, so she puts out 50 with her left hand, and puts it into her own right hand. It's ludicrous, and the NMJL has made a rule preventing such, um, "ludicrosity." The rule is, "Down is dead." But the discarded tile is not, in fact, dead to anybody other than the discarder! Any other player may call it, if able. Vive le discard!

Bill and Judi Nachenberg are the proprietors of Mah Jongg Fun L.A. Their website is at Don't go there expecting to pull the wool over their eyes, though - you'd have to make a better case than this player did!


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© 2007 Tom Sloper. All rights reserved.