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By Tom Sloper
April 26, 2009

Column #403

American Mah-Jongg. This weekend I taught "beyond the mah-jongg basics" to a wonderful group of ladies in the Coachella Valley (it's in the desert east of Los Angeles, the vicinity of Palm Springs). It's something I've done numerous times in numerous places, but it was especially enjoyable this time. For one thing, there was the fun trick I played on the ladies to make a point. I'll get to that in a bit.

The way I teach is by having four victi... I mean volunteers play, with the tiles all face-up atop the flat tops of the racks, as the rest look on. We analyze and dissect each player's hand. We step through the Charleston, and then play the hand. Situations arise as a matter of course, and as they do, I stop the game and declare "teaching moments." I talk about the situation, and we discuss. This helps drive the lessons home.

Anyway, to get to the fun trick I played. Its genesis came when the last short wall in front of East was pushed out. Someone said, "the Hot Wall."

Teaching moment! "Tell me about the hot wall," I said. "How does your hot wall rule work?" Several of the ladies talked at once, but I got the idea. If a player discards a "hot" tile, defined as a tile whose three siblings are not visible on the table, and if someone wins on it, the discarder must pay for everyone. I explained that this is a table rule; that the official rules have no "hot wall" or "cold wall" rule.

This raised a new question. "Then what's the purpose of the hot wall? Why roll dice?" I gave an unusually evasive answer. "I'll explain that at the beginning of the next hand," I said. So the hand played out, followed by the endgame analysis, and then the usual talking and tile turning-over. I stopped the action once the walls were built.

The player next to me, I said, would be dealing for this teaching moment. The dealer started to roll dice, but I stopped her. "No, we're not rolling dice this time. Someone asked why we roll dice, so let's not. Just take those four tiles at the end of the wall."

She took them, and I told her to put her tiles face-up atop the rack. The next player was taking the next four, then the next player... but I said to the group, "Does anybody see anything wrong here?"

A group gasp went up. You could practically hear jaws drop.

East was showing four jokers. "How did you do that?" everybody asked her. She pointed at me. "He did it." And indeed I had. While the players were chatting and turning over tiles, I'd taken four jokers and surreptitiously put them at the end of the wall to East's right, whispering to her to go along with me.

"This is why we roll dice," I explained. "If you don't roll dice to randomize where the wall is broken, it's easy to cheat."

Lesson taken to heart.

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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 in existence about the American game. 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).

Watch the video by Jay Firestone of the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles, about a young man (himself) learning to play American mah-jongg. You can see it at

© 2009 Tom Sloper. All rights reserved.