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By Tom Sloper
July 19, 2009

Column #415

American Mah Jongg (2009 NMJL card). An alternate version of the incident described in last week's column. Arlene, Barbie, Charlene, and Darlene were playing with Fiona as the fifth, acting as bettor. Arlene made maj on Charlene's discard with this hand:

"Forty cents, except Charlene who threw it: eighty!" Arlene cheerfully threw her tiles onto the discard floor. Barbie and Darlene did likewise. Barbie, Charlene, and Darlene were counting coins from their purses.

"Who'd you bet on?" Arlene asked Fiona, big smile on her face.

Fiona knew that the bettor is not allowed to speak, but she is not the type of person who can remain silent when something is terribly wrong. "Everybody stop, don't pay her. The hand is wrong."

"What? Why?"

Arlene's smile had faded. "It's the top hand in Quints." She pointed to it on the card.

"Yes," Fiona said, "but your pair was twos, and your quints were ones. The pair and quints have to match." She pointed to the parenthetical on the card.

Arlene grimaced, "Doh! You're right. You know, though, the bettor isn't supposed to say anything."

Fiona answered, "Yes. But according to the rules, my penalty is that my bet is void, so I don't pay and I don't collect."

Darlene said, "Interesting. By the way, everybody has to pay me now."

Group outcry. Darlene explained: "Arlene made false maj, then two more players threw in their hands. I'm the sole remaining player, so everybody pays me."

Group objection. Luckily, the group owned a copy of a rulebook. The rulebook was consulted by Barbie, who said, "It says here that Arlene pays the survivor double the value of Arlene's hand. Double forty cents is eighty cents."

Barbie looked at Fiona. "Who did you bet on?"


"So, you knew that the penalty for speaking was the cancellation of your bet. You just didn't want to pay double along with Charlene, your bet-on."

"That's so sneaky!"

"It wasn't like that," Fiona flustered.

"Let's vote. Should Fiona pay Darlene?"

Let's stop there. Things can get messy, and it's unfortunate that the official rules do have some holes in them. The rule that a bettor's bet is voided if she speaks is a bit of a loophole. The sharp bettor could then choose whether or not to obey the rule, taking advantage of the penalty if she would have had to pay if she remained silent. But would her sneaky plan work? People do need to have a rulebook, but sometimes there can still be weird little snafus.

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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.