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By Tom Sloper
December 19, 2010

Column #476

American Mah Jongg (NMJL card). I got an email this week from Judith O.:

'Suppose after arranging the tiles on the rack, before any passing, a dealer discovers that the self dealt hand is already a Mah Jongg??!!??!!! Does the "Mah Jongg trumps all" rule apply, or (gulp) must the hand be broken for the first *compulsory* Charleston ~ and the very sorry dealer-player be left hoping that the Mah Jongg comes back?'

This rare event, in which the dealer's original tiles make a complete mah jongg hand, is called "Heavenly Hand" (or "Hand From Heaven"). Heavenly Hand is recognized and awarded maximum score in the Chinese, Japanese, Taiwanese, Wright-Patterson, Western/British, and all other variants. But there is no mention of it whatsoever in the NMJL's official rulebook, and in all the years I have collected the NMJL's yearly bulletin, I've never seen anything about Heavenly Hand. In the past, whenever a player of American mah jongg asked me if she could declare mah jongg when she dealt herself a Heavenly Hand, I always told her, "No -- the rules say you are required to pass three tiles to the right." But sometime this past year, I heard somewhere that Heavenly Hand is recognized in American mah jongg; wish I could remember where. Possibly it was in a conversation I had with highly placed persons in American mah jongg. I don't remember for certain. Given that Heavenly Hand is recognized by all other forms of mah jongg, and given the unfairness of not recognizing it, it's reasonable to recognize it in American mah jongg, regardless of its nonexistence in the printed rules. That opens two questions:

1. How much should it earn? In other forms of mah jongg, Heavenly Hand earns the maximum score. At the lower right corner of the NMJL card is the highest-scoring American hand: 75 cents. If one were to apply the global practice of applying maximum score, the dealer who won with a Heavenly Hand would have to collect at least $1.50 from each player (since it counts as self-pick), and possibly $3.00 from each player (if the hand was also jokerless). I imagine most American players would rebel against such an expensive thing. More likely, the League (if they made an official ruling) would say that the hand earns just card value (doubled for self-pick, and double again if jokerless). And that's not unreasonable.

2. How about if the hand was complete after the first right pass of the Charleston? In other forms of mah jongg, a "second-chance Heavenly" hand is called "Earthly Hand." If the League doesn't recognize that, having to pass three tiles out of a complete hand would certainly be very frustrating! If the dealer found herself with a complete hand after the first across, though, she'd have no problem (no special rule would be necessary) -- in that case, she could simply blind pass, stop the Charleston, refuse the courtesy, and declare mah jongg.

FOLLOW-UP: After writing this column, I sent a letter to the League to request the official ruling. You can read the official Heavenly Hand rule in FAQ 19-BJ and in column 666 in 2017.

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Question or comment about this column? I often miss something; maybe you'll be the first one to spot it! Please be gentle. Email and the discussion will be posted on the Mah-Jongg Q&A Bulletin Board.

October 2010 article on American mah jongg's rise in popularity, from the WALL STREET JOURNAL: ?mod=WSJ_hpp_RIGHTTopCarousel_2.
There's a movie of the WSJ story too -- just click the Video tab on the above page, or go to ?mod=WSJ_hpp_RIGHTTopCarousel_2#articleTabs%3Dvideo.

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 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). Linda Fisher's website is the only website that describes American rules:

© 2010 Tom Sloper. All rights reserved.