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By Tom Sloper
February 20, 2011

Column #480

American Mah Jongg (2010 NMJL card). Many beginners have learned to play from books, or have been taught by players who themselves were taught by players who had imperfect understanding of the rules. The result: there is confusion among many new players as to proper table practice for the basic opening of each player's turn: picking a tile from the wall. Picture a group of four people, each with different methods.

Esther was taught to "pickandrack" quickly, and to tap the tile on the upper surface of her rack before looking at it. She believes speed is necessary because once she touches the tile, it's hers. Sometimes that tile is a joker, after all, and it wouldn't do to have to put a joker back for somebody else to take. Her strategy: don't let anybody else have a joker. She doesn't understand that (1) pickandrack is inconsiderate, and (2) that tapping does not close the window of opportunity on the live discard.

Nora was taught to decide what tile to discard before she picks, so as to keep the game moving quickly. She rests one hand inside the wall, and starts reaching for the wall while the previous player is reaching to discard. Then she picks with one hand and simultaneously discards with the other. Way to keep the game moving quickly, Nora!

Wesley takes a more leisurely approach. When the previous player has discarded, Wes pauses a beat so that another player can call for the discard, then picks from the wall and looks at the picked tile. When he decides he wants to keep it, he stands it on his NMJL card while discarding a tile from the hand. Then he places the taken tile among his racked tiles.

Sonya is the oldest player in the group, and has been playing the longest. She was taught her mother's way to play: with a future tile. In her method, each non-dealer is dealt a fourteenth tile, which she lays face-down atop her rack. Then when it's her turn, she discards a tile from her visible racked tiles and then picks a tile from the wall, laying it face-down atop her rack, and puts the old face-down tile into her hand. Some players believe this makes for quicker play.

It would be fun to watch players like this play together for the first time, especially if it's a tournament; Sonya will get herself called dead, and arguments are bound to break out over two things: (a) The faster players may well get irked when the game slows down every time it comes to Wes's turn; (b) Because some players are so intent on making the game go quickly, slower players have difficulty ever calling a discard.

While it may be true that there's nothing wrong with playing variations on the rules, everyone at a table needs to play the same way. At tournaments, one plays the tournament's rules. The first time joining a new group, one needs to learn the table's rules. Often, people forget that not everyone plays their way; the process of remembering that little fact can lead to some preventable disharmony.

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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:

© 2011 Tom Sloper. All rights reserved.