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By Tom Sloper (湯姆 斯洛珀)
June 19, The Year Of The Rabbit
Column #492

General Interest. A player of American mah-jongg asked me this week, "how are the blank tiles used in play?" My problem was, I don't know exactly why she asked. Maybe she had acquired a Japanese set or an old Chinese set (in which the blanks are the white dragons), or maybe she'd gotten a new set that came with extra blank tiles. But I had a couple of tricks up my sleeve that could help, either way: the FAQs, and the Big Square.

Not knowing the reason for the question, I referred her to FAQs 7A (Types of Mah-Jongg Sets), 7B (Is My Set Complete), and 7E (Mystery Tiles). And I showed her the Big Square diagram from my book.

I use the Big Square at the very beginning of my lessons when I teach new players. It's also a useful tool for players who buy a new set. It would be a mistake to simply open a new set, dump the tiles on the table, build walls, and start to play. Why? Firstly, because many manufacturers put extra tiles in the set. A new set might have extra jokers, extra flowers, and/or blank tiles. Secondly, because it might be the wrong kind of set (it might not have the tiles needed for a particular mah-jongg variant). Thirdly, because making the Big Square helps the set's new owner identify differently-designed tiles in the set.

Once you've made your Big Square as shown here, if you have any tiles left over, those tiles are not used in American play. American mah-jongg uses only 8 flowers and 8 jokers, and only 4 (not 8) white dragons (total: 152 tiles). Any extra tiles can be placed in a baggie so you don't accidentally put them on the table when starting to play.

Players of "un-American" variants take note: simply take the jokers out if you play a variant that doesn't use them. And you might even need to take out the flowers, too. Read those FAQs!


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