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FAQ 1. "I'm interested in learning about Mah-Jongg -- could somebody teach me please?"

There is a lot of information about Mah-Jongg out there. You can look for it on the Internet by doing a search (your browser probably came with a "Search" button). For more on Mah-Jongg websites, see FAQ 4 . But I think your best bet is to buy a good book ( see FAQ 3 ).

But before you search the Internet or buy a book, there's a complication that you need to know about. Mah-Jongg is played differently in different countries. So before you begin studying a set of rules, you should make sure that you study the right set of rules for you. The major varieties are:

... But in fact there are around 40 known varieties of mah-jongg. See FAQ 2b for more on that.

Even more complicated: you can't count on finding out which variety somebody plays just by asking! It often happens that people learn (and are aware of) only one set of Mah-Jongg rules -- many Mah-Jongg players are not aware of the existence of any rules except the ones they learned! So if you ask a player "which Mah-Jongg rules do you play by?" -- s/he may give you a blank stare, as if you had asked "which Chess rules do you play by?"

Many players don't even know that there are other rules! FAQ 2 can help you.

And the books, for the most part, don't help with this confusion. Many books do not acknowledge the existence of other rules (except the ones described), and some go so far as to state outright that "those other rules are wrong." (In this writer's opinion, if people in one country are enjoying their game's rules, then there is nothing incorrect about that. More on the notion of "correctness" in the footnote.*)

Mah-Jongg isn't like other popular table games, like Chess, in that respect at all -- Chess is only played one way everywhere (please, I'm just talking about regular "Chess" chess, not "all games with the word 'chess' in the title such as for example Chinese chess" (which is a totally different game played with different pieces on a different board) -- you know what I mean), but Mah-Jongg as played in Hong Kong is totally different from Mah-Jongg as played in the United States, or Japan, or Taiwan... All the different Mah-Jongg games use pretty similar basic rules, but differing scoring and differing special hands and different special tile combinations make for differing play characteristics and differing strategies. You need to pick one rule set to study -- you could get very confused if you learned "a little here and a little there" and later found out that it didn't all fit together! (I should know; that's what happened to me when I started.)

The classical Chinese game became popular worldwide in the early 1920s, and all other known variants evolved therefrom. Hong Kong Old Style (HKOS) was the first known major variant to branch off. Chinese Classical and Hong Kong Old Style are equally easy to play, but the classical scoring is among the most difficult to learn. The new Chinese Official rules are used at international tournaments (with scoring that's even simpler than HKOS, once you have learned the numerous scoring elements). CC, HKOS, and CO appeal universally to both genders. The Western and American games usually require the learning of numerous special hands, and are played by more women than men. The Japanese game is more complicated and exciting, with an emphasis on gambling - it's played by more men than women.

So if you don't know anything at all about Mah-Jongg, you not only get to learn from scratch, but you also get to try to decide which variant to learn from scratch! See FAQ 2a for help with making that decision.
IMPORTANT: If you want to play Mah-Jongg with friends who already play, you should just study up on the rule set that they play, and don't even bother with FAQ 2.

Mah-Jongg as usually seen when played on a computer. "Your" hand is always at the bottom of the computer monitor screen. Opponents' melds are at the left, top, and right of the screen. Discards are placed in the middle of the screen.

If you want to play a Mah-Jongg game on your computer, you should look around (visit the publishers' websites; download a free demo) and see which product looks good to you ( see FAQ 5 ) - and then you should get a book about the rule set embodied in that game ( see FAQ 3 ). But there's a complication there too - some computer games that purport to be Mah-Jongg are actually not Mah-Jongg but rather solitaire tile-matching games inspired by Shanghai, Activision's award-winning series of tile-matching games.

A solitaire tile-matching game. The mah-jongg tiles are stacked into a structure (called a "layout"), and the player moves the cursor, using the computer mouse, clicking on matching tiles to remove them, with the overall goal being to clear all the tiles on the screen. A completely different thing from actual Mah-Jongg.

Just as there are many ways to play with playing cards, so too are there multiple ways to play with mah-jong tiles. Mah-Jong solitaire tile-matching games are equivalent to the classic playing-card game Klondike (often referred to as simply "solitaire" or "patience"). But mah-jong is a four-player game whose gameplay is not dissimilar from the playing-card game Rummy. In fact, mah-jong and rummy seem to have come into existence about the same time (mid-nineteenth century), and the one probably inspired the other.

So... If solitaire tile-matching software is what you want, then see FAQ 12. If you just want to play solitaire games with real mah-jong tiles, see FAQ 13.

American players wanting to learn the "common" Western/British game (as opposed to the NMJL game which requires a special card which changes from year to year) from a book would be best advised to get the Strauser & Evans book ( see FAQ 3 ), since it's the easiest one to find. That or the Thompson & Maloney books (also informative, and easy to find). However, Western/British rules are a little harder to learn than basic Chinese rules (there is more to learn in the Western/British game).

It is highly recommended that you learn the basics to get started. See FAQ 10 for simple basic rules to get you started. The simplified rules in FAQ 10 don't go into the scoring (which is where things start getting complicated).

To find teachers and other players, see FAQ 4a (Selected Links) and FAQ 15 (How to Find Players & Teachers) and use the Find Players Bulletin Board (read it first, see if folks in your area have posted -- then send in your own post).

- - - - - - - - - - footnote:
* Some people believe that the only "correct" rules for Mah-Jongg are "the original" rules. Unfortunately, nobody knows the exact "original rules" because they were never documented in writing. The oldest known, most authentic and original, best-documented, rules are the Chinese Classical rules. There's at least one stubborn holdout who disagrees, saying that Hong Kong Old Style (HKOS) deserves the honor of being called "the original rules." But although dozens of books were written about CC in the 1920s, no known description of HKOS was written earlier than the 1960s. If you want to learn the "original" rules, this writer recommends Chinese Classical. But CC scoring was unnecessarily complex, in this writer's opinion - and this led to the development of Hong Kong Old Style (and the other variants since). If you are just starting out, with any variant except American mah-jongg, the easiest way is to read FAQ 10 for some simplified rules for Asian-style Mah-Jongg ("Mah-Jongg For Dummies").

The purpose of these FAQs is to provide answers to the most Frequently Asked Questions (that's why they're called FAQs).
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Archive-name: mjfaq01.htm
Newsgroups:;; tw.bbs.rec.mj
Posting-frequency: twice monthly or every 2 weeks or so
Last-modified: June 27, 2002
Version: 2.05

Update Log:

October 26, 1999 - changed "Filipino" to "Philippine" and distinguished that game from the Taiwanese.
April 12, 2000 -- added Official Chinese game; modified American.
September 29, 2000 -- changed FAQ URL from to
December 8, 2000 -- changed FAQ URL from to
September 16, 2001 -- slight modification to FAQ URL
December 14, 2001 -- converted FAQ to HTML format; incorporated links to other pages on this site; touchups here and there.
June 27, 2002 -- henceforth, all updates are logged at log.html.

Last updated June 1, 2009

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