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FAQ 19
American Mah-Jongg FAQs

(Frequently Asked Questions about National Mah Jongg League rules)

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Sources for these FAQs: In these FAQs, after each answer given, I offer references for further clarification if needed. It's strongly recommended that every table have the official rulebook handy, to deal with those odd situations that sometimes arise.

Find your answer by looking for it listed in your question's CATEGORY (is your question about jokers? Is it about claiming a discard? ...).
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If you don't find the answer to your American mah-jongg question here, visit the Q&A bulletin board and email me your question.

Q: When is a tile down?
A: Per the NMJL rulebook ("Mah Jongg Made Easy"), a discarded tile is "down" when it touches the table OR is completely (fully) named, whichever occurs first. If you touch your tile to the tabletop, it's "down." You must say its name and take your hand off it. Likewise, if you say the name of the tile in full, it's "down." You must put it down and take your hand off it. The player to the discarder's right (playing counterclockwise) may not pick from the wall, and no player may claim the discard, until the discard is named (see the back of the card, middle pane).

Q: Can I change my mind after my discard is down?
A: No. When a tile is "down," it is too late for the discarder to take it back. "Down is dead." See FAQ 19-A above, and see FAQ 19-AM, below.
Q: Darn! I shouldn't have thrown it away! Well, can I call it back and make a meld or win with it?
A: No. "Down is dead." Well... The tile is dead to you, anyway - as long as it's not a joker, any other player except its discarder can call it. Nobody can ever take back a tile she just discarded, in any way, shape, or form. You can't make up rules to undo a blunder you've made.

See FAQ 19AM for more "change of heart" rules, and see FAQ 9 for the Tom Sloper philosophy of how errors should be handled.

Q: When is it too late to claim a discard?
A: The "window of opportunity" (during which a player may claim a discard) opens when a tile is "down," and closes when next player either racks, discards, declares mah-jongg, or exchanges a joker (new, 2020: or has merely announced a joker exchange). The window is also closed by a player claiming the discard and starting to make an exposure. (See FAQ 19.H.3.)
If you pick a tile from the wall and are just looking at it and thinking about it, or reaching with it anywhere, another player can still call the live discard, and you have to put your picked tile back on the wall. Read also answer #AT. If you need an even more detailed discussion on the very important "window of opportunity" rule, scroll down to the bottom of the page; also read column #458.

Q: Can I claim any discard?
A: Only the most recently thrown discard is available for play (and only while the window of opportunity is open) - all previous discards are "covered" (dead) when a new one goes down.

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Can I claim a discard for a 2021/2022/202x? Can I use a joker in a 202x? Can I claim a discard for a single or a pair, if it's for mah-jongg? These are related questions. Please read all three parts. Click your question:
  Can I kong a 202x or a NEWS?
  I can use a joker for ANYthing, right? Can I use a joker in a 202x? Is 202x a kong?
  Can I claim a single or to complete a pair, if it's for mah-jongg?

Q: Can I use a joker in an S&P hand?
A: Since, as it says on the back of the NMJL card, jokers cannot be used in a pair or to represent a single, it's impossible to use jokers in the hands in this section of the card. Any groupings you see on the card that are made of non-identical tiles are only grouped closely together because space is limited on the card.

Questions about jokers!
Q: (1) Can I claim a discarded joker?
Q: (2) Can I claim a redeemable tile? Someone discarded it and I want to take it to redeem for a joker.
Q: (3) Can I claim "same" tile when a joker is discarded?
Q: (3) Do I have to say "same" when discarding a joker?

Q: Who gets a discard if two want it for the same thing? ("Conflicting claim")

Q: Who gets a discard if one wants it for mah-jongg?

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Q: What does "any suit" mean when there are two colors? When there are three colors?
A: Here is the Tom Sloper philosophy of how to interpret the card:

Q: Am I dead if I put the called discard in my hand when exposing a set or when declaring a win? I was playing in a tournament and they told me I was dead!
A: Tournament rules are stricter than home rules. Every tournament establishes their own rules. Some tournament organizers say that you are dead if you put the taken discard into your hand instead of putting it atop your rack. NMJL rules are found in the rulebook, Mah Jongg Made Easy, and in the League's yearly newsletters. The 2023 newsletter states that the taken discard must be placed atop the rack, not among the concealed tiles. But the League says there is no penalty for putting the claimed discard in the hand before placing it on the rack.

The upshot of the rule is, "you're not supposed to do that." It's frowned on, but there's no penalty.

Q: Is there a limit to how many jokers I can use in a set? 1. Can I claim a discard with just jokers? (Do I have to have a natural* tile to expose?) 2. Can I have a set that's all jokers?
* (A "natural" tile is a non-joker tile; the League also uses the term "symbol tile.")

A: 1. No, you don't have to have a natural concealed within your hand prior to claiming a discarded natural for exposure.

When claiming a discarded tile to make an exposure, the exposure can contain any number of jokers. For example, if you have three jokers and someone discards a tile, you may claim it and expose a kong with the discard and your three jokers.

A: 2. Yes, you can have a concealed set in your hand that is all jokers.
So when you go maj, it is perfectly OK to have a pung, kong, quint, or sextet that is nothing but jokers (containing no natural tiles at all).

Of course, you can't make an exposure comprised of nothing but jokers, because you can only claim a non-joker for exposure. See FAQ G1. Someone has to discard a natural (a non-joker; not a joker) in order for you to be able to claim it. The rest of your tiles for that subsequent exposed set can be all jokers, as stated above.

Q: 1. When can I redeem a joker? What's the procedure? 2. Can I redeem a joker before I take a discard? Can I redeem a joker after I take a discard for exposure? 3. Can I redeem a joker atop my own rack? 4. What if someone gives me the wrong tile in a joker exchange?

A: 1, 2. You can redeem a joker only when it is your turn. When it is your turn, you must first bring a 14th tile into the hand [NMJL, 2009 & 2012], before you can redeem a joker. There are two ways to bring a 14th tile into the hand - by picking from the wall OR by taking a discard for exposure. THEN, after picking (or after taking and exposing a COMPLETE* exposure), you may redeem jokers from atop anyone's rack (including your own).

The proper procedure for redeeming a joker is to take the natural tile from your rack and hold it in your hand to the person who has the joker you want (you don't put your tile on their rack, and you don't put your tile on the table in front of them**), and ask them for the joker. Wait for them to put the joker in your hand and take your tile. Then you may put the joker among your concealed tiles.

Then, after putting the joker in among your tiles, you may discard or declare mah-jongg (either of which ends your turn).

. Can I redeem a joker atop my own rack?
A: Yes, you may. It says "any and all exposures" on the back of the NMJL card. And you do not need to verbalize the exchange, sayeth the League (in writing, per a Sept. 12, 2022, email from Judi Nachenberg on the Q&A board). You only need to verbalize an exchange from someone else's rack, not your own (see rule 14 on page 23 of MJME2020).

. Somebody redeemed a joker but replaced it with the wrong tile. What's the penalty?
A: If the error is spotted before the redeemer discards, no problem - just fix it. But once the redeemer has discarded, the incorrect tile remains atop the rack. The player who has the incorrect exposure atop their rack is dead. No penalty to the redeemer who gave the dead player the wrong tile in exchange for the joker. It's every player's responsibility to have no illegal exposures atop their own rack.

Q: Can I redeem more than one joker in a turn?
A: Yes. You are permitted to redeem multiple jokers (from any number of racks) during your turn (after taking a 14th tile into the hand, either by picking or calling - and before discarding). You can redeem as many as 8 jokers (since there are no more than 8 jokers in the mah-jongg set) in one turn! It's legal! Unlikely, perhaps, but permissible.

Q: Do I have to expose when I redeem a joker? If I'm playing a hand that must be concealed, am I prohibited from redeeming a joker?
A: No. Redeeming a joker is not the same as claiming a discard - you are not required to make an exposure when redeeming a joker. So of course you can redeem a joker if your hand is marked "C" (concealed) on the card. (By the way, have you also read answer AR below?)

Q: Can I redeem a joker from a dead player's rack?
A: When a dead player has jokers exposed on her rack, some of her jokers might be redeemable, and some might not, depending on whether the joker was exposed properly or not.

Q: Counterclockwise, clockwise? I'm so confused!
A: Beginners are often confused by the sequence of picking tiles from the wall, and also selecting tiles in turn. Players take turns in a counterclockwise manner (to the right), but tiles come off the wall in a clockwise manner (to the left).

Here's another way of looking at it: those two directions in one illustration:

There are two directions happening simultaneously - counterclockwise (the players taking tiles in turn) and clockwise (the tiles disappearing from the wall). During the course of play, players always take turns counterclockwise (even during the deal) - and tiles are always removed clockwise from the wall (even during the deal). And in American mah-jongg, players serve the wall diagonally into the center of the table as the wall is used up.

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Q: My group plays with the fourteenth tile, and a rules question came up... Oh, and I also have a question about the past history of playing with a future tile. Answer them one at a time, please.
A: I cannot answer any questions that arise from the use of illegal rules like "picking ahead" or "playing with a future." You are using an unofficial table rule, and you have to figure out the answers to questions arising from your table rule. Read FAQ 14. I have only seen two rulings from the League about this style of play: (1) rule #1 on the back of the NMJL card says, in all caps, "NO PICKING OR LOOKING AHEAD." That rule has been on the back of the National Mah Jongg League card since 1956! (2) In the January 2014 newsletter, the League said, "NO... The fourteenth tile does NOT belong to the Player picking only becomes their tile when it is their turn."

Q: I played long ago. We used to play futures all the time back then. When were futures outlawed?
A: "Picking Ahead" (aka "Playing With A Future," sometimes called "Playing with 14 tiles") has been against the official NMJL rules since 1956. As far back as 1947, the yearly card said "No looking ahead." As I noted in FAQ 11H, the phrase "No picking or looking ahead" first appeared on the NMJL card in 1956, and it has stayed there ever since.
On October 15, 2015 I answered a bulletin board question from Barbara B, who needed convincing that there never had been any official rule permitting "futures." So I dug deeply into Viola Cecil's early rulebooks, "Maajh, The American Version of the Ancient Chinese Game" (1938) and "Maajh or Mah Chiang; 1940 Rules." I also checked Dorothy S. Meyerson's 1946 rulebook, "That's It." Although I did find some odd wording in Cecil's books about the order of play, there was nothing that remotely suggested that a player could pick a tile from the wall before the start of her own turn. Picking the tile before your turn has always been, and still is, against the official rules. If you pick ahead in a tournament (if you pick from the wall during another player's turn -- before she has discarded), you'll be declared "dead."

Q: Two historical questions about jokers...

Q1: When were jokers introduced? Was it always eight jokers?
A1: Before 1961, there were no jokers. Flowers were wild, and the number of flowers fluctuated between 8 and 24. Joker tiles were introduced into the American game in 1961. The number of flowers and jokers fluctuated for several years, finally stabilizing at 8F/8J ten years later, in the 1971-72 card. See answer AI below, and column 509 for more on this.

Q2: I played long ago, and we could use jokers for anything. When exactly were jokers outlawed in pairs?
A2: As far as I can tell by checking the old NMJL cards in my collection, the rule that jokers could not be used for singles or pairs may have been introduced in 1984. But if you want to know for sure when that rule was introduced, you could ask the League.

Q: Why are so many players of American mah-jongg Jewish?
A: I don't have any hard facts on this, but I can make some educated guesses. From what I've been able to learn, some (but not all) of the founders of the NMJL were Jewish. Many of the women who joined the League and stayed with it and supported it were mainly Jewish women (or perhaps the Jewish acceptance of the game grew) throughout World War II. The League contributes a portion of its earnings to numerous charities (including Jewish charities).

As far as I know, the Jewish-mahjongg connection (the prevalence of Jewish players) is primarily an American phenomenon. Sure, there are Jewish mah-jongg players outside the U.S., but in my opinion the sizeable Jewish demographic among mah-jongg players is something one sees only in the U.S., where American-style mah-jongg seems to be the dominant variant. In other countries, where other forms of mah-jongg are played, the demographics are a bit more diverse.

In the 1920s the game became a fad in general. Eddie Cantor sang a hit song about mah-jongg ("Since Ma Is Playing Mah Jong") at that time. He was Jewish, if I recall correctly. So perhaps the Jewish connection to mah-jongg began as early as the 1920s.
It might have happened in China, when Jews left Russia during the 1917 revolution and migrated in large numbers to Shanghai and Hong Kong, or during the holocaust and diaspora of the 1930s and 1940s, when more Jews found refuge in China.
On August 2, 2016, I got an email from Karen D., who suggested that Jewish women played mah-jongg as an alternative to country club membership, since so many country clubs were restricted.
And, perhaps, as Bill H. suggested on Feb. 1, 2011, the Jewish/mah-jongg connection began on Manhattan's Lower East Side, where many Jewish folk lived near New York's Chinatown in the early 20th century. Right across the East River is Brooklyn. Even today, and even here in Los Angeles where I live, it's not unusual to hear Brooklyn accents among mah-jongg players. And, as Supreme Court Judge Elena Kagan famously noted, Jewish folk frequent Chinese restaurants, paralleling the Jewish/mah-jongg connection. Perhaps both predilections (Chinese food and mah-jongg) took hold in the Jewish community around the same time. The modern American style of mah-jongg (regulated by a central organization who issues a yearly card) did not yet exist in the 1920s. It seems likely that the Jewish connection really took hold with the popularity of the NMJL in the late 1930s and into WWII.
Author Gregg Swain has looked into the Jewish Mah-Jongg connection. Her website is

Q: Why are so many players of American mah-jongg female?
A: The majority of American players are female because the American game was designed by women, to be enjoyed by women. American mah-jongg is completely different from all other forms of mah-jongg because of changes that female players made in the game during the 1930s (and made official when the National Mah Jongg League was formed in 1937). The female players threw out "chows," restricted the hands to groups of similar tiles as listed on a card, changed the use of the flowers, and the NMJL issued a new card every year.

Q: Why are so few players under 30?
A: It used to be that daughters picked up the game from their mothers, but there was a gap during the 1960s. Daughters decided then that they'd rather burn their bras than play a game their mothers and grandmothers played. After those daughters grew up, had kids, and their kids left the "nest," then they needed something to do. So we're seeing a resurgence of the game among baby boomers. The majority of players of the American game do seem to be over 40, but a lot of thirtysomethings are picking up the game too. I guess the twentysomethings have lots of other things to do with their spare time, and don't see a good reason to socialize with the older generations.

Q: 1. How does payment work?
2. What is "pie"?
3. How do we use these plastic "coin" things?
4. How does "betting" work?
5. What if the winner asks for less than she's due?
6. Can I claim a Bonus double with one joker in Quints? Can I claim a Bonus double in Singles & Pairs?

Q: I hear Chinese mah-jongg is harder!
A: When you say "Chinese mah-jongg," I assume you mean "any kind of mah-jongg other than American." Because there are, in fact, around forty known mah-jongg variants - and more than a dozen Chinese variants! See FAQ 2B. Oh, and no. Those other variants are not harder to learn than American mah-jongg. American is the hardest to learn of them all. I should know - I've learned several variants.

Q: Is there a special prohibition against, or penalty for, throwing the winning tile when the wall is short and/or the winner had exposures showing? Is there a special prohibition against claiming a discard for mere exposure on East's wall (the last short wall)?
A: No. There is no "hot wall" or "cold wall" or "pay for the party" rule in the official NMJL rules. The official rules do not change when the wall reaches some arbitrary number. The last short wall in front of East is just "the wall" - there are no official special rules that suddenly kick in when the game comes down to the last short wall.

The official rules do not penalize throwing into exposures. Under the official rules, the discarder of the winning tile always pays twice what the other two non-winners pay the winner (the scoring rules are clearly stated on the back of the yearly card).

Many groups adopt a "table rule" to stipulate a penalty for discarding the winning tile during the final stage of a hand. Invariably, these table rules are called "cold wall" or "hot wall" or "paying for the party." Many tournaments penalize throwing the winning tile into two or three exposures; but these penalties are not part of the official rules. Other than the discarder double payment, the official NMJL rules do not stipulate any prohibition against, nor penalty for, throwing the winning tile, under any circumstances, no matter the number of exposures or the length of the remaining wall.

Q: What is a "cold wall"? And what is a "hot wall"? What's "paying for the party?"
A: See above. These are not part of the official rules. "Cold wall" is a table rule that prohibits either discarding or calling a "hot tile." "Hot wall" is a table rule that penalizes discarding a "hot tile." The rules vary. The definition of "hot tile" and "safe tile" vary, depending on the table rule. In some table rules, the term "hot tiles" (which has a strategic meaning - hot tiles are "tiles that another player clearly needs, or tiles that are otherwise dangerous to discard") is also applied to those that come from the last short wall remaining in front of East, but there are various table rules (again: all unofficial).

"Paying for the party" means that the non-winners who didn't discard the winning tile don't have to pay anything (the discarder takes on that debt, and pays on their behalf). These are all table rules. That means these rules are NOT part of the official rules as governed by the NMJL. Read FAQ 14 to learn more about table rules. And read FAQ 21 to learn about how some tournament organizers set their rules (which necessarily differ somewhat from the official NMJL rules, since playing for points in a competitive tournament setting is different from paying for coins between a foursome playing for fun).

Q: Must exposures be in card order?
A: It depends on whether the game is in progress or you have declared mah-jongg.
During play, experienced players don't need to see exposures to be shown in card order. It's standard practice to put exposures in order made (first one at player's left, next one to the right of that one, and so on), with spaces between each exposed grouping.
In fact, there is a good defensive reason for not displaying exposures in card order during play - while a newbie might wish to have the visual hint, the player who's exposed part of her hand wishes her opponents won't figure out exactly what hand she is making. Sometimes two exposures can be ambiguous, and that is an important part of mah-jongg strategy. So newbie players just have to "put up" with the fact that exposures are displayed in chronological order rather than card order.
Upon completion of the hand (having won), however, it is standard practice to organize the groupings in card order to aid the others in reading your winning hand. When declaring mah-jongg, just re-arrange your exposures the way they're arranged on the card. The 2018 rulebook even says the exposures should be re-arranged.

Q: Can a player call another player dead? What are the rules regarding death challenges?
A: In American mah-jongg, there is a rule that permits any player to call another player's hand "dead" at any time (a player does not have to wait for her turn to call someone dead). A player may make such a "death challenge" based on a number of circumstances that make a player's hand dead:

Q: Someone called me dead (pursuant to AA above) but I'm not dead. What now?
A: If a player has erroneously issued a death challenge, or if a player has erroneously denied a death challenge (which can be determined at the end of the hand), the erring player must pay 50 cents (double the value of the cheapest hand on the card) to the other player.

Q: Can I call myself dead? If I know I'm dead, do I have to call myself dead?
A: No, and no. You are not supposed to call yourself dead. You are supposed to play defensively until someone else calls you dead (and this is the wisest course, strategically speaking). However, I sometimes wish someone would hurry up and call me dead so I could do something less frustrating, like go get something to nibble on for a minute. (So I sympathize with those who would want to call themselves dead.) Video game players have a term: "rage quitting" is when a player is frustrated and turns the game off or throws the game controller down and walks away. When I get frustrated in a mah-jongg game, I might sometimes think about making a really obviously wrong exposure so someone will call me dead so I can take a break and cool off. But I have never actually done that.
If you happen to blurt out that you are dead, you aren't officially dead unless other players can confirm that you are dead, based on tiles visible to all on the table. If the others can't see that you are dead, you keep playing.

Q: Three questions about racking:
1. When exactly is a tile racked?
2. Tapping the tile on the top of the rack counts as racking, doesn't it?
3. I was taught to pick and rack very quickly, but my friends complain that I don't give them enough time to claim a discard. Well, duh - I thought that was the whole idea! Why are they being such babies about it? This is a cutthroat game, right?

For much more on pickandrack and the window of opportunity, click here or scroll down.

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Q: Do I have to use dots in a 202x grouping?
A: No. Read the NMJL card. Zeros are suitless. That means zeros can be used with any suit.

Q: Can I add to an exposure later?
A: Not after initially exposing and discarding, no. The time to add to (or subtract from) an exposure is before you redeem a joker or discard. Don't stop reading yet.

Q: How does the Charleston work? When can I stop the Charleston? When can I blind pass?
A: The Charleston was a dance popular during the Roaring Twenties (when mah-jongg first became a craze). Imagine that you have a dance card with two names on it, and you're going to dance twice: first Charleston with RALph (Right-Across-Left), and the second Charleston with LARry (Left-Across-Right). The first dance is compulsory and the second dance is optional. If after you dance with RALph you decide that you've met "Mister Right," you don't have to dance with no stinking LARry! But if you start to dance with LARry, you have to do the whole dance. So there's just one brief moment during which you can stop the passing: after completing the first dance, and before beginning the second dance. The Charleston is a group dance (four people all participate). Anybody can choose to stop the dance, but only during that very brief interval between the first left and the second left.

  • First right - you must pass 3 tiles right.
  • First across - you must pass 3 tiles.
  • First left - you may blind pass* up to 3 tiles, and now you have danced with RALph.
  • Do you want to stop the Charleston now? You or anybody else may stop the Charleston, for any reason whatsoever (and does not have to state a reason), before anybody picks up her second left. If nobody stops the dance after the first Charleston, you are going to dance with LARry. Once somebody has picked up her second left pass, it's too late to stop the Charleston.**
  • Second left - If nobody stopped the Charleston after the first left, everybody must pass 3 tiles left (this means you, too).
  • Second across - you must pass 3 tiles across. This is often the sticky pass!
  • Last right - you may blind pass up to 3 tiles. Now the dance with LARry has ended.
  • Courtesy - In the courtesy, opposite players may exchange up to 3 tiles. For full details on the courtesy pass, see FAQ 19AH below).

    *On the third pass (first left pass of the first Charleston and last right pass of the second Charleston) you might find that you don't have three tiles to give a neighbor. When that happens, you can give your neighbor some or all of the tiles passed to you by your other neighbor, without looking at them (which is why it's called "blind").
    **Note: If you stop the Charleston after the first dance, other players will probably get mad; it's a fact of life. But you don't owe them an explanation, even if they do get angry. The rules say you can stop the Charleston after the first dance, for any reason at all, or for no reason at all, and you do not have to say why. But I recommend that you do not stop the Charleston too often - if you make a habit of constantly stopping the Charleston nearly every hand, the other players are likely to ban you from their otherwise pleasant game. (It's up to you to draw a fine line between adhering to the rules and being reasonable and a fun playing companion.)

    Q: 1. How does the courtesy pass work? 2. Do we still do the courtesy if somebody stopped the Charleston? 3. She wants to pass two but I want to pass three!

    A.1.: The Charleston consists of three dances.
    - The first dance (R,A,L) is compulsory.
    - The second dance (L,A,R) is optional; it can be stopped by any player; if it's stopped, all players must stop.
    - The third dance (the courtesy) is optional on an individual basis; no player is required to exchange any tiles if she doesn't want to, but if two opposite players want to exchange they may do so, regardless of whether the other two are exchanging or not.

    A.2.: Cancelling the second dance has no effect whatsoever on the courtesy. It's not unusual to call off the second dance yet still have one or two, or even three, tiles to trade in the Courtesy. Even if the person who stopped the Charleston has no tiles to pass (in which case she and her opposite don't exchange), that still does not prevent the other two players from exchanging if they so desire.

    A.3.: No player is required to pass more than she wants to in the courtesy pass. If she only wants to pass two, you may not force her to give you three. Besides, you don't really expect anything new to get passed at this point, do you? Get real!

    Q: I have an old set that has 22 flowers. They don't even match. Why did somebody do that?
    A: As you can read in the timeline in FAQ 11, the NMJL varied the number of flowers and jokers for several decades early in the league's history. People had to cobble together sets to make the number of flowers required. They'd even take whole sets, paste flower decals on all of them, and pass them around to their friends. Flower tiles often didn't match the rest of the set, so a whole schtick evolved called "planting flowers." There wasn't any mystery about which tiles in the wall were flowers, but they would place flowers at pre-arranged spots in the wall - and probably apportion a certain number of them to each player as part of the deal. See answer S above, and column 509, for more on this.

    Q: What if there's no parenthetical? For instance, if the card shows N EE but there's no parenthetical saying "these winds only," then can I make a single of any wind and a pair of any other wind?
    A: Here are three principles about how the card is to be interpreted:

    1. When a card shows you some color-coded symbols like 11 222 3333 444 55 with no parenthetical, then the card means exactly what it says. Pair ones and pung twos in any one suit, kong threes in any second suit, and pung fours pair fives in the third suit. The numbers shown are to be used, but the colors shown never dictate suit.
    2. When the card has a parenthetical, the parenthetical might be clarifying the color-coding, or might be describing overriding exceptions or modifications to what the color-coding said. It might say "any 3 suits" (which would only clarify that the kong doesn't have to be the suit of craks but could be any suit as long as it's a different suit from the other sets -- not that any such clarification should be necessary), or it might say "any 5 consecutive nos." (which would mean that the first pair doesn't have to be ones). Principle 2 is that principle 1 can be overriden by a parenthetical.
    3. When there is no overriding parenthetical, then principle 1 hasn't been overriden - so principle 1 holds true; you have to make the hand indicated by the numbers, letters, and colors shown on the card. This ought to go without saying (there shouldn't have to be a principle 3).

    Q1: I read in 19J what "any" means in the parenthetical. But what if the word "any" is not used? For instance, a 13579 hand is shown as 11 333 5555 777 99, and it doesn't say "any 3 suits" in parentheses. Then don't the ones and threes have to be in bams, the fives have to be in craks, and the sevens and nines have to be in dots?
    A: No. Never. It means "pair ones and pung threes in one suit, kong fives in second suit, and pung sevens, pair nines in third suit." Always. The clarifying phrase "any 3 suits" is always unnecessary, in my opinion - precisely because the color-coding indicates the number of suits required, without being specific as to how the suits should be assigned. A three-color hand is always three suits, and the card never requires a specific suit be associated with a specific color. The absence of an unnecessary word or phrase does not have any significance whatsoever.
    Q2: Can I make that hand with just any old number of suits?
    A: No. Read the back of the card (the National Mah Jongg League card). 1 color means 1 suit. 2 colors means 2 suits. 3 colors means 3 suits.
    Q3: Same question, as regarding consecutive numbers. There's no parenthetical saying "any nos." but can I use any numbers?
    A: The hands in Consecutive Run are all "Any Consec. Nos.," except the top hand, which is "These Nos. Only." Read 19AJ (above) carefully. In all sections outside of Consecutive Run, when there is no parenthetical saying "any nos." then the indicated numbers must be used.

    Q: Can I "reverse-redeem"? That is to say, if I have a joker in my hand, may I put my joker in somebody's exposure and take a natural tile (a non-joker, or what the League calls "a symbol tile") from that exposure?
    A: No. You may not.

    Q: 1. Can I change my mind about picking from the wall?
    2. Can she change her mind about taking a discard?
    3. Can I change my mind about discarding a tile?
    4. Can he change his mind about redeeming a joker?
    5. She said mah-jongg, then she said "no, wait."
    A: Before I answer those "change of heart" questions, I need to say something about etiquette and table rules. Please bear with me. I will answer those four questions right after this.

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    Q: Who pays double when I win? Does somebody always pay double?
    A: Yes, somebody always pays double. There are only two ways you can win: by discard or by self-pick. If you take a discard to win, the discarder always pays double. If you pick it yourself, everybody always pays double. If you win by redeeming a joker, you picked it yourself (everybody pays you double) - nobody "gave" you the joker (nobody discarded it - you TOOK it, with a tile you picked yourself). If you hold onto a redeemable tile in the hand and use it to obtain a joker as your winning move to score double from everyone, that's called a "finesse" play.

    Q: When the card parenthetical says "Kongs 8s Only" or "Pungs 6s Only," does the use of the word "only" mean that you cannot use a joker?
    Or - the card says "Kong 8s," does that mean I cannot use a joker?
    A: No. It means you can't make that pung or kong from any number other than the specified number. Some parentheticals permit using "kong any even number," or "pungs of 3, 6, or 9," and the card designers deemed it necessary to clearly state that only a particular number could be used in hands not permitting multiple possible numbers. Jokers are permitted to be used in ANY pung, kong, quint, or sextet on the card. You know what "any" means - and now you know what "only" means.

    Q: My group doesn't roll dice and break the wall. Our way is better. For one thing, when you play with a hot wall, rolling dice randomizes the length of the hot wall (not that I know why that's a bad thing, since we don't use a hot wall in my group). Besides, it's easier and faster to just start dealing from the right end of East's wall. Why do other people think it's necessary to roll dice to break the wall?
    A: Because it's the rule. (2021) Isn't that reason enough to roll the dice?
    It's actually very easy to cheat using your method. The Chinese created mah-jongg as primarily a gambling game, so cheating prevention measures are necessary. When you know you're going to be dealing, all you have to do is put desirable tiles at the right end of the wall. In the modern American game, the most desirable tiles are jokers. Analogous to having a non-East cut the deck of playing cards, the use of dice to determine where the wall will be broken prevents one form of cheating.
    The practice of rolling dice was not created so there could be "hot walls" or "lukewarm walls" or "superfrigid walls" or anything of the sort (wall "temperature" is not recognized by the official rules - see FAQ 19Y, above). Rolling dice exists solely as a cheating prevention measure. And because it's a rule, you should roll dice regardless of the reason for the rule's existence.

    Q: I know that the X and C stand for eXposed and Concealed, but what do the terms "exposed" and "concealed" mean exactly?
    A: Concealed means "all concealed, win by discard permitted." And Exposed means "exposures are permitted."
    Whereas a Concealed hand must not be exposed prior to declaring mah-jongg, the player is permitted to make melds (exposures) from discarded tiles while the hand is in play if her hand is marked X on the card.
    A Concealed hand (C) must be displayed all at once when declaring mah-jongg, but an Exposed hand (X) may be displayed piecemeal.

    Q: Can I use a joker in a hand that must be concealed?
    A: Yes. If the hand has pungs or kongs, of course jokers may be used in those pungs or kongs. The only hands that may never contain jokers are, of course, hands that have no pungs, kongs, quints... in other words, hands that are made of singles and pairs only. (By the way, have you also read entry
    O above?)

    Q: How can we play with three players?
    A: Read
    FAQ 13A and column 532.

    Q: The Window Of Opportunity for another player to claim the previous discard wasn't closed yet. Does that mean I have to put my picked tile back on the end of the wall where I got it from, when someone calls the discard?
    A: Yes. Read FAQ 19C (above) and More about the Window Of Opportunity (below) and Column #458. You have to put it back on the wall, if you have not yet racked the tile, or if you have not yet discarded it (you have not yet touched it to the discard floor, you have not yet said its name in full), or if you have not exchanged it for a joker, or if you have not yet declared mah-jongg. You put it right back where you got it, on the end of the wall, for the next player to take.
    Q: Even if I saw the tile?
    A: Even if it's Sunday, even if the moon is full, even if you're playing by candlelight. You may have seen the tile, yes - but you have not yet racked, discarded, or exchanged it, so it goes back for the next player to take. The rule has been stated, without qualifying exceptions. It shouldn't be necessary for the rulebook to have to give 20 "even ifs."

    Q: In parentheses on the card, it says "like pungs" - what does that mean?
    A: "Like" means "similar." It means that the pungs must be alike. They must be of the same number value. The color coding probably tells whether the pungs must be the same suit or different suits.

    Q: I have a question about this year's card from the National Mah Jongg League...
    A: Read
    FAQ 16 (click here).

    On the third pass (first left pass of the first Charleston and last right pass of the second Charleston) you might find that you don't have three tiles to give a neighbor. When that happens, you can give your neighbor some or all of the tiles passed to you by your other neighbor, without looking at them (which is why it's called "blind").

    Q: It's okay to peek at the tile when I steal during the Charleston, right?
    A: Firstly: no.
    Secondly: it's not called "stealing." It's called the "blind pass." It doesn't make any sense whatsoever to call it "stealing," because you're not keeping the tile(s), and the name "blind pass" should be self-explanatory. (See... it's not called the "peek pass.") Read my
    column 353.

    Q: Does it matter where I place jokers within tile groupings, or put space between groupings?
    A: This isn't a rules question - it's a question of strategy or etiquette.

    Regarding placement of jokers:
    - In the case of exposures (on the horizontal top of the rack), it's a matter of etiquette to put the jokers embedded within the exposure, so all other players can easily see which exposure a joker belongs to. The goal is to maximize harmony.
    - Within the hand (on the sloping front of the rack), it's a matter of strategy. You should place the jokers in a place where you can most easily imagine them used in any of the possible places in the hand. Other players couldn't care less where you place them, since they can't see them anyway.

    Regarding spaces between groupings:
    - In the case of exposures (on the horizontal top of the rack), it's a matter of etiquette to put spaces between your exposures, so all other players can easily see what your exposures are. The goal is to maximize harmony.
    - Within the hand (on the sloping front of the rack), it's a matter of strategy to keep your tiles all together, without any spaces. If you put spaces between your groupings, other players can deduce clues as to what you're doing and how close you might be to making mah-jongg.

    Misnamed discard. For instance, a player discards a One Bam but says "Flower." The rule is that the player must say the correct name of the tile she discarded (she does not have to discard a flower; the League has said this, in print, several times, in yearly newsletters).
    What if someone wants the One Bam? After the discarder corrects her error and says "One Bam," the other player can claim the discard.
    But, what if someone wanted a flower, and that's what the discarder mistakenly said? Remember, many players foolishly play with just their ears and not also their eyes. Discarder said "Flower," and I need a flower, and so I call for it, but then after I've started to expose, I see that it's actually a One Bam! Now what?
    Read on!

    Q: How does "Atomic" (or "Nuclear") work?
    A: You get to decide that for yourself. It's a
    table rule. Some players permit seven pairs of anything. Some players say the hand can only be made if the player never had a joker in the hand. Some players also say flowers invalidate the atomic hand. Some players say the player has to declare "atomic" (or an equivalent announcement) when going for the hand, and declare "nuclear-free zone" (or words to that effect) when the hand becomes void due to having picked a joker or flower. You and your group get to figure out those details and how much the hand is worth, if you and your group want to use the table rule at all. Read FAQ 14.

    Q: How do we handle a slow player?
    A: First, have a talk with the other players. Make sure you have their support in talking to the slow player. Then at the beginning of your next session, talk to your slow player.
       - Tell her that the time for thinking is during other people's turns. Before she picks from the wall, she should decide what she's going to discard next - nine times out of ten, that won't be changed by what she picks. (There is that one time out of ten, and that happens to everybody.)
       - Buy her my book. On page 109, highlight the line, "Keep the game moving!" On page 110, highlight the italicized sentence, "It is more important to avoid disruption of the game than it is to win." Put sticky notes on those pages so they stick out of the book. Write something nice on the notes, like "We love you dearly and we want to keep playing with you!"
       - Print FAQ 9 for her, highlight the parts about keeping people waiting, harmony being important, and frame it for her.
       - Use the Marge Simpson "gentle nagging" approach. After she's picked a tile, about 15 seconds after her thinking and producing smoke out of her ears, start saying, "please discard. Please discard. Please discard. Please discard..." Say it in a very soft, gentle, sweet voice.
       - Get one of those little sand timers (I see that has them for 8 seconds, 10 seconds, 30 seconds...) and turn it over every time she picks a tile. When the time is up, make her throw a tile, any tile.
       - Give her 30 days notice, she has to pick up her speed or she's out.
    - If you can't have a talk with her, then I can't help you. The only way to improve the situation is to talk to her.
    - If after a month or a year with all of you urging her to speed up and pay attention, she still can't see anything beyond her card and she still plays slowly, there's nothing more I can offer you. She is what she is. Take her or leave her. There are other fish in the sea.

    Q: How does seat rotation work?
    A: Here's how the NMJL says it's done: "Original East" is called "Pivot." Play a round. (A round is when the deal moves all around the table.) Then just before pivot's turn to deal again, she switches seats with the player on the right, taking the dice with her (note: this rule is new, per the January 2017 newsletter). Every time the deal comes back to Pivot, repeat the process (Pivot switches seats with player on right). This mixes up the order of play.

    Or, to put it another way: The first person who deals (usually the host in a home game) will be the "Pivot" player for table seat rotation. When each player around the table has had a turn at dealing (being East), and the dice have been passed around to the Pivot (also called "original East") again, the first round is complete. Pivot, keeping the dice, switches seats with the player to the right. When both are situated, pivot deals to begin another round. Every time the deal comes back to the Pivot, repeat the process (Pivot switches seats with player on right, then deals).

    Q: I hear Chinese sets don't have numbers and letters on them.
    A: Wrong. They do have numbers and letters. It's just that they're Chinese numbers and letters.

    The suit of craks ("characters") most definitely has numbers:
    一萬 (10,000), 二萬 (20,000), 三萬 (30,000), 四萬 (40,000), 五萬 (50,000), 六萬 (60,000), 七萬 (70,000), 八萬 (80,000), 九萬 (90,000).

    And the winds and dragons most definitely have letters... well, technically, words:
    (east), (south), 西 (west), (north), (fa = "fortune"), (chung = "center").

    The technical term for those little Roman letters and Arabic numerals in the upper left corner of a tile: "indices" or "indicia." Yes, it's true that Chinese sets (sets made for use in China, and not for export to the West) don't have Western indices on them. If you can't read Chinese, and if you don't want to learn how to read the numbers and wind names, then you shouldn't buy a Chinese or Japanese or Vietnamese mah-jongg set.

    Q: If I'm playing a concealed hand... (1) Is it okay to redeem a joker? (2) Is it okay to win on a discard?
    A: (1) Yes. (2) Yes.

    Q: What the heck does "Opp. Dragons" mean?
    A: You know what "matching dragons" are, because that's explained on the back of the NMJL card. Check the color-coding on the hand you're asking about. It's not shown in one color. You know what multiple colors means, since that's explained on the back of the card too. So therefore, you know you shouldn't be using "matching dragons" with this hand. You should be using... "opposing dragons" ...instead. "Opposing dragons" (or "opposite dragons") means "NOT-matching dragons."

    Q: What if somebody passes me a joker in the Charleston?
    A: You know it's against the rules to pass a joker in the Charleston. It's also against the rules to receive a joker in the Charleston. Give it back to her immediately, and tell her "I can't take this. It's against the rules." (Say that loudly enough that everyone can hear. Nobody in that group will ever pass you one again.) There are good reasons why you shouldn't accept it -- all kinds of bad things could happen to you should you listen to that devil on your shoulder. I wrote about those bad things on the Mah Jongg Q&A bulletin board on
    April 7, 2009.

    Q: I read on page 33 of Elaine Sandberg's book that a "neutral" tile "can be used with any tile." Does that mean they're like jokers?
    A: It's unfortunate, but she used the word "tile" when she should have used the word "suit." All she's saying is that winds and flowers (like zeroes) are "suitless."

    When you look on the NMJL card, you see that winds and flowers are always shown in blue ink. But you have to understand that in a multi-suit hand, the blue color of the winds and flowers (or zeroes) does not indicate that a particular suit be used. In fact, winds and flowers don't belong to ANY suit. And neither do zeroes. The color-coding principle (that "colors are merely symbolic") is not overridden by the presence of winds or flowers or zeroes.

    To illustrate the concept of "suitlessness" (or "neutrality"), consider this imaginary 3-suited hand:

    FFFF 5555 + 5555 = 10

    In the above imaginary example, there are 3 suits used: one suit for the first kong of fives, another suit for the second kong of fives, and the third suit for the 1. The 1 can be ANY SUIT. Dots or bams or craks. It doesn't matter which suit. The first kong of fives can be any suit EXCEPT the suit used for the 1. The second kong of fives has to be the remaining suit. Depending on which suit was used for the first kong of fives and the 1, the second kong of fives might be dots or bams or craks.

    Note that I didn't mention the zero or the flowers in that discussion of suits. Why? Because flowers and zeroes (and winds, as well) are SUITLESS. Or, as Sandberg puts it, "neutral."

    Q: Can I use a zero in a Consecutive Run, like zero-one-two instead of one-two-three?
    A: No. As of 2018, the official rulebook specifically says no. Besides, how would you deal with the fact that zeroes are suitless? If you use zeroes as "any suit," the difficulty of the hand is lessened significantly. The use of white dragons as zeroes is the solution to the League's problem "how do we make a year that has a zero in it?" It's also conceivable that the League might make a hand that uses tens or something, like:

    FFFF 5555 + 5555 = 10

    ...or something like that. If they made a hand like that, then the white dragon would need to be used.
    It's really only when you see a "0" on the card that the League intends for anyone to use a white dragon as zero. You can't make up consecutive runs with zeroes. And you can't use zero when the card calls for "any number." And you may not come up with other creative ways to use zero, other than zeroes that you see printed on the card.

    Q: Can I look at my tiles while the deal is still going on, or do I have to wait until all the tiles are dealt?
    A: There is no written rule stating that you mustn't look at your tiles during the deal.
    That said, though, there's a good reason for not looking at your tiles during the deal. If there's any kind of error during the deal (heaven forbid), having looked at the tiles could well cause a disturbance in the harmony. Someone might resent the fact that tiles from the wall -- or tiles that were supposed to go to someone else -- had been seen. So, whether it's a hard and fast rule or not, I recommend not looking at the tiles until the deal is completed successfully.
    Unless you are playing with a "hurry up and play" kind of group, that is. If everybody else is looking at their tiles during the deal, then they're probably gonna want you to hurry up and get with the program.

    Q: What if I'm East and I have a complete hand before the Charleston? Or right after the Charleston?
    A: Ah, yes, "Heavenly Hand" and "Earthly Hand." If you're East, and you're dealt a complete hand before the Charleston begins, just declare mah-jongg (there will be no Charleston). Heavenly Hand is valued the same as a self-picked mah-jongg (everyone pays East double value of her hand).
    Heavenly Hand is the sole exception to the standard Charleston rules; if you have a complete during the Charleston, that's a bit more complicated. See column #666.

    Q: I'm East. What if my hand is complete at the end of the Charleston instead of before the Charleston?
    A: That's "Earthly Hand." It's considered self-pick, and everyone pays you double. (2020)

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    Q: I can't find this rule anywhere! I checked the back of the NMJL card and the official NMJL rulebook and I even checked your book. A player in our group said [something; whatever]. Is that true, is that really a rule?
    A: When you can't find a rule in writing anywhere, that usually means it's not a rule! You can ask me your question, though. (Just saying.)

    Q: Am I required to put a tile in my rack? Three variations on this question:
    (1) We have a player who picks a tile, then discards a tile without ever putting the picked tile on her rack. Is she allowed to do that? Aren't we always required to rack the tile after picking it?
    (2) We have a player who doesn't put the tile on the sloping front of the rack right after picking; she stands it on her card while she thinks about what to discard; is she allowed to do that?
    (3) I like to stand some of my tiles on my card; another player complained; am I allowed to do that?

    Q: How should exposures be oriented atop the rack?
    A: There is no rule governing this. Some players orient an exposure so it looks readable from the player's own point of view -- some players orient an exposure so it looks readable from the opposite player's point of view. Whichever one you think best. Unless sight-impaired, players are expected to be able to read tiles atop another player's rack without needing any specific orientation. And of course, you must have gaps between your exposed sets. See also FAQ 19Z: Must exposures be in card order?

    Q: Should I telephone the NMJL with my rule question?
    A: No. I have frequently heard from confused players who say they got conflicting rulings when phoning the League. I assume there was just a miscommunication - the folks at the League do know the rules (they made them!), and they're very nice, but you should send your question in writing, in order to get the answer in writing. There are six chances to get the information all screwed up, when you ask rule questions on the phone:

    1. You might word the question imperfectly, causing the person on the other end of the phone to misunderstand what exactly you're asking.
    2. The person on the other end of the phone might misunderstand the question (thinking you're asking something else), even if you don't misstate it. (The problem might be in her ears, not in your mouth.)
    3. She might word the answer imperfectly.
    4. You might misunderstand the answer, even if she doesn't misstate it.
    5. When you report the answer back to your group, you might err in the wording of your report.
    6. Even if you word the answer perfectly to your group, they still might misinterpret your words. And you can't prove that you really got that answer, if it's not in writing.

    Also: When you phone, your call is answered by the person on phone duty, and it's possible that she will tell you the rule from memory, without referring to MJME (and certainly without checking past newsletters). But when you mail your question in, staffers may well confer to come to a definitive answer based on written rules and past rule principles. Heck, if you phone me to ask me a rule (please don't!) I too would first reply from memory, before checking FAQ 19 or MJME or my stack of newsletters, and you could get a wrong answer from me. Snailmail and email give a person more time to ensure a proper answer. Phone puts a person on the spot and under time pressure.

    With all those chances for something to go wrong, something probably will go wrong! So snail-mail the question, with a self-addressed stamped envelope. The address is The National Mah Jongg League, Inc., 450 Seventh Avenue, New York, NY 10123.
    Besides, a phoned answer can be shared online only if you transcribe the answer yourself (which amounts to hearsay), but with a letter, you can photograph the reply and share it with the rest of us for a public definitive answer to the question.

    Q: When someone calls a discard and redeems a joker and wins, which tile gave her mah-jongg? The discard initiated the cascade, so does the discarder pay double? Redeeming the joker made her hand complete, and she had to have the joker replacement in hand before she got the discard, so does everybody pay double?
    A: Win by joker redemption is considered self-pick. When a redeemed joker fills the last remaining place in the hand, all non-winners pay the winner double (see
    FAQ 19AN, above).

    Q: Who plays next after erroneous mahj?
    A: The player who made the erroneous mahj call made a play. That means she took a turn. So, even though it was an abnormal play or turn, and all she accomplished was to kill herself, the play now devolves to the player seated to her right. Just like with a normal play or turn.

    Q: We play with 14 tiles...
    A: That's a very confusing way of saying that you "pick ahead" or that you "play with a future tile." The way it's supposed to work (in the official rules) is that each player normally holds 13 tiles while the other players are playing, and she gets a 14th tile during her turn. If you're playing that you normally hold 14 tiles, but discard one during your turn, then you're picking ahead. Read FAQ 19R, and read the back of your NMJL card (see rule #1).

    Q: How would [something] be ruled in a tournament?
    A: The National Mah Jongg League hasn't codified tournament rules, so tournament organizers set their own. Tournament rules can vary. So I may not be able to tell you how a particular situation would be ruled in a tournament. When you have a ruling question in a tournament, see the tournament rules, or ask the tournament judge for a ruling.

    Q: What If Everybody Wants To Blind Pass?
    A: Read Column #534. The "I.O.U." concept described in the column is also described on page 13 of the 2020 and 2023 editions of the official NMJL rulebook.

    Q: What does it mean if we get a lot of wall games? Does it mean we're getting better at playing? Does it mean we're playing defensively?
    A: I don't know what it "means." I can't know without seeing your group play. The fact that you're asking this may be an indication that your group recently learned the game (experienced players usually take wall games in stride), or that your group has advanced to a higher level where all players have become equally skilled in defensive playing. The vagaries of chance can sometimes result in a larger than usual number of wall games for a time. It may be that new groups get into a wall game phase as part of the growth process; just play on, and let the game settle into its natural rhythms. Experienced players also get wall games - if a lot of wall games, it may just mean that the players are equally skilled and yes, are playing defensively.
    Addendum 1 - Going back through my newsletters, I found this from 1997. Ruth Unger (then President) opined that wall games are caused by players "dogging" (discarding needed tiles out of a conviction that another player was about to win) too early in the game. "If a player has exposed part of their hand very early in the game, it is not always a fact that the player is set for Mah Jongg."
    Addendum 2, July 29, 2017 - Several readers have reported an unusual number of wall games with the 2017 card. If Ruth Unger's theory is correct, there may be a design imbalance in the 2017 card. If players are dogging more with the 2017 card, then it might mean that opponents' exposures are convincing players that they'd better play safe. Or it might mean that exposures can go too many ways. I don't know yet exactly what it might be. I wrote column 684 in response to that issue.

    Q: Why doesn't the new card come out in January? Why is it that it doesn't come until late March or early April?
    A: I have no idea. You would have to ask the League. Their contact information is printed on the card.

    Q: If we get the new card in March, do we have to wait until April to start using it?
    A: No, of course not. Don't be silly! Start using it as soon as everyone at the table has the new card.

    Q: What if three players go dead? Who pays the survivor?
    A: It depends on how the players went dead. Did one or more players declare mahj in error? Did somebody throw in the hand or destroy the wall before verifying that the mahj was erroneous?
    Rule (b): One player declares mahj in error, another throws in the hand. Two players continue playing. If one of them declares mahj in error, that player pays the survivor double the value of the hand the survivor was attempting.
    Rule (c): One player declares mahj in error, and two players throw in the hand. The erring declarer pays the survivor double the value of the hand the erring declarer was attempting.
    Rule (d): One player declares mahj in error, and a player destroys the wall before it's realized that the mahj was erroneous. Wall destroyer pays 25¢ to the two surviving players.
    Rule (e): If the three players went dead by any other means, then the survivor throws in her hand (nobody gets paid). Shuffle, deal (next East takes over), and play another hand.

    Q: A wall tile was seen; now what? Tiles were knocked off the wall; now what?
    A: When a wall tile is accidentally exposed, it's just too darn bad, but it goes right back where it was. Once the wall is built, whenever something happens to the wall, best efforts must be made to preserve the original order of tiles in the wall, regardless of how much information was revealed to any players.

    Q: How does the color-coding work on the card?
    A: Read the back of the National Mah Jongg League card. Left pane, just beneath where it says "STANDARD BASED ON EIGHT FLOWERS AND EIGHT JOKERS" (1st and 2nd lines). It says, "1 color—any 1 suit; 2 colors—any 2 suits; 3 colors—3 suits." "Any" means "any." Red does not necessarily mean craks must be used; green does not necessarily mean bams. In a 2-color hand, red means "suit 1" and green means "suit 2." When a tile grouping (such as "111") is the same color as another tile grouping (such as "222"), then you have to make those two groupings in the same suit.

    Q: What does it mean when a zero is green or red?
    A: The color is meaningless. It's a zero. Zeroes are explained on the front of the card, right up there at the top (use white dragon, also called "soap"). I suppose the thinking is that since zeroes are suitless, they "go with" any suit, so zeroes can be printed in any color.

    Q: East deals tiles to the other players, right?
    A: No. East (also sometimes called "dealer" but that's misleading) rolls the dice to determine where the wall is to be broken, and serves out the first wall. After that, each player takes her own tiles (starting with East herself). Also read FAQ 19-CG.

    Q: What is the purpose of the numbers on the flower tiles?
    A: In Chinese mah-jongg, the numbers correspond to the seat positions of the players seated around the table. At the end of a hand, flowers add to the score depending on whether the number on the flower corresponds to your seat position. If East has flower #1, he gets extra score. If South has flower #2, he gets extra score, and so on. If you're reading this, you play American mah-jongg (not Chinese), so you don't need to know this!

    Q: What if two players go dead in a three-player game?
    A: It depends on how the two players went dead. Two players going dead in a 3P game is the same thing as three going dead in a regular 4P game. Read FAQ 19-BW, above.

    Q: A group I joined recently uses a rule I never heard of before. Is it a real rule or a house rule?
    A: There are two ways to find out if a rule is a table rule or an official rule:

    Q: I was chastised for touching another player's rack. Is there really a rule against that?
    A: In brief: There's no official rule, but it's her rack, and her rule. No touchee!
    There's no written rule against touching someone else's rack (to redeem a joker, or to give her a discard she called for, or for any other purpose). There's also no rule permitting it. There's also no written rule against standing on your head and loudly singing Lady Gaga's "Poker Face" while playing -- but common sense and common courtesy must come into play when something is not prohibited by a written rule. Some people play casually and for fun - but some people play the game very competitively, and are highly protective of their tiles. Just accept that it is a bad idea to touch another player's rack. If you were playing cards, you wouldn't touch a card being held in another player's fingers - think of the rack as the same thing. Don't take a tile from it, and don't put a tile on it.
    The most polite way of redeeming a joker is to hold your tile in the palm of your hand, extend it to the player with the joker, and ask her for the joker.
    Update, 2020: the League now "recommends" that a planer never touch another player's [on-the-rack] tiles. MJME2020: Page 23, item 14. MJME2023: page 24, item 13.

    Q: I was chastised for touching another player's tile. Is there really a rule against that? I was just going to hand it to her and save her the trouble of reaching for it.
    A: In brief: There's no official rule, but it's her tile, and her rule. No touchee!
    There's no written rule against touching someone else's tile. There's also no written rule permitting it. Many players do not want someone else to touch their tiles. And that's reasonable and understandable, if you consider that the act allows the possibility of a sleight-of-hand substitution, a bad tile for a good one. If you want to do someone a favor and hand her a tile, maybe you should ask first: "Want me to hand it to you?"
    Update, 2020: the League now "recommends" that a planer never touch another player's tiles. MJME2020: Page 23, item 14. MJME2023: page 24, item 13.

    Q: After breaking the wall, where do the leftover tiles go?
    A: They don't go anywhere. They stay right where they were. It's the left part of the wall that moves - East "serves" the wall.

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    Q: What are the probabilities/statistics/odds/combinatorics of... [something/anything/whatever]?
    A: Forty-two. By the way, have you ever read Douglas Adams' The Hitchhiker's Guide To the Galaxy? According to Adams, the answer to everything (including Life and The Universe) is also forty-two. Coincidence? I don't think so!
    No, seriously, I have no idea. First off, depending on what you're wondering about, the answer may depend on data that's impossible to collect. (See
    FAQ 23, for example.) But mostly, I am not a mathematician or a statistician. I have never studied probabilities or combinatorics, and I have no desire to do so. The information you seek goes way beyond what I am able to offer here. And I doubt that any of my readers has done this sort of calculation, or she would have surely shared the information already. If someone wants to run the numbers based on the NMJL card, be advised that you would have to repeat the calculations every year when a new card comes out. I Googled "books on probability and statistics," and found these:

    Q: Must a player speak her claim for a discard out loud?
    A: Yes. The 2013 edition of the official rulebook clearly states, "To claim a discard the player must verbalize their call..."

    Q: I was called dead (and I agreed that I'm dead). Now what?
    A: You stop playing.

    Q: What if a call for a discard is spoken at the exact precise instant that the next-in-turn racks her picked tile from the wall (or if nobody can tell which came first)?
    The caller gets the tile.

    Q: What are blank tiles used for?
    A: If your set has blanks AND white dragons, then the blanks are for you to use to create replacements for lost tiles. If your set has blanks but no white dragons, then four of the blanks are your white dragons. This is explained in
    FAQ 7E (the "mystery tiles" FAQ).

    Q: I declared mah-jongg, exposing the whole hand at once without having made any prior exposures. But I arranged the tiles incorrectly when exposing the hand. Can I rearrange them and collect my winnings, or did I screw it up?
    A: You may rearrange your tiles and collect your winnings.

    Q1 : Do I have to be certified to teach mah-jongg?
    A: You don't have to be certified, and there is no certification program anyway. Unfortunately, far too many people teach their made-up table rules as if they were real official rules. If you are going to teach, I wish you would at least own an up-to-date copy of the League's official rulebook,
    Mah Jongg Made Easy (and read it cover to cover) before teaching. You should also own my book, The Red Dragon & The West Wind. And there are more books on American mah-jongg in FAQ 3. And read FAQ 26 for some tips on teaching mah-jongg.

    Q: What happens if somebody picks out of turn?
    A: Call her dead. See
    FAQ 19-AA. Exception: if, after the Charleston, someone other than East picks and discards the first tile, the game is thrown in and redealt. (MJME2023, p. 14, 9th bullet)

    Q: How much is luck and how much is skill?
    A: I have no idea how to determine how much is luck and how much is skill in mah-jongg. The games of Chess and Go are 0% luck and 100% skill. But there are random elements in mah-jongg (the order of tiles in the wall, which hands players are going for, the dice roll). Is mah-jongg 70% luck and 30% skill? Is it 50% luck and 50% skill? Sixty-forty? 42-58? Who can know?
    What about different variants? There's a higher luck ratio in Japanese mah-jongg than in American mah-jongg, by design (Japanese rules add more random elements to increase the payments). But what's the ratio in any mah-jongg variant? How would you even measure such a question?
    All I can tell you is: the more experienced/skilled player will win more often than less experienced players, but even the most highly skilled players are subject to the vagaries of chance.

    I heard about a penalty called "paying for the table." When does that one kick in?
    A: If a player, playing out of turn or from the wrong end of the wall, discards a tile and somebody wins on it, she pays the winner 4 times the value of the winner's hand, and nobody else pays. Also, If a player misnames her discard and another player wants the named tile for mah-jongg, the win is granted, the misnamer pays 4 times the value to the winner, and nobody else pays. MJME2023: if someone pushed out the wrong wall and someone calls mah jongg while playing from the wrong wall, the one who pushed out that wall pays for everyone (i.e. 4x hand value).
    If you've heard that there is a "pay for the party" rule for the last wall, you've heard a table rule (see
    FAQ 14). If you've heard that there is a "pay for the party" rule for throwing to 3 exposures, you've heard a tournament rule, not an official League rule.

    Q: I made a bad exposure. Now what?
    A: Keep playing unless somebody calls you dead. If somebody calls you dead, see
    see FAQ 19.CK.

    Q: Why won't the computer let me call a discard for 2021 or NEWS?
    A: Because you're trying to make an illegal move, so the computer doesn't allow you to do that. Read
    Can I kong a 202x or a NEWS?

    Q: Why isn't my question listed above in the index of questions about computer games?
    A: Maybe because it's a question about mah-jongg rules rather than a computer game - if so, your question would be listed elsewhere in the index of questions. For example, are you asking about the rules governing jokers? There's a category for that. Or about the rules governing claiming a discard for exposure, perhaps? Just
    browse the categories to see if your question is there. Maybe your answer is somewhere in this FAQ, but with the question worded unlike the way you are wording it. Or... Maybe it's because your question hasn't been asked frequently yet! Maybe YOUR question is unique! You can ask the question by visiting the Q&A bulletin board and emailing me your question.

    Q: Why won't the computer let me win?
    A: Because you're trying to make a serious blunder, and the computer has been programmed to prevent that. Perhaps you misunderstand the symbols and parentheticals on the NMJL card, or perhaps you didn't notice that you've exposed a Concealed hand. (If you are playing Japanese rules and were directed here by mistake,
    click this link for your answer.)

    The above is the most common reason an app disallows a play. There are many other possible reasons, too numerous to elaborate. Most likely you either misread the card or are unfamiliar with a particular mah-jongg rule.

    For questions specific to this year's card or a particular year's card, see FAQ 16.

    Every player should read the back of the NMJL card
    every year. There may be changes, and many frequently
    asked questions are answered on the card.
    Every player owes it to the bots they play with to know
    all these basic rules of the game. Bots have feelings, too.

    If you are just learning the rules of American mah-jongg with the use of a computer game, may I recommend that you get a good rulebook to supplement your learning of the game?

    Left: The League's official rulebook. Every online player should have an up-to-date copy!
    I don't sell them, and I'm not paid to say this. Just sayin' it's important to have and read.
    Right: And then there's my book, "The Red Dragon & The West Wind." - It's not bad, if I do say so myself.
    The bots are depending on you to know the rules!

    Q: How do I take a screenshot of my game on Windows?
    A: There are perhaps eight different ways, but here are two ways:

    Q: How do I take a screenshot of my game on my Mac computer?
    A: Command-shift-3 will save a snapshot of your entire screen to the desktop. I think there's also a way to capture just a portion (akin to Windows' snip tools). For more details, Google "how to capture a screenshot on mac".

    Q: How do I take a screenshot of my game on my iPhone?
    A: I know how to do it on my 4-year-old old iPhone SE, but for all I know, newer iPhones might not even have a Home button. So my answer is: Google it!

    Q: How do I take a screenshot of my game on my Android phone?
    A: I don't know. I'm an iPhone user. Google it! Google is your friend.
    Q: Why even have a listing for the question if you're just going to say "Google it"?
    A: Because I'm silly. I am a very silly person. Now you know my secret! Please don't tell anybody.

    Q: I saw some of the responses you've given on the Q&A bulletin board, and gee, you seem kinda snippy sometimes. Why ya gotta be like dat?
    A: I mainly get like that when the person asks me how to do something in their game and never even says what game they're talking about, or what device they're playing on. When I worked as a videogame designer/producer I was happy enough to help people like that when they asked me how to do something in the games I designed and produced. But I don't have patience for questions that don't come with enough information so I can understand what's being asked of me. When I get a vague/unclear question, there's going to be a lot of back-and-forth while I try to pull the information out - been there, done that! If you're going to ask me a question about a mah-jongg app, just state: (1) which mah-jongg app you play, (2) what device you play the game on, and (3) a clear question. I can post it on my bulletin board, where maybe another reader might write in with the answer to your question. (4) A screen shot is usually also necessary.

    Q: What happens if somebody has a wrong tile count (too many tiles or too few tiles in the hand)?
    A: It depends on when this problem occurs.
    - Before the Charleston: throw all tiles in and build new walls. (MJME2020: p. 19, rule 9)
    - During the Charleston: throw all tiles in and build new walls. (January 2024 newsletter, rule 13)
    - After the Charleston but before East has discarded the first tile: MJME2023 (p.14, bullet 8) says all players must throw in their tiles. But note an exception on p.17, rule 6: if the player at East's left is holding 12 tiles, that player is permitted to take a 13th tile from the wall (see also MJME2020 p. 19 rule 9).
    - After East has discarded: the player with erroneous tile count is
    dead. (MJME2020: p. 19, rule 10. MJME 2023: rule 7.a.)
    MJME2020, MJME2023 = Mah Jongg Made Easy, 2020 or 2023 editions

    Q: We say "dice" to mean one of the little spotted cubes, but "die" when there are more than one?
    A: No, just the opposite. "Dice" is the plural of "die." In mah-jongg we don't roll just one die, we roll two dice.

    Q: We finished playing a hand. Who deals the next hand?
    A: The dice move to the right (counterclockwise) from the previous East.

    Q: There are no jokers in my hand when I declare mahj, because somebody redeemed the joker I did have exposed. Do I still earn the jokerless bonus?
    A: Yes. The hand earns the jokerless bonus if there are no jokers in it at the time of mahj declaration. One of the strategic implications of redeeming a joker is that you can make the other player jokerless, costing you more if that player wins.

    Q: I was told I must never touch or mix the discards on the discard floor. Is that a rule?
    A: There is no rule. It's normal to push aside the discards when serving a wall. Keep in mind that hands hovering in the discard floor can do mischief (a skilled hand might palm a strategic tile).

    Q: What if a player is dead, but nobody has said they were dead? Are that player's exposed jokers available for redemption?
    A: Yes. See the January 2023 newsletter from the League.
    Sloper adds: If you know a player is dead, it would be unsportsmanlike behavior to refrain from calling them dead so that you can redeem their joker(s). If your action is discovered later, you may be subject to criticism, even called a "
    cheater." 'Nuff said.

    Q: I have a question about the Marvelous Mahjongg card.
    A: Sorry, I don't have that card. Why don't you ask Marvelous Mahjongg? They have a Questions? page, and an email address. The site is (as one might expect).

    Q: Somebody on Facebook mentioned a "Super Joker." What is that?
    A: It's a
    table rule somebody made up. I don't try very hard to learn details of different table rules people make up. My friend Johni Levene came up with "super jokers," which can be used in singles and pairs, when she was playing with a particular set that had special tiles. Now that the idea has spread, she regrets it. In March, 2024, she posted: "I am so sorry but my intention was to make a fun way to use a single unique set. Oy, the power of social media."

    Q: Is there a rule about how discards should be placed or arranged or oriented?
    A: No. In Japanese riichi and Chinese Competition majiang, it's customary to arrange and orient discards in an orderly fashion, but in American (NMJL) play, it's customary to place the discards haphazardly.
    I have heard that some American teachers instruct their beginner students to place or orient discards in an orderly manner to facilitate viewing. But this practice is not to be encouraged beyond initial beginner lessons. Experienced players can scan a mixed-up jumble of tiles. And beginners need to acquire that skill.

    Q: You have often said, "mah-jongg trumps everything." What do you mean by that?
    A: There is a general principle in all forms of mah-jongg (not only American/NMJL rules) that mah-jongg claims outweigh other claims. This principle is behind exceptions to other rules.
    In Asian mah-jongg, "pung trumps chow, and mah-jongg trumps everything."
    In American mah-jongg, "When two people want the discard for the same thing, next in turn gets the tile. When two people want the discard for different things, mah-jongg trumps exposure."
    I sometimes then found other times when saying "mah-jongg trumps everything" would mollify my students' confusion or dissatisfaction about a rule. For instance, why you can claim a discard for a single or pair for mahj. Because "mahj trumps everything."
    Or why can a player win on a misnamed discard but cannot call it for exposure? Because "mahj trumps everything."
    But does mah-jongg really trump everything? There must be times when a claim for mah-jongg has to be denied, due to some other rule. I'd welcome readers to write in with their own examples; now that I've talked about this, the next step is to make a list of trumping rules. Not just mahj trumps everything, but any rule that trumps another rule.

    Q: How does a turn work? When does it begin, what can I do during a turn, and when does it end?
    A: Here's how a turn works:
    0. Either the player at your left discards and nobody calls the discard, or somebody discards a tile you can legally claim, you call it, and nobody outprioritizes your call (or you outprioritize theirs)...
    1. Then, you begin your turn when either you
    pick the tile from the end of the wall, -or- you claim the discard and either expose a completed set with it, or declare mah-jongg and expose your hand...
    2. Assuming you didn't declare mah-jongg or discard, you can redeem as many as eight jokers if you got'em...
    3. Either you declare mah-jongg and expose your hand, or you discard a tile from your hand, ending your turn...
    4. If you declared mah-jongg, now you tell the other players exactly how much they are to pay you. (If they can hear you over the post-mahj kvetching and showing and wall-tile-turning to find that elusive winning tile, that is.)

    Q: What happens if somebody pushes out the wrong wall?
    A: MJME2023 addresses this on page 20, rule 16. There are several scenarios covered.
    a. If someone picks from the wrongly pushed-out wall, that player's hand is dead. Play continues on the wrong wall and then proceeds to the correct wall.
    b. If someone calls mah jongg while a wrong wall is in play, the winner collects from the player who pushed out the wrong wall (that player "pays for the party"). See answer
    CR above.
    c. If someone pushes out their wall before the previous wall was used up completely, AND someone picks from that newly pushed out wall, both players' hands are dead.
    d. The rulebook doesn't say what happens if nobody picks from the wrong wall, but it's reasonable to assume that the wrong wall can be put back, no harm, no foul.

    Q: Where can I find an archive of past NMJL cards?
    A: There is no such thing. What we collectors do is laboriously, year after year, scour eBay and other auction sites waiting for old cards to come up for sale. That said, I had an exchange with Judy H on August 17, 2023 (on
    the MJ Q&A Bulletin Board) about trends over time gleaned from my own collection of past cards (which definitely has gaps!). That bulletin board is constantly updated with new Q&As, so you may have to go to the bottom of the board to "go back in time" to an older iteration of the board. Some of the changes to NMJL rules are also tracked in FAQ 11h.

    Q: WHY would anyone discard a joker?
    A: Two reasons: (1) The hand can't be made with that joker (maybe it's a Singles & Pairs hand). (2) To make the hand jokerless and double the score.

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    Thank you!


    MORE About The Window of Opportunity - and Why Pickandrack is Not Nice

    What is the rule when somebody wants to claim a discarded tile for exposure after the next person has already picked from the wall, or has exposed tiles?

    This question is about what I call the "window of opportunity" rule. The "window of opportunity" is that brief moment in time during which a player may claim a discard. When does the window of opportunity open, and when does it close?

    Opening the Window of Opportunity
    The tile is "down" the instant a discarded tile is either named... or it touches the table top, whichever happens first. When the tile has been named or has touched the table top, the "window" opens. The discarded tile is available for claiming by another player. (And the discarder can no longer change her mind and take it back.)

    Next Player Picks From the Wall
    The next player (the player to the right of the discarder) now reaches (ideally allowing other players a reasonable moment in which to claim the live discard), takes the next tile from the end of the wall, and looks at it. She cannot change her mind and put the tile back, but the window of opportunity is still open on the most recent discard. Her taking and looking at the picked tile did NOT close the window of opportunity on the live discard - anybody can still call it!

    If another player claims the live discard before the window of opportunity is closed, the picker must put the picked wall tile back on the end of the wall (the same place where she got it), so the next player can take it, whether or not it has been seen.

    Closing the Window of Opportunity
    Any other player can claim the current discard right up until one of the following events occurs:
          The next player
    racks her picked tile (putting it among the other tiles in her hand);
          The next player, having picked from the wall, exchanges a tile for a joker atop someone's rack;
          The next player discards her picked tile;
          The next player declares mah-jongg with her newly picked tile.
    Once any of the above has occurred, the window of opportunity CLOSES on the discarded tile we've been discussing. It's now too late for another player to claim that tile for exposure or for mah-jongg.

    One Window Closes, Another Window Opens
    When a player picks and discards without racking (#2 above), the window of opportunity shuts resoundingly on one tile, and opens instantly on another, when she either fully names the newly discarded tile or it touches the table top, whichever happens first. Only the current discard is available for play. That old discarded tile is now "dead," and is considered "covered" by the new discarded tile.

    You can also read Column #458.

    From the Mah-Jongg Q&A bulletin board:

    "Pickandrack" - Following Logically From the Window Rule
    From the Mah-Jongg Q&A bulletin board

    * NOTE: These FAQs are written to be "universal" principles - they are not written with one particular NMJL card in mind, so that I don't have to rewrite the examples every year!


    Here again is that key to the references cited after many of the answers above.

    Click here if you have a question about the current NMJL card.
    Need an NMJL card? Click here for information about obtaining one.
    But to get the story straight from the NMJL, go to and click the FAQs link.

    This page is constantly being updated. All updates are logged at The updates are listed in chronological order (newest updates are at the bottom).

    If you appreciate the free information on this site, your donation would be gratefully accepted, and would help keep this site running as a free service.
    Thank you!


    © 2004-2024 Tom Sloper. All rights reserved. May not be re-published without written permission of the author. This site is not associated with the National Mah Jongg League. Note that the League is the ultimate arbiter of its rules; this site merely interprets them in detail.