If you’ve done any gambling internationally, you might have come across Mahjong – but don’t get real Mahjong confused with the match-a-tile game you might find on your computer desktop. The original form of the game originated in China and features four players (the four directions, respectively) and 136 tiles based on characters and symbols. There is some debate as to the inventor of the game, but many attribute it to Confucius himself, who was quite fond of birds – hence the name ‘mahjong’ being derivative of ‘maque’, the Chinese word for sparrow.
The basic premise of the game is that each player randomly selects 13 tiles (their ‘hand’), and then during their turn draw and discard from the remaining tiles to form four groups (a meld) and a pair (a head). It bears many similarities to the English game of Rummy, in that there are three suits which can be used to make runs – Bamboo, Characters, and Circles. As well, there are bonus suits called the winds and the dragons, which can be likened to face cards.
The game has a very integrated set of rules which includes stealing hands, interventions, and a complicated method of choosing whose turn it is. But what it shares in common with the North American world of casinos is a competitive element of betting. Depending on the ‘hand’ that is used to win, there is a standardized scoring protocol – based on the number of points a player wins according to their hand is then calculated to determine their base payment.
Perhaps the most engaging part of the game is its speed and quick turnaround – you can go from winning to losing in a matter of minutes, and with experienced players the game runs like a well-oiled clock, and there is almost a rhythm to the clacking of the tiles and exclamations of “Pong!” or “Kong!” (forms of winning hands). Another part of its appeal and popularity is its deft balancing of chance and skill – there is a significant degree of expertise, in terms of knowing the hands, being able to interpret possible outcomes, and the element of ‘robbing’ also forces a player-interaction that you don’t always get with some gambling games.
Although the game translates well into an online medium, comparing online Mahjong to real-life Mahjong is like comparing apples to oranges – they both offer very different experiences. Online Mahjong doesn’t have the same degree of stress attached to it, as there are no players heckling you, and you can take your time and carefully calculate your strategy. On the other hand, it’s hard to beat the thrill of a real-life Mahjong game with other players – there is a tactile quality to being able to pick up your tiles and flip over a winning hand.
Although Mahjong has been extremely popular in Asian countries (Korea, Japan, China), it’s only recently begun to gain a foothold in the North American consciousness – in part because it takes a little while to learn the rules and become skilled enough to anticipate the game-play. However, as the world becomes more and more connected, I’d like to think we’ll see a resurgence of what was once known as the “Game of a Thousand Intelligences”. The good news: you don’t need to learn Chinese in order to play.