Jewish Journal

the american mah jongg blog

by Elaine Sandberg

August 1, 2010 | 7:30 pm

                                            THE JOKER PHENOMENON

“A Joker! A Joker! My Kingdom for a Joker! If I only had a Joker,”—- a plea we have all made and heard. You probably wouldn’t give your “kingdom” for a Joker, but Jokers are pretty powerful tiles to acquire and can be the critical tile you need for a win. I’ve heard it said so many times, “You must have Jokers to win”. But that really isn’t the complete story, because there are winners of Jokerless hands. True, it’s not a usual phenomenon, but I’ve made them as a player and even several of my beginning students have made them. When and if you do win with a Jokerless hand, they are doubly exciting and doubly enriching.

But just acquiring Jokers does not insure a win.  There are many times, no matter how many Jokers you have, you don’t win. It’s also that it’s not necessarily the quantity you have but how you use those you have. 

Let’s take an example of a hand that opens up with two Jokers, not an unusual situation. Many times Jokers are placed at the end of the rack with other “unwanted” tiles, as if they are an “after-thought”.  There are players (and some teachers) who never count their Jokers as part of the beginning Section or hand. I never can understand that thinking. Jokers can be any tile and as such they can “create” and strengthen a hand.

When you first look for a hand, let’s say you can only find four tiles that match a hand. Jokers can add to that anemic hand to give you five or six tiles and six out of the 14 you need for Mah Jongg is a perfectly good start to the Charleston.

One of the things I teach my students is to “spread the wealth”.  What I mean by that is when you have two or more Jokers, distribute them to the combinations that need them.  For example, you have two Jokers, two tiles towards a Kong and one tile toward a Pung. Don’t use both Jokers to complete the Kong but use one Joker to boost the Kong and one to boost the Pung. Both combinations are now set to be callable.

And what if a Joker is discarded during the game?  Again, not a usual phenomenon, but it does happen.  It’s a big clue that the player is close to Mahj—probably looking for a tile to complete a Pair.  And an alarm to be extra cautious about your discards.

Exchanging a tile for a Joker from an Exposure is often a happy experience, both for the Exchanger and in many cases, the Exposee, because the exchange you made could well give the Exposee a Jokerless hand.  You can’t see the rest of the hand so you really don’t know.

And sometimes the exchange does nothing for your own hand because you are waiting for a tile to complete a Pair and the Joker is of no value.

I think of all the tiles in the Mah Jongg set, the Joker is the most revered.  But don’t get carried away.  Jokers are “helpers”, not the end-all and be-all.

Still, having helpers is a consummation devoutly to be wished.

‘Til the next time..







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A kid from Brooklyn, a graduate of Syracuse University and an immigrant to California via Palo Alto, San Juan Capistrano, finally, Los Angeles, I have been here for the past 15...

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