Jewish Journal

the american mah jongg blog

by Elaine Sandberg

August 15, 2010 | 2:30 pm


Mostly Benign but Watch Out!

When Mah Jongg was introduced from China to the US in the ‘20s, the game was basically a simplified version of Chinese Mah Jongg. Different regions of China had different versions —Northern Chinese vs. Southern Chinese vs. Hong Kong. In the ‘20s and ‘30s Mah Jongg was a fad and like many fads, it spiraled out of control because as the game grew in popularity it also grew in the number of “experts”. There were innumerable books written (all by “expert” men,) about how to play Mah Jongg—all different, reflecting the conflicting rules of Chinese Mah Jongg. There were different scoring methods (Mah Jongg hands used to be scored, but the same hands would be worth more or less, depending on the “expert”), and arguments arose when they sat down to play about which method was acceptable. Alas, playing Mah Jongg couldn’t have been much fun and it is speculated that the lack of harmony is one of the reasons men stopped playing the game (which they did around the late ‘20s) even as the women persisted.

Enter the ladies of the National Mah Jongg League, who brought stability, simplicity and standardization to the game. The League introduced the card, the Charleston (so called to mimic the dance-craze of the era), did away with scoring and proscribed the rules of Mah Jongg. They have persisted, with a few changes, since 1937, when the National Mah Jongg League was created.  Now everyone, everywhere plays by the same rules. With no arguments.  Well, almost…

One of the areas of contention is “Table” rules.. rules made up that vary from the “official” rules of the League.

The “hot Wall” is not mentioned by the NMJL.  When you play “hot Wall”, if the discarder of the Mah Jongg tile is thrown while picking from the hot Wall, it results in a penalty to the discarder of paying the winner four times the value required.  Some play if a double is rolled on the dice, everyone pays double the amount required to the winner, but the discarder of the Mah Jongg tile pays four times the amount.

The rationale for the hot Wall or “doubles” is to make the game more exciting and challenging because the penalties for discarding the Mah Jongg tile are more severe and the players need to be more circumspect and wary of discarding a Mah Jongg tile. Even so, financial insolvency is not a usual consequence of a mistake in American Mah Jongg.

There are rules about the Wall—using the last two in each Wall as a “tail” placed in the middle of the table, placing a Joker, face up, at the end of East’s Wall. The Charleston’s “mush” allows players an additional exchange of tiles after the final Courtesy.

Most table rules are benign. But there is one that is open to some serious cheating.  Who would cheat at Mah Jongg??  Don’t be fooled—there are people who are obsessed with winning and they do cheat.

This one is easy. East does not roll the dice to break the Wall and the game starts by picking tiles from the Wall, as built. The reasoning behind this table rule is that rolling the dice, breaking the Wall, etc. is a bother. But if East is one of these obsessive players, it’s not difficult to make sure Jokers are part of the first four tiles he/she picks from the Wall.  It’s been done. While the mixing of tiles from a previous game is going on and players are chatting, the East player can easily palm a couple of Jokers and be sure to position them to his/her advantage. This is one table rule I definitely oppose and will not play in a game if the Wall isn’t broken by a roll of the dice.

There is no doubt some table rules make the game more challenging. Others don’t seem to provide any great excitement. There are many more. But for a “purist”, like me, I’ll stick to the REAL rules. 

Whichever way you play,







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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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