OVERVIEW: Strategy and Rules ⇒ Some General ObservationsLuck and skillScoringGoing for a quick Mah-Jong or a high scoreHow best to playThe power of doublingEnjoying the gameDetailed Strategy


Strategy and Rules

The Mah-Jong rules that you play by will clearly influence the kind of strategy that you need to employ. The strategy discussed here relates to the BMJA rules. Although I expect there will be some commonality with other forms of the game, if you play by different rules you will – no doubt – have a different opinion about some of the judgements made here.

Also, I cannot pretend to any superior wisdom about BMJA Mah-Jong strategy – it’s just my opinion. You may have a better insight. So, if you have something of relevance to add, visit the strategy comments page.


Some General Observations


Luck and skill

Unlike games such as chess, success in a Mah-Jong game (played by the BMJA rules described here) is a hostage to fortune. That is not to say that skill plays no part. The more experienced player will make better choices than the novice and so stand a better chance of winning. Sometimes just one decision can make the difference between going Mah-Jong or not. But generally it’s a matter of playing the percentages game.

Although it’s not unusual for less good players to come out on top or even for newcomers to win at their first attempts, over time better strategy tends to win out.

This luck element adds to the fun of the game. Everyone can have good days which lift the spirits and bad days which don’t!

In consequence, however, I think it makes the BMJA rules inappropriate for the kind of knock-out competitions promoted in some forms of the game.



Some people prefer to play without scoring the hands, so that the winner is the person who simply goes Mah-Jong. Whilst a number of the tactical considerations here will still apply, the nature of the game is quite changed.

Aiming to get the highest score over several games involves a more complex set of strategies. And it is this form of the game which is really being discussed here.


Going for a quick Mah-Jong or a high score

Another divergence comes from the attitude that the players have to the game. Some simply go for the easiest Mah-Jong hand while others aim for a high-scoring one.

By adopting the first method, it’s clear that you are more likely to go Mah-Jong than a player who is looking to get a high score. But whether you thereby achieve the highest number of points in a session of several games is perhaps a moot point.

The latter strategy can point to the power of doubling. Witness the story of the king who (thinking it was a modest request) agreed to give a wise man one grain of rice for the first square of a chess board then to double the quantity for each subsequent square. An unimaginable amount of rice was forfeited.

The last square alone would “contain” 2 multiplied 63 times (over 9 million, million, million) grains! It’s an amount few would intuitively guess.

The number of doubles possible in Mah-Jong is considerably less, but the effect is still noticeable. Even so, if people are attempting to get high scores, (particularly if they are going for difficult special hands), it can be very frustrating if another player continually wins with easy, but low-scoring hands.


The power of doubling

It’s worth exploring the effect of doubling a bit further.

Some doubles are down to pure luck (for example, having your Own Season), but others can be played for (though will also depend on varying degrees of luck).

There are seven of them:

  • No chows
  • All the same suit (and some honour tiles)
  • Set of Dragons
  • All 1s/9s (and some honour tiles)
  • All concealed
  • Own Wind
  • Prevailing Wind

Assume a fairly modest basic score of 40.

One double would give 80, two doubles 160, three doubles 320, four doubles 640 and five doubles 1,280 (enough to take you over the maximum score of 1,000).

Just one good score might well be enough to win over several low-scoring Mah-Jongs during one session.

Let’s try to illustrate this with some example Mah-Jong hands(Take note of the basic score, final score and the number of doubles)…

Notice the number of low-scoring hands that you need to win against a player who gets a Mah-Jong worth 1,000 points and also how a hand of minors can trump one of majors if the number of doubles is greater.

As an aside, it’s worth asking the unsuspecting Mah-Jong player what they think the highest possible score one could obtain in a Mah-Jong game if one ignored the 1,000 point limit. The answer is an amazing 1,490,944 points. But such an event would be miraculous!

Click here for an explanation of how this Mah-Jong hand could be made.


How best to play

If one is aiming for the most points in a session, the above figures might well suggest that going for a high-scoring hand is the best strategy. But there is clearly a risk. And it would depend on how concerned you are about losing. Although I have no experience of using Mah-Jong to gamble, I suspect that the strategies deployed favour the lower risk form of the game.

The experienced player learns how to assess his chances of winning as the game progresses. If he judges that they are diminishing rapidly he may well then go for a quick Mah-Jong, especially if he is East Wind.

It means that for any given situation in the game there isn’t always an obviously correct way to play. One needs to weigh up the pros and cons, taking into account the state of the game – how much of the wall is left, what tiles have been discarded, how confident one is of making a Mah-Jong and one’s assessment of the other players’ hands.

The skill of the good player lies in his ability to maximise his chances (often just by small increments), to read the game and to develop a strategy that has a greater chance of returning a higher number of points over a session of several games (or even over several sessions).


Enjoying the game

How one actually plays, I think, turns on one’s experience and the kind of enjoyment one gets from the game. And this will depend on the disposition and experience of the other three players.

Some may prefer to aim for a win every game and others just delight in trying for a special hand. Or you just may enjoy the social occasion and be not too concerned about how well you do.

My preference is to go for a high scoring hand, even if the initial prospects seem dim. This either means a special hand or trying to maximize the number of doubles by avoiding a dirty one, being reluctant (at least at first) to call an easy pung and being optimistic about acquiring pungs of Winds and Dragons.

I accept that the number of Mah-Jongs I thereby get will be much less, but the pay-off is (I think) a much more exciting game. And when I do win, it’s more likely to be with a score that cancels out my losses. The aim for me is not to win each game, but to try for the the most points over several.

To some extent, being able to play this way does depend on a tacit assumption that the other players share a somewhat similar view. However, I think it makes for a richer game experience – more special hands, more thrills at getting a really high score and more chance of an exciting chase towards the end of the wall with a succession of pungs and kongs.


Detailed Strategy

Note: To avoid too much long-windedness these terms, abbreviations and conventions have been used.

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