how to play american mahjong

American Mahjong Rules and How To Play American Mahjong?

American Mahjong is the popular cousin of the Chinese Mahjong. The game was introduced to the westerners sometime in the 1920s via a book called “Rules of Mah-Jongg” by Joseph Park Babcock.

American Mahjong is also called by other popular names like “Maajh” or spelled “Mah Jongg”. A game of American Mahjong requires four players and is quite distinct from its Chinese counterpart.

The American version of the game is different in using jokers, racks, “Hands and Rules” scorecards, and some other gameplay mechanisms.

The American Mahjong has been successful with the modifications in the rule set, so much so that this Americanized version is now played in some provinces of China. Bet you are intrigued already and wondering how to play American Mahjong?

Here’s a beginner’s guide to American Mahjong, read on.

The Equipment

Among equipment, American Mahjong makes use of:

  • 152 tiles
  • Two Dice
  • Four Scoring cards
  • Scoring sticks
  • A Wind Indicator
  • 4 Racks and 4 Pushers (both of these are optional)
Mahjong tiles


The tiles are of 4 categories:

  • Suits (108 tiles): Suits has 36 tiles of Circles/Dots, 36 tiles of Bamboos/Bams, and the Character tiles also called Craks which are also 36.
  • Honors (28 tiles): The Honours tiles are 16 of Wind (4 of east, west, south, north wind each) and 12 tiles of Dragons (four white dragons, four green dragons, and four red dragons).
  • Flowers and Seasons (8 tiles): The Flowers suit has 4 tiles and the Seasons suit has 4.
  • Jokers or Wild Tiles (8 identical tiles): Jokers can be used to substitute of any tile in a Pung (three identical tiles), Kong (four identical tiles), Quint (five identical tiles) or a Sextet (six identical tiles).

2. Dice

The second equipment used is a pair of dice that are used for the dealer and to decide if the wall should be broken.

3. Scoring Cards

Scoring cards are not included in the set. The NML – National Mah Jongg League publishes and updates a list of hands every year that determine the scoring. Each player gets to keep a card to create a strategy and build hands.

4. Scoring Sticks

mahjong scoring sticks

Scoring Sticks and Coins, as the name suggests, are used for keeping the score. You may assign any monetary value to them before you distribute them to players. You can also distribute whatever quantity of coins/sticks you wish.

Here’s a suggested amount that you may give to each player before starting.

  • 1 nine-dot stick / yellow coin valued at 200 points
  • 2 five-dot sticks / blue coins valued at 100 points
  • 8 one-dot sticks / red coins valued at 25 points
  • 10 eight-dot sticks / green coins valued at 5 points

5. Wind indicators

Wind indicators are used by the player who starts off the round to describe the current wind. They come in different variations. Wind indication is optional and can be skipped.

Wind indication, also known as a better can be used by the fifth player to place bets on which player would be the winner.

6. Racks and Pushers

Racks and Pushers are optional but are highly recommended set of equipment by hobbyists. Racks are used by players to line their tiles. However, in case you are not using a rack, you can line your tiles on the table in front of you.

Pushers are the arms attacked to racks which help you push your portion of wall to the center without exposing your hand.

How to Start the Game?

To start playing you need 4 players seated around a square table and the equipment we discussed.

  • Start by setting up the racks and pushers in front of each player. All the tiles are then placed in the middle of the table and shuffled. The tiles should have their faces down in order to be concealed.
  • All players now need to build a wall in front of their racks. Each wall is two rows high with each row having 19 tiles each.
  • Once the walls are set, you need to decide who will be the dealer. For this, every player rolls the dice in their turn and the one that gets the highest sum becomes East (dealer). The player sitting to the right of the dealer is South, then comes West followed by North.

The Pre Game-Breaking the Wall

mahjong breaking the wall

The tables are set, the Mahjong players are ready and the walls stand built.

  • Now the East player rolls the dice and then moves to the right side of their wall and starts counting the sum which appeared. They will then break the wall through removing four tiles. (Two stacks of tiles)
  • This process is repeated by each player moving anti-clockwise until everyone has twelve tiles left.
  • Once the wall is broken, each player redraws a tile leaving them with 13 tiles. The East gets to draw another tile in addition and has 14 tiles in all.
  • The players now begin to arrange their hands to match the winning hands. The goal is to match your hand with the one on the scorecards.

 The Charleston

One of the features of playing American Mahjong is “The Charleston”. This term happens before the actual game begins. This is a compulsory stage which allows the players an opportunity to trade tiles with the others.

The Charleston round starts with exchange proceeds in the following manner:

  • Every participant passes 3 tiles upside down to the participant on the right.
  • Every player gives 3 tiles upside down to the participant on the opposite side.
  • Every player blind passes 3 tiles upside down to the partner on the left.

The players can also blind pass 3 tiles. This means they can pass the tiles they received without taking a peak at the tiles.

After this round of Charleston, if all participants agree, a second Charleston round can also be conducted but it would proceed in the reverse order as round 1. After the second round, a “courtesy pass” can be granted to two players who are willing to exchange their tiles.

How To Play American Mahjong – Step by Step

mahjong rules

Once all the above-mentioned steps are over, you are ready to start playing American Mahjong.


To beat the game, your hand has to match with the ones listed on the scorebook. These hands are termed winning hands and are a combination of sets which means these are sets of two or more equal tiles. The winning sets are a pair, pung, kong, quint, and sextet.


  • East begins the game and since they had 14 tiles they discard a tile. This discarded tile can be claimed by others and if they don’t the game continues moving anticlockwise. The consecutive players will draw tiles outside of the wall where it had been broken. This sequence is repeated until any participant calls a discarded tile.
  • Players claim a discarded tile when they can build a possible combination like pung, kong, quint etc. As the name suggests, an exposed hand is a set that has been exposed. Now, in American Mahjong, when calling for a tile the player must disclose the set of tile along with the one they claimed. Players call when and by finalize a winning hand combination and in such a case the turn moves to the player who calls.
  • After calling, the tiles are revealed and now they cannot be replaced or discarded throughout the game except for jokers.
  • When a player aims for a concealed hand and trying to win, all your tiles must be from the wall itself. You can’t call the tiles excepting the last one which allows you to claim the Mahjong.

Use of the Joker

The Joker tile is used to replace any tile to achieve a combination of pung, kong, quint, or sextet. The Joker, however, isn’t of much help for a pair because it can’t be used for that set. The joker substitutes a tile that is an actual tile you have to exchange.

This exchange process is carried out as follows:

  • If there is a joker in a revealed set, you can restore it with your substitute tile.
  • First, you drawing a tile either call a discarded one at the beginning of the turn.
  • Then put the substitute tile on the place of joker.
  • Discard extra count of tiles to keep up your 13 tiles at the last of the round.

Playing the Joker strategically is the key to winning Mahjong.

End the Game

As is evident by now, the game will end when and if a player has a winning hand combination and declares Mahjong. The game could also end in a draw if no one calls Mahjong and any more tiles left for drawing and no discards to be made.

A winning hand consists of 14 tiles which mean a player can win at the beginning of their own turn only by drawing tiles or by claiming discards.

Mahjong is created when the 14th tile which is drawn or claimed completes the winning hand. The player needs to declare this and they win.

The payoff to the game winner is as follows:

  • For a Mahjong which was created using a discard, the payoff is that the discarder will pay double the hand value to the winner while others are paying single value.
  • A Mahjong which was made from a tile drawn from the wall, all players pay the double value to the winner.
  • If a Mahjong is created with a discard without any joker and is no single or pair, the discarder will pay the value 4 times as a payout, and others pay double the value.
  • If the Mahjong comes off a tile drawn from the “wall”, there is no single or pair, and involves no jokers, then every player needs to pay the value four times of the hand.


Like most games, American Mahjong too has penalties for mistakes made while you play the game. Here’s the list of the guidelines:

  • A tile that was accidentally discarded and has already touched the table cannot be claimed back or recalled.
  • A tile that was not claimed correctly / announced incorrectly cannot be called for.
  • If any player has the wrong count of tiles (whether knowingly or otherwise) with them they are considered dead and are out for the round. They would still have to pay or reward the winner in a sense.
  • If more players than 3 have a wrong count of tiles then the game must be restarted.
  • For exposed tiles on the board any player’s hand is impossible and then the game gets restarted.
  • Sometimes a player may declare a Mahjong incorrectly by fluke but if they are prior to reveal their hand then the game will continue without a penalty.
  • But in case the player calls Mahjong mistakenly and the hand is exposed, then this player’s hand is considered dead.

American Mahjong Strategy Tips

There’s always a strategy for winning board games, and most hobbyists know about it. They have their own strategy. If you are just starting, do not worry, the more you play the better you will understand. To help you ou here are some points you could keep in mind:

  • The Charleston stage is critical. Focus here because it allows you to replace 3 tiles while later you’ll only be able to replace one tile every turn. 
  • In American Mahjong, you need to be able to think before you make your moves. Most experts can predict the opponent’s hand by their discards and claims. When you can guess their hand, you can prevent them from winning.
  • As I’ve mentioned earlier, the Joker tile is precious. Use it wisely. You can break a pung or kong to use the Joker for another set.
  • When you claim a discard, your hand is revealed and you cannot re-conceal it so be careful and think before you call a discard. You have a small selection of tiles to discard.

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In conclusion, like any other game, American Mahjong can seem a little confusing when you play it for the first. Eventually, you will love this game. With more practice, you’ll be able to strategize better.

Even if you do not have a proper American Mahjong set up at home, you could use an online simulator to practice. There are a lot of easy-to-follow videos that you could see, or you can just attend a gameplay and watch the moves closely.

Hopefully, this beginner’s guide on how to play American Mahjong has been able to clear some of it for you.

Happy Gaming!

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