How To Play Mahjong

At first glance, mahjong may seem foreign to many people who are not from East Asia. The squiggly characters; the unfamiliar designs of exotic birds and flowers; the blinding speed of mahjong pieces being expertly stacked, selected, and arranged; the loud clacking of tiles being shuffled and resounding tapping as players prepare to make their next big move; the unspoken superstitions surrounding even the simplest games played at home among family and friends. It’s no surprise that many may be hesitant to pick up this action-packed game.

However, there’s one thing that makes mahjong more familiar than people might realize: It’s like the classic family favorite game of rummy, except with tiles instead of a deck of cards. When you look at it from this perspective, you’ll discover that mahjong may not be as complicated and difficult to learn as you might have initially thought.

In this article, we’ll outline the game’s background, what you need to play mahjong, as well as the rules and techniques of the game. Let us break down step-by-step everything you need to know about how to play mahjong.

The allure of mahjong

The name of mahjong can be loosely translated as “sparrow game”. It is so named because the sound of shuffling tiles clattering together is said to be akin to the sound of sparrows chattering. This is one component that makes the game so gratifying to the senses. 

mahjong game

On top of aural stimulation, the smooth texture of the tiles also lends a satisfying touch. This is because mahjong pieces are traditionally made of ivory or bone with a bamboo base. Some luxury sets are hand-carved with the highest level of artistry. In modern times, tiles that are commonly made of acrylic are smooth and cool to the touch and digital mahjong made for online entertainment remains a textural experience.

Another draw of mahjong comes from the beauty of movement and practiced deftness that blooms out of repetition. One comes to appreciate the natural wave of arms while mixing up the tiles, the agility of nimble fingers plucking pieces from the line-up, and the flourish of revealing a winning hand.

At the same time, the game also appeals to cognitive faculties. Mahjong is a game of intellect that requires analytical skill, strategy, and some element of luck. Along with that comes the culture of interesting taboos, witty banter, and friendly chatter that brings people together.

On top of knowing how to play mahjong, it’s key to know why people play mahjong. These are the reasons that this folk game from olden China has now become a popular favorite in many places. Aside from mahjong parlours, community centres, local clubs, online, and homes around the world, mahjong is also played in major tournaments across the globe.

The foundations of mahjong

Variations of mahjong

Before we proceed to how to play mahjong, keep in mind that there are several variations of the game (Hong Kong or Cantonese mahjong, Taiwanese mahjong, and American mahjong) and the same rules do not necessarily apply across all of them. In fact, some versions use fewer tiles, different tile types, and different scoring systems. To complicate things, there are also official international competition rules. So, make sure you start on the right foot by deferring to the variation preferred by the people you play with.

Nevertheless, we will summarize the common main rules and gameplay involving:

  • Types of tiles
  • Forming sets
  • The sequence of play
  • Dealing, drawing, and discarding tiles

Basics of mahjong

Basics of mahjong

Mahjong is usually played with 4 people, although it can also be played with 3 people. Players receive 13 tiles each at the start. Then, players draw and discard tiles to ultimately form a winning hand with the 14th tile.

The full mahjong set of 144 tiles fall into categories based on the illustration of the Chinese symbols:


  • These are tiles numbered 1 to 9.
  • There are 3 suits: Bamboo, Dot or Circles, and Chinese characters.
  • There are 4 sets of each suit.
  • These tiles are used to make melds.


  • These are special tiles.
  • There are 4 Winds: East, South, West, and North.
  • There are 3 Dragons: Red, Green, and White.
  • There are 4 sets of each type.
  • These tiles are used to make melds.

Flowers or bonus tiles

  • These are quartets.
  • There are 4 Seasons: Spring, Summer, Autumn, and Winter.
  • There are 4 Flowers: Plum, Orchid, Chrysanthemum, and Bamboo.
  • There is 1 set of each quartet.
  • Some variations have 4 blank tiles that function as jokers.
  • These tiles are used to get draws.

The goal of the game is to win with a hand comprising 4 sets and 1 pair. Players can also win with other special hands. These sets known as melds include:


  • Pong: 3 identical tiles (3-of-a-kind)
  • Kong: 4 identical tiles (4-of-a-kind)
  • Chow: 3 tiles in sequence from the same suit (straight)
  • Eyes: 2 of a kind (pair)

Players take turns dealing in each round, and there are 4 rounds: East, South, West, and North. So, a mahjong session has 16 games.

How to play mahjong

Here’s an easy-to-follow breakdown of how to play mahjong:

Setting up

  1. Shuffle all tiles facedown.
  2. Take turns rolling the dice. The highest roll is the first dealer. The player on the dealer right goes first. 
  3. Stack two rows of 18 tiles facedown like a wall, with room in the middle of the 4 walls to discard tiles.
  4. Take turns drawing or dealing 13 tiles from the walls to each player. Other players do not see your hand.


  1. The first player draws 1 tile from the wall and discards 1 tile faceup. Keep a hand of 13 tiles at the end of your turn.
  2. The next player can draw from the wall or from the discarded tiles. 
  3. When making a meld, the player must announce it and show the tiles. To make melds:
  • Chow (3 straight tiles) melds can only be made with a tile discarded by the previous player. 
  • Pong (3-of-a-kind) and Kong (4-of-a-kind) melds can be made with any discarded tile at any time.


  1. When only 1 tile away from winning, the player must announce it.
  2. When winning, the winner declares “sik wu”. A player that wrongly declares a win will be disqualified and the game resumes.
  3. If playing with money, calculate the score of each player to determine the amount of winnings earned.

How to play mahjong online

If you’d like to give mahjong a shot, finding places to hone your skills is as easy as 1-2-3 with the advent of the Internet today. Many online gaming sites offer mahjong with other players or practice games with bots and come with numerous advantages. The game moves faster, shuffling and dealing are done for you, scoring is automated, and some can even detect combinations for you. Now that you know how to play mahjong, try your hand at this engaging and stimulating game today!

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