Sorting Through the Mah Jongg Rule Books–Well, Sort Of…

Sorting Through the Mah Jongg Rule Books–Well, Sort Of…

My previous blog post addressed the ‘multiple sets of rules’ conundrum in Mah Jongg. In order to enjoy this game to its fullest, we should have a better understanding of which rules belong in tournament play, which are set forth by the National Mah Jongg League, and which are Table Rules (rules devised by players over the years to make the game more challenging than it already is).

When is a discarded tile down? It’s down when you’ve either called the complete name of the tile—“Three Crak” OR the tile touches the table. If you say “Three” and the tile hasn’t touched the table, then it isn’t down. You may change your mind at that point and discard something else.
This is a National Mah Jongg League Rule and should be adhered to as is.

When calling a tile for exposure, the amount of wiggle room can be quite fuzzy and cause much consternation. Is there any room for vacillation?

Now according to National Mah Jongg League rules, when calling a discarded tile, if you either put the tile on your rack OR place the tiles from your hand onto your rack before picking up the called tile, you must take the tile and make the exposure. You cannot change your mind at this point. However, if you’ve simply touched the tile, thinking you want to call it, but then decide you don’t want it, you don’t have to take it.

Most tournaments don’t allow for second thoughts; if you touch it, it’s yours. In a home game, you can impose this as a Table Rule, but do you really want to?

As people of different ethnicities and cultures have developed certain customs over the years, so too, have Maj players developed their own rules and customs. Some Table Rules have gained such popularity and importance that many players confuse them with National Mah Jongg League rules.

Take for instance, the Hot Wall. According to the National Mah Jongg League, there IS no Hot Wall. The wall that is broken at the beginning of the game ends up being the last wall from which tiles are picked. Beyond that, there are no special rules pertaining to this wall. No double in the Hot Wall. No having to account for 3 tiles so you don’t have to pay for the table if you throw someone their Maj tile. Any rules pertaining to play while picking from the “Hot Wall” are Table Rules that people have imposed on individual games to encourage more defensive play.

Speaking of defensive play, what happens if someone throws the Maj tile to a player with exposures, at any time during the game? According to the National Mah Jongg League, that person simply pays double the value of the card—period. If you throw into one, two or three exposures, it doesn’t matter. The pay structure is the same—the person throwing the Maj tile pays double the value of the hand and everyone else pays the value of the hand.

Not so in tournament play—here, points are subtracted if you throw into two or three exposures, and sometimes throwing into even one exposure will result in a penalty. Again, you can impose these stricter regulations onto your home game by requiring the person who throws Maj to someone with multiple exposures to pay for the table. That’s fine, provided your group is in agreement and you all play at the same level.

It’s always best to lay out the rules beforehand, and certainly there should be some allowances made for less experienced players.

No matter how much we think we know about the rules of Mah Jongg, we will continue to experience Maj dilemmas where there simply isn’t a clear cut answer. This simple fact speaks to another far more important element to this game–an element that supersedes any and all rules– the human element.

The human element turns black and white rules into a mélange of gray. Did Karen say ‘hold’ before Laurie racked the tile, or was it really a tie? Did Lisa pick and rack the tile so quickly that Marilyn didn’t even have a chance to call the previously discarded tile? There is no right or wrong answer in these situations—the players must decide what is reasonable in that particular instance.

At some tournaments, if you accidentally knock your tiles over into the middle of table, you’re dead. While that may be the rule, I’m not going to call someone dead for being clumsy. Where’s the humanity in that?

Bottom line: Mah Jongg is a friendly game and that’s a rule we can all agree on!
I welcome your comments.


  • Sandy Ritter Posted May 5, 2016 5:42 pm

    Thanks Tracey,
    It’s always fun to read your comments. It’s also sometimes a learning experience. Thanks for keeping us “on our toes”.

  • Anita Guss Posted May 5, 2016 7:43 pm

    Excellent tips !

  • Sephardic Orie Posted May 5, 2016 8:59 pm

    As a sephardic Jew, our rules are slightly different than Ashkenazi Jews. We spend our time preparing for a break in the game so we can go straight to the food rather than arguing about rules! Our table rules are just have fun!:):):) By the way, any player at our table always pays double if they give someone maj with or without exposures. Anyone else play this way????

  • Marlyn Burleigh Posted May 6, 2016 12:58 am

    As always, very well written. Mah Jongg is a friendly game with rules , some black and white and others in the Grey area. It’s up to the people you are playing with as to how you handle the rules in the grey areas. I agree with you on that!! Please keep inspiring us with your words of wisdoms ! 💕Marlyn

  • Abbey Clark Posted May 6, 2016 8:05 am

    Great info about Maj Rules Tracey!! You really nailed it with your comments — Love your blog!!! And thanks for answering my question about racking the tiles after being called dead, except for any pre-exposures.

  • Julie Posted May 6, 2016 9:53 pm

    You are awesome!! How lucky I am to play with you!!

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