When Etiquette Trumps the Mah Jongg Rule Book

When Etiquette Trumps the Mah Jongg Rule Book

My New Year’s Resolutions for 2017:

1. Stop procrastinating
2. Tackle unpleasant tasks in order to get them out of the way (similar to resolution #1)
3. Stop noshing while watching television
4. Continue to work on my Mah Jongg Etiquette

Since this is a Mah Jongg blog, you can guess which resolution I will be discussing.

When Mah Jongg questions arise, rather than looking to the Mah Jongg Rule Book, we should refer to the Mah Jongg Etiquette book. To my knowledge, this book doesn’t exist, but it should.

I received the following questions on my blog. They are excellent examples of Mah Jongg etiquette, or lack thereof:

The first question deals with a situation I have never encountered. One of the players in the group in question stops the passing after the first Charleston. Not sometimes, but always. She simply doesn’t do the 2nd Charleston. She thinks this gives her an advantage for some strange reason. The woman asked if this is allowed, finding it quite upsetting. The other players don’t like it either, but feel they have no recourse, other than disbanding the game, which they don’t want to do. I responded that to my knowledge, there are no limits on how often someone can stop the Charleston. I did make it clear, however, that this is not a nice way to play, and if they can find another player to replace her, then they should do so. In my opinion, a person who always stops the passing after the first Charleston is seriously lacking in Mah Jongg etiquette. She is clearly upsetting the other three players and doesn’t seem to care. This is certainly not in the spirit of fair Mah Jongg play.

Another question deals with players who pick and rack their tiles so quickly after the previous player discards, that the other players have virtually no time to call a tile. How much time should players give to other players to call a tile before they pick and rack? I explained that there is no official rule on this (that I know of) other than some players find this “quick-picking” strategically to their advantage in order to make it more difficult for other players to call a tile. This, too, is not a nice way to play, especially when someone is literally grabbing the next tile before the previous one has been discarded. This simply isn’t fair – people need a moment to hear the tile being named and see the tile as it hits the table before the next tile is already in someone’s rack.

One important principle of Mah Jongg etiquette is patience, as the situation demands it:

1. If a group has certain table rules and there is a substitute who hasn’t played with the group before, I would certainly cut that person some slack if she inadvertently violates a table rule—even assuming it has been explained to her. It takes a little while to get acclimated to certain Maj rules, and to demonstrate some flexibility is only fair. Otherwise, your invited guest will be stressed out and will almost certainly not enjoy herself. Also, forget about her ever coming back to sub again.

2. The same goes with a newer player – someone who is still learning the game, and doing well, however doesn’t quite have all of the rules down. It is incumbent upon those who are playing with and teaching the newer player, to be a bit forgiving when the newbie makes an error. If we can think back to that time long ago, when we were that new player, we appreciated a little bit of leeway.

Mah Jongg etiquette is also reading the situation. In other words, every Maj group is different, and we must ask ourselves whether calling someone out for a minor infraction is worth upsetting the harmony of the game.

For example, a rule I tend not to enforce is the one that says if you call a tile, you must put it on top of your rack as opposed to in your rack before you expose. In a strictly by-the-book game, that person is dead, however, I hate to call someone dead for what I feel is a mild infraction. I believe the rule was instituted as a deterrence to cheating, but in a normal, friendly game where the thought of anyone cheating is laughable, this seems a bit harsh. This is something a newer player doesn’t even realize he or she is doing . I normally say, “you need to put the tile on top of your rack – not in your rack when exposing” and hopefully that person will learn from the mistake.

Even in tournaments, where the rule of law is king, etiquette still has a place. Frankly, I think some tournament rules are just plain ridiculous, and in my opinion, etiquette suggests that we look past some of these rules in favor of being gracious human beings and good sports. Unfortunately, some players feel they must win at all costs…

Two cases in point:

1. Touching the wrong end of the wall. In one tournament, I lightly touched a tile on the wall and asked, “this end?” Obviously I was trying to ascertain which end of the wall was the correct end to pick from. One woman made a huge stink that I touched the wrong end. The others let it slide—temporarily. I continued playing. It just so happened that I won that game. When I declared Mah Jongg, the woman who made the stink said that my Mah Jongg shouldn’t count since I touched the wrong end of the wall. She prevailed and my victory was rescinded.

2. In most tournaments in which I’ve played, if you knock over your tiles into the middle of the table, you’re dead. Now I haven’t actually seen anyone be called dead on this, but I’m sure it has happened. If someone is already nervous about playing in a tournament, this rule could put that person over the edge, making it even more likely that she will dump over her tiles. How many of us have hit our rack with our hand inadvertently and a tile goes flying onto the table. Calling someone dead because they’re clumsy? This takes pettiness to a whole new level.

I’m as competitive as the next guy (just ask my family and good friends), but in the scheme of life, is winning so important that being a decent and kind person takes second stage? I certainly hope not.

While we strive to be better people, more understanding, more patient, more forgiving of others’ faults as well as our own, let’s apply these same principles when playing Mah Jongg.
The following tenets of Mah Jongg etiquette can be applied to almost anything we do in life:

-Knowing when and if it’s appropriate to let something slide.
-Being a nice player–someone others enjoy playing with.
-Being a good sport, i.e. not complaining when you don’t win (unless you’re on a horrible losing
streak and the Maj gods are laughing at you – then it’s okay to complain a little).
-Not expecting to win every game, but being humble and gracious if you do.

I welcome your comments.


  • Liliane Posted January 7, 2017 4:21 pm

    One player in our group declared that we should start a “house” rule saying that if a player has her hand exposed and you throw out her Maj tile, you should pay for the other players because it wasn’t fair to the players to pay for the hand since it was one person’s “fault”. She should know better. I didn’t like the rule, but it was voted in so I went along with it. I don’t like “cutthroat” rules. These women aren’t hurting for money and people do make mistakes, i.e. not paying attention or not recognizing which hand it is. It’s only a quarter for heaven’s sakes. We had disbanded the group a month ago (not because of that, just poor health issues from a couple of ladies). Now we’re hopefully getting a new group and both the player and I who originated the group 17 years ago want to do away with that stupid rule. We have two new players and I don’t want them to feel that we’re too strict. I think it’s a bit petty. What’s your take on this?

    • TraceyPP Posted January 7, 2017 4:53 pm

      That’s a tough one – some groups institute this rule (depending on how many exposures a person has, and whether you’re in the “hot wall.”). I think that if you don’t want this rule, then don’t have it. The natural consequences of someone throwing the Maj tile is having to pay double the amount of the card. I think in most cases this is sufficient. However, on the other hand, if someone has 3 exposures and it’s painfully obvious what they’re playing and someone throws their Maj tile, then that may be another story. However, like you said – it’s only a quarter!!
      Good luck!

      • Johni Posted January 7, 2017 7:04 pm

        Great blog post as usual Tracey. I have just one little correction that I put out there only so we don’t have confusion. If you call a tile it is NOT a League requirement that it may only be placed on top of your rack. That is a rule only in tournaments. In normal NMJL play, it’s permissible to place the tile in your hand then expose all the tiles together.

        All of these topics create quite a lot of discussion in MJTI and anyone wanting further reading on these points of etiquette, rules and more, can search our archives.

        Once again, I love your blog.

        • TraceyPP Posted January 7, 2017 8:11 pm

          Responding to Johni’s and Belinda’s comments, my understanding is that for Mah Jongg, the NMJL rule is that you MAY put the tile in your rack before exposing your winning hand (yes, tournament rules are different), however just for an exposure, you’re not supposed to call a tile and put it in your rack – correct??


    • Isabella Posted March 23, 2017 8:42 am

      Don’t establish any table rules at all it’s much easier for all to play this way. Will save a lot of “arguing” and probably make the game move quicker too

      I have been playing without table rules for 20+ years

      Glad to find this blog

  • Abbey Clark Posted January 7, 2017 5:15 pm

    Great comments about Mah Jongg “Etiquette/Ethics”!! This is what makes the game more enjoyable for everyone!! Kudos to you for bringing up this important aspect of the game we all love!!!
    Love your Blog!!!

  • Belinda Posted January 7, 2017 5:42 pm

    The rule you state that you cannot place a called discard into your hand but rather must be placed on the rack, was changed a year or two ago by the NMJL. They say it is OK to place it in your hand before exposing it. Tournament rules, however, say you cannot place it in your hand.

  • Marlyn Posted January 7, 2017 7:17 pm

    Wonderfully written as always. I agree with your Mahj etiquette. We like to be competitive, but have fun!!

  • withheld Posted January 8, 2017 6:16 pm

    I’ve seen, and read on certain FB groups, people who think winning trumps civilized behavior. There IS something out there called, ‘Good Sportsmanship’. You don’t build friendships being a harda$$ about Mah Jongg and winning isn’t everything.

    • Beth Johnstone Posted March 21, 2017 9:18 am

      I certainly agree that winning isn’t everything… and that’s why I have a pet peeve about a person who says as she throws out a tile that almost certainly will give MJ to another because ” I HAD to because I’m one away from winning” I always say “you can’t win second” but some people are very self centered and say it’s only a quarter. Well if it’s “only a quarter” then why does the person gamble on making everyone pay for her gamble especially when some have broken up their hands. It’s only courteous to the others to play defensively at the end of a game! This is my pet peeve.. if you play with new players it’s different but I’m talking about players who know the card and the hands.

  • Jackie Posted January 9, 2017 11:08 am

    I agree that etiquette/courtesy is important in personal relationships as well as at the maj table. Well written blog. Thanks, Tracey

  • Sandy Ritter Posted January 9, 2017 3:35 pm

    As usual, your blog comments are delightful and enjoyable to read. Love your Rules of Etiquette. Of course it is more fun to win. However, sometimes it is difficult to not complain on those days the Mahj Gods are laughing at you. The social aspects of the game make it so wonderful in developing relationships and just “having a good time”. Thanks Tracey, for the additional entertainment with your blog comments,

  • Joy Posted January 10, 2017 2:29 pm

    I found your post. Interesting, even tho I’ve played forever.. I just object to your using the word Trump in the title㊗️㊙️🈵🈲🚫

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