My Adventure with Mahjong

me when playing mahjong soul 

Ever heard of mahjong? You’re, most likely, a weeb – so of course you know. If to this question you answer “yes, it’s the oriental game with the pyramid made from rectangular blocks that you have to dismantle”, then… No. That’s one-person mahjong, which is kids’ stuff. I’m talking about the real mahjong – the game where four players gather around a square table, lay tiles on its surface and look as gangstery as possible. This post is going to be about this noble, impressive pastime that deserves to be called “the royal game” more than chess.

Year 2007. Under the influence of /a/, the anime imageboard which opened my eyes to tens of anime I’d never have learned about from lesser internet communities, I watched Akagi. To cut the long story short: it’s the story of a demonic genius who, by accident, stumbles into the postwar Japanese underworld and starts playing mahjong. His show deserves a separate blogpost, so let’s just say it’s unique and will have you watch all of its 26 episodes even though you do not know how to play mahjong. And you won’t know, even after you’re finished – but you will know you experienced something special. I remember Akagi being on my mind for a looong time. Maybe you will even vow to learn how to hit the tiles and rewatch the series, but with comprehension of what’s going on, this time.

Well, time passed and the number of anime (and manga) about mahjong kept rising. 2009 saw the arrival of the first season of Saki, the anime about cute girls playing the ‘jong, having a tornado for a hand and doing things quite obviously impossible in real life – you should be able to tell even without knowing the most basic things about the game. Still, around a half of those 26 episodes were stuff like beach episodes. Later, the first comic about mahjong was entirely translated into English – by which I mean Ten by Fukumoto. I got through it around 2014. Out of all these popular bits of media on mahjong, this one is about the game to the biggest extent. It’s one match after another, with little in-between, often with some wild house rules for more fun factor (and less comprehensibility). Oh and it ends at the death of Akagi, the last and ultimate contribution to his legend of badass, told among weebs to this day. I should also mention Shoubushi Densetsu Tetsuya – an older anime (from early 2000s?), which, though quite ugly, does a great job of telling a moving story. It’s set right after the war, when poverty was rampant and gambling houses thrived. The titular Tetsuya is a naive youth who steps into that world, hoping to make it big. He becomes a student of a mahjong-playing grandpa who will beat all wishy illusions the kid has about his dream out of him. Sometimes even by screwing his protegee over. It’s a hard world out there – cheating is to be expected and you need to be ready for everything. And yet, even the biggest villains prove to be impressive men doing their best to survive. Go watch it, it’s great.

So yeah, I spent around a decade watching anime about the ‘jong instead of actually trying to play the dang game. Meanwhile, I’d sometimes see threads on /a/ (and later, /jp/) where people would talk about playing mahjong online, on a service called Janryuumon. I think I’ve even tried to give it a go, but ultimately failed, for some reason. Maybe my runemastery wasn’t strong enough. And, I’ve seen people play with Saikyou no Mahjong 3D, a mahjong game for the PC that lets you try your wits against artificial intelligence. Don’t ask me how it compares to other apps enabling you to play mahjong, I’ve no idea. I definitely downloaded the app, and then… yeah, I think I gave it a whirl once and decided I understand nothing. So, there went my attempts at learning the royal game…

And then came year 2019, when Mahjong Soul came out. It’s a browser game by Yostar, the folks responsible for Azur Lane. And, if my sources can be trusted, currently the best way to play mahjong digitally. The news of it reached me on Twitter and so I decided: this time, I can’t put this off any longer. So I got serious about learning mahjong, did some playing… And now I know. Now I finally understand. Which sounds serious, but note that I do not claim to be any good at the game.

I should probably write something about how to play. This will be a superficial summary, for details go somewhere else. First: what I’m writing about here is the Japanese denomination of mahjong, also known as Reach Mahjong. It uses 136 tiles (which I sometimes call “blocks”, for some goofs). There are the suits – three kinds of most regular, vanilla tiles. They are Manzu (the Man tiles, or characters), Pinzu (Pin tiles, or circles) and Souzu (Sou tiles, or bamboos). In each of these suits, tiles are numbered from 1 to 9, and each of those appears in the game in four copies. Then there are the special tiles, the “honors”. Tiles with runes for four directions of the world are “wind tiles” (I call them directions, though). There’s four tiles of every direction. And lastly, there are the “dragon tiles” (sangenpai) – Hatsu, Haku and Chun. As the others, they come in four copies each. Undergo a tutorial, why am I even writing this? The tutorial in Mahjong Soul is decent.

So, you sit around a square table, you take turns, and the player whose turn it currently is should have 14 tiles in their hand (the rest has 13). The game is all about assembling patterns within your hand, kinda like in poker. Not just any patterns, though. They need to be formed of four threes and a pair (with exceptions). A meld of three can be a triplet (like 111 or 222) or a sequence (like 123 or 234). And that’s not all – how easy mahjong would be if that was all you had to do! One can win only with a hand that counts – it needs to meet at least one set of requirements called Yaku. The Yaku have different probabilities of assembly – the truly gobsmacking hands are nigh-impossible to put together, but are worth a bomb of points. The most probable, easiest Yaku is probably Yakuhai – your hand only needs to be four threes and a pair AND to include a triplet of a useful honor. Useful honors are dragon tiles, the prevalent wind (every round has a direction in its name) and the seat wind (every side of the square table, and every player, has their own direction). There’s very little you can do with the non-useful honors, unless you have a monstrous starting hand, stuffed with honors. Then there’s an easy Yaku called Tanyao – four threes and a pair without any honors and terminals (melds like 111, 999, 123, 789, 11, 99). Even if you know only those two Yaku, you can already play mahjong, and possibly even win a match. I’ll also mention Chanta – the opposite of Tanyao. It’s exclusively terminals and useful honors. All guides on mahjong I’ve read said “don’t even try this one”. Though it’s said to be “the opposite of Tanyao”, it’s much less probable to put together. Which often doesn’t stop me cause I’m stupid. I guess I should only aim at it if my starting hand is like two tiles away from it.

whatta ya think about that (spams “superb” emote) 

Even if you only have a passing look at a mahjong match, you might notice some interesting general features of the game. For example: this game requires a lot of the players’ heads. From what I’ve read, mahjong was invented in late 19th century in China. Which is baffling to me. This game requires so much counting, checking, deducing and memorization, it’s hard to believe this game, which seems destined to be paired with an electronic computing machine which would do all the counting and remembering for you, first appeared so long ago. Personally, I cannot even imagine playing analog mahjong, with actual tiles. The existence of mahjong itself forces me to have great respect for China. It had to take a genius to invent the game. It had to take a genius to find four such geniuses, required to play the game. And it’s mindblowing that mahjong eventually became a global phenomenon and not a local Chinese weirdness, to be described by folk researchers, at best. Also, by what miracle did mahjong become the gangsters’ game? If you’re smart enough to play the ‘jong, you’re smart enough not to be a criminal.

A beginner might say that even assembling four threes and a pair is hard. And so we arrive at the second feature of mahjong: in the square universe, everything is unlikely. The probability of success is quite low, whatever you’re doing. Even if you’re not aiming to put together All Green, All Honors or some other howling abomination, the probability of assembly of any hand is low. The trick is to take all those low percentages and with some wise maneuvering have them merge into a much larger number. Get good at probability control and you might start winning.

Mahjong is all about probability, which is impossible to divorce from randomness – the feature of mahjong number three is its heavy reliance on chance. I think I’ve once seen this copypasta in some thread: it listed local Asian rulesets of mahjong – they have one in Hongkong, one in proper China, in Thailand etc. Next to the items on the list were percentages, telling you how reliant on randomness each denomination of mahjong is. I think Japanese mahjong was at 60% of reliance on luck. Which is quite terrible. Even if you’re a master at the game, the probability that you’ll lose to an amateur is shockingly high. Then again, mahjong is so fundamentally random, what do they do to it in Hongkong to make the game more skill-reliant, even?

You might have heard this line, mentioned in relation to traditional games. “Easy to play, tough to master”. I’ve no idea what that means, but doubtlessly, in mahjong it’s not enough to just know the rules of the game. There are unwritten rules on how to not only play, but to play WELL. Don’t ask me too much about what those are, though. The most I can do is read stuff online and try to glean some tiny bits of knowledge about how to play properly. But, I will risk an attempt at sharing that secret.

Ask yourself this question first: “When do you decide towards what winning hand you want to go?”. I guess you should decide as soon as you get your starting hand, without waiting. That’s what I do, or at least strive to do, if my hand lets me. Or maybe instead of deciding “I’ll make THIS” immediately and then persistently climbing towards that goal I should be more flexible? I dunno anymore. Don’t know about you, but the moment I get my starting hand, I go through a little flowchart in my head to decide what to get rid of first. I usually throw useless wind tiles out first. Unless I have a hand stuffed with honors (which is rarely) – remember there are exceptions to every rule in mahjong. Then again, when should you deem it an exception and when not? If my starting hand has two copies of a useless honor (or three!), what to do? I usually keep them, hoping things will work out somehow… and then I crash and burn.

To be honest, this blogpost might be a way to end my adventure with mahjong. I don’t know, maybe I’ll keep playing. But if I don’t, this will be a memorial of that adventure. I play and yet I don’t feel like I’m getting any better. If I win a match in Mahjong Soul and get some points for it, I inevitably lose a short while later and go back to zero. Mahjong hurts.

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1 Response to My Adventure with Mahjong

  1. 道に迷う旅人 says:

    I came here from your post about Tsukino no Note!
    One of the factors of why luck play in such a way for Riichi mahjong compared to other format of mahjong (some of which is a more simpler type of game) is how the Dora affects the scoring system, and how as the consequences of Dora, there is the Dead Wall, from which any player can’t draw those 14 tiles under normal play, introducing some randomness in every play (Except when there is Kan).
    In pro matches online, up to 70% of hands end in a draw, and ~30% of those draws end with no players waiting for their winning tile, which I think emphasize how defensive oriented high level richii mahjong is.
    Rather than dealing out tiles to your opponents, depending on your score/ranking in the table, the potential of score your hand might get, and the kawa (discard pile) of your opponents, it would sometimes be much better to just Betaori (defensive play) by discarding Genbutsu (100% safe tiles) and Anpai (safe tiles).
    How would you know what tiles is safe? Well with the Riichi rule of Furiten (Sacred Discard) you can know for sure that the player that discarded those exact tile in their kawa wouldn’t win from it. Building from that knowledge, you can infer more information from the discarded tiles as the kawa progresses during play, when determining safe tiles (this is called suji).
    Of course this knowledge can be used offensively, since what your opponent think is a safe tile based on suji is actually the exact tile you are looking for (suji trap)
    I think this tension of luck and skill is why Riichi Mahjong is such an exhilarating format for me.
    I hope you find your online match experience with Riichi memorable, and your loss not be a discouragement, the most fun I had with Riichi is with friends!

    Liked by 1 person

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