TIP #1: PRACTICE MAH JONGG HANDS
If you are a beginner at mah jongg, I can’t stress enough how important it is to practice putting mah jongg hands together. Organize your tiles by suits, dragons, winds, jokers and flowers. Then pick a section of the card and duplicate each hand with the tiles. The Consecutive Run section is the most important on the card as it gives you many, many variations on hands. Remember to read the fine print in the parenthesis as it gives you more information.
TIP #2: RACK YOUR MAH JONGG TILE UPON PICKING IT
The Window of Opportunity rule is probably the single most important rule in American Mah Jongg. It's very important that the mah jongg rules governing this crucial window of time are clearly understood by all players. The unfortunate fact is that most players have never even seen the complete actual rule in writing. Most players learned what they know about the rule by word of mouth, and usually what they heard was incomplete or incorrect.
When a discard goes down (when the tile either touches the table or is named completely), the window for calling the tile opens. While the window of opportunity is open, any of the other three players can claim the live discard. The window doesn't close until one of the following three things occurs:
- The next player picks and racks
- The next player picks and discards
- The next player picks and declares Mah Jongg
The window of opportunity doesn’t close, then, when the player next in order lifts the next mah jongg tile from the wall (or slides it, which is essentially the same thing), or when she looks at the tile (as many people seem to think); it doesn't close until she racks or discards or declares Mah Jongg. And to be clear, racking a tile means placing it on the mah jongg rack next to your other tiles (not tapping or placing it on top of the rack where an exposure would go).
Once any of those three things happens, no player can call the most recent discard, because that discarded tile is now dead.
If a player wants to claim (call) the live discard within the window of opportunity, she may do so. When a claim is spoken, if the next player in line is holding a picked tile, or looking at it, or moving it towards her rack, she has to put it back on the wall.
This is why you should pick and rack your mah jongg tile immediately. Don’t hold it, massage it, talk to it! Can you imagine how you would feel if you picked a joker and had to put it back, or if it was your tile for Mah Jongg?
This strategy is adapted from Tom Sloper’s Column #458. His website has lots of good information including the complete mah jongg rules. The rules on the back of the NMJL card are not the complete set of rules. Also, Sloper has a weekly strategy column and bulletin board where you can pose questions.
TIP #3: PAIRS
Remember that pairs are the most difficult to get since they cannot be exposed, nor can you use a joker (the never, never rule: never can you use a joker in a pair or to stand in as a single tile—think “NEWS”). It's better to play a hand where the pairs or single tiles are in place and you need Kongs or Pungs rather than the reverse. If the hand needs two pairs and you have one pair and one of the tiles of the other pair, that is usually fine. If you have a choice between two hands, let this tip guide you in deciding. Even if one mah jongg hand has fewer tiles to support it, I usually will take it over the one with pairs I don’t have. When I don’t follow my own advice, I often find myself discarding jokers I can’t use!
ONLINE INSTRUCTION BONANZA
In late March, as COVID caused the lockdown, I resigned myself to not being able to continue teaching my passionate pastime. Although I’ve been teaching Mah Jongg and Canasta in Long Island libraries for over ten years, I quickly realized it was no longer an option in this “new normal.”
But then something amazing happened. As I was leaning into the “Stay At Home” way of life and writing a list of which closets to begin cleaning out, the phone rang. Marialisa Arnold from the Baldwin Public Library queried, “Could you teach a virtual class for us?” This was the last thing I expected. The idea of taking the games of Mah Jongg and Canasta online wasn’t something that had crossed my mind, but without thinking how I would do it, I signed on. Soon after I began teaching my beloved games online, the phone was ringing off the hook as other libraries called with the same request. Reeling from the unexpected flurry of requests, I had to quickly tackle the challenge of completely converting my teaching to a virtual venue.
During the past ten months, I’ve taught hundreds of students online. In fact, my classes have been at capacity, going well beyond the normal limits of live instruction and reaching across state lines to places like Worcester, Massachusetts and Phoenix, Arizona.
It’s been a joy to continue teaching Mah Jongg and enable those interested to acquire a new skill and viable recreational outlet from the comfort of their own homes. Moving my classes to a virtual platform allowed me to reach a wider audience than previously possible and helped create positive human connections, which have been crucial during this time of isolation.
-Donna Miller-SmallVisit Donna Miller-Small’s website to learn how to play mahjong online and to get more Mah Jongg tips and tricks.