Presented by Debbie Barnett, Director of Administration at MahjCon

Jokers oh jokers…


One might think there is no strategy when it comes to Jokers; if this is your thinking, read on.

Jokers in mah jongg are much like wild cards when playing card games. In card games, you might be limited to the number of jokers you can add to a meld but in mah jongg, when using jokers in a pung, kong, or quint, there is no limit.

When we begin to rack our dealt tiles, we are hoping to see 1, 2, or more of the 8 joker tiles in a set. When this happens, it gives players an edge in the possibility of winning a hand. And, even better yet, during the game, picking up a joker from the wall tiles is a bonus. This leads me to strategy #1, try to avoid uttering a sound when you pick up your wall tile and see it’s a joker. Letting on that you have just picked up a joker can give your opponent's knowledge about what is going on in your hand.

Joker placement is another way, jokers can be telling. If you pick up a wall tile and it’s a joker, don’t immediately put it to the left (the place most put their jokers). Instead, place the joker randomly among your tile, and then at a later point, you can move it to the front.

What about discarding jokers? Do you name the joker, joker, same, or the name of the previously discarded tile? Either of these three is acceptable however my pick of the smartest naming convention is saying “same.” The below list might help you decide which naming convention to use:

  • Naming your joker, a joker gets everyone’s attention. Now all 3 of your opponents know you are either playing, a singles and pairs hand or waiting on one tile to complete a single grouping or a pair. This joker tell, will have the most impact and give an edge to your opponents especially if you have a few exposures up.
  • Naming your joker, the previously discarded tile will alert an opponent if it is a tile they need. When they call it or look at the table to see the joker, they are sure to comment in some form or another. This joker alert can be telling.
  • My pick and what I think is the smartest choice is to name your joker, “same.” Even though many players pay close attention to the table, there are those whose minds might be wrapped up in their tiles or just simply not paying attention. If one person misses your joker discard, they’ve missed an important joker tell. Some of you reading will be thinking, “many of the players point out a discarded joker.” This is a no-no in the game of mah jongg. There is a good reason why the term, “poker face” came to be. For those that do not practice a poker face during the game, it might be time for someone else at the table to remind them of proper etiquette.  

Another great joker strategy is discarding a natural tile instead of a joker. An example of this is as follows: Your hand is set, and you are now ready to blurt out those infamous words, mah jongg! It is your turn, and you pick up a joker. At first, you might quickly discard that joker possibly giving away some important info about your hand especially if you have exposures up on the rack. So, instead of discarding the joker, add it to one of your existing pungs or kongs and discard one of the natural tiles. Pretty cool, huh? And what about joker exchanges? Of course, do a joker exchange, it can add one more tile toward your hand. Avoid doing a joker exchange at risk of making your opponent jokerless and paying (if you play for money) for the entire table. How and when does it become obvious? If the opponent is showing 3 exposures and you take the only joker on their rack, your chances are great. Do them to avoid someone else from getting one. For instance, there is a pung exposed with one joker. You pick up the natural tile and replace the joker now preventing anyone else that picks up or already has the 4th tile. Joker During any phase of the game especially in the last wall, doing a joker exchange provides you with a safe tile to discard when you’ve got a lot of hot tiles sitting in your hand. As mentioned above, be careful about making your opponent’s hand pure.

Lastly but most importantly, you might consider avoiding a call for an exposure with a joker during the end game (38 tiles or less) if you can, unless…the natural tile is already on the table or in an existing exposure. Putting a joker up with an available joker for exchange at this juncture is a sure way to give another player mah jongg toward the end of the game. Of course, if that call and exposure put you one tile away from mah jongg you might want to and certainly can take the chance. 

Which joker strategy do you swear by?

Written by Debbie Barnett, Director of Administration at American Mah Jongg Ventures dba MahjCon. MahjCon is an annual multi-day conference for mah jongg enthusiasts of all levels. Share in the fun at a themed party while playing mah jongg and bidding on silent auction items for the benefit of Alzheimers, improve your skills or level up your game with beginner to advanced strategies and play lots of mah jongg with friends across the country.  For more information about MahjCon, visit or contact Debbie at





Great advice! Thank you!

Dorothy Ellis on Sep 16, 2022

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