Table of Contents

The Charleston
Game Play

Can you Play Mahjong with Two Players?

Can you Play Mahjong with Three Players?

Play Online Mahjong

American Mahjong is a variation on the Chinese game Mahjong, and is a game of strategy, skill and luck.  Typically, there are four players seated around a table, although two or three people can also play.  There are also Mahjong online.

The objective of the game is to be the first, by drawing and discarding tiles, to match tiles to a specific hand from a National Mah Jongg League (NMJL) card. This guide follows the National Mah Jongg League rules, but many players establish table rules when learning and playing for fun.

The excitement of Mahjong lies in the continuous decision making process.  Whether playing for fun or to win a tournament, there is a place for all in the game of Mahjong.

Mahjong Tiles and Accessories

    The following items are necessary to play Mahjong:

    • Mahjong tiles
    • 2 Dice, optional
    • 4 National Mah Jongg League Cards
    • 4 Racks & Pushers
    • Mahjong mat, optional

    Mahjong Tiles

    Mahjong sets come with varying amounts of tiles.  There are 152 core tiles, however, sets may include extra tiles such as blanks and seasons (to be played as flowers) and extra jokers.  Players can establish table rules for whether or not to play with extra tiles. 

    How to play mahjong - learn to mahjong rules - Mahjong Tile Set


    Dots (36 tiles, 4 of each number 1-9)

    How to play mahjong - learn to mahjong rules - Mahjong Tiles Dots


    Bams (36 tiles, 4 of each number 1-9)

    How to play mahjong - learn to mahjong rules - Mahjong Tiles Bam


    Cracks (36 tiles, 4 of each number 1-9)

    How to play mahjong - learn to mahjong rules - Mahjong Tiles Crack


    Winds (16 tiles, 4 of each wind, North/East/South/West)

    How to play mahjong - learn to mahjong rules - Mahjong Tiles Winds


    Dragons (12 tiles, 4 of each, Red/White or Soap/Green)

    How to play mahjong - learn to mahjong rules - mahjong tiles dragon


    Flowers (8 tiles)

    How to play mahjong - learn to mahjong rules - Mahjong Tiles Set - Flowers


    Jokers (8 tiles)

    How to play mahjong - learn to mahjong rules - Mahjong Tiles Jokers


    Blanks (4 tiles, optional)

    How to play mahjong - learn to mahjong rules - Blank Mahjong Tiles


    Players use two dice to determine the dealer and where the dealer will break the wall.  If playing without dice, the player sitting in the east chair is the dealer.


    National Mah Jongg League Card

    The National Mah Jongg League (NMJL) publishes a playing card annually with new Mahjong hands and scores. The back of the card contains a summary of the rules.  


    How to play mahjong - learn to mahjong rules - mahjong playing card - mahjong hand


    Mahjong Tile Racks and Pushers

    Each player has a Mahjong rack and pusher to hold tiles.  The pusher sits against the back of the rack and will curtsy the tiles when ready to play. 

    How to play mahjong - learn to mahjong rules - mahjong wooden rack - playing mat - mahjong tile set


    Mahjong Mat

    A playing mat adds life to any game, and players often use it on glass tables, card tables, and for outdoor play to muffle the sounds of tiles hitting the table.



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    The Set-Up

    To set-up to play, players:

    • Place mat on table.
    • Position rack with the pusher away from each player.
    • Place mahjong tiles in the middle of the table, face down, and shuffle. 
    • Each player builds a wall against a pusher, creating a row of two tiles, facedown and stacked.

    Each wall has roughly the same quantity of tiles.  (Quantity of tiles vary based on table rules.)

    How to play mahjong - learn to mahjong rules - the set up




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    The Deal

    Select a Dealer

    Each player rolls the dice and the highest roller becomes the dealer.  The dealer is also referred to as “East”.

    Tile Distribution

    The dealer rolls the dice.  The roll represents the number of stacked tiles that will remain on the dealer's wall.  The dealer counts down the stacks on the wall, starting from the right, to the number rolled. 

    Slide the pusher left past the last tile counted, and break the wall by curtsying out the leftover wall.  To curtsy the wall, use the right end of the pusher to angle the tiles forward towards the opposite player.  Then, slide the pusher back into place. 

    From the curtsied wall, the dealer takes the first two stacks (four tiles).  The dealer continues counterclockwise, placing two stacks in front of each player until each player has six stacks (twelve tiles).  When the wall runs out, the dealer curtsies the next wall to the left (clockwise). 

    Once each player has twelve tiles, the dealer takes the first and third top tiles from the wall.  The dealer then gives one tile to each player in a counterclockwise fashion.

    The dealer will have fourteen tiles and each of the other players will have thirteen.  Once the game begins, the dealer will discard a tile and each player will then have thirteen mahjong tiles.


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    Understanding the Mahjong Card


    The NMJL card has nine categories.  There is a category for the card publication year, and all hands in this section will contain the year (ex. “2021”).  Players use the white dragon/soap for the zero.  The other three tiles can be bams, dots or cracks but must all be the same suit.


    How to Play Mahjong 2021 - learn to mahjong rules
    How to Play Mahjong 2021 - learn the mahjong rules - mahjong hand - bams
    How to Play Mahjong 2021 - learn to mahjong rules - mahjong hand - Cracks

    Other categories include:

    • 2468
    • Any Like Numbers
    • Quints
    • Consecutive Run
    • 13579
    • Winds - Dragons
    • 369
    • Singles and Pairs

    Quints hands always require a joker, whereas a player cannot use a joker for a Singles and Pairs hand.


    Color represents any one suit.  The colors do not relate to a particular suit but instead communicate how many different suits are needed for a hand.  A hand in all blue indicates a single suit for all fourteen tiles, while blue and green hands require two suits.  Blue, green and red require all three suits.

    Flowers and Winds are always blue on the card but do not have a suit.  The white dragon/soap does not have a suit when used for as a zero.


    Next to each hand is an “X” or a “C” indicating whether the hand is exposed or concealed and a value.  Unlike a concealed or “C” hand,  the “X” means the player can expose the hand by picking up a discarded tile as explained here.

    Next to the “X” or “C” is a value.  This indicates the score for the hand, with more difficult hands lending a higher value.  Players use the value of the hand when keeping score.


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    Sort Your Hand

    Each player takes their tiles and displays them on a rack.  Players then sort their hands.  One recommendation is to place tiles in this order - jokers, blanks, flowers, winds, dragons, and then each suit, numerically low to high. 

    The player’s goal in sorting tiles is to determine the best possible category for their hand. 

    To determine the best possible category, players should:

    • Identify multiples - pairs, pungs (3 identical tiles) and kongs (4 identical tiles).
    • Gather tiles that support the multiples and fit a category on the card.
    • If there are no multiples, look for a pattern that matches a category on the card, such as odds, evens, or consecutive run.

    Players move Mahjong tiles that do not support the selected category to the right end of the rack for future discard.


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    The Charleston

    The Charleston is a ritual allowing a player to pass and receive three Mahjong tiles at a time with the goal of improving the hand.

    There are two Charlestons.  To remember the order, players use the acronym “ROLLOR”.  The first Charleston is Right, Over, Left and is mandatory.   After the Left pass, any player can stop the Charleston.

    If no player stops the Charleston then players continue with the second Charleston, Left, Over, Right. 

    For each pass, players identify three Mahjong tiles that do not help their hands.  Players pass the tiles facedown.  Once a player passes three tiles, the player may then pick up the three received tiles.  At this point, players reevaluate their hands to see if their new tiles improve their hand or potentially move them to a different category on the card.

    Players cannot pass jokers in the Charleston.

    At the end of the Charleston, players opposite each other may mutually agree to exchange zero, one, two or three tiles. 

    Once the Charleston and optional across are complete, players should have a category and possibly a specific hand in mind. 

    What to Pass

    When passing tiles, players should pass defensively by not passing pairs, same numbers, flowers or dragons.  If passing winds, a player should only pass one wind at a time.

    Blind Pass

    For the last pass on each Charleston (the first left and the final right), a player can do a blind pass if the player does not have three unwanted tiles to pass.  In the blind pass, the player can take one, two or three of the tiles received and include them in the player’s own pass.  For example, if a player only wants to pass one tile, the player may blindly take two received tiles, add one tile from the player’s hand, and pass the three tiles to the next player.  


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    Game Play

    The dealer begins by discarding a tile face up and verbally naming the tile for everyone to hear.  Each player’s discard is said aloud for all players to hear.  As soon as the tile touches the mat or the tile has been named, it is considered discarded.

    Moving counterclockwise, the next player draws a tile from the wall and adds it to their rack.  With each draw, players are looking to improve their hand. The player then selects and discards an unwanted tile, naming it aloud. Play continues counterclockwise.

    When a wall runs out of tiles, the player clockwise will curtsy their wall for players to draw tiles. 


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    The Pause

    When a tile is discarded, any player can pause the game to pick up the most recently discarded tile.  Player must announce “PAUSE” before the next player draws AND places the tile in their rack.
    • To pick up a tile, it must complete a pung (3 identical tiles), kong (4 identical tiles) or quint (5 identical tiles, with use of a joker) for an exposed hand.  Remember to never pick up for a concealed hand, unless it is the final tile needed to declare Mahjong.
    • Players may use one or more jokers for the exposed pung/kong/quint.
    • Players cannot pick up a discarded tile for a single or a pair unless it is the final tile necessary to declare Mahjong.  This is one of the most important rules when playing Mahjong.
    • Accordingly, except to declare Mahjong, players cannot pick up a discarded tile to complete “NEWS” or to complete the year (ex. 2021”), as these are a group of singles. 
    • The player who picks up a tile must expose the pung/kong/quint on top of the rack for all to see. 
    • The player then discards an unwanted tile and play resumes with the player counterclockwise of the player who paused the game.  This may mean skipping other players’ turns.
    • When more than one player pauses the game, the player nearest in turn takes the discard unless the other player started to expose their hand (I.e. place their tiles on their rack) or the other player needs the tile to declare Mahjong.
    • Once a player exposes part of a hand, the exposure cannot be touched again throughout the game unless to replace a joker with the correct tile.
    • The player can retract the pause if the player decides not to pick up the discarded tile. 



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    The Joker

    One of the most important rules of Mahjong is that a player cannot use a joker for a single or pair. A joker can substitute for a tile(s) in a pung, kong, or quint combination.   

    Accordingly, a player cannot use a joker for “NEWS” or for the year (ex. “2021”), as these are a group of singles. 

    During a player’s turn, the player can swap a specific tile for an exposed joker. 

    If a player discards a joker, it is considered dead and no player can pick it up from the table.


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    Getting your Mahjong

    When a player completes a hand, either by drawing a tile or pausing to pick up their final tile, the player says “Mahjong!”.  The player then exposes the hand, sharing the category and line from the NMJL card to confirm Mahjong.

    For the fourteenth tile, a player can pause to pick up for any tile in the hand. This is the only time a player can pick up a discarded tile for a single or a pair. 

    A player with a concealed hand can also use a discarded tile to declare Mahjong.


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    The Score

    The card has a value for each hand next to the “X” or “C”. 

    For basic scoring, the winner receives the value indicated on the NMJL card.

     Advanced scoring rules include:

    • The player who discarded a tile from which another player declares Mahjong must pay twice the value, while the other players pay only the value noted on the card.
    • If the final tile is drawn from the wall, players pay the winner twice the value.
    • If the winning hand does not contain jokers, players pay the winner double the value. 

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    Additional Rules 

    Table Rules

    Players often establish table rules, also called house rules, instead of playing strictly by the NMJL rules. Examples of table rules include:

    • Dealer does not roll dice to break the wall for tile distribution.
    • When taking a tile from the wall, a player can tap the tile on rack (instead of the NMJL rule to place tile in the rack). Once tapped, another player cannot pause the game for the most recently discarded tile.
    • Playing the game with blank tiles.


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    The Blank

    Some players use the blank Mahjong tiles that often come in a Mahjong set.  Table Rules determine how to use a blank. Table rules are separate and apart from the National Mah Jongg League Rules. A popular table rule is:

    • Using the blank to exchange for a discarded tile
      • A player can exchange a blank tile for any discarded tile (except for a discarded joker) during the player’s turn, or
      • A player can exchange a blank tile for any discarded tile (except for a discarded joker) at any time during the game, not just during the player’s turn.
      • Once a blank is discarded, it is dead and no player can pick it up.
    • Online games do not include blank tiles. 

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    Only for Fanatics

    The following rules are truly next-level and are only for the advanced player who wants to play by the books.  Many of these rules can be overlooked when learning the game or playing casually.

    A player is out of the game or “dead” when:

    • A player has too few or too many tiles.
    • A player has exposed too few or too many tiles to make any hand.
    • A player curtsies out the wrong wall or takes a tile from the wrong wall.
    • A player is able to determine another player cannot win based on exposures and/or discards.
    • A player incorrectly declares Mahjong and exposes hand.

    When a player’s hand is dead, the player can no longer draw and discard.  However, any exposed tiles remain on the player’s rack, and other players can exchange tiles for any exposed jokers.


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