Computer mah-jongg and other electronic games such as Shanghai and Szechuan solitaire, which use depictions of the Asian-themed graphic tiles, have sparked new interest in playing the old-fashioned hands-on version.
Mah-jongg is played with tiles similar to dominoes, each engraved with distinctive patterns representing a variety of suits and values. This ancient Chinese game resembles rummy, with each player trying to assemble a hand containing a combination of three of a kind, four of a kind, and/or three tiles of the same suit in sequence, plus one pair. Part of mah-jongg's appeal is that a beginner can quickly learn enough to enjoy a simple game. However, there are a multitude of variations and fine points that can keep the game fresh and interesting as players develop their skills and refine their strategies.
Ancient RootsJust how long the game has existed is the subject of much debate. Some sources claim that mah-jongg dates back to time of Confucius -- about 500 B.C. -- and that 2,000-year-old pieces have been unearthed in archaeological digs. In China, where it is also known as "The Game of Four Winds," some version of mah-jongg has been played for at least 200 years. By the late 19th century, the game had evolved more or less into its current form. To this day, however, regional variations exist throughout China and in other Asian countries, including Japan and Korea. Mah-jongg was introduced in the U.S. in the early 1920s by Joseph Babcock, who had become fascinated with it while working for Standard Oil in Suzhou. Babcock studied many ways of playing the game, then combined and streamlined the variations into a standardized set of rules, published simply as The Red Book, which is actually
How to PlayMah-jongg is most commonly played by four people, though it can be adapted for two, three, or five players. The game is not difficult, but it can be complex: There are many variations, even in basics such as how the tiles are distributed, how scores are calculated and the amount of tiles used per game.
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Rules of EngagementSince so many versions exist, set out the rules before starting the game to ensure that all players are on the same page. At the start, anywhere from 136 to 152 tiles are mixed thoroughly, then stacked two-tiles high into a four-sided wall. In its most simple form, mah-jongg begins with each player drawing 13 tiles from the wall. A turn consists of drawing a tile and discarding one, with the goal of going out first by forming a winning hand consisting of "pungs" (three of a kind), "kongs" (four of a kind), and "chows" (three tiles of the same suit in sequence), plus one pair. The first player to use of all the tiles in his or her hand in these combinations declares mah-jongg and turns all tiles face up for scoring. The other players, too, calculate their scores. Typically kongs have the highest value, pungs are next and chows pull in the fewest points. Always, however, the game should flow quickly -- so consider your strategy and what to discard while awaiting your turn.
Digital and AnalogThere's a strong mah-jongg presence online, including sites for people interested in
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