This article first appeared in the Sep/Oct 2013 issue of World Gaming magazine.
Like any competitive game, mahjong can bring out both the best and the worst in people and if you’re a regular at the tables you will no doubt come across players who will try to cheat their way to the top. But you can catch them in the act if you know what to look for!
Games are fun. Everyone likes games. Winning games is fun. Everyone likes winning. Good players like to work hard, learn about a game, improve and win because they excel at the game. But there are others who will do whatever it takes to win, even if it means unsportsmanlike behavior or even … cheating.
I know, you cringed just reading that word. I didn’t want to write it. The editor made me do it. Although I’m sure you would never cheat, there are some important points to make sure that no one is cheating you.
The easiest way to cheat is when tiles are hand-shuffled and each player builds his or her own wall. Tiles can be placed strategically so the player building the wall knows each tile he’s stacked up. Turning all the tiles face down beforehand doesn’t prevent it. That is why it is so important to play important games on automatic shuffling tables. In a poker tournament you wouldn’t accept the players dealing the hands themselves, right? Even knowing the position of two or three tiles in a wall can mean the difference between winning or losing a hand and with hand-shuffling it is virtually impossible to prevent this.
Another popular method of getting ahead the “dirty” way is hiding tiles in your lap or other places. When building or arranging the wall, or when drawing the starting hand, the player will palm two tiles on the edge. This move is hard to catch if you don’t know what you’re looking for, especially if an expert is pulling this move. Having two extra tiles creates a huge advantage. And that is exactly how most Chinese games prevent this: they use huge tiles. The bigger the tiles are, the harder it is to hide them without anyone noticing. When you can’t choose which tiles to use, make sure each player is building his wall the same length as all the others. For 136-tile decks the walls should be 17 stacks of two each. This will make it easier to keep track of any missing tiles. Also keep your eye on everyone when the starting hands are being dealt, as this is the prime opportunity for a sleight of hand.
Speaking of sleight of hand, there is a way to exchange a single tile you don’t need for one that you might need. This can be even more useful with hand-shuffling, because if you know where a tile is on top of the wall, you can exchange the tile for the one you’ve seen. The trickster this time hides one tile in his hand while discarding and sneakily slides it into the wall on the trip back, pushing the tile currently in the wall back so he can put it in his hand. With automatic tables this move is not guaranteed to improve the perpetrator’s hand and it’s a bit easier to catch than other techniques provided you’re not playing with a magician. This is why in Japan it is considered bad manners to discard a tile while holding another tile in the same hand.
A classic and often hard to catch cheat is marking tiles. This is where a player marks the back of a tile very subtly with their fingernails, places a sticky substance to the side or even marks the top or bottom of the tile, making it lean ever so slightly to one side. This will be hard to catch, but it doesn’t hurt to keep a close eye on the backs of the tiles. If it’s your own set, make sure to wipe tiles down between each session. It will take at least a few hands for any suspect to mark a significant number of tiles, delaying the edge. There are cases in which older sets are pre-marked for you in the form of cracks and scratches. Most players believe these are fair game, so it’s up to you to learn which tiles are which in decks like these.
Finally, there is strength in numbers and cooperation between two players can certainly hurt the other two. Players sitting next to each other can exchange tiles under the table and all players can signal their partners in crime. In games in which only two players know each other, they should sit across from one another, rather than next to each other, to keep everyone comfortable. Watch for hand and tile placement signals.
I won’t say the dreaded word again, but as a strong player it’s up to you to protect yourself from malintent at the mahjong table. While any of these malicious acts are unforgiveable, they do happen so make sure to keep an eye on the other players. If anything at all looks suspicious, make sure your head isn’t always buried in your own hand.