This article first appeared in the Jul/Aug 2011 issue of World Gaming magazine.
Despite their popularity no one seems to have quite perfected a well-structured mahjong tournament. These tournaments present unique challenges not found in poker or two player games. Mahjong games are long, time is limited and tables have to play with four players every game of every hand. Many have tried but the magic formula for a great mahjong tournament structure has proven elusive.By far, Japan holds the most mahjong tournaments per year and probably is the closest to getting the structure right. All games are played on automatic tables (tiles are shuffled and walls are built inside the table), making the play fast and allowing more games per day. The biggest problem with the structures on these tiny islands is the number of days they take. Many events have qualifying rounds that last for weeks as they are only held on weekends and holidays. It’s hard for anyone not living in Japan to join these events. Also because of Japan’s gaming laws, large prize pools are impossible making the incentive to travel to these events almost non-existent.
The structures are usually based on total points and the field is cut in half or more after each round. Players generally start at zero points after each advancing round. There are also one-day tournaments, lasting 4 to 6 games with the total points of the day determining the winner.
Europe holds trophy prize tournaments over one or two days, with three or four games each day. Last issue’s mahjong columnist, Gemma Collinge, has made a habit of winning these events. Play is slower than in Japan because there are no automatic tables. Time limits are put on rounds, meaning not all games are finished. Winners are based on total individual scores and often there is a team score based on the country each player is representing.Outside Japan, the biggest tournament is the World Series of Mahjong (WSOM). This event is not afraid to try new things and the structure improves each year. The 2010 event held at the Venetian Macau allowed players two full days of play before there were any cuts, giving the skilled players a chance to lower the variance of the results. Innovative tournament director Alan Kwan implemented a new payout structure as well, awarding prize amounts based on the number of points earned during play instead of overall placing. It is events like these that are helping the mahjong industry come up with new ideas and leading us on a path to find the perfect mahjong tournament structure.
The online mahjong platform is becoming a very popular stage for tournament play as well. Online games play even faster than live games with automatic tables, and eliminate the geographic hurdles. The potential pool of participants helps in table arrangements too. Major online mahjong portals are running big tournaments most weekends which often attract more than 200 players. Unlike live tournaments, online tournament players compete for the highest total scores in a consecutive number of rounds, and they can play as many rounds as they wish within the specified tournament period. With the cultural and physical distance of mahjong players throughout the world, it is likely that online games are the future hope for mahjong tournaments.
We’re not quite there yet, but as more mahjong tournaments are popping up throughout the world it’s only a matter of time until we have a structure that most players are happy with. With all the different cultures that are already enjoying this game around the world, the dream is that we’ll be playing together on a big stage very soon.