Gaming Mahjong

Mahjong without borders

Written by Jenn Barr

This article first appeared in the Mar/Apr 2014 issue of World Gaming magazine.

It hasn’t always been easy spreading the good word of mahjong outside Asian borders and into the West – but perhaps we only have ourselves to blame for that? Despite the insistence by some that there is only one “correct” way to play mahjong, it’s time we all opened our minds a little more to ensure new players learn to love the game as much as we do.

It’s a thankless job trying to increase the mahjong population. The culture of the game differs depending on rule set, continent and country and it’s difficult to find agreement no matter where you go, even amongst locals. In 2006 I started, a website dedicated to help spread the love of mahjong throughout the English-speaking communities – especially the Japanese Riichi rules. It’s had its fair share of success and while my partner Gemma Collinge and I don’t update it as much as we would like to, it’s still one of the top stops when the western world is looking for information on the game.

I published my first book in 2009 to help shed light on the Japanese Riichi rule set in English. It’s still on sale and I’m always pleasantly surprised when the reports come and people are consistently purchasing the book.

The royalty fees aren’t extraordinary, but it’s a stable pace, which means there are still new players coming in to learn the game. My hope is for this number to at least remain steady but hopefully grow. While the book includes rule variants and very basic strategy, it is strictly a beginner’s book designed to introduce the game to new players.

With the poker boom in the 2000s, there was a rush of poker strategy books and even texts on how to read your opponents’ body language flooding the scene. Well, mahjong hasn’t had its second boom in the West yet (the first one began in the 1930s) and there is no rush to publish or purchase mahjong strategy books, but that doesn’t stop us at from chugging along at our own pace. We recently published the first English strategy book, available both in print and on Amazon Kindle. This is one of the first English books introducing no rules, but strictly strategy for any type of mahjong. There are a number of books on how to learn the game. As a community we are finally venturing (surely but slowly) into the realms of actually improving play.

The problem with helping mahjong grow in the West is that each player has learned a specific set of rules and most players believe those rules are the only way the game should be played. This is common to all players, especially at the beginning. I am guilty of it, my co-author Garthe is guilty of it, and we’ve all been guilty of it at one point. This is by far the greatest hurdle for increasing the population of the game. Even our book is based on the Japanese Riichi version of the game.

In reality we should all be more like Alan Kwan, the gaming expert who developed the World Series of Mahjong rules and has never been afraid to either adjust or justify his game, always in the best interest of the players and mahjong itself. While I have been snobby about new rule sets in the past (including the WSOM rules), Alan has always been truly innovative and has succeeded in ways to get new players into the game quickly as well as allowing veterans to adapt to a universal rule set and play with mahjong snobs from other countries.

Not only are players snobby about which rules to play, there is a vocal minority who insist the game should be played according to their rules. This is not an issue about flower tiles or which combinations score points, these “elites” actually berate other players for which tiles they choose to discard! Much like those new to poker being attacked by opponents for daring to call with A-7 off-suit, this attitude is a huge obstacle for new players who don’t want to be singled out for certain plays.

The most important thing anyone who loves mahjong should remember is that you need four players to play. Wouldn’t it be great if no matter what country you were in there were always four players ready to play the game? Of course it would be great. Because mahjong is great. And the only way to accomplish this is to stop being pedantic about rules and just play – be inclusive for the greater good.

Europe has definitely taken some steps in the right direction. The European Mahjong Association (EMA) has two official rule sets for tournaments, including the Mahjong Competition Rules (MCR, based on Chinese rules) and the Riichi Competition Rules (RCR, based on Japanese rules). If things continue on this path there is potential for an incredible infrastructure and the setting of an example for the rest of the world in rankings and inclusivity.

The existence of a variety of rule sets is not a concept exclusive to mahjong. Poker boasts countless variations and it has become common knowledge that players who excel in all rule sets are the true champions of the game. While the WSOP has always had no-limit Hold’em as its main event games like Omaha, Stud and other drawing games have regained popularity and are even the norm in a number of regions. This is where the future of mahjong could be as well.

Online networked versions of mahjong are set up for this with multiple rule variations available on each platform. The games are there, the technology is there, but anyone who frequents online mahjong rooms knows there is still a lack of player numbers on these sites.

After many years of reporting to a small English audience, the time has come to take the next step. When someone asks you to play a rule set you’re not used to, take the opportunity to learn more about mahjong itself. Maybe next time those buddies will agree to play your game. We need to break down the borders of countries and rule sets to join together and increase the player pool. The population and the media will determine the game of choice. Our job now is to provide information and increase awareness as the foundation for a possible boom in the near future. World Gaming will be prepared and at the forefront. Will you?