March Madness?…This Madness Is Year ‘Round

Las Vegas is the site of March Madness, the annual college basketball championship tournament which lasts a few weeks.  But Vegas, as well as other cities, is also the site for another type of madness which continues throughout the year…Mah Jong Madness.

Most folks probably know of Mah Jong from the “match the tile” computer game by the same name but that is not Mah Jong.  When I first learned about computer Mah Jong games, I was excited.

But that excitement turned to disappointment when I discovered that these games were misleadingly called Mah Jong because  I played the real Mah Jong when I was a child in Manila.  (I eventually did find a “real” computer Mah Jong game called “Hong Kong Mah Jong.”)

So how did I come to play Mah Jong as a child?

Just before I began fifth grade, a new family moved into a house that had just been built two doors down from mine.  Since I had hung around the construction site, and recall hammering a nail into some part of the house, I was curious about who the new residents were.  So I went to the house, rang the gate bell and introduced myself.

Turns out the new folks were from New York. There were three children and one of them was a boy (Ken) my age who became my classmate in my fifth grade section when school began a few weeks later.  His father was Chinese and his mother was Chinese-Filipino.

Ken and I quickly became best friends. The family was Catholic and went to church every Sunday. When they learned I was nominally Catholic but didn’t go to church, they made me an offer I couldn’t refuse: go to church with them and then partake in a fabulous lunch their mother cooked, which was not limited to one entree.  (She cooked up a memorable short ribs dish, among others.)

After lunch, a good part of the afternoon was devoted to playing Mah Jong, which they taught me.   I don’t think I ever won a hand (16 hands in a game, consisting of four rounds of four hands) but it didn’t matter…my interest was the food!

One year when I was in San Francisco, I bought inexpensive hard plastic Mah Jongg tiles in Chinatown, hoping I could interest some friends in playing.  But I never got around to using them and I don’t even know where they are now.

So when I learned from a CBS Sunday Morning segment that Mah Jongg was enjoying a revival in the U.S., I was quite interested.  Apparently, there was a time when Mah Jongg was very popular in the U.S., especially in Jewish neighborhoods.

If you can play rummy, then you can play Mah Jong, although there are a few additional rules to learn.  But the concept is similar: try to match your tiles (cards) to produce sets of three or four of a kind, “mini-straights” of three and one pair.  When you achieve that, you declare “Mah Jong”.

Mah Jong has three “suits” – characters (craks); bamboo (bams); and circles, each numbered from one through nine. There are also other tiles, such as dragons and winds.

Mah Jong tiles

Mah Jong tiles

When a tile is discarded by a player during the game, another player who can use that tile for some sort of set calls out the appropriate set name: “kong” (four of a kind); “pong” (three of a kind) or “chow” (three sequential numbers of the same suit, such as 4, 5 and 6 of bamboo). If two players can use the same tile, then priority goes to the player with the “better” set – “kong” first, then “pong” and finally “chow.”  (Of course, a tile needed for Mah Jong has top priority.)

One thing I never understood was the scoring.  Some sets are worth more points than others.  For example, I believe wind and dragon sets are worth more than “suit” sets.

If you’re interested in Mah Jong, visit the Mah Jong Madness website.  You can even go on a Mah Jong tournament cruise.

And to play “real” Mah Jong online for free, against three computer opponents, visit this website.  It has the rules, although you have to click a link to another website. The AI will “suggest” discards and also alert you to when you can use a tile discarded by another player.

Note that the Ai has a problem with mini-straights.  If you already have a “hidden” mini-straight and you can make another one, it will alert you.  Since “hidden” sets disguise the strength of your hand, do not take the tile.

Also, there are two “views”: your tiles and a “table top” view which allows you to see what is being discarded.  Even if you cannot use the tile, seeing what is being discarded can give you clues to what the other players may be looking for. You can change views with the mouse or through the game controls.

And if you’re interested in the game I have, you can check out a demo and purchase the game online here

Enjoy!