Musings of Navigating The Finite remainder of life from Porchville, with the hope of a glimpse of The Infinite

Monday, October 3, 2011

Beginner's Guide To American Mah Jongg

Beginner's Guide to American Mah Jongg: How to Play the Game & WinBeginner's Guide to American Mah Jongg: How to Play the Game & Win by Elaine Sandberg
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Excellent beginners book for learning American mahjong, but only American mahjong as determined by the National Mah Jongg League score card. The book includes a sample score card from 2004, which is not the current score card, but will teach you the game. The NMJL score card changes every year. Current 2011 score cards are available at the National Mah Jongg League:

It is also available at and a variety of on-line mahjong vendors.

If you are interested in learning American mahjong, this is the book for you.  Sandberg starts at the beginning, introduces the various types of tiles and gives you the basic rules of the game. She does an excellent job of teaching you how to decode the NMJL score card and she also provides quizzes and exercises which will help nail down the principles of the game and give you some winning strategies.

What is not covered are the other varieties of the game, Old Hong Kong, Chinese, Japanese, Wright Patterson, and numerous other variations.  If you are interested in one of the other variations this book is not for you.

My wife and I taught ourselves how to play the Old Hong Kong version using rules from an internet site.  Having read Sandberg's book and trying the exercises, we will stick with the Old Hong Kong version for the time being.  It uses standard hands 3 of a kind, 4 of a kind, and 3 number straits (pungs, kongs, and chows) and we just find the game far more enjoyable to sit back a play without poring over the card and trying to match one of the relatively complicated hands on the cards. But that does not change the fact that Sandberg's book did successfully teach us the game.  The bottom line with American mahjong, you have to know the card, and for now, we don't want bothered. Sandberg will teach you how to know the card.  The real work is sitting down and doing the exercises and learning the card.  This book is excellent for that purpose.

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"Mahjong, Thomas!"

"Let's play something else, Vicki. "


  1. Maybe in my retirement years I'll get into this game. I'm sure many people are going to appreciate this information. For me I'll stick to the online versions for now.

  2. Mahjong! what an exotic game. Forty years ago in Macao, about the only tourist attractions were the gambling dens. Old, no, very old men with long, no, very long goatees gathered to play Mahjong for money. They wore the ancient style of Chinese dress you see in art books. While they played, they smoked pipes with long, pencil thin stems. The dens were filled with smoke and the sound of tiles being moved about. I've wanted to play ever since. Or, at the very least, to have a set of tiles of my very own. I'm now inspired. Old Baguette

  3. Alicia,

    You can play two-somes even though the rules state 4 players.

    I see a scene out of the the original 1968 Thomas Crown Affair... as the Windmills of Your Mind plays softly in the background McQueen stares into Dunaway's Soul and discards a red dragon.

    "Mahjong!" Dunaway says, calling McQueen's discard and then shows her hand, a Ruby Dragon.

    "Let's play something else." McQueen says and tosses his tiles in the discards.

    As the strap of Dunaway's evening dress falls down her shoulder, she whispers "Mahjong indeed, Thomas" and gives McQueen a sultry little smile.

    Well, as you can see, I am no Amy Tan.

  4. Welcome back Old Baguette. I am not sure how good you will look with one of those long goatees. You paint an interesting picture of Macao.

  5. I have never played much Mah Jongg, but that picture of Steve McQueen got my attention. :-)

    I enjoy crossword puzzles. Often at work, I will polish one off in about ten minutes, and everyone looks at me with astonishment. But I find them very easy and quite relaxing.

  6. Sorry Jo. Thomas Crown didn't do crossword was Mahjong.

  7. I've checked out amazon and ebay. The deck of cards looks interesting. Learning how to play could become as addictive as spider solitaire, which is certainly addictive. However, HOWEVER, what appeals to me are the tiles, the feel of the tiles. I may have to get both cards and tiles, learn to play, and become a member of the nearest Hadasseh.

  8. NanookMN

    If you want tiles on the cheap, all you get is tiles, no racks, no dice, no case, Amazon has them for $22 plus shipping and handling:

    You can play with just the tiles, but it makes for a rather austere set but still, the other stuff except for the dice is fluff. The tiles are the game. They are out of stock now but I should imagine that they would be getting some back in. You would have to find some sort of hefty box to store them in.

    If you are willing to part with some cash I would recommend the set we got without hesitation:

    $85 bucks. The case is beautiful red wood, well made. The tiles have a nice feel and heft to them and the racks are nice. It has extra flowers, jokers and spare jokers, blank tiles. It has betting coins (kind of junky but they work) a wind indicator which is nice, and three dice. It comes in a well padded cardboard box to protect the wood case. Best of all you can get Amazon's super saver shipping and save about $17 on shipping charges (it might be less for you because you may be closer).

    You can go for a more expensive new set or a vintage set. The trouble with the vintage set will be jokers and flowers if you want to play American style. Many of the vintage sets have jokers that were taken from a different set. They then have joker stickers on the front. The problem is if the jokers match the original set the sellers will ask and get premium prices. You can expect to pay $200 to $600 for a nice condition vintage set depending on the brand. The price can go to $2000 for a rare vintage set. The problem with that is who the hell wants to play with them? They are like museum pieces. Even my vintage set which is a joke as far as vintage sets go, I don't play with it. I actually like my new set above, because I don't worry about it. It is nice but you are not playing with something that if you lose or chip a tile or wear the paint of you are going to care. The set that I give you the Amazon link is a lot of mahjong set for $85 and no shipping. Oh and BTW I actually like the feel of the tiles in my new set better than the feel of the vintage tiles. The art work on the new tiles is kind of crappy in comparison, but no worries and it is a nice quality set. Email me if you have any specific questions. Oh and I still got to work on those rules for you. I found a nicer scoring system that I will send you too.

    One other thing to consider is a table top cover, we got this one:

    They come in 4 different colors. They used to have them at Amazon but I can't find them now. The only bad thing about buying it from Yellow Mountain Imports is they sock it to you in S&H. They racked me $13 for S&H and the damn cover only costs $20. I don't know why the shipping is that high. Anyhow we really like the cover. It protects your tiles and your table top. It lays nice, has a rubber backing so it don't slide around, and it adds some class to your game.

  9. Ooopps. I lied to you about the shipping. Something must be up between Yellow Mountain Imports and Amazon. When I bought my set 6 weeks ago, Amazon was fulfilling Yellow Mountain Imports orders, and they offered free super saver shipping on some (but not all) items. I got my set with no shipping charges. It doesn't look like that still applies now. Sorry I didn't mean to mislead you. I think it is still a good buy.

  10. In the past, my Mah Jongg group had lost track of which pass we were on. But we found an iPhone app called the Mah Jongg Groove that helps us keep track of which pass we are on. It's a really great app! You can download it here:

    1. Marcee,

      Thanks for stopping by an commenting, and for the link to a cool app.

      We play classic Hong Kong Mahjong with a home brewed scoring system based loosely on a combination of Hong Kong and scoring found in Jellte Rep's The Great Mahjong Book.

      I made up scoring sheets on Excel (not for the math--just the formatting, although the math would be easy to incorporate). Too keep everyone straight during the game I bought 2 spare sets of wind tiles. One set is passed out to the players for their seat winds and the other set is used to indicate the prevailing wind. We have a wind indicator but it is only in chinese characters. So the extra tiles work out nicely for people not familiar with the game.

      I have another post on Mahjong here if you are interested:

      Thanks again for stopping by and commenting.