Mahjong is a game of Chinese origin dating from the mid/late 19th Century rather than from the mists of antiquity as some would have us believe. It was first popularised and played in the West in the 1920’s. It is widely played today in China, Japan and throughout the Far East, and there has in more recent years been a significant resurgence of interest throughout Europe where a thriving organisation (The European Mahjong Association) now oversees an active programme of events and competitions.
The game is played with tiles that are both beautiful and tactile. Mahjong bears no relation either to dominoes or, worse still, to the solitary pastime that stole its name and its elegant designs to create a pair matching/eliminating game now featured on so many of our computer screens. Rather, it is a truly absorbing strategic game for four players (sometime three) that has more in common with card games like canasta or rummy, but having significantly more depth and variety. It is, in a nutshell, a sophisticated and elegant card game that happens to be played with tiles rather than cards. Just like the very best strategic games, a game of mahjong involves attack and defence, requires the differentiation of fact and inference, balances perception and deception, offers reward for skill and assessment, but as with another of the world’s truly great games, poker, leavens all this with an element of chance.
There are many ways of playing mahjong. All are based on drawing and then discarding in turn a tile to consider adding to your own hand. Most, but by no means all, are based on a hand of thirteen tiles that must be organised into four groups of three plus one pair. (You retain the drawn tile to make the maths work!) but the Taiwanese and the Philipini for example, play with sixteen tiles to a hand. It appears that most Far Eastern countries have their own versions/variants of how to play and score. Thank goodness for the European Mahjong Association that has unified and codified the most commonly played games in Europe – the MCR and Riichi styles!