Mahjongg: An Ancient Game

Mahjongg at Northern Door YMCA.

Bored of board games? Tired of the same old card games every weekend? Maybe it’s time to add to your indoor game collection the ancient, rummy-like game of Mahjongg (also referred to as Mah Jongg, majiang, or Mahjong).

With four players, 136 – 152 tiles, and hands that change with each calendar year, there is no wonder the game of Mahjongg continues to grow in popularity – it is challenging, fun and, if you ask the group of women at last Friday’s Mahjongg Group at the Northern Door YMCA, addicting.

There are several versions of Mahjongg fitting under two broad categories: American and Chinese. Both differ in many ways, with the American version using a card of Official Standard Hands and more tiles (including the Joker). It also starts with the passing of unwanted tiles from one player to another and uses the Joker to complete several combinations of hands.

According to the National Mah Jongg League, the ancient Chinese game was introduced to America in 1920 with great success. Over the next 15 years, Mah Jongg groups were formed and each group added new combinations of tiles and eliminated old combinations, making for a great amount of confusion when people from different groups would get together to play.

That confusion was put to rest with the formation of the National Mah Jongg League in 1937, when a group of the game’s enthusiasts met in New York City to standardize its hands and rules. The group, now in its 47th year, is responsible for publishing the American version of the rules, supplying the Official Standard Hands and Rules Cards, selling game merchandise and replacing missing pieces, answering questions and arbitrating disputes.

Here are the basics on Mahjongg’s tiles: There are three suits (Dots, Bams and Cracks) with nine tiles each, numbered 1 – 9, and four of each tile. There are also three different dragon tiles (one for each suit) with four of each tile, eight Flower tiles, four Wind tiles (north, south, east and west; four of each tile for a total of 16), and eight Joker tiles.

The goal is to use your 13 Mahjongg tiles to create one of the hands in the game’s “card of Standard Hands,” of which there are more than 50.

There are technically 14 tiles in a winning hand, though that 14th tile is considered the final and “winning tile,” during which the winner announces “Mahjongg!” upon putting the tile down to complete their hand.

But it’s not that simple: there is an intricate dealing process, building of a 38-tile wall, and the “Charleston” (the exchange of tiles between players after each individual decides which hand they wish to play based on their tiles). It is a time to get rid of the tiles you do not need in an effort to build a winning hand.

Then, the real game play begins – a flurry of discarding, picking up of discarded tiles (with some exceptions), and continuously checking in on the progress of your hand. In some situations as tiles come in, you may decide to switch to creating a different hand.

Mahjongg offers a completely new game with the turn of each calendar year: come Jan. 1, a new Mahjongg card is available for that year’s play offering a new variety of hands to match. These cards are sold through the National Mah Jongg League with proceeds supporting a number of charities.

Mary Heimann has been teaching Mahjongg at the Northern Door YMCA for the past two-and-a-half years as a way to increase social offerings at the club. You do not need to be a member to participate in the free group.

Heimann dedicates her Fridays to teaching newcomers the ins and outs of the game, offering up the following advice: go with what comes your way, and remember what you’re going for.

While the rules sound complicated, it doesn’t take long to get the hang of things. The satisfaction of slowly but surely building a hand on your own is what makes this game so addicting – that, and the click-clack of the tiles on the tray amidst the silence of concentration.

The Door County YMCA hosts two Mahjongg groups each week. For more information, call the Sturgeon Bay Y at 920.743.4949 or the Northern Door Y at 920.868.3660. The Clearing Folk School will also host a Beginning Mahjongg class (also taught by Mary Heimann) starting Jan. 9, 2015. For more information visit or call 920.854.4088. To learn more about the history and game, visit