MAHJONG, MAHJONG game rules, title

OBJECTIVE OF MAHJONG: Be the first to create a specific hand according to the score card by drawing and discarding tiles.


MATERIALS OF MAHJONG: 152 tiles, 2 dice, scoring sticks or coins, wind indicator (optional), 4 racks (optional but recommended), 4 pushers (optional)

TYPE OF GAME: Tile matching

AUDIENCE: All ages


Mahjong or Mah Jongg is a four-player game that uses a combination of both skill and luck. It is popular game played around the world and originated in China. Mahjong came to the United States in the 1920s and has become a staple game in certain circles ever since.

In this article, we will go over the rules for American Mahjong. American Mahjong is ever-so-slightly different from its predecessor Chinese Mahjong. It is more accessible to the general public and involves the use of a score card that changes every year!

You might have seen this game played in TV shows and movies over the years. It is a complicated game that can be super fun once you get to know the rules, so without further ado, let’s get into the rules of Mahjong.


It’s important to set up the Mahjong game properly before you get started. The set-up is just as important as the playing rules for Mahjong. This section can get complicated, so strap in! First, let’s get to know the materials.


Mahjong has 166 game tiles, 152 of which are used in play. The remaining are spare tiles. These Mahjong tiles are split into four groups:

  • Suits
  • Honors
  • Flowers & Season
  • Jokers/Wilds


Circles/Dots – 36 tiles/4 of each

MAHJONG circles DOTS, MAHJONG, tiles

Bamboos/Bams – 36 tiles/4 of each

MAHJONG bamboos bams, MAHJONG tiles

Characters/Craks – 36 tiles/4 of each


Winds – 16 tiles/4 of each

mahjong winds, MAHJONG, tiles

Dragons – 12 tiles/4 of each

Mahjong Dragons, MAHJONG, tiles

They are the White Dragon (Soap), Green Dragon, and Red Dragon, respectively.

Keep in mind that soaps can be used as zeros.


Mahjong Seasons, flowers, MAHJONG, tiles


Mahjong joker, wilds, MAHJONG, tiles

Jokers can be used to replace any tile in a set of 3 to 6 identical tile sets. However, it can not be used in a pair or as a single tile.


Besides the tiles, here are the other Mahjong materials to get to know:


This is used to indicate the direction of the wind. It can be used to determine seating arrangement and also for a fifth player to bet on a winner. This accessory is entirely optional and not required for gameplay.


These are tools that can be used to keep track of the score. Whether sticks or coins, players may assign them a point value. These are optional and not required for gameplay.


Each player can have a rack to hold their tiles during play. Pushers, on the other hand, are used to push racks forward during play, without revealing the tiles.


The game uses two dice to assign the position of the dealer (East) and to figure out where to break the wall (discussed below).


Players score various hands based on information determined by the National Mahjong League. These are updated annually and should be used as a reference when building hands.


Each player grabs a rack and places it in front of them. Then, shuffle all of the 152 tiles in the middle of the table, making sure to keep the tiles face-down. Players must then build the wall by building a row of tiles in front of their rack that is two tiles high and 19 tiles across. The wall utilizes every tile.

MAHJONG, MAHJONG gameplay, MAHJONG wall, tiles

After building the wall, players must figure out who will be East, or the dealer. Players take turns rolling the dice, and the player who rolls the highest number becomes East. The player to the right of East is South, then West, and finally North – just like a compass. 

Next, it’s time to break the wall. The player who is East rolls the dice. Based on the number they roll, East will count the tiles in front of them, right to left, and then break the wall by separating the tiles.

For example, East rolls a 10. East will then separate a group of 10 tiles (by two tiles tall) from the right end of the wall in front of them. Break the wall by pushing the tiles slightly to the left. Finally, East takes four tiles (two tiles from the top row and two from the bottom row) from the left of the break in the wall.

The turn then passes to the right. Players take turns grabbing four tiles for their hand until each player has 12 tiles. Once everyone has 12 tiles, East grabs two extra tiles, these tiles come from the first and third tiles of the top row. Then, the other players take a single tile from the end. South grabs the first bottom tile, North grabs the second bottom tile, and West grabs the second top tile.

If the Mahjong game is setup properly and you have followed the rules, East should have 14 tiles and all other players 13 tiles.


Hands are represented on the score card with numbers or letters in red, green, or blue. The colors do not correlate to a specific suit but rather mean different suits need to be used. Keep in mind that flowers and zeros are not in a suit; they are always blue.

  • 1-9: Number on tile (does not include flowers)
  • N, S, E, W: North, South, East, West
  • D: Dragon
  • R: Red Dragon
  • G: Green Dragon
  • 0: White Dragon (Soap, Zero)
  • F: Flower


Score cards are divided into categories:

  • Year: Patterns that create a year. For example, 2017 would be made of 2s, 0s, 1s, and 7s.
  • 2468: Patterns with only even-numbered tiles
  • Change-up: As evidenced by the name, this varies
  • Quints: Hands that contain at least 5 identical tiles, with one a joker.
  • Runs: Patterns that contain consecutively numbered tiles.
  • 13579: Patterns containing only odd-numbered tiles.
  • Winds-Dragons: Patterns that use wind and dragon tiles.
  • 369: Patterns that use one of those three numbers.
  • Singles & Pairs: Patterns that have single tiles and paired tiles.


  • Pair: 2 of the same tiles
  • Pung: 3 of the same tiles
  • Kong: 4 of the same tiles
  • Quint: 5 of the same tiles, including jokers
  • Sextet: 6 of the same tiles, including jokers

Hands can also be X for exposed or C for concealed.


Prior to play is The Charleston. This is unique to American Mahjong and is a rule that came to be in the 1920s. The Charleston is a tile exchange that allows players to improve their hands by passing around tiles they do not want to opponents.

Keep in mind you cannot pass jokers during the Charleston sequence!

The first Charleston is obligatory. Here is how to proceed:

  1. Each person passes 3 unwanted tiles to their right.
  2. Each person then passes 3 unwanted tiles to the player sitting across from them.
  3. Players pass 3 unwanted tiles to their left. At this step, you may take one, two, or three tiles that are given to them and pass them to the player on their left without looking.

If all players agree, there many be another Charleston round. The second Charleston is the same as the first Charleston but reversing the directions (first passing left, then across, then to the right).

After the second Charleston is completed, players can take a courtesy pass. A player may agree with the player across from them to exchange up to 3 tiles.

Now that you’re done with the Charleston steps, it’s time to play Mahjong!


And for the fun part… Let’s get to know the rules of Mahjong! If you are familiar with the card game, Rummy, this game might sound ever-so-slightly familiar to you – but played with tiles reminiscent of Dominoes!

First of all, here’s your objective: be the first player to construct a hand that matches one on the scorecard. If you are successful, declare “Mahjong” to win.


In order to get a chance to win at Mahjong, you’re going to need to improve your hand by drawing and discarding tiles.

Since East’s hand has 14 tiles, they begin by discarding a single tile. If a player does not call or claim the discarded tile (more on this below), play moves to the right. The next player starts their turn by drawing a tile from the wall. The tile is drawn from the spot where the broken wall was left off. Start by drawing the top tile, then the bottom tile if the wall is no longer two tiles high.

Then, players can choose to discard the drawn tile or keep it in hand and discard another tile. You must announce the discarded tile and put it face-up in the center of the table. The player on the right then draws and discards an unwanted tile. And so on.


The tile that has most recently been discarded can be called by any other player if the tile will complete a pung (3 identical tiles), kong (4 identical tiles), quint (5 identical tiles), sextet (6 identical tiles), or any other combination for an exposed hand.

Keep in mind that the disadvantage of doing this is that all other players now get to get an idea of what kind of hand you are creating.

  • You cannot call a tile that requires only a single tile to complete a combination.
  • You cannot call a tile that completes a pair unless that pair completes a Mahjong hand.
  • You cannot call on dead tiles, or tiles that were discarded before the most recent discarded tile.
  • You can use one or more jokers.

If a player calls and does not declare Mahjong, the combination that tile completed must be exposed on their rack and cannot be changed for the remainder of the game. Finally, this player discards an unwanted tile and play moves to the right of the player that called the tile. Therefore, if a player calls, some turns may be skipped.

If more than one person calls:

  • The player who calls to complete a Mahjong trumps the player who is just completing a set.
  • If neither player is completing a Mahjong, the player whose turn is nearest takes the tile.

Top tip: If you are trying for a concealed hand on the score card, make sure you only take tiles from the wall unless it is the final tile to declare Mahjong.


Jokers can replace any tile in a pung, kong, or sextet. You cannot use them in singles or pairs. If a hand is exposed, and you have the tile a joker is replacing in an opponent’s hand, you may exchange the tiles and take the joker (much like Rummikub!) in the following manner:

  1. Call a discard or draw a tile as usual.
  2. Exchange the actual tile for the joker. This can be more than one tile for multiple jokers.
  3. Discard a tile to maintain a 13-tile hand.

Keep in mind that if a player discards a joker during their turn, the joker is now dead. No player may pick it up.


Here are some additional rules to keep in mind when playing Mahjong:

  • If the tile is not announced correctly, the tile is dead and cannot be claimed. Furthermore, if the miscalled tile is one that is needed for a player to declare Mahjong, the player who miscalled must pay four times the value of the hand to the other player.
  • A player can challenge another player’s hand and declare it impossible based on the exposed tiles and/or previously discarded tiles. In this case, that player’s hand is dead if they confirm their tiles are impossible.
  • A player can challenge another palyer’s hand and declare invalid exposure. In other words, the current exposed tiles show that the hand must be concealed not exposed.
  • If a player has too few or too many tiles in their hand, their hand is dead and they are out of the game.
  • If a player calls a tile but has not exposed the tile, they can retract it.
  • If a player erroneously declares Mahjong but the hand is not exposed, the game can continue without penalty.
  • If a player erroneously delcares Mahjong and exposes the hand, the player’s hand is dead.


If you want to spice up the game a little when playing Mahjong with your friends at home, utilize the blank Mahjong tiles! Some popular house rules that involve blank Mahjong tiles include:

  • A player can exchange a discarded tile for a blank.
  • The blank tile is a double joker that can be used to form a single or a pair.


The game concludes when someone declares Mahjong with a 14-tile hand (after drawing from the wall or calling the previously discarded tile)! Once declared, the player must expose their hand and show where on the score card confirms the Mahjong.

The payout is based on the hand and the way it was created.

After the first game of Mahjong, play continues with the player to the right of the original East Wind becoming the new dealer (East). Reshuffle the tiles and repeat the rules above.


Mahjong from a discard: The discarder pays the Mahjong winner double the value of the hand. All others pay single.

Mahjong from drawing from the wall: Each player pays the winner double the hand’s value.

Mahjong from the discard tile with no jokers, singles, or pairs: The discarder pays 4x the hand value. All others pay 2x.

Mahjong from drawing from the wall with no jokers, singles, or pairs: Each player pays the winner 4x hand value.

Note: if all tiles have been drawn from the wall and the final discard is made with no Mahjong, there is no payout. The game ends as a draw.


After the first game of Mahjong, play continues with the player to the right of the original East Wind becoming the new dealer (East). Reshuffle the tiles and repeat the rules above.

If you’re after similar games that use a combination of skill and luck, check out Texas Hold’Em and Bridge.


Once you’ve got the Mahjong rules down, it’s time to employ some strategy so that you can actually win the game. Here are our top tips to keep in mind when playing this entertaining game.


Before you start the game, you should be ready. And in order to be best prepared for a game of American Mahjong, you’ll need to become familiar with the score card. While this can be annoying, becoming familiar with the score card will help you identify patterns in your hand, giving you an advantage.

But more than studying the score card itself, it’s important to practice with the year’s score card so that you can quickly identify patterns. For example, you can play by yourself and do a Charleston on your own. You could also try playing a few games with your friends and family in order to become more familiar with the score card. Finally, you could even take advantage of online tools and practice with a bot.


We know it can be tempting to grab discarded tiles earlier on in the game, but the disadvantage of this is that when you grab a discarded tile, your hand is partially revealed to other players. This not only reveals your game and intention to other players but also makes it so that your options are narrower.


Always keep your options open when it comes to your hand, especially near the beginning of the game. You never know where the game will take you.


Probably most importantly, you should be observant while playing Mahjong. Keep tabs on the tiles that are being passed around during the Charleston, check the exposures, keep an eye on discarded tiles, be aware of exposed jokers, and learn the playing styles of the other players!


how to play mahjong

Above, we have extensively covered the rules for American Mahjong, but this game is different from traditional Chinese Mahjong. Here are the key differences between these two games:

  • Racks and pushers: In American Mahjong, you often have tools such as racks and pushers to allow for easier gameplay. In Chinese Mahjong, you do not have such tools. You must instead rely on your own dexterity.
  • Tiles: While both versions have symbols, in American Mahjong, the tiles have words and English numbers, whereas in Chinese Mahjong, there are only Chinese numbers and symbols.
  • Score card: In American Mahjong, you must play with a score card. In Chinese Mahjong, you must rely on your own accumulated knowledge without relying on a card.
  • Joker: In American Mahjong, there are 8 joker tiles for a total of 152 tiles, whereas in Chinese Mahjong, there are 0 joker tiles, so there are only 144 tiles.


How Many People Can Play Mahjong?

4 players can play a game of Mahjong.

How Many Tiles Does a Player Start with in Mahjong?

A player will build a wall of 38 tiles at the start of the game in front of them. Then, each player will start with a hand of 13 tiles – except for East (the dealer) who starts with 14 tiles.

How Many Flowers and Jokers Are There in American Mahjong?

There are 8 jokers and 8 flower tiles.

What Is the Difference Between American Mahjong and Chinese Mahjong?

American Mahjong has additional tiles and different scorecards than Chinese Mahjong. For more on this, check out our section American vs Chinese Mahjong above!

Mia Kim

33 thoughts on “MAHJONG RULES”

  1. 2019 card. NNNN EW SSSS 2019. picked up from discard white dragon to display 2019 told not allowed unless calling mahjong is that the rule?

    • Hi Eileen,

      We tried looking into this and nowhere could we find anything that could confirm that this is a rule. Hope that helps.

  2. Have searched for a rule stating that if a player discards a tile allowing another player to call Mahjongg with three exposures already showing the discarding player is responsible for payouts of all three players.

    • Hi Dianne, I have not heard of this special ruling or variation. I did a bit of research and could not find any official or unofficial sources with this ruling either.

  3. dead hand
    a exposed dead hand has a joker in it. can we retrieve the joker, to use with our hand.

    • Hi Charlene, Yes you can exchange Jokers from any exposures that were made before the hand was declared
      dead. Once a hand is declared dead, any Jokers that were exposed at the same time as that
      declaration cannot be redeemed as that is when the error was made. These Jokers, along with any other
      tiles which were exposed as part of the dead hand, are to be returned to the player’s rack. Only the
      exposure(s) made prior to the hand being called dead should remain on top of the rack.
      If the hand was not declared dead until later, all the Jokers exposed could be redeemed.

    • Hi Betty, you are not supposed to touch other player’s tiles, and it is completely up to that player if they wish to disclose what tiles they have in hand. I hope this helps.

  4. After playing 4 sets of mahj, we like to rotate the players so we don’t keep passing to the same player. Don’t remember the sequence of rotation.
    1 goes to (which seat)?
    2 goes to (which seat)?
    3 goes to (which seat?
    4 goes to (which seat)?

    • Hi Bobbe, I have not been able to find an official rotation list. Most of what I have found mentions rotating the players (dealer and seat winds) counter-clockwise when the dealer does not win and leaving them the same when the dealer is the winner of a set. I hope this helps.

    • Hi Bobbe, recapturing just means to capture another player’s stone after they have captured yours, but when recapturing you cannot place your stone in the same position on the board as I previously was until a new play has been made.
      Here’s a resource to further explain recapturing in greater detail and its limitations. I hope this helps.

  5. on my 2021 card under singles and pairs, the 2nd row is: 113 in green-11335 in red 113355 in blue so i am assuming this is bam,craks and dots, since there is no description does this mean the hand has to be played exactly in that order ? Bam,
    crak and Dot colors?

    • Hi Meretha, with official league questions I would urge you to reach out to an official Mahjong judge or the company who runs the league. I am not familiar with the layout and requirements of the cards and would hate to give you any misguided information.

  6. Under Any Like Numbers NEWS appear. Is each letter considered independent or if you have EWS can you call for the N?

    • Hi Betty I’m a little confused by your question. I’m not sure what exactly you are asking. Here’s what I found while searching online for NEWS in Mahjong. The North, East, West, and South tiles belong to the winds set. There are four of each and they are one of two sets in the honors category. As far as I can tell, I did not come across any site that forbade the calling fo a NEWS tile. I hope this helps.

    • Hi Denise, yes you can use all jokers for the set but I belive you still have to declare what set you are making so as the natural tiles are revealed they can be replaced/

  7. I am hoping you can make clear the direction that the tiles are passed.
    After the 1sr wall goes out which direction does the 2nd wall go out?
    After charleston, we play to the right of East
    Which direction is the next East?

    • Hi Sidni, I hope I can help. I am a little confused by the questions but hopefully I have the information you want. So when the dealer (the east) is dealing from the first portion of the broken wall they deal counterclockwise, and when that is emptied they deal clockwise with the remaining wall. For the Charleston, tiles are first passed counterclockwise, then across the table, the to the left. The next dealer (east) is usually determined before the beginning of the game with a dice roll. The highest roller is the dealer. I hope this helps.

    • Hello Joyce. I assume you mean the wall built to deal hands? When the dealer goes to deal from the wall, they will determine where to split the wall (usually by rolling a dice). The dealer counts the number of tiles in front of them from right to left and then breaks the wall into two sections. These sections are then deal. The dealer (the east) is dealing from the first portion of the broken wall they deal counterclockwise, and when that is emptied they deal clockwise with the remaining wall.

    • Hi Evelyn, I am a little confused by your question, so if I do not answer it properly here please let me know. The first Charleston is mandatory. Each player must complete all three passes. Then players may all agree to do a second Charleston, if all players agree then all three passes must be completed again with passing directions reversed. For a third Charleston player’s may choose to pass and not be included in the passing while other players may pass to each other. No jokers can be passed in the third Charleston.

  8. If a tile is miss named and the next person has picked up before it is named correctly by the discarder what happens if someone wanted that tile that was misnamed?

    • Hi Connie, in the event of a miscalled tile. The player that missed called the tile would lose 4 times the amount of points they have in hand, and the player that received the miscalled tile would gain that many points. The player that miscalled the tile must name it correctly and the the player that wishes to claim that tile may.

  9. Sidni – It might help to think of it this way: Everything goes to the right except the wall. The direction of play, who is the next East, who gets the called tile in case of a dispute (except for mahj) is the next player on the right or counterclockwise. The wall begins with East and goes to the left or clockwise each as needed.
    Key thoughts: ROLLOR and Everything goes right except the wall.
    Hope that helps.

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