American Mahjong Rules

Mahjong is one of the most popular classic games available these days online. Mahjong is often associated with Asian culture, but as the community of Mahjong fans spread around the globe, new variations of the rules appeared, including American Mahjong rules. This American variation of the game still requires some time to remember all the features. On the other hand, it has a few aspects that make it simpler compared to the traditional version.

To play American Mahjong with joy and fun, it’s important to learn the basic rules. With time, you can learn more specific ones. In this article, you will find the most important facts about the setup, moves, and other instructions.

rules for american mahjong

Understanding American Mahjong

American Mahjong originated from an old Chinese Mahjong game. To play it, people use special tiles with images on them. To suit the preferences of the new location and audience, tiles in American Mahjong typically have Arabic numbers along with the standard images. In addition, some tiles have hints showcasing corresponding cardinal directions. There is also a unique move called Charleston that allows players to gather a more successful hand faster. The differences between American Mahjong rules and Chinese Mahjong are not critical, and this variation makes it way simpler to grasp the idea and the gameplay. Get to know American Mahjong!

How to Play American Mahjong

Playing American Mahjong doesn’t require a lot of equipment. You will need a set of 152 Mahjong tiles and two dice, and a good company to play with. There are also optional elements such as “wind indicator” and pushers for tiles, but they are not necessary for beginner players. For example, at first, instead of collecting your tiles in a special frame, you can just put them vertically in a row.

The objective of the American Mahjong game is to be the first player who compiles a winning sequence of tiles. There are different options of sequences you can focus on, such as pung, kong, and others. You will find the description of winning tile collections in American Mahjong below, but first let’s review a setup.

Setting Up the Game

The American Mahjong game usually requires four players. They start by placing all the 152 tiles in the center of the table face-down and mix them together. After that, every player builds a wall containing two rows, 19 face-down tiles each.

The next step is to decide who starts the game. This is where dice are needed. The person who gets the biggest number of points is named East, or a dealer. Other names of cardinal directions are distributed anti-clockwise in the following order: East, South, West, and North.

Initially, every player should have 13 tiles before making any moves. This is how to get them:

  • A dealer rolls the dice. The number determines how many pairs of tiles a dealer has to move from their wall. Then, once the wall is broken, a dealer takes two pairs of tiles from the left part of the wall. A pair includes a top and a bottom tile, not the two of the same row.
  • All the other players follow the dealer and take 4 tiles each starting where the dealer finished.
  • Once everyone has 12 tiles, a dealer takes the top tiles of the next two stacks.
  • Others take one more tile.
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Players should follow the next order when taking tiles: after taking one from the top row, they proceed with the one from the bottom row that has been revealed. You cannot take two top or two bottom tiles at once.

Types of Tiles Explained

At this point of the game, you see 13 or 14 tiles in front of you if you are a general player or a dealer, respectively. These are the types you can get:

  • Dots (36 tiles). As it comes from the category name, these tiles have 1 to 9 dots. According to American Mahjong rules, there should also be an Arabic number on each.
  • Characters (36 tiles). In traditional Mahjong, these tiles have hieroglyphic numbers from 1 to 9. In the sets used for American Mahjong, there are also Arabic numbers on them.
  • Bamboo (36 tiles). This group is similar to dots but there are bamboos instead of dots.
  • Dragons (12 tiles). This category includes 4 groups of 3 tiles each. These are green, red, and white dragons.
  • Winds (16 tiles). There are 4 groups of 4 tiles, where each tile is called after a cardinal direction.
  • Flowers (4 tiles). There are four different flowers.
  • Seasons (4 tiles). Every season has a corresponding cardinal direction.

In American Mahjong, you also have a tip for simplifying the process. You can be lucky to get one or more of the 8 Joker tiles. Just like in card games, Jokers can substitute any other tile.

american mahjong scoring

Gameplay Instructions

The game flow itself is pretty simple. The only unique thing to remember is the need for a unique initial activity mentioned in the American Mahjong rules — the Charleston. So, here is how to play step by step.

  1. The game starts with Charleston. In simple words, it means that everyone can discard several tiles they don’t need to build their sequences. Sometimes, you can benefit from this exchange significantly. First, you give three tiles to the person on the right, then to the person on the opposite, and finally to the player on the left. If you decide to make another round, the moves will be held following another direction. Note that you can pass the received tiles blindly to the next player if you believe you don’t need them according to the tiles you already have. Also, remember that Jokers don’t participate in Charleston.
  2. After going through Charleston, players can start the main game. The first move is always made by a dealer who has 14 tiles. He or she simply discards one tile.
  3. At this point, anyone can call a tile discarded by a dealer. If no one does so, it’s time for the next move made by the South player.
  4. The next moves include drawing a tile from the wall where drawing finished during the setup. A player takes a tile and can either discard it immediately or use it to replace any of his or her own tiles.
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The game ends when anyone collects a winning sequence.

Calling Tiles: What to Know

You can call a tile just discarded by another player only if it obviously helps you to complete any group of tiles (a pair, a triplet, etc.). Also, note that while normally all your tiles are concealed, you have to reveal the sequence finalized by the tile you called. Additionally, you can only call the tile discarded during the move. All the previously discarded ones are out of the game.

How to Group Tiles in American Mahjong

Another difference between Chinese Mahjong and American Mahjong is in the number of available winning sequences. In the American Mahjong rules, you don’t have Chows, only the following types of tile groups:

  • Singles
  • Pairs
  • Pungs (three tiles)
  • Kongs (four tiles)
  • Quints (five tiles)
  • Sextets (six tiles).

All these include identical tiles. If there are not so many identical tiles in the category, the maximum available amount is supplemented with Jokers.

When to Declare Mahjong

Declaring Mahjong means ending the game. Mahjong can be declared in two cases. The first one is when someone draws or calls the 14th tile and it makes a complete winning collection. Note that the way of obtaining the last tile affects your scoring. The second case is when players run out of tiles in the walls. In both cases, the next step is calculating scores.

american mahjong suits


The scoring system in American Mahjong is standardized every year and can be slightly changed. So, some sequences can be valued more or less at different times. However, there are some general rules.

First, non-winners do not participate in scoring. Second, the winner calculates their score based on the numbers written on the tiles. The numbers stand for cents.

If the winning tile was called from those discarded, only the person who gave it up pays the dealer. The sum is twice as much as the sum of tiles’ numbers. If the final tile was drawn from the wall, every player follows this payment rule.

The concept of a winning sequence can change year by year as well. For example, it can include three Pungs and one Kong. It can also be a Kong, two Pungs, and two pairs. A Quint hand means having two Quints and a Kong, while the Seven hand is compiled using two Quints and two pairs.

When creating your collection of tiles, you can also try to gather only honor tiles: for example, three Dragons and eleven Winds. You can also try to build a consequent collection of the same suit or of different suits.

American Mahjong Rules for Beginners: Extra Tips

As a beginner player, you can find it overwhelming to play American Mahjong following all the rules. Still, since the game is simpler than the original Chinese Mahjong game, you can grasp it quickly, especially through practice. Here are a few tips that can help you better understand the process and the objective.

  1. Learn all the basic types of available sequences. It will help you better understand what sequences you can build and use your Charleston chances more wisely.
  2. Focus on one or very few types of sequences. Look through your tiles and decide what groups you plan to gather. It can make you more focused and determined because you won’t waste your time trying to collect too many different types of tiles.
  3. Try to keep your tiles concealed. If you aim for ideal scoring and don’t want others to know your tiles, try to use the tiles from the wall instead of calling them from other players.
  4. Avoid making gaps. Even though gaps are less obvious than revealed tiles, they still give others a cue about your strategy and plans. Keep your tiles close and try not to change their order obviously for others.
  5. Decide quickly. In American Mahjong, you don’t have much time to think about every move. Practice frequently (even on your own) to enhance your decision making during the game.
  6. Keep a Joker even if you don’t need it right now. Jokers can substitute any tile, so whatever sequences you end up with, Jokers may help complete them.
  7. Learn to identify other players’ stages of the game. Once you grasp the features of American Mahjong and learn to build your own collection successfully, it’s time to look at how others play. Check if they discard Jokers, what other tiles they discard, how they divide their tiles—it may help understand their strategy.
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american style mahjong rules

Other Types of Mahjong

The most common type of Mahjong is Chinese Mahjong, or the original version of the game. Unlike the rules explained above, it doesn’t have Jokers and is played with 144 tiles. It also has stricter rules for building sequences and has an additional type of a sequence called Chow. It is 3 subsequent tiles of the same suit. This game doesn’t have Charleston either, so you start with standard discarding and drawing moves right after building a wall.

One more popular variation is Japanese Mahjong or Richii Mahjong. It is played with 136 tiles. It has the same types of tiles like the Chinese version, but the names are different. This version also has slightly different options of winning sequences and has a unique scoring system. Unlike American Mahjong, you don’t calculate numbers but count so-called hans. 1 to 5 hans are given for different types of sequences.

Explore American Mahjong Now

Now you are aware of all the main rules of the game. You know how many tiles there are in American Mahjong, how it differs from the Chinese version, and what’s involved in the game flow. With practice, you will remember more winning sequences and establish your skills in collecting them.

While most commonly American Mahjong involves four people, there can be two or three as well. Playing or even learning American Mahjong rules together is an unusual way to spend spare time with fun. Explore the world of Mahjong to improve your attention and strategic planning and have a good time! Try other types of Classic Mahjong, such as Riichi Mahjong or Chinese Mahjong.