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Riichi mahjong is the Japanese variation to the 4-player table card game of mahjong, whose objective can be best described as a combination of gin rummy and poker. Even though tiles are primarily used to play the game, the game is available online and can be played with regular mahjong playing cards. It's a four player game that combines the elements of calculation and strategy that is found in chess with the elements of risk assessment, observation skills, and luck.

Gin rummy can trace its origins back to the mahjong that was played in China. Gin rummy is a card game which centers itself towards developing melds of sequences (1-2-3, 6-7-8) and/or triplets (9-9-9).

Besides the melds, players also need to meet another condition called a yaku. The yaku can be synonymous to "poker hands", where yaku are a set of patterns or conditions. Just like a poker hand, for example the "full house", each yaku is associated with a name. In addition, yaku directly affect the value of a player's hand. The yaku add richness and depth to the game but at the same time requires some additional starting knowledge. When mahjong is not played on/via a computer, scoring by hand also requires additional starting knowledge.

In addition, all players begin with a certain number of points, usually 25,000. It is the objective of each player to develop their hands to accumulate more points than any of the opponents. In combination with yaku and dora, the number of han and fu correlates to a specific number of points to determine the value of a hand, in the event of winning a hand.

The Japanese variation is primarily played in Japan. Yet, it is available to everyone via a few Internet sites.

Game development history

Main differences

The game of mahjong itself has numerous variations across the world, including an attempted standardization of "World Mahjong". Virtually every country in East Asia and the United States has a form of mahjong. While they all have the same general principles, they each have very distinct rule variations.

Mahjong tiles and suits

Tiles 1

Mahjong tiles, including four season tiles not used in Saki.

There are three suits of number tiles each with sequences from one to nine. The three suits are the wanzu/manzu (characters), the pinzu (coins/circles), and the souzu (bamboos). These three suits have the value of 1-9 according to their own suit. The face of the one of bamboo tiles have a bird design on them. The number one and nine tiles are called terminals. The number two through eight tiles are called simples. Runs don't wrap-around from nine to one.

A fourth set of mahjong tiles is composed of the honor tiles. This set of tiles can be further divided into kazehai (wind tiles) and sangenpai (dragon tiles). Unlike the standard suits previously mentioned, these honor tiles have special properties towards determining hand value.

Standard Japanese mahjong sets also come with four red-five dora tiles. One number five character tile, two number five pin tiles, and one number five bamboo tile are replaced with their matching red tiles. These red dora tiles can replace the appropriate number of standard five-tiles. Usage of the red dora tiles is optional. In addition, sets also come with flower and season tiles, but these are not used in the Japanese game. Instead, flower and seasons are used in other variations like Chinese and American styles.

With regard to doras, it is best to remember to order of the tiles as mentioned below. See dora.

Man

Manzu/Wanzu, or man/wan for short, composes the character tiles. The Chinese characters or Japanese kanji are used to indicate the numbers 1-9. While some sets have the alphanumeric representations of the numbers superscript on the upper right corners, it is actually best to remember the kanji for 1-9.

IiwanRyanwanSanwanSuuwanUuwanRyuuwanChiiwanPaawanChuuwan

Pin

Pinzu, or pin for short, composes the coin or circle tiles. The symbols represent the use of coins.

IipinRyanpinSanpinSuupinUupinRyuupinChiipinPaapinChuupin

Sou

Souzu, or sou, composes the bamboo or stick tiles. Ordered 1-9, and it is special to note the 1-sou tile which is marked with a large bird instead of 1-stick to discourage cheating by tile alteration.

IisouRyanzouSanzouSuusouUusouRyuusouChiisouPassouChuusou

Kazehai

Kazehai are the wind tiles. They are indicated as East, South, West, and North. The wind tiles correlate to the player seating, and so therefore, it is best to remember the wind tiles in the East, South, West, and North order, as they correspond to the seating order. Likewise, this is significant to note for yakuhai.

TonNanShaPe

Sangenpai

Sangenpai are the dragon tiles. They are known as the dragons: white, green, and red. Just noting their color is sufficient enough here.

HakuHatsuChun

Game setup

Junk Mat

Mahjong mat used to protect tiles from hard surfaces.

The game of Japanese mahjong is played with a set of 136 tiles. Of these 136 tiles, there are 34 different tiles with 4 of each kind. Aside from online, the live game is played on a square table, with the mahjong tiles places onto a mahjong mat. While the mat is not necessary, it is useful to use the mat in order to protect the tile surfaces.

Starting the game

For casual games, players may take any seat desired on each side of the square table. Then dice are used to determine the position of the first dealer. With the dice roll, the count begins at 1 starting with the dice roller; and the count moves counter-clockwise. At the end of this initial count, the player is assigned as the dealer and receives the dealer marker.

This dealer marker is an east-south prevailing-wind marker used in games to indicate the round and the current dealer. The table's raised border has four recesses where the prevailing-wind marker, counters, and carry-over rīchi bets can be placed.

As the dealer, this player is assigned the wind of East. The player to the right of the dealer is South. The player across the dealer is West, and finally, the player to the left is North. Eventually, during the course of the game, this dealer assignment rotates to give every player the chance to be dealer. Likewise, the wind arrangement rotates counter-clockwise. As a note, South is always to the right of the dealer East.

In more formal settings, like tournaments, the initial dice roll and seating procedures may follow additional protocols. With regards to seating, four or five tiles are randomized for players to draw seating positions. The four tiles are naturally one of each wind tiles. With five tiles, a haku tile is added, where drawing this tile determines the location of the east player. After the tile draws, the players sit accordingly in the following order, counterclockwise: East, South, West, and North. Then, the person sitting East rolls the dice to determine the first dealer, as the procedure mentioned above. With regards to dice rolling, the player who drew east bears the task of determining the first dealer.

Automatic tables

The automatic table includes one or two sets of tiles, with blue or orange backs. With the push of a red button on the central island, it rises up and the discard ponds collapse to allow players to push tiles into the mixer below. With another push of the red button, four 17x2 walls of shuffled tiles rise up from below. Automatic tables are real and not that uncommon. However, they are rather expensive, with the cheapest tables priced around ¥2000, or roughly $2000 or so.

Some automatic tables are capable of keeping score, based on point sticks stored in four pull out compartments. In the event of riichi, the central island has four slots where 1000-point stick rīchi bets can be placed. An east-south prevailing-wind marker is used in hanchan games to indicate the round. The table's raised border has four recesses where the prevailing-wind marker, counters, and carry-over rīchi bets can be placed..

Building walls and breaking the wall

Now, the tiles may be shuffled and arranged into walls. After shuffling, tiles are arranged into 4-double stacked rows of 17-tiles. Every player has the responsibility of building their own walls arranged in front of them. Once the walls are built, the dealer determines the initial breakage of the wall using a dice roll. Once again, starting with the dealer, the count begins at 1 and the count moves clockwise. Then the wall of the player at the end of this count is broken, where the player counts with the same dice number from the first tile on the right side of his/her wall towards the left.

Sometimes, the automatic table is used. These tables include one or two sets of tiles, with different colored backs. The table uses magnets to properly align the tiles face down. These tables randomly and conveniently arrange the tiles into the 4 separate walls. With push of the red button, four 17x2 walls of shuffled tiles rise up from below. With the push of a red button on the central island, it rises up and the discard ponds collapse to allow players to push tiles into the mixer below. Some automatic tables may be advanced enough to even handle game scoring and tracking.

The dead wall and dora

Then the dead-wall must be set. From the point of the initial wall break, players count 7-tiles to the right of the initial break; and the wall is broken again. There should be a total of 14-tiles (7-tiles double stacked) in this group. This is the dead wall, which consists of tiles set aside and not used in the regular draw. Finally, the third tile closest to the initial break is flipped over and used as a dora indicator.

Dealing the tiles

From the initial break, the dealer (East) begins by taking a group of 4 tiles from the regular wall. The South takes the next group of 4. Then West with 4 more, and North with 4 more. This procedure is repeated 2 more times, to ensure an initial deal of 12-tiles for each player. At this point, the dealer East takes the first and third tiles on the top row of the wall. South takes the next available draw, then West, and finally North. At this initial deal of the tiles, the dealer East should have 14 tiles; and the rest have 13. The game hand begins with the dealer discarding 1 tile.

Players are recommended to arrange their tiles according to suit, but it is not necessary. Some players are able to read their hands with the tiles in randomized order.

Game play

After the initial setup, then the game may begin. With online sites and automatic tables, the above setup procedure may be ignored.

Tile draws and turn order

The game begins with the dealer's initial discard. From here onward, each player gets a turn to draw a tile from the wall, all players, except the discarder, has the option of claiming a discarded tile by chii, pon, kan, or ron. See Claiming discards.

If no claims of the discard are made, then the next player draws from the wall and makes a discard, unless the hand is a winning hand with the declaration of tsumo. The turn order are as follows: East-South-West-North, and the cycle repeats. However, in the event of a discarded tile claim, then the next turn belongs to the player to the right of the claimer. This means, it is possible to skip a player's turn.

Discard pile

Every player's discard is organized and arranged in front of them. Per convention, players line up their discarded tiles in rows of six. This is not a necessary convention, but it is the preferred convention. The discard pile is used two-fold: as record of a player's discards, and as an indicator of safe-tiles. See Defensive play.

Furiten

The discard pile may indicate a player in furiten. If a player has a winning tile in the player's discard pile, then the player is in furiten. This state of furiten is dubious as it disables the player's ability to win off a discard. In other words, the player cannot claim ron.

In addition, the disabling of ron by furiten applies to all winning tiles, not just a particular tile in the discard. If the player's hand looks like this:

  • Tenpai: SanpinSuupinUupinRyuupinChiipinRyanzouRyanzouRyanzouRyuuwanRyuuwanSuusouUusouRyuusou

This example hand is a tenpai hand waiting for a Ryanpin, Uupin, or Paapin. If any of these tiles are in the player's discard pile, then the player cannot claim ron. A player can get out of furiten by changing the hand composition.

A player may also become temporarily furiten when the player declines calling ron, including when the player has zero yaku. The temporary state ends after the player's next draw. For some game situations, it may actually be beneficial not to declare ron on a discard in favor of increasing hand value, for example.

Also, players who declared riichi must claim the win on the first winning discard, or else become permanently furiten.

Furiten does not disable the player's ability to win. Winning by draw (tsumo) is still enabled.

End of a hand

The procedure of drawing, discarding, and maintaining a hand ends when someone declares a complete hand and wins the hand. A hand may end when all the tiles, except for the dead-wall tiles, are drawn, or when a player chombos, meaning making an illegal play. After the end of the hand, points are exchanged accordingly. Then afterwards, the tiles are reshuffled to setup the next hand, or renchan.

Winning a hand

Once again, a winning hand is composed of a tenpai hand, where the winning tile can be claimed by either discard (ron) or by draw (tsumo). This can also be attained by the dead-wall draw with the special tsumo of rinshan kaihou yaku. Two other special win claims can be attained by ron via chankan. One involves a waiting tile as an added kan on an open triplet; and the other may involve a closed kan for the Kokushi Musō yakuman. In either case of discard (ron) or by draw (tsumo), the win for a hand may be claimed. Declaring a tsumo win or ron is also called going mahjong. Winning also require a minimum of one yaku.

Winning hands are awarded points based on the difficulty and luck needed to form them. So, the appropriate amount of points are exchanged between players according to the tables in the scoring rules of the game. Naturally, the point exchanges are already handled by software and mahjong game sites. Even some automatic tables are capable of scoring calculations.

Dealers receive roughly 50% more points when winning than non-dealers. However, if a non-dealer wins by draw (tsumo), then the dealer must pay roughly 50% while non-dealers pay roughly 25% each. The winner of a hand collects any rīchi bets on the table and additional points allowed by honba.

Depending on the rules, multiple winners are also possible. This event occurs when more than one player is waiting on the same tile(s), and the wins are claimed by discard (ron). This event is called a double ron or even triple ron. Some rules may allow double, but not triple. In this case, the losing player must pay the winning players according to their respective hand values. Likewise, honba applies for both of them as well. Otherwise, some rules may apply the head bump rule, or atama. In this case, only one of the players may claim the win over the other. The former winner may claim the win over the latter, or vice-versa depending on the rules agreed upon.

Exhaustive draw

Also, known as Ryuukyoku, the hand ends in a draw, after all the tiles from the wall are drawn, except for the 14 in the dead wall. In this case, player(s) tenpai receive points from those in noten. A hand in tenpai is one that needs just one more tile, either by draw (tsumo) or discard (ron) to win. However, that needed tile was never claimed. Nearly 40% of professional games go to an exhaustive draw due to players immediately dropping out of the race when a player declares riichi.

Examples of tenpai hands:

  • SanpinSanpinSuupinSuupinUupinUupinSuusouSuusouSuusouRyanwanSanwanPePe Waiting for: Iiwan or Suuwan

Examples of noten hands:

  • RyuupinRyuupinRyuupinIiwanSanwanSuuwanChunChuuwanRyuusouChiisouRyanzouSanzouSuusou

Point exchanges are as follows:

  • 1-player in tenpai: All players in noten pays 1000 points.
  • 2-players in tenpai: One player in noten pays 1500 to one player in tenpai. Likewise, the other player in noten pays 1500 points to the other player in tenpai.
  • 3-players in tenpai: The one player in noten plays 1000 points to each player in tenpai.
  • 4-players in tenpai: No points exchanged.
  • 0-players in tenpai: No points exchanged.

No matter what, the total exchange of 3000 points are evenly split between among the tenpai players from the noten players. Any leftover rīchi bets on the table are placed near the counters until collected by the winner of a hand.

If the dealer is not in tenpai, then the dealer indicator moves to the right; and that player becomes the new dealer. If the dealer is in tenpai, then the dealer indicator remains. For both cases, the count for honba increases by 1.

Abortive draws

A mahjong hand may end prematurely. In this event, no points are exchanged, and no penalties are enforced. Instead, the hand ends, and the tiles are reshuffled. The following are the abortive draws:

  • Suufon Renta. The first discard of each player is the same wind tile.
  • Kyuushuu Kyuuhai. A player's initial hand is composed of 9 honor or terminal tiles. A player may call this, and the tiles are reshuffled. However, this option is denied when a discard is called before the player's turn.
  • Suucha Riichi. All four players call riichi, as the riichi discard of the 4th player is not a winning tile.
  • Suukaikan. Kan is called four times by different players. If all four quads are called by one player, then play continues to give the player opportunity to score the yakuman, suu kansu. This chance can end with a fifth quad is called.
  • Sanchahou. Three players call ron on the same tile. In this case, no player wins the hand. Although, some allow this triple ron scenario to take place.

An abortive draw has not been shown in the Saki universe, but the rules have affected play.[1]

Chombo

The chombo is a penalty to the player, who performs specific illegal procedures. Other illegal procedures may be forgivable if done accidentally, like accidentally drawing a tile from a different part of the wall. However, things like cheating or winning without a yaku are more serious offenses. In the event of a chombo, the player must play out a penalty of points to the amount of a mangan.

The following offenses are subject to chombo:

  • Caught cheating. Among these include stealing from the discard pile, or tile trading from the hand to the wall. Such tricks can be performed by the sleight of hand.[2]
  • Invalid win. Players cannot declare a win with an incomplete hand or incorrect waiting tile.
  • Illegal riichi. Riichi must be declared with a tenpai hand. Therefore, riichi declared with a noten hand is penalized.
  • Unrevealed riichi. This involves a player declaring riichi and refuses to reveal the hand at the end.
  • Winning on 0-yaku. A hand must have 1-yaku minimum to win. Therefore, declaring a win on a 0-yaku hand is penalized.
  • Winning while furiten. A player in furiten cannot win off a discard, or by ron. A win by draw, or tsumo, is still proper.
  • Illegal closed kan. During riichi, a player may call a closed kan. However, this is invalid when the player's wait changes.
  • Wall destruction. A player cannot crash and destroy the wall, such that the tile arrangement cannot be recovered.

Hand development

The process of drawing and discarding, as well as making claims to discard is the process of hand development. As a player, after the initial deal of hands, players have a start hand. So, the aim of a player is to develop this hand into a complete hand. A complete mahjong hand is composed of 4 melds and a pair. The hand may be open or closed and have at minimum 1-yaku. This is a total of 13 tiles plus 1 (the winning tile), like so:

ChiipinPaapinChuupinSuuwanSuuwanSuuwanUusouRyuusouChiisouTonTonTonIipin Iipin

A hand that is one tile away from being complete is in tenpai. A hand that is one tile away from tenpai is one shanten. A hand that is two tiles away from tenpai is two shanten, and so on. Experienced players may sense how likely they are to win a hand based on their initial shanten number.

There are two notable exceptions to the 4 melds and a pair pattern. Players can try to form seven pairs or the rare thirteen orphans hand. Both of these hands are closed by default.

Claiming discards

For each immediate discard, players have the option to make claims on discarded tiles based on the following conditions:

  • This may sound silly, but a player cannot claim his/her own discard.
  • If the discarded tile completes a hand, then any player may call ron. See Winning a hand.
  • For all other claims, a player must have 2 out of the 3 tiles in the hand necessary to form a complete meld. See Melds.
  • Discard claims must be made immediately after discard, and before the next player's turn. Otherwise, a discarded tile remains in the discard pile and may not be claimed.
  • Players reveal their two tiles and append the claimed tile. Then these three revealed tiles are placed to the right corner of the player's area.
  • The claimed tile must be arranged sideways to indicate the claim. In addition, the claimed tile must be arranged on the left, middle, or right to indicate the source of the claim.
  • To claim and complete sequences, the player to the right of the discarder may claim the tile and call chii. This means, any player calling chii may only claim tiles from the player to the left. However, this call has one limit.
Some scenarios may involve a player with a closed completed sequence in the hand, like RyanpinSanpinSuupin; and the player to the left drops a Iipin or Uupin. In this case, the player may call chii on the discarded tile, to make an open 1-2-3 or 3-4-5 sequence. This results in the existing sequence being broken by the chii call. The remainder of the previously closed sequence cannot be discarded. So, if the 1 is picked up, then the player cannot drop the 4. Likewise, if the 5 is picked up, then the 2 cannot be discarded.
  • To claim and complete triplets, any player may claim the tile and call pon.
  • A player may also complete quads. Like pon, any player may call kan. This is applicable when a player already has a triplet in the hand, and wishes to claim a 4th.

Finally, a hand is distinguishable between an open hand and closed hand. A closed hand composed of a player's hand, who had yet to make any claim on a discard. A hand in this state is fully concealed from the other players. In the event a player makes a claim on a discard, then the player's hand changes from a closed hand to an open hand. Usually, a player's hand value decreases in the event of an open hand, but this may not always be the case, especially for some yakuman hands. Japanese mahjong strategy centers on knowing when to appropriately make the above calls. Knowledge of the yaku plays a large part in this decision making process.

Melds

Complete mahjong hands are composed of melds. All individual melds must be composed of a single suit or type of mahjong tile. All melds, except quads, are composed of groups of 3 tiles.

  • Consecutive same suit Sequences. Sequences must be in consecutive numbers per the following examples:
    • 1-2-3 IiwanRyanwanSanwan OR IipinRyanpinSanpin
    • 4-5-6 SuuwanUuwanRyuuwan OR SuusouUusouRyuusou
  • Same suit triplets. Triplets are three-of-a-kind. As such, the tiles must be of the same kind both in number and suit. Per examples:
    • ChiisouChiisouChiisou
    • ChunChunChun
  • Same suit quads. Quads are four-of-a-kind. However, in an actual sense, quads actually count as three-of-a-kind plus one, where players are actually awarded special privileges for possessing four of one type of tile.

Quads

A special set of rules and procedures applies to quads. Aside from completing a quad from discards, a player may also have a complete meld of a quad in hand. This is a closed quad. Calling a kan is also applicable in this case, and upon doing so, a player can retain the state of a closed hand, unless the hand was previously opened. This closed quad can only be called on the player's turn after the draw from the wall. After the call, the player reveals proof of the quad; and then the quad is put to the side like any other called meld, and it is arranged in any of the three arrangements (being the first as preferable):

  • BackTonTonBack
  • ChunBackBackChun
  • BackIipinIipinIipin

Upon calling any kan, a player gains the privilege of drawing an extra tile from the dead wall. This is one of the first 4 tiles to the left of the dora-indicator. Afterwards, if the the extra tile does not complete the hand, the player must discard and play moves on to the right. As a sidenote, for each call kan, the player's tile count increases by 1 for each quad. Once again, a quad counts as a triplet plus one.

Furthermore, when a player calls or declares a kan, an additional dora indicator tile is flipped. This is called the kan dora. Some rules may allow the kan dora to be flipped immediately after the kan call. Other rules have stricter procedures on when the kan dora tile is flipped. Some make the distinction between the open kan and the closed kan. Finally, a tile is shifted from the end of the regular wall to the dead wall, in order to maintain 14-tiles in the dead wall.

Game Rounds

Most games consist of two prevailing-wind rounds and are called hanchan. Each of the two rounds is labeled as the East round and South round. For shorter games, just a single East round may be played. For each round, every player gets a chance to be seated as the dealer once per round. A prevailing wind round is complete when all four players have had a rotation as the dealer. At the beginning of the second round, the initial east seat-wind player turns over the prevailing-wind marker to indicate that it's the south prevailing-wind round.

End of game

PlusMinus

End game results with raw scores and uma scores

Typically, the game ends after the final hand of the last round, when at least one player is scoring 30,000 or more. This number may differ barring house rules.  However, the entire game may end differently than the standard rounds. This may occur under the following conditions:

  • Running out. When any player's points falls into the negatives, or below zero, then the game ends. At that point, the player has run out of point sticks. The game can continue when a player has exactly 0 points.[3]
  • Win and finish. On the final hand of the last round, if the dealer wins the hand, the dealer may choose to continue the game or end the game. A similar rule applies to the last battle of team matches. If the dealer's team is in the lead after the first hand of the very last rotation, the dealer may choose to end the match when the match would otherwise continue due to dealer repeats. In which case, teams will usually opt to end the match.[4]
  • Going south and going west. This is an overtime prevailing-wind round that occurs when a regular game ends with all of the players under 30,000 points.[5] This overtime round ends as soon as any player has over 30,000 points. If all the points remains below 30,000 after another full round, then another overtime round may be played in the next prevailing-wind.

Finally, the player with the greatest number of points at the end wins. For additional scoring, another final uma score or +/- score may be applied.

Tied scores

When two or more players finish the game with tied scores, the tiebreaker follows the original wind seating order. Raw scores are not adjusted. Instead, the order factors towards the awarding of the Uma score.

References

  1. Saki manga, volume, hand 73. Yuuki Kataoka is given a choice between an abortive draw or breaking up her early tenpai hand. She chooses to continue the hand of play by holding onto an unwanted west wind tile.
  2. Saki manga, volume 3, hand 22. Saki anime, episode 11. In a flashback, Hajime Kunihiro was penalized after it was discovered that she used sleight of hand. She did it save her team from being eliminated, but it did not help, as her team was also disqualified.
  3. Saki manga, volume 5, hand 42. Saki anime, episode 17. Koromo Amae devalues her hand to put Kana Ikeda at zero points. A little later, Kana flips open her point sticks compartment to mourn over how empty it is.
  4. Achiga-hen manga, volume 1, chapter 6. Achiga-hen episode of side-A anime, episode 7. This comes into play when Ryuuka Shimizudani, as the dealer, has a huge lead going into the very last rotation. In the manga, Shizuno Takakamo is aware of the rule and proceeds more aggressively. In the anime, Eri Hariu announces the rule to the viewers.
  5. Saki anime, episode 21. This is how Kazue Nanpo extended her match against Mutsuki Tsuyama into the south wind during an east wind game.

External links

Japanese Mahjong Wiki
A wiki specifically dedicated to Japanese Mahjong
European Mahjong Association website
Their Riichi Rules for Japanese Mahjong contains detailed rules and terminology. A previous version was used by Crunchyroll's Saki anime translator.
United States Professional Mahjong League
Barticle's Japanese Mahjong Guide can be downloaded from the downloads section. It contains even more detailed rules and terminology.
Wikipedia's Japanese mahjong page
Japanese Professional League rules (Japanese)
Introductory explanation video to the game
Osamuko mahjong blog
A Japanese Mahjong blog for English speakers

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