Learn Mah Jongg with Debbie’s Golden Rules of Mah Jongg – Part I
Learn Mah Jongg with Debbie’s Golden Rules of Mah Jongg – Part I
With proper etiquette, you can learn Mah Jongg and become a master of your habits.
The game of mah jongg (also spelled mahhjong, mahjongg, and majiang mah-jongg), like any game, can be learned by being taught the American Mahjong rules, reading about American Mahjong strategy or my new beginner’s book, Unlocking the Secrets of American Mah jongg, or other American Mahjong Tutorials. Over time, the rules and strategy will become second nature and you will soon be playing like a pro with seasoned players. However, this does not automatically make you a player with whom someone would want to play; hence the reason I created Debbie’s Golden Rules of Mah Jongg. These golden rules will help you learn mah jongg and the American Mah jongg Rules while demonstrating good habits and behaviors around the mah jongg table, making you the type of player that others will be delighted to have in their game.
Before we delve into Debbie’s golden rule #1, it is important to understand the difference between habits and behaviors, two things that greatly affect your presence during a mah jongg game. Let’s start with habits. Habits are actions that become automatic if repeated over and over again. When something becomes automatic, you don’t have to think twice about it. You, as the Nike commercial says, “just do it,” without putting any effort into it. For example, saying “please” before asking for something and saying “thank you” after receiving something are common habits. Once you have perfected a habit, you have become a so-called “habit master.” Even though being a “habit master” might sound funny, it’s valuable to have mastery over your habits. But keep in mind that you can also become a master of habits that are distasteful, annoying, or rude. And, if you are a habit master of a few distasteful habits, you can easily become the type of mah jongg player no one wants to invite into their circle of players. As the idiom says, “old habits do die hard,” so by practicing good habits from the start, you will avoid having to work hard at breaking them. After all, bad habits are, indeed, HARD to break.
Behavior, on the other hand, is triggered by the nervous and endocrine systems. What goes on in one’s environment will trigger a reaction that shows up as a behavior. The important difference between habits and behavior is that behavior is a conscious action, while a habit is a subconscious action. With a behavior, one must think before they react. We’ve all heard the words, “think before you speak,” or, “think before you do anything.” We’ve probably all run into this type of person at least once, if not more, in our lifetime. This type of person (forgive me for being so blunt) has, “diarrhea of the mouth.” Such a person doesn’t think before he or she speaks or reacts instantaneously, as if ready to do battle for their opinion about something or someone without considering the others around. For example, at a game I was hosting a few years back, a woman we’ll refer to as Joy carefully watched another full-bodied woman, whom we’ll refer to as Midge, as she made her way to the array of snacks I had placed out that day. Midge picked up a plate, walked past the lower-calorie fruit and veggie choices and stopped in front of the brownies. She placed two pieces on her plate and walked back to the table and sat down. Joy quickly blurted out, “Do you really need that?” Flushed with embarrassment, Midge said, “Mind your own business.”
Good for Midge, who stood up for herself, but shame on Joy for her rude behavior! One must ask themselves: Is this the type of person you want to be around your mah jongg table?
For those new to the game, hopefully, your teacher has educated you on good habits and behaviors. I strive to instill good habits and behaviors in my students from day one. Being courteous and polite are things we are supposed to have been taught growing up. Unfortunately, it seems as though some have either forgotten good habits, are unaware of their behavior, or were never taught politeness growing up. If I observe a student who is either discourteous or rude—and believe me, there seems to be one in every class—I feel it is my duty to set an example for the others by addressing the behavior and saying something.
One of the most obstinate students I’ve had to date is one who came into class with a glass of wine. Prior to the first class, everyone receives a group text with reminders of dates, location, and rules. The rules are no food during class; water or coffee is permitted in a closed container. So, when this woman walked in with a glass of wine, I chuckled to myself, Here comes my one-in-every-class student. After asking her if she got my text, she replied, “Oh, I must have missed that.” I responded, “Only water and coffee permitted during class and in a closed container. Would you please place the glass of wine on the credenza (pointing her in the right direction) and away from the playing area?” She huffed and puffed and nearly blew my house down with her resistant comments. Instead of doing as I asked, she sat down and placed the glass underneath her chair. She had made the unilateral decision that under the chair meant out of the playing area. When I said something to her again, she got up abruptly and placed the glass on a nearby credenza. You can see the pattern, right?
You can guess what happened in the next class, can’t you? You’ve got it: she came strutting in again with a glass of wine. Had I not clearly addressed this with her last time? Though I felt quite uncomfortable, not only for me but for the entire class, I asked her to leave. When she finally realized the consequences of her behavior, she begged and pleaded to stay; she promised she would not be a repeat offender—again! Thankfully, she did clean up her act long enough to get through the next few classes.
So, my friends, what happens when we are dealing with seasoned players who haven’t a clue about being courteous, at least around the mah jongg table? Did they forget about good habits or is their mind somewhere playing a role in some Twilight Zone episode? At times, it sure seems like it, doesn’t it? Many of us excuse poor behavior and habits when playing and then complain to everyone else who will listen. And, of course, everyone knows about this inappropriate behavior except for the one displaying it. Regardless, I am here to help you handle a variety of awkward, uncomfortable, and bizarre behaviors around the table.
I’ve seen the impact of such behavior up close and personal, both as a mah jongg player and an instructor. From a player’s vantage point, inappropriate behavior and distasteful habits displayed through poor etiquette or rudeness impact everyone at the table. It is not only disruptive to the game, but can also change the mood of those who were looking forward to a fun-filled day, causing them to reconsider whether they even want to continue playing with the group. I dropped out of a weekly game because one player was repeatedly rude and argued about rules. She’d insist that a rule was a National Mah Jongg League rule to the point that I had to call the League to confirm that it was in fact a tournament rule and not a League rule. She spent so much time in her argumentative posture that the game was no longer fun for me. And games are certainly supposed to be fun! From an instructor’s vantage point, inappropriate behavior or poor habits are also disruptive to the class, as in my story about the woman with the wine. Precious time is taken away from the others who are eager to learn and who have paid for an instructional class. It is not fair to them that I must stop and address the behavior or habit that does not belong in my classroom. Suddenly, my role turns from instructor to disciplinarian, which is not at all a part of my class schedule.
Since many tenuous situations can arise, I am here to help you handle a variety of awkward, uncomfortable, and bizarre behaviors around the table. In order to help others and to spread the word about good habits and behaviors, I will be doing a blog series discussing a my 15 Golden Rules of mah jongg (and the list will surely grow). Sharing these rules with others can help you discuss awkward, uncomfortable, and even embarrassing moments around the mah jongg table. Now it’s time to look at Debbie’s Golden Rule #1.
Golden Rule #1: Wait until all your tiles are dealt out before racking them; this will prevent a misdeal and someone ending up short on tiles.
New students who want to learn mah jongg and American mahjong strategy are anxious to get those tiles up on the rack. Since the flow of picking and whether to pick clockwise or counterclockwise does not come naturally to the beginner player, ending up with the wrong number of tiles is easy to do.
By placing each set of four tiles together on top of your mah jongg card and repeating the same, you can easily count and visually see that you have three sets of four tiles. Those three sets equal twelve, then East takes the first one and third tiles, while everyone else just takes one.
As you can see in this picture, it is easy to tell that after East picked his/her first and third tiles, they were short four tiles. This is a misdeal. Everyone would need to throw in their tiles and start over. But what happens if you didn’t leave them on the top of your mah jongg card and, instead, you racked them? If you are lucky enough to notice it, you can declare a misdeal, whereby everyone throws in their tiles, builds their walls, and deals again. But, if you don’t catch it and the Charleston begins, it is too late to declare a misdeal. So now you are thinking, I call myself dead and I need to announce it to everyone, right? Wrong; you are not supposed to call yourself dead. You are supposed to wait until another player notices that you have too few tiles and officially declares your hand dead. Once this happens, you stop playing. If no one calls you dead, you continue to play, but you must play defensively since you cannot make mah jongg with too few tiles! Plus, you really have to be careful because the last thing you want to happen is for you to be playing a dead hand and give someone else mah jongg.
One more thing: what if you forget the rules and call yourself dead after realizing you had been playing with too few tiles? Someone else still needs to officially declare your hand dead, and I’m sure, at that point, they will.
Following Rule #1 is really one of the easiest habits to form in one simple step. Don’t rack your tiles until you have verified that you have three sets of four tiles plus two (if you are East) or one (if you are not).
Something else to think about…what about those players that like to get fancy by placing their tiles all in a row and then using their card to flip them up? Pretty impressive huh? For me not so, but to each his/her own. Not a biggie unless that fancy move didn’t include the right number of tiles. Let’s move on to Golden Rule #2.
Golden Rule #2: Keep your hands to yourself. In other words, don’t touch anyone else’s tiles or racks.
New players who want to learn mah jongg should pay close attention to this rule. First off, I’d like to start this rule by asking a few questions. Why would anyone touch anyone else’s tiles? They are not yours, so why touch them? Don’t you have enough of your own tiles?
And what about someone else’s racks? There is no reason that you would be touching them or moving them or doing anything with them for that matter.
Here are some things to live by when it comes to this rule:
1. Let players take their own tiles during the deal.
2. Let players pick their own tiles from the wall.
3. Let players pick up their called tile from the table.
4. Let players push out their own rack.
5. Don’t touch, move, or handle another player’s tiles and/or racks.
6. Ask for (don’t grab) the joker during a joker exchange (see below Golden Rule #4)
On a final note, some people don’t like their tiles or racks touched. So why not get in the habit of not doing it? This way, you leave any chance of bickering out of the equation. Is it the end of the world if you do any one of these things? Probably not; but be sure to check your tournament rules before you dare to touchy-touchy or put your paws on anyone else’s tiles.
Golden Rule #3 – Keep your Exposures spaced that are atop the flat part of your Rack.
This seems simple enough, yet I see players forget from time to time. It is the courteous thing to do and spacing exposures make it easier especially for the beginner player to find the potential hand(s) being played. If a player doesn’t leave spaces in between their Pungs, Kongs or Quints, you must put Rule #2 into play because the “bad habit” devil might be sitting on your shoulder waiting to will your Hand over to their Rack eager to space those Exposures. Be gone you “bad habit” devil because I am going to put Rule #2 into play and ask the player with the Exposed Tiles that are not spaced to please and don’t forget the thank you, space them. Easy as pie, right? My students learn this from the get-go so this good habit will become second nature.
If you want to learn more on mah jongg ettique the American mahjong way, stay tuned for the next blog in this series, where we will cover additional rules from Debbie Golden Rules of Mah Jongg.
Happy Mah Jongging everyone!