How Do You Play Mahjong?

Developed in China, Mahjong has become popular around the world and in active adult communities.

Sound interesting? The first two things that you need to know about Mahjong are…

What Is Mahjong?

A: Mahjong is a competitive game played with tiles. It originated in China and became popular there in the 1800s. Mahjong made its way over to the United States about forty years later, with the first sets being sold by Abercrombie & Fitch. Today, there are many variations of the game, but most of the basic rules are similar.

Though tiles are used, the mechanics of this game are similar to rummy. In Mahjong though, there has to be four players, and each one plays for themselves, not on teams. The players take turns in a circle, each drawing and discarding tiles. When one player collects the correct mix of tiles, they win the game.

How the Heck Do You Pronounce Mahjong?

A: Generally, it is pronounced “mah-zhong,” although there are variants of this as well. There are also several different spellings.

Mahjong Sets

To play, you should understand the parts of a Mahjong set. They have 136 tiles, which are small, rectangular, and printed with symbols and numbers. There is also a pair of dice, and racks for the players to hold their tiles. There are also accessories like Mahjong cards to help players remember the rules and money chips. Mahjong sets can be bought at stores like Walmart and online at shops like The Mah Jongg Maven.

The tiles are divided into five categories. This includes:

  • 16 wind tiles

  • 12 dragon tiles

  • 36 circles

  • 36 bamboos

  • 36 characters

Each of these is then broken down into four sets of numbers, from one to nine. Some sets also have bonus tiles with flowers and the four seasons.

How to Win

In order to win a game, a player must get a Mahjong. This is when they get all of their tiles into four different sets, plus one pair of identical tiles. There are two types of sets:

  • Chow: Three consecutive numbers that are all in the same suit (also called Kong).

  • Pung: Three identical tiles

Once a player gets majhong, they go out of the game. As the games are played, players accumulate scores, and at the end of the session (or competition), the player with the highest score wins.

Getting Set Up

Mahjong games are usually played at square tables with one player on each side. A starting dealer (called East) is chosen, and the tiles are shuffled together, face down. Next, the players all build a wall of 34 tiles in the center.  The wall should be two tiles high and 17 long.

The dealer then rolls the dice and uses that number to count the amount of tiles that will be removed from the right edge of the wall. At this point at the wall, the dealer starts distributing from its left to the players. Going clockwise, each person gets 13 tiles and the dealer keeps the extra one.

Each player places their tiles in a rack so that the others cannot see them, just like Scrabble. Once this is done, the game begins.


The dealer, or East, discards the first tile, putting it face-up on the table. The subsequent turns go in order around the table. When a tile is taken from the wall another one must be discarded onto the table.

Even if it is not their turn, another player can use the discarded tile to achieve a Mahjong, pung (three identical tiles), or chow (three consecutive numbers in the same suit). This depends on what the player whose turn it is has, though. If the at-turn player has nothing, another can claim it to complete a Mahjong, pung, or chow. If the at-turn player can get pung or chow but another player can get a Mahjong, the Mahjong gets the tile.

When a player completes one of the sets, they must reveal their hand to the others. If the discarded tile cannot be used by anyone, the at-turn player chooses the next tile that is in the wall, on the left. The last discarded tile is the only one that may be claimed.

Where Can You Play Mahjong?

The good news for Mahjong players is you don’t always need a group to play. Mahjong became a hit in the early 2000s across the U.S. and since then countless websites offer the game for free.

One of them is AARP, some active adults may not know that AARP is home to several free games. Other options for free Mahjong are, USA Today,, and the aptly named Free Mahjong.

55+ Communities and Mahjong


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