Grant Grumbles: Play the Game, Not the Rules (Pt 1)


Hi there, and welcome to the start of a series of rants, gripes, and otherwise insightful issues regarding how mahjong is played out there in real life. Today’s topic: knowing when to enforce the rules as written and when to let very minor things slide.

I’ve been playing in live tournaments for seven years now, and I am generally pleased with the increasing skill level at tournaments over this period. Nevertheless, there are many things that can happen at tournaments that don’t make headlines, event reports, or are not acted upon for future reference. Some players could enjoy a reference into best practices that the rules can’t really cover, others kind of need it, and let’s not kid ourselves: some should be forced to palliate their deficiencies.

In riichi mahjong, there are a lot of unwritten rules into the social contract of the game. One essential one is that all four players are collectively responsible for ensuring a smooth experience for the table. This is one simple sentence encapsulates a dozen different meanings and intentions.

Missing or extra tiles, signaling it, and faults

The WRC rules have a list of penalties for events that may occur in a game: having 12 or 14 tiles in hand outside your turn, forgetting a vital step in calling or making riichi/ron/tsumo declarations, etc. It is important to have written rules to cover the obvious cases that could lead to penalties or restrictions. Having said this, the reflex should be to fix a situation at the table before calling for a referee.

Ex. 1: Discarding before drawing

Everyone has seen this before and most of us have probably done it: East plays their turn to start the hand, and as South, the player discards without drawing. This is the most common error, seconded by East only grabbing 13 tiles before discarding. The rules state that a person who is caught short with a hand forfeits their right to win, call, or claim tempai settlement points ([ja] agari hôki, “dead hand”). Some people have instinctively resorted to calling for a referee, or to deal with it locally telling a player that their hand is now dead.

This is wrong. If the situation can be fixed, it must be fixed in order to uphold the social contract around the game. If the next player has not drawn, there is no excuse to deny a player an opportunity to put things right, at least once. Repeat offences by the same player might be deserving of penalty.

Mending the game mends the relationship we share as players at a table, changing enemies that need to be destroyed into opponents worthy of respect.

Ex. 2: Drawing the wrong tile

Now, where the line is drawn can vary due to the generosity and even the professionalism of your opponents. A similar case would be drawing from the wrong location. Take the World Riichi Championship as an example. At a place where, for westerners, the stakes were the highest we can find, mahjong professionals, the kind of people who have rigorously studied and played mahjong for decades, somehow were not stuck up with faults in play. They generally requested a player (i.e. me) return a drawn and discarded tile to draw the correct one in its place, and continued playing. When this happened, I was fully expecting to take the dead hand penalty, but world-class players like Mr. Makoto Sawazaki (JPML) simply waved it off as if it was nothing. It could be fixed, so why not fix it? (Personal note: if a tile goes in the hand, then this case might no longer apply.)

Mending the game mends the relationship we share as players at a table, changing enemies that need to be destroyed into opponents worthy of respect. It is important that our values be shared with other mahjong players who have not experienced the benefits of the social contract of riichi, or that have been brainwashed by the competing social contracts of other forms of mahjong. This doesn’t mean that only professionals can be honorable: amateurs can be just as well. When relatively new players are playing, if they screw up and it can be corrected, why not take that extra step? Forgiveness costs nothing and can contribute to retaining players in the community as well as attract others to play.

Having said this, if it can’t be fixed, then yeah, call for a dead hand if the next player already drew, or if they get to discard, or it’s discovered three+ turns later. Forgiveness should be extended once per hanchan, or maybe twice for two separate minor issues. It’s just common sense.