Investing in Referees

Riichi tournaments bring together people from a broad range of backgrounds, ages, cultures, and countries. It is the achievements and failings of a global community writ small. A wash of players focuses everyone’s goals, expectations, and their best and worst habits into a competitive cloud of chaos.

At the center of the chaos, directing the flow, is the referee.

Putting aside the hyperbole, you can call them “judge” or “official” or whatever. They are the people doing the (usually) thankless job that can be abstracted into a single statement:

“Protect the integrity of the tournament.”

There’s a lot to unpack from that, but I’ll leave it for another time. Instead, I’d like to talk about how we invest our referee’s with the confidence and authority.

The Social Contract

When a match is finished, most of us want to walk away knowing that, win or lose, the conditions under which the game is played remained equitable. Among clubs and casual play it is easy to self-police activity and set a common standard. But tournaments bring together a broader scope of expectations. To level these expectations we employ 1) a standard set of agreed rules, and 2) people to monitor for and adjudicate any issues from an impartial position. This creates a social contract between players and referees in which the official is granted the capacity to enforce the selected rules.

After that it is up to both sides to support their end of the agreement, and here’s how.


Officials have the responsibility of maintaining the integrity of the tournament you signed up for! Let them do their job without interference. If the rules of the event (which I imagine you had to agree to when signing up) state that phones other devices aren’t allowed at the table, don’t play dumb when you’re asked to put your score tracker app away for the second time.

The referee is not an adversary; they have no stake in the outcome of your game.

The dynamic between players and referees should not be adversarial; it is symbiotic and things go best when one does’t try to do the job of the other. Your view as a player is usually narrowed to your scores, ranking, and performance; the referee considers what is fair for all because we asked them to! It is the only way we can assure that results are as unbiased as possible.

Be courteous; mutual respect is better, but common courtesy is a minimum.

Most often your official interactions with the referee will be minimal; they make sure your game starts/finishes on time and scores are recorded according to the game state. Occasionally, something out of the norm occurs at your table and the referee needs to intervene. As a referee, I can say without reservation how much I appreciate it when people treat this as a simple transaction and not an opportunity to abuse the system.

Respect official rulings; it’s not always going to go in your favor.

You have every right to speak up when things go off rail a bit, but once an official has made a ruling, respect the call. You don’t have to like it, but keep in mind their perspective will be different than yours. It’s unbecoming to make a scene because things don’t fall in your favor every time.


The referee is the primary interface between organizers and players. If refs lack confidence, present questionable authority to make calls, or are undermined through either their own behavior or through through that of bad actors, the integrity of the tournament diminishes.


Know your rules inside and out. They won’t tell you the answer to every possible scenario, but they will give you a good foundation with which to start. Ask questions if you’re not sure. It’s okay (and well advised) to keep a copy of the rules handy. A little common sense and some experience will cover most everything else.

Comport yourself with fairness and authority.

Part of how people respond to rulings and directives comes from how you carry and present yourself. If you look like you don’t care, why should they? Dress appropriate to the situation, pay attention, and don’t behave as if it’s a waste of your time.

Follow through with warnings.

Don’t penalize unnecessarily, but infinite cautions for the same offense without penalty not only undermine’s your own authority, but the integrity of the tournament as a whole.

Don’t defer a ruling because you don’t know the answer.

Especially when the players at a table have expressly called for one. It’s OK to suspend a table’s game while you refer to the documented rules or confer with another referee; you can always add time to their game. But forcing a table to “play on” in spite of an ongoing objection violates your highest responsibility: protect the integrity of the tournament.

Respect the players.

As I mentioned above, I love players who treat referee calls as a simple transaction: they give me their problem, and after evaluation and consideration I return to them an official ruling. No fuss, no muss! Having faced players who are dismissive, antagonistic, and outright hostile, I appreciate players who simply look for a ruling so the game can continue. (You know who you are! I have gone out of my way to acknowledge and thank players who treat our interactions professionally.)

Other Stuff

Both sides need to understand is that the referee is not always going to get it right, and that is okay.

Situations can get complicated and everyone at the table has a different perspective. Even after reducing the conversation to the principals involved and evaluating the game state, there might not be a clear cut path. But the game must continue, therefore a ruling must be made. Referees are people too, and while the vast majority that I have met do their very best, no mortal gets it right all the time.

A bad call can vary in scope from “minor oopsie” to impacting the results of the hanchan and possibly the tournament. I’ve done both.

There are other things we can be doing to strengthen the social contract such as developing and providing training for riichi referees. North America does not yet have an organization that is training or certifying riichi judges; the EMA has a certification program that suits their standards, and the Japanese employ referees from within their given league. However, this isn’t where the mutual relationship begins. It begins when players (or organizers) employ individuals to do a specific job. Training and certification just makes it better.

Mentoring referees is also a good idea. Wherever possible mix an experienced referee with a new one to smooth the experience and give the greenhorn to handle calls with confidence.

Off topic: I’m sorry for the unbroken wall of text! I usually do my very best to include at least an image, but so few event photographers take shots of the staff. Let’s not neglect our referee’s, y’all!
As always with our editorials, comments are open.