Playing the “Masters” in Japan

Titles—simultaneously the dream and the measuring stick for professional mahjong players. Without them, even with skill and years of experience in the league, you’re a nobody. But with them, even if you are a young, aspiring pro, it could be your ticket into the prestigious M-League. But not just any old tournament or league will do; only those recognized by the mahjong community as “Major Titles” will grant the that necessary prestige.

Among the Major Titles there are those that pros and amateurs alike can compete for. One such as this is the Japanese Professional Mahjong League’s Masters title. A short tournament, with the main matches taking place on two consecutive weekends around the Golden Week holidays in Japan, but packed with 240 players from various pro leagues and amateur qualifiers. This past week I was fortunate enough to able to qualify and play in the Masters.

So how does one qualify for the the Masters? There are two ways to qualify: either by performing well in a qualifier, or being seeded into the tournament.

First off, the various qualifiers. The month leading up to the tournament there are various amateur tournaments held in different regions around Japan. Generally, only a single person receives the qualification to compete from each qualifier. The main amateur qualifiers are held in Tokyo. A B-class qualifier with morning and afternoon sessions, as well as a special qualifier for amateurs that have played in the main tournament before or have a special recommendation from JPML. All Master games use an older version of the WRC ruleset with some strict chombo penalties.

Masters tournament WRC rule-set

To give an idea of how many people pass, the B-Class morning qualifier had 70 participants, and after four hanchan games only the top 4 players would be able to qualify for the main tournaments. With less than 6% of all competing players, and only over 4 hanchan to assert their skill, calling this difficult is an understatement. I had a good day and ended up 3rd in the morning B-class qualifier and was able to earn myself a seat.

For professional players, the path is also not an easy one, but a bit more doable because of seeding. Seeding is prevalent in all mahjong tournaments in Japan. The lowest level of seeding allows a player to participate in the tournament without going through a qualifier. The highest level of seeding, like the previous year’s title holder, allows them to enter the top 16 phase of the tournament directly. As an example, Garthe Nelson, a JPML professional from the U.S., recently placed first in a one day Ron2 championship tournament, and as such was able to attain a seed into the main tournament of the Masters. For professional players without a seed, they must attain a spot in a qualifier.

Professional qualifiers take place the weekend before the main tournament. They are split up based on JPML’s current league standings, with B1 players and up being seeded directly into the tournament, and outside organization professionals in their own qualifier. While each individual qualifier has less people than the amateur ones, the percent of qualifying players is still low.

After all qualifiers are done, qualified and seeded players proceed to main tournament. The event is split across three phases played at different location. In the first round, the players play a total of 4 hanchan, with an additional 5th hanchan player by all positive scoring players. At the end of the 5th hanchan, the top 52 players, along with four more seeded into the next part of the tournament, enter the main top 56 person tournament rounds the following day.

I started with the group at JPML’s main dojo. There were a large number of high profile players including top A-League players, M-leaguers, other well known players in the JPML, and some from other organizations. Unfortunately, it was in this round that Garthe and I joined 80% of participants and dropped out of the tournament, unable to make the top cut of players.

The top 56 players enter the second phase of tournament rounds. Players are seated at a table and play multiple hanchan with the same opponents. The top two players on a table at the end of the set moves on to the next round.

First round: Two hanchan, 56 players.
Second round: Three hanchan, 28 players.
Third round: Three hanchan, 16 players (14 winners from the previous round, last year’s winner, and first place overall from the first day).

Finally, the top 8 players advance to the live streamed semi-final and final games the following weekend.

This year, a heretofore unknown player from JPML Hokkaido, Yusho Shinko Pro, won his first big title, and we know relatively nothing about him! Hopefully, with his new found fame, he’ll create a Twitter account so people can learn more!

Seriously! Yusho Shinko Pro (front) doesn’t have a Ron2 page or wiki entry yet!