Riichi vs. American Mah Jongg!

American mahjong (or mah jongg) is the most popular style played in the United States today, boasting thousands of tournament players to our tens. Our target audience at Riichi Reporter is your regular riichi playing schmoe, and we all know there has been some snobbishness from our community toward the NMJL players. However, this has come from a place of ignorance rather than understanding. We’re all using the same pieces and the same basic concepts, what could create such a great divide between us?

The first step to healing is understanding so I’m going to attempt to make a comparison of riichi with American mah jongg in a way that is useful—by highlighting the major points that seem to be why they are attractive to the people that play them. But first, for those unfamiliar with the details of American mah jongg, I’ll run down its origin story and some play-style specifics.

Joseph P Babcock lived and worked in China beginning in 1912 where he and his wife learned to play mahjong. He wished to import the game to America and began importing sets but felt the rules needed simplification to suit an American audience. Babcock wrote a set of simplified rules and published Babcock’s Rules for Mah-jongg in 1924. The new rules helped popularize the game and it took hold all over the country. Over the following decades American mah jongg saw revisions that transformed it into a distinct style of its own.

Now I’ll be frank. I don’t know much about the finer points of American mah jongg as my experience is primarily with riichi, so I engaged Michele Frizzell to provide a more experienced perspective. Michele run’s Mahjong Central, a site offering mahjong services and information on a variety of styles. She is also a prolific video producer posting daily mahjong videos on YouTube. Seriously…there’s a lot!

From: Georgia, USA
Site: mahjongcentral.com
Favorite Tile: Any dragon tile. Honitsu is my favorite riichi hand. It’s a beautiful hand when finished, especially with a set of dragon tiles. Also, my mom collected dragons and she’s the reason I play mahjong. It’s sentimental.

The first thing that sets American mah jongg apart is the inclusion of several joker tiles which are used in creating quints and sextets (five and six of a kind.) Next, the Charleston. This is a process of passing tiles to other players at the table meant to refine your drawn hand before play begins. Obviously this is a huge difference that is unique to American. Opinions are going to vary on the idea of the Charleston but, riichi players, imagine being two dragon pairs and a single into a daisangen and doing a little round robin hoping someone passes you a missing dragon? Riichi players (and every other style that I’m familiar with) face the challenge of managing their hand exactly as dealt. Michele notes that in casual games some people just play for their own hand, passing tiles regardless of the value they may create for their opponents. “You’ll see see a much higher level of defense in the game at tournaments or in groups with competitive players.”

From here on in, the hand plays fairly close to what you might think: tiles are drawn, discarded, called, a hand is won (we’ll talk about this one in a minute), and scored in the convention set down in the rules. You’ll find less compulsion to pursue more difficult and higher scoring hands in American mah jongg though. The difference between the lowest and highest scoring hand is less than a factor of four. Compared to riichi, where you’ll find the difference is a factor of 32, it is much more likely, grossly speaking, for a few well-placed mangan hands can outscore twice the number of smaller wins. This allows a wider field of play-styles to complete in riichi, as compared to American where strategies are fewer.

Riichi mahjong also has a very defined set of rules. The core mechanics are there, and there are some variations to the rules that are fairly well documented. A versed player can step into a game just about anywhere with very little discussion about which rules are in effect at that table. The American mah jongg community has made their game a much more customized experience and house rules are a big consideration. While there are many groups that strictly adhere to American mah jongg standards and rules, there are also groups that regularly include a wide variety of house rules from the “mush” to “atomic hands”.

Michele outlines some common house rules on her YouTube channel.

On Mahjong Central, Michele rates American as “the most challenging to learn.” When I asked her about it Michele clarified that, in her opinion, it is “the hardest to learn, but the easiest to play.” Why? The card.

Remember when I said we’d talk about winning that hand? Each April, the National Mah Jongg League (NMJL) publishes a new card defining the valid hands for the next year. Each time a new card is published, the community experiences a break-in period during which ALL the players are learning the new hands. The hand categories are often the same, only the specific patterns required change. The easiest to illustrate are the Year hands. In 2018 these hands featured sets of tiles utilizing the 2, 0, 1, and 8 tiles in various combinations. Come April this year 2, 0, 1, and 9 will be the hand du jour. This can throw even some seasoned players off their game a bit, but it is also cited as one of the things that keeps mahjong fresh and the annual card has become an intrinsic part of American style play.

The NMJL aren’t the only ones putting these cards out, either. The American Mah-Jongg Association, Marvelous Mah Jongg, Destination Mah Jongg, and Siamese Mah Jongg (a two-player variant) each publish an annual card. But let us not presume annual cards are a clever racket built on a game that works fine without them. The founding purpose of the cards was to raise money from the community to donate to charity, and for their part NMJL and Marvelous Mahjong cited charities they donate to on their web pages. Mah Jongg Madness, publishers of the Siamese Mah Jongg card, stated they do devote a measure of their resources to charitable causes selected by their players. The remainder of the organizations listed above didn’t make it clear on their site and either declined to comment or were not available. I will post an update if I hear back from them in the future.

If you are feeling a desire try your hand at the American style, head over to Michele Frizzell’s many social media channels and get involved. It’s a friendly community! Maybe once you’ve learned something from them, you can teach them something and we can bridge the American-Riichi gap.

Please check in with us at Riichi Reporter as we continue to compare riichi mahjong with some other styles throughout the globe in this feature series!

Update 23/1/2019: Destination Mahjong returned our call and let us know that they also do charitable work, though their contributions are generated through the numerous tournaments they host every year – a better source of charitable work than proceeds from the annual card produce.