Games are fun. They’re also great for your brain. But if you’ve tired of your usual options—or simply have an insatiable appetite for new competitive puzzles—Mahjong may be right for you. That’s even more true if you live in Chicago, where Mahjong has enjoyed a resurgence among players of all ages, including seniors.
Here’s everything you need to know to get started playing Mahjong in Chicago.
What is Mahjong?
Mahjong is similar to rummy but with tiles instead of cards. Four players try to match tiles into pairs or one of three types of “melds”—the pong (3 identical tiles), kong (4 identical tiles), or chow (3 suited tiles in sequence). These groupings are similar to three of a kind, four of a kind, or a straight in poker. To win a hand, players must complete a Mahjong—four melds and a pair.
There are 144 tiles in Mahjong:
Suits: Most tiles are divided into 3 suits—bamboos (sticks), dots (wheels), and characters (cracks), with tiles numbered 1–9 for each suit. There are 4 copies of each tile, totaling 108 tiles.
Honors: Honors tiles are divided into Winds (east, south, west, north) and Dragons (red, green, and white). There are four copies of each tile, totaling 28 tiles.
Bonus: Bonus tiles are divided into Flowers and Seasons. There are eight total bonus tiles: four Flowers and four Seasons. Bonus tiles are used for scoring and are not part of regular gameplay.
How to play Mahjong
Mahjong is easiest to learn as you play it—not by reading paragraphs of text! Still, the outline below covers the core aspects of gameplay and should help you jump into your first game with a basic understanding of the process. (Like any internationally popular game with a long history, there are variations to Mahjong rules.)
Each Mahjong match consists of four rounds, and there are four hands per round. A match starts with each player rolling two dice. The highest roller is the dealer. The dealer shuffles all the tiles face down in the middle of the table, then deals 13 tiles to each player. The remaining tiles are left in the middle as the draw pile.
The person to the right of the dealer starts a hand by drawing a tile and discarding one of their own face-up in the middle of the table. (Throughout the game, all players hold 13 tiles in their hand; this does not include tiles they’ve made into pairs or melds.) Other players may pick-up a discarded tile or draw an unknown tile from the middle. Melds formed with discarded tiles must be announced to the group; those formed by drawing tiles may be kept hidden.
The process of drawing and discarding tiles continues in a counter-clockwise direction until a player completes a Mahjong (four melds and a pair). After each hand, the score of the winning hand—which varies based on the tiles—is recorded. Some winning hands are worth more than others, and skilled players succeed not just at winning hands but at winning them with high-scoring tiles.
This video includes more detailed instructions on how to play Mahjong:
What are the origins of Mahjong?
Mahjong, a Chinese game developed during the Qing Dynasty in the mid-1800s, was imported to the United States during the 1920s by Joseph P. Babcock, a Standard Oil employee who made frequent trips to the region.
Babcock began importing Mahjong sets—originally made of cow bone—and a U.S-based National Mahjong League formed in 1937. Initially, most players were Jewish women of German descent.
Where can you play Mahjong in Chicago?
You may already have a Mahjong group—seasoned or aspiring—living next door. But if you don’t, the ever-bustling Chicago city center has plenty of options to help you learn the game or hone your skills. Here are two great places to play Mahjong in Chicago:
Chicago Mahjong Game Meetup
Meetup.com is a website that connects people of varied interests to others who share them. A simple registration allows you to see details of a meetup and connect with other members of the group. The Chicago Mahjong Game meetup has roughly 50 members and encourages the participation of “all Mahjong players young and older, men and women, novice or skilled!”
When: Fridays and Sundays at 1:30 p.m.
Where: The Loop (exact location available to group members)
Cost: The group requests a $1 donation at each meetup to cover the cost of the Meetup group page.
Details: The Chicago Mahjong Game meetup plays American-style Mahjong on Fridays and all styles of Mahjong on Sundays
Chicago Public Library, Chinatown Branch
While the Chinatown Branch of the Chicago Public Library allows patrons to check out games—including Mahjong—at any time, their Senior Games Club meets weekly for a half-day of competition in Mahjong, Chinese Chess, or Go. All skill levels are welcome.
When: Fridays from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.
Where: 2100 S Wentworth Ave, Chicago, IL 60616
Cost: Free to library cardholders
Details: Players typically play American-style Mahjong. While two mahjong sets are available via the library, “experienced players are encouraged to bring their own sets to share.”
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