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Mahjong is a tile-based game that was first played in China during the 1800s. Typically, it is played with four players, although a three-player version is common in some countries. It's also a very popular game for kids to play.


Although the game was first played in China during the 1800s, it didn't become popular in the United States until the 1920s, when retailer Abercrombie & Fitch began importing and selling mahjong sets. The game was commonly played by Chinese immigrants and people who had spent time in China, but it also became particularly popular in the Jewish community.

  • One of the earliest manufacturers of mahjong sets in the U.S. was the board game company Parker Brothers.
  • The game became very popular in Jewish communities after World War II.
  • Apps and online mahjong games have made the pastime popular with kids, teens, and young adults.

How to Play

Before players can begin the game, the table must be set up. All of the tiles are placed face-down in the middle of the table and shuffled together. Then, each player builds a wall that's two tiles high and a set number of tiles long (usually 17, 18, or 19) in front of their rack. Next, all of the players roll dice, and whoever rolls the highest number becomes the dealer. The dealer gives each player 13 tiles, and the person to their right plays first.

  • The object of the game is to create a hand of tiles consisting of four sets and a pair.
  • Sets contain three tiles. They can be either three consecutive numbers in the same suit, which is called a chow, or a group of three of the same time, which is called a pung.
  • The pair must be two of the same tile.
  • To start the game, the first player draws a tile. Then, they discard a tile from their rack, placing it in the center of the table.
  • Once the first person discards a tile, the next player to their right can either take that discarded tile or draw a new one. Then, they discard a tile. Play continues like this around the table.
  • However, if someone discards a tile that you need to finish a pung, you can jump in and claim it right away. Then, the game continues with the person to your right. This rule means that sometimes, your turn might get skipped!


Every version of mahjong requires tiles to play the game, but different versions of mahjong may have different tiles. American sets might come with joker tiles, for example. And Japanese sets have more red five tiles than other mahjong sets have but have neither joker nor flower tiles.

  • Mahjong sets can have different numbers of tiles, ranging from 136 to 152 or more.
  • Racks are commonly used to hold each player's tiles.
  • Tiles are the most important thing needed to play the game. When turned upside-down, all tiles should look the same. They should be the same size, shape, and color.
  • There are three main suits of mahjong tiles: bamboo, Chinese characters, and dots.

Tips for Learning

Winning at mahjong requires understanding the game and having a good strategy. Players should think carefully about their strategy before they make any move during the game.

  • Mahjong players can see each other's moves, so it's important to keep a good "poker face": Try not to show your emotions about the tiles you have.
  • The best way to learn mahjong is to play. Consider starting a club at school! You could also ask parents or teachers about reaching out to senior citizens or retirement communities to match kids interested in the game with seniors who have played for decades.
  • Playing online is a great way to learn the basics of the game and practice strategies and moves.


Edited by: Ben Thompson