This Week In Mah Jongg: Reading your opponents’ hands & joker strategy


File photo: Lisa Mandel

We’re nearly there! This is the very last article in our strategy series. In case you’ve missed any of our previous posts, here are the links to each:

Introduction: Strategic Thinking 

Part 1: The Very Beginning of the Game
Part 2: Charleston-Related Strategies
Part 3: Early-Game Strategies
Part 4: Mid- and End-Game Strategies
Part 5: Reading Opponents’ Hands & Joker Strategy (this article)

In this article, we’ll be adding the finishing touches to your game strategy. In addition to everything we’ve discussed in the series so far, an important skill every Mah Jongg player should possess is being able to identify an opponent’s hand, as it's the key to playing good defense! Identification shouldn’t only be based on your opponents’ exposures, but also on their discards and you’ll gain valuable information from tiles they passed in the Charleston and their body language throughout the game. In order to compute all this information, it’s imperative that you know the card well. We’ll also be discussing joker strategy. OK, let’s dive in! 

Mah Jongg

Reading Mah Jongg Hands

Once you progress beyond the initial stages of learning and you've mastered the rules and the general mechanics of the game, an important skill to develop is the ability to determine what hands others are playing. There are a number of clues that will help you figure this out and we’ll discuss these below.

Know thy card

The key to being able to determine other players' hands is a thorough knowledge of the card. When a clue is given (in the form of a Charleston pass, discard, or exposure), you need to be able to quickly assess where those tiles belong. In the course of a normal game, you will not have time to scour the card looking for a match line-by-line. You will need to instantly recognize where these tiles could fit.

For example, when studying the card, familiarize yourself with:

  • Which hands need pungs/kongs/quints of flowers
  • Which hands need pungs/kongs of dragons
  • Which hands or sections use pungs/kongs of a given number
  • Which hands require a pung/kong of a particular wind tile
  • Etc

Being able to quickly identify potential hands will significantly improve your ability to play defensively. 


During the Charleston, pay careful attention to the tiles you receive from each player and which of the tiles you passed end up coming back to you. This will be your first clue as to the type of hand each player is considering.

We understand that this can sound like a difficult proposition, with so much to remember, but it really isn’t as bad as you might think! Start by keeping track of just one opponent. Over time, you’ll find it becomes second nature to really take notice of the tiles you receive and those that you pass and see again.

Obviously, at this early stage in the game, hands are somewhat tentative. For instance, if someone passes you winds, you might assume they're not playing a wind hand. But it's entirely possible that they switch to a wind-based hand at some point (for instance, if they receive more winds later in the Charleston, or through picks). So, only consider these early clues as hints to be confirmed later, rather than definite conclusions.


Exposures are the most obvious way to figure out a player's hand. This is why we recommend refraining from exposing tiles too soon in a game, whenever possible. 

Given one exposure, you may not always be able to determine the exact hand being played, but you will likely be able to narrow it down to a few possibilities. With two exposures, it's usually possible to figure out the exact hand being played, and if not, you’ll certainly have more of an idea of where they are heading.

Here are some examples, using the 2021 card:

  • If the exposure is a quint, then the section (and quite possibly the hand) should be obvious as only quints of flowers are found outside the Quints section of the card
  • If a pung or kong of a wind tile is exposed, then the only option is a hand in the Winds - Dragons section of the card (other options are either concealed hands or single tiles, which cannot be exposed)
  • If a quint of wind tiles is exposed, the hand will definitely be in the Quint section of the card, and very easy to identify as there is only one possible option
  • If the exposure is a pung or kong of a number tile, the particular number will assist in narrowing down the options. For instance, if it's a pung of 7s, consider the 13579 section (specifically the high-end hands), Consecutive Runs, and possibly Any Like Numbers. If it's a kong of 8s, consider the 2468 section, Any Like Numbers, Quints, Consecutive Runs and Winds - Dragons.

Sometimes a given exposure will lead to quite a few potential hands. You can narrow them down by correlating these with your Charleston analysis (see section above) and the player's discards (see section below). Although one exposure might not give you the full information you’re looking for, it does rule out other areas, which highlights safe discard potentials.


Discards are another clue in helping to identify other players' hands. It does require you to have a good memory in order to recall who discarded what, but it can provide valuable insights. Discards on their own may not always provide you with a definite hand, but can be used as clues along with exposures to narrow down possible hands.

For example, someone deciding on a hand in the 2468 section of the card is likely to keep their options open by holding onto all tiles that fit that section, at least in the early stages of the game. The same goes for other areas of the card. Therefore, someone discarding a wind tile is unlikely to be playing winds, and someone discarding a 6 is unlikely to be playing hands in the 2468 or 369 section of the card. This is definitely more likely to be the case, and therefore a stronger clue, in the early part of the game. As the game progresses they’ll have fewer discard options and will need to solidify their hand and discard “backup” tiles that they had been holding on to. 

So, don’t jump to conclusions too quickly based solely on discards, especially as the game progresses. For instance, if someone discards a north wind towards the middle of the game, don't assume they're playing a hand with no north winds. It's entirely possible they already have all the north winds that they need and are discarding the "excess". This is more likely to be the case if there are no other north winds in the discard pile, of course! Hence, it’s important to take notice of all available “hints” and carefully pull together the evidence for each of your opponents. By doing this, you’ll begin to form a stronger opinion of where others are headed.

Body Language

The final part of the puzzle is body language. We’ve all heard of the expression “poker face”, a blank, emotionless expression that gives no indication of one's thoughts or intentions. Poker players use such an expression so as not to give their opponents any clues about which cards they are holding.

However, although some people are good at keeping a poker face, you’d be surprised how much information can be gained from the rest of their body! Players make unconscious movements in times of “stress” or “excitement”, so be on the lookout for these. Everyone’s reaction may be a little different, but they are all observable to the trained eye. 

For example, a tile has just been discarded that a player really needs but is unable to claim. Quite often, you’ll observe a micro-movement of the body or hand, such as a body jolt, involuntary swallowing or sniffs, or touching of the face or hand. Some players, who are unable to keep a poker face, will even exhibit particular facial expressions. These phenomena are extremely difficult to suppress as they are totally unconscious! 

If you play in person with the same people for any length of time, you’ll very quickly pick up on each person’s micro reactions - as long as you are observant. 

As a player gets progressively nearer to Mah Jongg you might, for example, notice that they’re leaning closer to the table, as they wait impatiently for their Mah Jongg tile to appear! Some may be unconsciously tapping their foot or swaying their knee back and forth. All of these movements, and many others, demonstrate a growing level of excitation/anxiety.

Take note of events occurring during these observed reactions and add these clues to the rest of your intel. These might just be the missing part of the puzzle that allows you to lock in on a player’s selected hand and make the right moves to thwart their progress.

So, to sum up, every clue you receive is extremely important and has the potential to take you one step closer to your goal of calling Mah Jongg! This is all part of the fun and mental challenge of this fascinating game.


Everyone loves jokers! They can be life-savers in Mah Jongg and it's difficult (though not impossible) to win without them. So we’ve added this special bonus section with advice on dealing with jokers.

In most cases, it's best to redeem a joker from another player’s exposure even if you have no use for it. This way you're preventing an opponent from acquiring it. If you don’t need it, just discard it (preferably towards the end of the game, so as not to give your opponents any clues regarding your hand). If you find yourself in this situation, you should also seriously consider keeping the joker and discarding one of your own tiles, if this is a possibility. For example, you have your kong of 7s completed in your hand. Consider throwing one of the 7s and replacing it with the joker, as this move will throw your opponents off the scent when trying to work out which hand you are aiming for! Obviously, this will mean that your hand could no longer be “jokerless” and demand a higher payout, but being jokerless may not be a possibility for this particular hand anyway, if it contains other jokers that will remain concealed. This is definitely a strategy to consider and decide whether it is right for your current situation.

The counter-argument to claiming an opponent’s joker is that you may be giving them a jokerless hand, and therefore a higher payment if they win. Personally, we believe the former often outweighs the latter, but it'll definitely be a judgment call, based on your knowledge of that player's hand and the likelihood of the joker being acquired by someone else. For example, if the exposure is a kong and contains only one joker for which you have the necessary tile, there is no need to redeem, as your opponents do not have access to that joker. This tactic will prevent your opponent from achieving a jokerless hand. However, when discarding this particular tile, be smart regarding timing. Observant opponents will realize you haven’t claimed the joker and will gain valuable information regarding your hand! This will be a safe discard and therefore we suggest using it when you have no other safe discards or discarding towards the end of the game, so as to not draw attention to yourself too early in the game.

If you have two jokers in your hand, you are better off splitting them between two exposures, rather than using them together to complete one, whenever possible. This is certainly the case in the early part of the game. However, your decision will depend on the hand you are playing, how far along in the game you are, how many tiles you currently have towards Mah Jongg and how many of the particular tile you need for a given exposure are already in the discard pile. By splitting up your jokers you retain the strength they add to your hand. You will be able to leverage their ability to claim future discards for exposures or complete other parts of your hand that can remain concealed. This strategy also limits others’ ability to claim those jokers once they are exposed (which reduces their chances of calling Mah Jongg before you). However, this strategy does require patience, but making the most of your jokers is likely to pay off in the end.

If you find that you have a pair of tiles that you don't need, it can be useful to hold on to them for a while. They can then be used as joker bait. To do this, start by discarding one of the tiles. If an opponent calls it and uses a joker in their exposure, you can then claim that joker on your next turn. Don't try this too early in the game though, since it's less likely another player will pick up the discard. If the bait isn’t taken, at least you know you likely have a “safe” discard next time around.

If a player discards a joker this could indicate a number of possibilities. It may be a clue that the player is getting close to Mah Jongg and they’re waiting on a single tile or to complete a pair. It could also indicate that they are playing a hand in the Singles and Pairs category and have no need of jokers. On the other hand, they may have switched to full defensive mode and are in the process of breaking up their hand and discarding “safe” tiles. Be extra careful with your discards by taking into account everything we discussed in the sections above.

This wraps up our strategy series, we hope you found it helpful. We welcome your feedback and thoughts on any of the topics we’ve covered, or suggestions for new ones. Please email us at [email protected].


Readers’ questions:

Q: Can we play in person with only three players?

A: Yes, you can. There are several variations for 3-person play. However, the official NMJL version is set up as follows:

  • Build walls in front of the 4 racks, as usual
  • Each of the 3 players draws tiles from the wall, until everyone has 12 tiles
  • East then takes the next tile, followed by the 2nd player, the 3rd player then takes the next tile, with East picking the last, their 14th tile
  • The Charleston is omitted
  • East starts the game by discarding the first tile
  • The game proceeds as usual

Q: Can a white dragon (soap) be used as a zero in a consecutive run? 

A: No. A white dragon is only used as a zero in year hands.

Q: When calling Mah Jongg, do I need to have at least one natural tile in each grouping? 

A: Having a natural tile in a grouping is not required. A Pung, Kong, or Quint can consist of all jokers.

Further Learning

If you would like to learn more about Mah Jongg strategies, check out:

  • Our Mah Jongg book recommendations
  • Michelle Frizzell's YouTube channel
  • Tom Slopper's column
  • Sign up for your free trial at I Love Mahj, the online American Mah Jongg game, and practice, practice, practice! In particular, play some games with bots and take advantage of the "practice mode", which will give you hand suggestions, help you figure out what hand others may be playing, and better track discards.  Use code LIGHT when registering to get 3 free weeks, instead of the usual 2!

If you're looking for a Mah Jongg teacher, use the find a teacher function on our website. You can search by location and style of mahjong.

If you're looking for people to play with in your area, find a mahj group on our site or create a new mahj group, so others can find you.

If you’re new to American Mah Jongg, you can find links to our 5-part Beginner’s Guide on our Facebook Group, here: