This Week in Mah Jongg: Understanding mid-and end-game strategies


By Julie and Philippe,

We hope you’re enjoying our American Mah Jongg strategy series. Previously, we tackled the subject of early-game strategies, this time we’ll be progressing through the game and focusing on mid- and end-game strategies. 

As we’ve mentioned before, your game strategy will vary depending on many factors, one of the main ones being how far along in the game you are. The early-, mid-and end-game phases are defined for teaching purposes only. There is no fixed boundary between them, so you should certainly use your judgment when transitioning from one to the next. 


Towards the middle of the game, the strategies outlined in the early game section will need to evolve. This is the time to start being more careful with discards and to consider a change of hand if your chosen one has failed to strengthen and/or key tiles are no longer available. At this stage, there are also likely to be more clues as to which hands your opponents are playing, and you should act accordingly.

Call the discards you need

Previously, we cautioned against calling discards too early in the game. At the same time, you cannot hold off forever and pass up tiles you really need. So, now is the time to consider calling discards and exposing tiles (unless you're playing a concealed hand, of course).

As the game progresses, it’s important to keep a mental tally of how many of each tile required for your target hand are still available in the game. This will determine when it is wise to start exposing.  Bear in mind that whenever you have two or more exposures, it's very likely that your opponents will know what you're playing, and this will work against you. You'll need to weigh this risk against the risk of not getting anywhere at all.   

In some cases, just one exposure will totally give your hand away, so revealing this too early could be your downfall. However, there are other hands where having even two exposures really doesn’t narrow the target hand down significantly. To be able to make these judgments, it’s important to know the card well. 

So, when is a good time to call a discard? A good rule of thumb is to aim to have at least seven tiles towards Mah Jongg before calling a discard and exposing tiles and to not do this too early in the game, for all the reasons stated above. Obviously, this is not a hard and fast rule and will very much depend on circumstances. For example, let’s say you need the current discard to complete a jokerless kong. In this case it’s probably worth going for it. However, be sure that kong will be useful even if your target hand goes off course. There’s nothing worse than calling a kong, just because you can, and then finding that you’ve backed yourself into a corner!

Be careful with your discards

Early in the game, discards are less likely to be claimed. But once we enter the mid-game stage, the chances increase. If you've paid attention to your opponents' moves, you should have a good idea of what they're playing and be cautious about your discards (we’ll be covering how to read an opponent’s hand in our next article). That being said, waiting until the end of the game to discard “hot” tiles is extremely risky (and potentially fatal). In general, if a player has only one exposure, you may be safe; a second exposure increases the risk, as their hand is either known, or has been narrowed down to a small subset of hands, and they are likely not too far from calling Mah Jongg.

One factor to bear in mind is how many of the tile you are considering discarding are already on the table (either discarded or in an exposure). If two have previously been discarded you are likely ok to discard, but if there are none or only one, the risk is greater.

Change your hand if necessary

We warned against changing hands too prematurely. At the same time, you need to be realistic, and if your hand isn’t progressing, drastic action may be necessary! Obviously, you’d need to give yourself enough time to build on your new hand, so this mid-game section is the right time to pivot, if you need to.

If you've played wisely, you will already have a "plan B" option ready and waiting, in case your initial choice fails to flourish.  

Here are a few reasons which might prompt you to switch your plan at this mid-game stage:

  • If one or more of your crucial tiles have yet to make an appearance. This may indicate that another player is collecting those same tiles (maybe even playing the same hand)
  • If several of your crucial tiles have already been discarded and you were not in a position to pick them up. This could be because they were part of a pair, or that you did not have enough of those tiles in your hand at the time, and/or you lacked jokers to make up the shortfall. You may also have been working towards a concealed hand where it’s not possible to claim a discard
  • A player exposes crucial tiles you were waiting for. This is especially true if you require a pair or single tile
  • You're waiting for a tile to complete a pair and the third instance of this tile has just been discarded. This effectively renders your initial hand choice unachievable and you must pivot in this case
  • You made a mistake. For instance, you exposed part of a concealed hand, exposed the wrong combination (eg, a kong instead of a pung), or realized you're playing a hand that does not actually exist on the current card - perhaps it was a hand on the previous year's card.

While changing to a different hand is sometimes necessary and even wise, refrain from changing repeatedly, as this will likely lead to confusion and probably loss. Definitely have a backup hand for as long as it’s possible to do so, but when this is no longer an option you’ll need to put all your eggs into one basket and just run with it!


As the end of the game draws closer, a more defensive approach is required.

Be very careful with your discards

As the last wall gets progressively shorter, the stakes for bad discard choices are higher. Be particularly wary of discarding a tile that has not been discarded before (someone is likely collecting these!), as well as flowers and soaps (which may be used as single tiles in year hands).

By this stage of the game, you should either know, or have a very good idea of the hands your opponents are playing. Avoid discarding tiles you think someone else needs to win the game (these are often referred to as “hot tiles”). There will be times when you have only one tile you can discard and you suspect it is another player's Mah Jongg tile. The right approach depends on how certain you are that this is their final tile. If you're sure, then the best course of action is to break up your own hand and discard a tile that you believe would be of no use to any of your opponents. If you're not totally sure, it's a gamble and the decision will depend on your style, how risk-averse you are, and how close you are to Mah Jongg yourself. There is no prize for coming second in a game of Mah Jongg!

If you're dead

If you realize there's no way you can win at this late stage of the game, then you should switch to full defensive mode and do everything you can to prevent your opponents from winning. Again, you should have a very good idea of each player's hand at this stage, so be sure to discard only tiles that you know they do not need. Do your best to keep your body language under control as you offload these tiles. You don’t want anyone to guess that you’re breaking up your hand! This is also the time to discard any jokers that you may have. A joker is an extremely safe discard option towards the end of the game. Obviously, once you start discarding jokers your opponents will guess that you’ve broken your hand, so it’s best to leave this until last, as long as you have other safe options to discard.

Only one tile away from Mah Jongg

What should you do if you’re only one tile away from Mah Jongg and there are only a few tiles left in the wall? Unless you're playing with beginners, your opponents will very likely know what hand you're playing and are highly unlikely to discard your winning tile. So, you're down to hoping your Mah Jongg tile is the one you will receive from the few tiles remaining in the wall. The odds of receiving that particular tile are therefore extremely low and you may be better off playing defensively, unless you are sure your discard is definitely not a tile that any of your opponents is waiting on for Mah Jongg!

Calling someone’s hand dead

If you realize an opponent’s hand is dead, it is generally in your best interest to call their hand "dead", especially during the latter part of the game. One could argue that this player may possess the tile you're waiting on for Mahj, and by calling their hand dead you would be missing out on that tile. Though it's true that this is a possibility, the odds are quite low. 

On the other hand, by calling the player’s hand dead, you are preventing that player from picking tiles from the wall, which increases your number of picks and therefore your odds of getting what you need. 

Does that player’s hand include jokers that are still in play? As long as these jokers belong to exposures that were made prior to the situation that caused the hand to be dead, they will still be available to claim.

Plus, by calling this player’s hand dead, you’ll only have two opponents rather than three. So, they’ll now be one less opponent actively trying to thwart your journey towards Mah Jongg and you’ll have greater odds of winning!

Well, that wraps up our discussion of early-, mid- and end-game strategies. Next time, we’ll be covering how you can develop the extremely important skill of determining which hands your opponents are playing. Plus, we’ll also discuss joker strategy.  We look forward to seeing you again then!



Readers’ questions:

Q: Is it a NMJL rule that we roll a pair of dice at the beginning of play to determine who is East first?

A: No. The 2020 version of Mah Jongg Made Easy, published by the National Mah Jongg League, states the following: “In most games, the host or hostess is East first. In games away from home, a pair of dice is used at the beginning of the game to determine which player will be East. The dice are rolled and the player receiving the highest total of the two dice is East”.

However, dice are still required as East will throw a pair of dice to determine where to break the wall.

Q: Why does East have to break their wall? 

A: Firstly, because it’s a NMJL rule. Secondly, because Mah Jongg was created as a gambling game (though not everyone plays for money), and this rule is to prevent cheating. For example, as East is the first to take 4 tiles from the wall that they themselves built, it would be relatively easy for them to place a joker (or two!) in that first set of 4 tiles. So, rolling a pair of dice and breaking the wall is the Mah Jongg equivalent of cutting a deck of cards.

Q: Is it only the last discarded tile I can claim, or any tile that is on the table?

A: Only the most recently discarded tile can be claimed. Each discarded tile is considered dead as soon as the next player has picked and racked their tile from the wall.

Q: Can I call a discarded tile if I’m waiting for a single or to complete a pair if this call is for Mah Jongg?

A: Yes, you can. If you only need one tile to complete your hand you can call any tile to complete it (except a joker, of course!). This is also true for a concealed hand.

Q: Can I use a joker in a concealed hand?

A: Yes, you can use jokers in any grouping of 3 or more identical tiles, whether the hand is concealed or not.

Great questions - keep them coming! Please email your questions to [email protected].

See you next time!