This Week in Mah Jongg: Playing the Game (Part 3)

By Julie and Philippe,

Welcome to the fifth tutorial in the Introduction to American Mah Jongg series, presented by I Love Mahj! If you’ve missed any, don’t worry, you can easily find previous tutorials by typing the term Mah Jongg in the search box at the top right of this web page.

Earlier in the series, we described the tiles, how to read the National Mah Jongg League’s card, and the object of the game. We've also covered how to set up the game, navigate your way through the Charleston and the mechanics of walls, drawing and racking tiles, and also calling and discarding tiles. 

In this tutorial, we’ll be discussing everyone’s favorite tile, the joker! We’ll examine how jokers can be used and how they can be stolen from others - that always feels so good! We’ll then move on to the calling of Mah Jongg and what happens in a game if no one achieves Mah Jongg. Finally, we’ll examine the concept of dead hands.

OK, let’s get started! 


Jokers can substitute for a regular tile, but only in combinations of 3 or more identical tiles (pungs, kongs, quints or sextets), never for singles or pairs. Remember that sequences like NEWS and 2021, though represented together on the card, are really 4 single tiles and so jokers cannot be used for these under any circumstances. 

A joker may never be passed in the Charleston and a discarded joker can NEVER be picked up by another player.

In a hand, there is no requirement to have a specific tile that belongs to a particular grouping. In other words, a pung, kong, quint or sextet may consist of all jokers. with no natural tile (e.g. 3 bam) present.

Because of their versatility, being lucky enough to have a joker or two (or more!) in your hand can make the difference between being able to claim a discard that you need or having to watch that needed tile slip away from you.  Whenever you’re unable to claim a discard, especially when it’s for a grouping of 4 or more tiles, your target hand becomes that little bit more difficult to achieve. Hence the power of a joker.

There are 8 jokers in a game and they are definitely the most highly sought-after tile!

Swapping a joker

When it is your turn (either naturally based on order, or because you've just called a discarded tile), you may swap an exposed joker on another player’s rack for the corresponding tile in your own rack. This is called a joker exchange or joker swap.

For example, let's say Mary has exposed two 5-cracks along with two jokers to make a kong of 5 cracks. If you have a 5-crack in your hand, you can exchange this tile for Mary's joker, when it is your turn. If you have two 5-cracks in your hand, you can exchange these tiles for both of Mary’s jokers. 

You can also swap a tile you have in your hand for a joker in one of your own exposures. So, let’s say you have a pung of North winds exposed that is made up of 2 North winds and one joker. Later in the game, you pick a North wind from the wall. As it’s currently your turn, you can immediately swap the North wind for the joker on your rack, place the joker in your hand and then discard a tile, completing your turn. 

A player may make as many joker exchanges during a turn as they wish. So, you could complete both of the examples above in one turn, if you had the appropriate tiles available to you. Now that is what would be called a very lucky day!! 

Jokers may also be redeemed from a dead hand if they were exposed prior to the hand being declared dead. This means that jokers in correctly called exposures, prior to the error occurring, may be redeemed by any of the players with a like tile, when it is their turn. When a hand is declared dead, the exposure that caused the hand to be dead is returned to the player’s rack, meaning that any jokers in that exposure are unavailable to other players. Dead hands will be discussed in more detail below.

Joker etiquette

Note that when playing in-person, you would request the joker from another player, rather than just leaning across the table and taking it from their rack. You’d then pass the player your tile and they’d pass you their joker.  All very civilized, which can sometimes be tricky when you’re trying to contain your excitement!

Mah Jongg

When a player has 14 tiles that match one of the hands on the card, they can declare themselves the winner by calling “Mah Jongg”. The winning tile may have been picked from the wall, called from a discard thrown by another player, or the result of a joker exchange. The winning player should declare Mah Jongg verbally and then place all their tiles on top of their rack in the order shown on the card. Once the other players have verified that Mah Jongg has indeed been achieved, the game ends.

The winning player is awarded the number of points for that hand (as noted on the card), plus bonus points if the hand is jokerless or if the last tile was self-picked (rather than a call). Players discarding the winning tile may be penalized.

There are payout rules for people playing for money and point accrual rules for tournaments. Some online games have their own rules and point determinations also. It is beyond the scope of this tutorial to discuss the various point/payout options. When learning the game just be aware that the values of each hand correspond to the relative difficulty of achieving that particular combination. Most players do not play for money until they are more experienced, and some groups never play for money, nor do they keep a tally of points accrued. It is a personal choice and something that the members of each Mah Jongg group would decide upon together.

Wall Games

If players run out of tiles to pick and discard from the wall, prior to a player achieving Mah Jongg, the game results in a draw. This is called a "Wall Game". At this point, the current game ends and the next game is set up. 

The aim of Mah Jongg is obviously to win. However, if you are unable to win then the next best thing is to play defensively in order to achieve a wall game. We’ll discuss Mah Jongg strategy in future tutorials.

Dead Hands

There are situations where a player's hand may be declared “dead” by other players. When this happens, the player with the dead hand stops participating in the game (ie, they no longer pick from the wall, discard or call tiles) and the game continues with the remaining players.

Here are some conditions that would render a hand dead:

  • You call for Mah Jongg in error. For example, you declare Mah Jongg, but your tiles do not match a hand on the card, or they match a concealed hand when you have exposures
  • Your hand is no longer viable. For instance, your exposures indicate you can only be playing one particular hand, and that hand requires a pair of Flowers. If there are already seven Flowers visible in the discards or another player’s exposure, it is impossible for you to complete your hand. It is effectively dead
  • You somehow end up with an incorrect number of tiles. You should have 13 tiles most of the time and 14 when it's your turn or when you call Mah Jongg.

However, you should never call your own hand dead. It is up to the other players at the table to work out that your hand is no longer viable and to verbally call it dead. Until such a point, you should continue to play defensively, ensuring as much as you can that you are not throwing a tile that someone needs towards Mah Jongg. Your aim now is to steer play towards a wall game, by preventing the other players from achieving Mah Jongg - more on this in future tutorials!

Phew! This lesson concludes our general discussion regarding the setup and playing of American Mah Jongg. By reviewing our first five tutorials you should have enough knowledge to get up and running with a game, either in person or online. There is always going to be more to learn, but you’re definitely in good shape and ready to get started with a game of Mah Jongg. Yay, let the fun begin!


Readers’ questions:

Q: Do I need to place my exposures on top of my rack in the order they are shown on the card?

A: No. In fact, it is good practice to not place them in the same order as the card to throw other players off the scent of which hand you are aiming for. However, if you later call Mah Jongg, you should rearrange your tiles to show the correct order, as shown on the NMJL card, so that others can more easily validate your claim.

Q: Do I need to leave a space between the exposures on top of my rack?

A: Although this is not a NMJL rule, if a player has multiple exposures it is considered courteous to leave a space between each. It is also good practice to display jokers nested in the middle of an exposure, rather than at the end (this is not always possible, but helps to avoid potential confusion as to which exposure each joker belongs to).

Thanks to everyone who forwarded questions. Keep them coming! Please send your questions to [email protected].


We’ll see you again next time!