This Week In Maajh: Beginner’s guide to American Mah Jongg


File photo: Lisa Mandel, SPECIAL TO THE JEWISH LIGHT

We hope you enjoyed the kick-off of this new weekly column, This Week In Mah Jongg, or as the cool kids call it, “Maajh.” Last week we started by explaining the rich history of the game and how Mah Jongg in America created economic and cultural change, and for many Jewish women, it served as a symbol of both cultural identity and assimilation.

Looking ahead, we have partnered with the website, I Love Mahj to provide you with a well rounded understanding of American Mah Jongg. If you have questions about the game, please feel free to email them directly at [email protected].

We will discuss the rules and mechanics of the game so that those new to Mah Jongg can get up and running. Once these are covered, We’ll move into understanding the more advanced thinking of the game.

Mahjong is a 4-person game of skill and chance that originated in China. There are many variations of the game, but we will focus exclusively on the American version, following National Mah Jongg League (NMJL) rules. Note that there is a wide variety of tile designs available, so the tiles in your set may look different from the ones pictured here.

Ready To Play (1)

Understanding the Tiles

American Mahjong sets have 166 tiles, but 152 are used in play and the rest are spares. The 152 tiles are divided into four groups with their subgroups:

Numbered Tiles

These tiles have a symbol based on the suit and a number. The 3 suits are called cracks, dots and bams and the numbers run from 1 to 9. There are 4 instances of each tile.













There are 4 types of wind tiles: North, East, West, South. There are 4 instances of each wind tile in the game.


There are 3 types of dragons: Green Dragon, Red Dragon, and the White Dragon. The White Dragon tile on the right is also known as “Soap”. Soaps can be used as zeroes when putting together certain hands. There are 4 instances of each dragon tile in the game.

Each dragon is associated with a suit. Green Dragons are with Bams, Red Dragons with Cracks and White Dragons with Dots. 


There are 8 flower tiles in the game. They are usually represented as different flowers and may also have seasons printed on them. All flower tiles are interchangeable. This illustration is the flower used in the I Love Mahj online game.


An American Mah Jongg set also includes 8 jokers. Jokers, like in a deck of cards should be considered wildcards and can substitute for any tile when building a hand. However, there are some restrictions, but we’ll learn more about that in a future column. 

Next Week: The Card

Scoring in American Mah Jongg is based on a list of hands determined by the National Mah Jongg League (NMJL). These scorecards are published by the NMJL and updated annually. Each player keeps a card as a reference for building hands and creating strategy. Next week, we’ll go over Hands, Abbreviations, Combinations, and much more.