Decoding the Mah Jongg Playing Card
The Mah Jongg playing card is issued each year at the end of March or early April (after the Chinese New Year) and every player will need to purchase a current playing card. American Mah Jongg players look forward with much excitement and enthusiasm for the new playing card to arrive! I pre order playing cards through the NMJL website at www.nationalmahjonggleague.org. You may also choose to purchase a playing card through an organization (ie. Hadassah), temple gift shops, on Amazon, other Mah Jongg websites etc.
The background color on the front of the official NMJL playing card alternates year to year from red to blue. All Players in a game need to use the identical card, so Mah Jongg in error does not occur if a player is using a card for a previous year! My group had a good laugh when we figured out our gal pal declared Mah Jongg on a former Hand using an outdated card!!
The inside of the threefold Maj card has 9-10 categories with Bold headings. The flip side panels of the card have condensed details of the most important rules of play.
The following are questions and answers that will help to decode the inside of the playing card:
What are the categories on the Mah Jongg card?
Left side of the card:
Year - this category will change annually
2468 - All Hands require Even numbers
Any Like Numbers
Addition (or Subtraction, Multiplication)- can change yearly
Middle panel of the card:
13579 - All Hands require Odd numbers
Right side of the card:
Winds – Dragons
Singles And Pairs (all Hands are Closed, no Jokers allowed in any
~ Every line on the playing card is one Hand, or two Hands if separated by the word “OR” ~
What do the X and C mean under the VALUE column on
each page of the card?
X Exposed Hands – completed blocks of Pungs, Kongs, & Quints may be exposed during game play. You may Call for a tile to complete a Pung, Kong, or Quint during game play. You may ONLY Call for a tile for a Single or to complete a Pair for Mah Jongg!
C Concealed (Closed) Hands – NO portion of your hand may be exposed until completion of your entire Hand. This means you may NOT expose any of your Hand during game play. You may ONLY Call for your last tile for Mah Jongg. And, as I am often asked, yes, you are allowed to” shop” for Jokers on your turn during play when playing a Closed Hand.
What do the numbers under the VALUE column signify?
The numbers (25, 30, 45, 85 for example) in the last column of each panel on the playing card represent the point value of that Hand. The basic Hands are 25 and generally require no Pairs, or 1-2 Pairs. As the value of the Hand increases, so too does the level of difficulty for the Hand. The highest values of Hands reside in the Singles & Pairs category as you may NEVER use Jokers in these Hands, and ALL Hands in this section are Concealed Hands.
The value points are useful when a group plays for money and/or has Bettor(s) or when using scoring for competitive play.
What do the following Letters signify?
What do the following Terms mean?
ANY your choice of suit, number, dragon
LIKE the same number
1, 2, 3 suits your choice of Bams, Craks, or Dots
SINGLE one tile standing alone (NO Joker may be used)
PAIR two identical tiles (NO Jokers allowed in any Pair)
PUNG three identical tiles (0-3 Jokers allowed)
KONG four identical tiles (0-4 Jokers allowed)
QUINT five identical tiles (0-5 Jokers allowed)
MATCH refers to which part of Hand must go together. For example, a suit and its Matching Dragon- Bams w/Green, Cracks w/Red, or Dots w/Soap or parts in a Hand that must match in suit)
OPP opposite - usually refers to the use of NON matching
What do the COLORS indicate on the Playing Card?
DO NOT ever associate the ink color with any particular suit. The color-coding on the card NEVER dictates which suit must be used (Green ink color never means Bams are required, Red never means Craks must be used…)
A new player reading the card may think you can only play Bams where the card has used GREEN ink. Colors should NOT be associated with suits as this will completely limit your flexibility within the Hands on the playing card. This is definitely the most difficult concept to grasp when decoding the playing card!
The COLORS indicate only HOW MANY suits are to be used. The colors on the playing card do NOT correspond to the colors on the tiles.
If the card had been written in silver, gold, and purple ink it may have been less confusing for many new players who associate the ink color with the suits or colors on the tiles themselves!
Below is the best reminder of how to translate the Hands on the playing card:
If the Hand is shown in ONE INK COLOR, the hand is to be made in ONE suit.
If the Hand is shown in TWO INK COLORS, the hand is to be made in TWO different suits (ANY two suits).
If the Hand is shown in THREE INK COLORS, the hand must be made in THREE suits (Bams, Craks, and Dots may all be in the Hand or two suits are shown with a NON matching Dragon).
Another way to simplify the color coding on the playing card is…… where the ink color changes in the Hand, YOU change the suit!
What does the NOTE mean at the top left corner of the card?
THE “NOTE” at the top left corner of the playing card is an essential reminder that, “White Dragon is used as a zero “0”. It may be used with any suit (Craks, Bams, or Dots).”
White Dragon or Soap is the only tile that represents a Zero and it is neutral. Neutral tiles go with everything. Flowers are also neutral and are used in many Hands.
Why are the directions in the Parentheses of each line important to understand?
The parenthetical instructions give you specific requirements for the Hand. The parenthetical always supersedes the color-coding (ie. Any No. in Any Suit).
If there is NO parenthetical following a Hand, the Hand must be made as shown using the exact numbers, suits, dragons as indicated, and using the exact amount of suits shown by the color-coding.
Reading and understanding the playing card and the details in the parentheses is a most important skill for all Mah Jongg players. If questions about particular Hands arise, the National Mah Jongg League (www.nationalmahjonggleague.org) answers these inquires on their website at the FAQ dropdown menu.
The photo above shows Mah Jongg playing cards from the years 1964-1967 and were contained in the box of a Mah Jongg Bakelite set of mine! The cards were smaller (4 ½”x3”) than the current regular size playing cards (5”x4”), making me wonder if players had better eyesight in those days!! Also, these cards cost only .35 and .50 cents!
I keep each of my cards from the year I began to play Mah Jongg in 2002. I find much joy in knowing I have touched some history through the cards I received and in turn, I will leave a legacy by passing along my Mah Jongg playing cards and sets to my family! Now, I just have to entice them to learn to play this treasured game!