How Mahjong Works

Mahjong Variations

There are about as many variations of mahjong as there are suits and sets of tiles. When playing a game of mahjong, it's important that all four players are playing by the rules of the same version.

The six primary versions of mahjong are: American, Chinese, Hong Kong, European Classical, Taiwanese and Riichi Competition:


  • American: The version discussed most in this article, the American version is considered to be very similar to the card game gin rummy.
  • Chinese: There are several Chinese variations, but Chinese Mahjong refers to the official version. China's State Sports Commission designated this version of mahjong as its official 255th sport. It was created as a way to merge the rules of the so many disparate Chinese versions into a single official game.
  • Hong Kong: This is also known as the Cantonese version, and it is believed to be the most popular version of mahjong. This popular version, like many others, is very similar to the American version. However, it does not include the joker tiles or the Charleston, which are the prime features that differentiate the American version.
  • European Classical: The European Classical version is actually based on the classical Chinese version, which is rarely played in China anymore. The classical Chinese version is also the one that was imported to America and from which the current American game evolved. In determining seating, this version involves blind selection of the "wind" tiles rather than rolling dice.
  • Taiwanese: This version has several unique rules, including 16-tile rather than 13-tile hands.
  • Riichi Competition: Also known as the Japanese Modern version, this is the variation of mahjong used in tournament play. It includes the presence of a "riichi," also known as a ready hand.

The other acknowledged versions of mahjong include: Australian, British Official, Canada Mahjong, Chinese Classical, Chinese Transitional, Dutch League, French, German, Italian Official, Japanese Classical, Japanese Transitional, Korean, Mahjong Masters, Novice, Wilmington Advanced, WMPA Rules and Zung Jung. There are also many other versions of mahjong that aren't considered official versions.

Want to keep learning about mahjong? Keep reading for lots more information.

Related HowStuffWorks Articles


  • National Mah Jongg
  • "Mahjong Tiles." (March 27, 2010)
  • "The History of Mahjong." (March 27, 2010)
  • Mahjong Info. "Mahjong History." (March 27, 2010)
  • Mahjong Info. "Mahjong Tiles." (March 27, 2010)
  • Mahjong Museum. "A Brief History." (March 27, 2010)
  • Mahjong Time. "American Style Mahjong Rules." (March 27, 2010)
  • Mahjong Time. "Mahjong Game Info." (March 27, 2010)
  • Sandberg, Elaine. "A Beginner's Guide to American Mah Jongg: How to Play the Game & Win." Tuttle Publishing. 2007.