***Updated: August 24, 2019***
Any doubters that “Big Oil” has its fingers in everything, here’s a little nugget of history to might change their minds. Joseph Park Babcock, a representative of John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Company sent to Shanghai in the 1920s, is given credit for popularizing the traditional Chinese tile game in the United States.
After seeing how much fun the locals were having slapping down the colorful tiles he began sending Mahjong sets back across the Pacific Ocean while creating simpler “Americanized” rules, which quickly became the de facto way to play. So technically, if it wasn’t for an oil company, we in the West might never have gotten to experience the fun casino game driving certain people into a slap-happy frenzy.
By the 20th century there had been countless different versions of Mahjong around the world. In fact, Confucius was said to play the game 2,500 years ago and many legends have sprouted about the pastime. Primarily that the great dispenser of Chinese wisdom, also a bird lover, gave it its name which roughly translates to “chattering sparrow”.
This origin story is reasonable, due to the sounds the tiles make when they’re slapped down on the board quickly by experienced players. Anyway, among the numerous things that Babcock ended up appropriating from the Far East was the name, which he spelled “Mah-Jongg” for trademark purposes.
Mahjong is a game of skill and strategy and co-operation usually played with four people, although it can be adapted for three. There is an element of chance involved but it’s hardly a big-time gambling vehicle requiring lots of intricate knowledge to win. Why is it found in brick and mortar casinos around America today? Well, mostly masquerading as the original version to attract players who are looking for a bit of history and fun.
Participants take turns selecting face-down tiles from a pile in the center of the table and then discarding one they no longer want to keep in their hand, always maintaining a total of 13 once the turn is complete. When throwing it back, there is the option of stating what it is and others might fight to grab it for themselves. The play continues until a winning arrangement is created by picking a 14th, resulting in 4 sets of 3 melds (flowers, symbols, etc.) and a pair (referred to as eyes). The winning combinations of three are called a Pong, and a Kong is a full set of four.
The minute a player believes they have won they shout out, “Mahjong!” and the action is over. If someone incorrectly shouts this out they are penalized and must continue the game with their tiles face up and everyone can see which sets they are trying to finish.
There are dozens of Mahjong variations, often tied to national preferences and changing from country to country. Many Asian countries have unique versions with China, Hong Kong, Japan, Taiwan, Vietnam, Korea, and the Thailand all having different tiles, wild cards, and rules. Simply stated, no “standard option” exists, so people need to understand which variety is in front of them before laying money down.
In addition to region-specific ones, other variants can be found around the world. Differences may include no dragons, winds are bonuses, jokers included, and tons of other things:
- Fujian Mahjong
- Shanxi Mahjong
- Shenyang Mahjong
- Sichuan Mahjong
- Tianjin Mahjong
- American Mahjong
On most floors in Las Vegas and Atlantic City it can be found in an abbreviated form, (20 tiles instead of the usual 144), with the House scraping a 5% commission from the table, in the same way that it does for poker games. Sometimes the symbol-embossed tiles are stand-ins for cards and a quick version is played in a simple quest for pairs.
When it comes to online options, the software developer Playtech knocked off the Japanese Solo Mahjong, offering an alternative that’s little more than a slot machine. The goal of building a hand with 14 tiles arranged in grouped combinations doesn’t change (an identical pair and 4 sets of 3) but it has been streamlined so the entire affair is over in mere seconds.
Players are dealt 13 face up and a grid of 24 is placed face down. To make a winning “wall”, a 14th is selected by the participant from three of the hidden tiles. If any create a successful combination, the payout is delivered according to a paytable, a maximum return of 6x the stake. If none of the picks results in a win the stake is lost, everything is cleared, and then another game can be loaded at the click of a mouse.
How to Play
There is no special knowledge needed to gamble on Mahjong in a casino either in Las Vegas or online. Most are developed to give people a chance to bet on something similar to the classic version. Although, those playing in person will want to keep up with the table pace, since experienced players tend to throw down tiles extremely quickly and it is considered rude to slow things down.
Anyone interested in Mahjong can take the time to decipher the various letter suits and numerical suits but it is completely unnecessary. Many places help out rookies by adding numbers to the tiles above the Chinese characters to make it easier to understand what each one is.