If you doubt that “Big Oil” has its fingers in everything, here’s a little nugget of history that might change your mind. 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 that quickly became the de facto way to play the game. So technically, if it wasn’t for a big oil company, we in the West might never have gotten to experience the fun casino game that drives certain people into a slap-happy frenzy.
By the 20th century there had been many different versions of Mahjong played around the world. In fact, Confucius was said to have played the game 2,500 years ago and many legends have sprouted around the pastime in the following years. Primarily that the great dispenser of Chinese wisdom, who was also a bird lover, gave it its name which roughly translates to “chattering sparrow”. This origin story might make sense due to the sounds that the tiles make when they’re slapped down on the board quickly by experienced players. Anyway, among the many things that Babcock ended up appropriating from the Far East was the name of the game, which he spelled “Mah-Jongg” for trademark purposes.
Mahjong is a game of skill and strategy and co-operation usually played with four people but it can also be adapted for three. There is an element of chance in the game but it’s hardly a big-time gambling vehicle that requires lots of intricate knowledge to win. What, then, is Mahjong doing in brick and mortar casinos around America today? Well, mostly masquerading as the popular ancient tile game to attract players who are looking for a bit of history and fun.
Players take turns selecting face-down tiles from a pile in the center of the table and then discarding a tile that they no longer want to keep in their hand, always keeping a total of 13 tiles once their turn is complete. When throwing a tile back the player can state what it is and then the others might fight to add it to their hands or not. This continues until a winning hand is created by picking up a 14th tile that gives 4 sets of 3 melds (flowers, symbols, etc.) and a pair (referred to as eyes). The winning combinations of 3 are technically called a Pong, with a Kong being a full set of 4.
Once a player has a winning hand they shout out, “Mahjong!” and the game is over. If someone incorrectly shouts this out they are penalized and have to play the rest of the game with their tiles face up so everyone can see which sets they are trying to complete.
There are dozens of Mahjong variations which are often tied to national preferences, so the game usually changes from country to country. Many Asian countries have their unique versions with China, Hong Kong, Japan, Taiwan, Vietnam, Korea, and the Thailand all having different tiles, wild cards, and rules. Simply stated, when encountering a Mahjong game there is no “standard option” so be sure that you understand what version you’re playing before you lay your money down.
In addition to region-specific ones, there are many different variants that you will find around the world. Differences can 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 Mahjong 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 game is played in the simple quest for paired tiles.
When it comes to online versions, the software developer Playtech has raided the Japanese game of Solo Mahjong to offer players a version that is little more than a slot machine. The goal of building a hand with 14 tiles arranged in grouped combinations remains the same, (an identical pair and four sets of three), but the game play has been streamlined so the entire affair is over in mere seconds.
Players are dealt 13 tiles face up and a grid of 24 tiles is placed face down. To make a winning “wall” with that 14th tile the player gets three picks from the hidden ones. If one of them creates a winning combination the payout comes from a payable with a maximum win of 6x the stake. If none of the three picks results in a win the stake is lost, the tiles are cleared, and then another game can be loaded with a click of the mouse.
How to Play
There will be no special knowledge needed to gamble on Mahjong in a casino either in Las Vegas or online. Mostly these games are developed to give players a chance to bet on something that is loosely based on the classic tile game so any special knowledge is irrelevant. Although, if ever playing in person you’ll want to make sure that you can keep up with the table – experienced players tend to slap down tiles extremely quickly and it is considered rude to hold a game up.
Anyone interested in Mahjong can take the time to decipher the various letter suits and numerical suits but it is completely unnecessary. Most places will help out Mahjong rookies by adding numbers to the tiles above the traditional Chinese characters so it’s easier to understand what each tile is.