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Mahjong hands: understanding Mahjong scoring

Understanding how the Mahjong hands work can be one of the more difficult aspects of learning the game. Mahjong hands can be made in a few different ways but the basic definition of them is that they are certain combinations of tiles which score differing amounts of points in a winning hand.

There are many Mahjong hands and while the game is simple in the way it functions, it can be tricky to get to grips with the many variations of hands. Today, we’re going to go in depth into everything you need to know about Mahjong hands, from their basic components, to how they’re scored, and strategies for building better hands. Let’s get started.

Author: Jianyu Wang Li
Checked by: Felix Martins


Basic components of a hand

There are multiple different components to any given Mahjong hand, so let’s look at the basics to start with.

Understanding sets

In Mahjong hands, there are three main types of hands. These hands are called chows, pongs, and kongs. In forming these, it is very helpful to learn the Mahjong tiles names. Trying to form these hands will make up most of the actual gameplay in Mahjong, so let’s look at a definition of each one.

1. Chows

Firstly, we have the chows in Mahjong hands. This is the most complex of the three primary hand types, which are also known as melds. You achieve a chow in your hand by forming three tiles in numerical order, within the same suit. For instance, you could play the one, two, and three of bamboo. You have to make chows with suited tiles.

Chows must be formed in “absolute” order, so you can’t loop around from nine back to one, for example.

2. Pongs

Next we have the so-called pongs in Mahjong hands. Pongs are simply the same tile held three times and formed into a sequence. Pongs, unlike chows, can be formed out of both suited and honors tiles, including Mahjong character tiles. The only tiles which do not make a pong are the bonus tiles. Pongs can formed in two ways: “concealed” pongs are made through your own drawn tiles, or “exposed”, meaning formed out of someone else’s discard.

3. Kongs

Finally, we have kongs. A kong is much like a pong except there is a fourth tile to make the kong. So, you must make a kong by matching four identical tiles. These, like pongs, can be formed both from concealed and exposed positions, and they can also be formed out of an exposed pong. These must be formed out of suited tiles.

The pair in a winning hand

Winning Mahjong hands work differently from any of these ordinary hands. We’ll cover the various ways you form winning Mahjong hands shortly, but one set of tiles that you will not see at any other point in the game is the pair. A pair is sometimes called an eye, and is simply formed from two of the same tile. There are many Mahjong characters that can form a pair, then. Without this pair, you cannot form a legal, winning hand.



1, 2, 3 of bamboo

1-3 points


2, 2, 2 of bamboo

1-3 points


3, 3, 3, 3 of bamboo


Types of winning Mahjong hands

There are a few different ways you can form a winning hand in Mahjong, so let’s cover these now.

Four sets and a pair

The first and main way that you can with a Mahjong hand is through four sets and a pair. In classic Mahjong rules, this generally recognized as the only way to win a round though regional variants differ in that regard. Four sets and a pair means either four pongs, kongs, chows, and then a pair of two identical tiles.

For example, if you had pongs of the one of bamboo, the four of dots, the three of bamboo, and three of the same character tile, plus a pair of two of the six of dots, that would constitute a winning hand.

Seven pairs

Another way you can win in Mahjong hands, depending on the rules you are playing, is with seven pairs. Naturally, this can be a bit trickier to achieve with all the Mahjong symbols. This can be made up of any variation of seven different pairs, though in Japanese Mahjong, you must form it with seven different pairs and not have any of the same.

Thirteen orphans

The thirteen orphans winning hand is a bit more complex. This is made up of first and last number of each suit, along with a single tile of each wind position, a single tile of each dragon, and an extra of any one of these. This is also sometimes called the thirteen unique wonders in Mahjong hands.

Other winning hands

Mahjong hands are nothing if not extremely varied by region. There are many Mahjong hands in many different variations of Mahjong. One is called “gathering the plum blossom from the roof,” and is created by a competitor who takes a tile in replacing a kong, flower, or season, and that tile turns out to create a winning Mahjong hand.

Strategies to build a strong Mahjong hand

Mahjong, then, is not a simple game of luck. You’ve got to be very strategical in how you form your Mahjong hands, and how you play the game overall. Let’s look at some main tips for building strong Mahjong hands.

1. Read the table

Perhaps the single most important aspect not just of building good Mahjong hands, but simply of playing the game in general, is reading the table and your opponents. You’ve got to be thinking about what they’re doing and what they might be planning, what their strategy is for their Mahjong hands. This will be difficult at first, but eventually you’ll be able to make a good guess at your opponent’s strategies—which will help you predict discards.

2. Predict discards

By seeing the tiles that are drawn and the state of the board, as well as the tiles that a given opponent has been playing—or not playing—you will be able to make an educated prediction about what they might discard next. This will give you the chance to form your own Mahjong hands based on what tiles could potentially be coming up in the next moves.

3. Be adaptable

In general, you need to be able to be extremely flexible in your approach to the game. You should, from the very beginning, have a strategy in mind for how you’ll form your winning Mahjong hands. Be prepared to switch that strategy at any point, though, depending on what gets discarded or what Mahjong hands get played by others. Be ready to switch from one hand type to another.

Common mistakes

Let’s look at some of the most common mistakes that players, both old and new, make in forming Mahjong hands.

1. Holding onto tiles

One very common error that players make with their Mahjong hands is keeping hold of a potentially winning hand for too long or just holding onto individual tiles for too long. Eventually, you may find that you’ve got a full set of winning combinations, but that you can now only win with two tiles from a pair. Meld the kong before your sets fill out.

2. Missing winning hands

This is one thing that will get easier the more games you play, but the fact is that there’s always the possibility of missing winning Mahjong hands. There are so many different combinations of tiles that can win Mahjong hands it is easy to miss them even for experienced players. Think constantly about how your tiles combine together and whether they could form winning Mahjong hands. Having good knowledge of the Mahjong pieces names is really helpful for this.

3. Having no strategy

Again, it’s really important to stress that there is more than just luck involved with Mahjong hands. You must go into the game with a clear strategy, based on your starting tiles and what you see others discard during the game. Having no strategy is a very common mistake.

Regional variations

If you are playing a different form of Mahjong, like the Japanese or western versions, you’ll have to think differently about your Mahjong hands.

Variations in Chinese, Japanese, and Western Mahjong hands

There are dozens of forms of Mahjong and each come with their own rules around Mahjong hands and eve the Mahjong symbols meaning. Chinese Mahjong rules are considered the “classic” form of the game, and there are multiple forms of the Chinese version. Japanese Mahjong, for instance, scores based on “ready hands” and “bonus” or dora.

American mahjong, a popular western variation, does not incorporate chows into its scoring system. Indeed, legal Mahjong hands in American rules are in fact changed each year and published in an annual rulebook.

Regional strategies

Understanding Chinese Mahjong is a good starting point for adapting your strategy in other forms of Mahjong. With Japanese Mahjong, you want to target those bonus tiles and in American Mahjong you’ll need to keep up to date about the changed hands.


Creating winning combinations in Mahjong, then, is a delicate act. Some would even call it an art.

The art of winning Mahjong hands

Forming proper Mahjong hands is no easy feat, and so you’ve got to recognize it as an art, with a bit of science thrown in. This is where your strategy comes in. You’ve got to be able to see a completed hand before you’ve got all the tiles you need for it—in other words, you should be able to see the most likely winning hand out of the tiles you already have.

Practice and learning

Nothing, though, will make up for experience, practice, and many hours of playing the game. Those who are very good at Mahjong, you can be sure, have spent many years mastering the art and it has not been easy to get as good as they are. Understanding the Mahjong hands will definitely be a little difficult at first, but as you go along it will get much easier with more and more practice. Just play and play until you know the game in and out.

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