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Mahjong Strategy: how to win at the game

Mahjong strategy is naturally a vital part of playing the game effectively, but the game itself can feel so dauntingly complex at first that winning strategies feel almost entirely out of reach to new players. Strategy, though, is a vitally important part of the game and while there is an element of chance in any game of Mahjong, you will not get very far without strategy. Balancing these two elements of the game is among the most important things for the game.

Today, we’re going to cover everything you need to know about strategy in Mahjong, from how to play your hands, to how to read your opponents and get an idea of what they might be doing. Let’s dive into our tips for winning Mahjong.

Author: Jianyu Wang Li
Checked by: Felix Martins

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Starting hand evaluation

To start at the beginning, Mahjong strategy must come in to play from the earliest possible point in the game. Naturally, then, this begins with your starting hand. Let’s first look at how to recognize potential hand types and Mahjong strategy for beginners.

Recognizing potential hand types

Firstly, if you want to know how to win at Mahjong and about Mahjong strategy, you need to be able to recognize potential hand types. There are three main types of hand in the game which will score points for you if you win the hand. These are all known as melds.


The first kind of meld in Mahjong strategy is the pong. A pong is composed of a set of three of the same tile from the set. For instance, if you had the three tiles of the four of bamboo, this would make a pong. Pongs are created out of your hand with tiles either from the suited or honors category.


Next in Mahjong strategy and Mahjong tips is learning the kong, which is another form of meld. A kong is more or less the same as a pong, except that there are four tiles instead of three. You can form kongs by drawing a tile, using the discarded tile of your opponent, or adding it to a pong.


Finally, you have a chow in Mahjong strategy. A chow is a Mahjong hand made up of a sequential run of tiles in the same suit. For instance, the one, two, and three of bamboo. It is not possible to go through 9 back to 1—and honors tiles do not form chows.

Type of handDescriptionExample


Three of the same tile

1, 1, 1 of bamboo


Four of the same tile

4, 4, 4, 4 of stones


Three sequential tiles

3, 4, 5 of characters

Primary and secondary direction

When it comes to your Mahjong strategy, then, a lot is going to depend on your starting tiles. Among the most important Mahjong tips and tricks is to develop a strategy from the very first moment of play, based on your starting hand. Think about potential melds that you could form with the tiles that are discarded or come to you in your own draws.

Mahjong strategy, though, must be adaptable if nothing else. Decide, firstly, on your primary direction, what you would most ideally like to do if possible. But, remember, there is always an element of luck involved, and so things will not always go your way and you may have to throw out your initial Mahjong strategy. Think, then, about a secondary direction you can take in this case. This will be difficult at first, but will get much easier with time. When asking how to get better at Mahjong, experience is probably the most important thing.

Discard strategy

For Mahjong strategy, one of the most important Mahjong skills is your discard strategy. Winning Mahjong strategies are always going to heavily depend upon how you manage discards, so let’s look at some Mahjong strategy for discards.

Safe discarding

When discarding tiles, your main concern should be that you aren’t helping the other players in some way. Naturally, they are going to be waiting to see what you discard to form their own winning hands. We’ll cover more later the importance of reading other players in Mahjong strategy, but ultimately be aware of other players and what they’ve been doing so that you can make an educated guess about whether discarding a given tile could help them in their Mahjong strategy.

Reading opponents’ plays

So, in general, one of the most important aspects of Mahjong strategy, and indeed winning Mahjong strategies in general, is being able to read your opponents and their plays. Be sure that your opponents are always thinking carefully about what you are doing, and so you must do the same to them.

Inferring an opponent’s hand

For Mahjong strategy, you must be able to infer your opponent’s hand based on the discards they are making. Of course, you can only infer based on probabilities—you cannot ever be certain in your Mahjong tactics. Think about what hands they could be trying to build based on what they are getting rid of. As mentioned above, it’s vital to have a sense of this with all your opponents in order that you can discard your own tiles without giving them an advantage.

Adjusting strategy

We touched earlier on the best Mahjong strategy of having a plan, but being prepared to alter that plan at any given moment. Mahjong strategy is all about flexibility—having a plan is really important, but it’s even more important that the plan itself is flexible. Again, think about what your opponents are doing and whether their moves mean you’ll need to adjust your own Mahjong strategy to avoid playing into their hands.

Defensive vs offensive play

There are two basic ways to play Mahjong, and you can use both interchangeably in any given game. You can play defensively or offensively. These are both effective Mahjong strategy in the right places. Let’s look at both.

Playing defensively

In Mahjong strategy, it’s really important to understand that basic Mahjong strategy is both about improving your own hand but also about making sure you aren’t helping other players. This is what we would call playing defensively. There will be times in the game where you can’t achieve much with the tiles you’ve got, so your best chance at success is simply limiting what your opponents can achieve. This is one of the most important hints for playing Mahjong.

Playing aggressively

Another important Mahjong techniques tactic, on the other hand, is playing more aggressively. This can be risky, so the most important thing is learning to spot the opportunities to play aggressively, where you are on the brink of forming a winning hand or at least most of a winning hand. When asking how to be good at Mahjong, the answer is often simply by playing the game a lot and gaining experience—this is how recognizing opportunities like these will come naturally to you in your Mahjong strategy.

Strategy flexibility

We’ve looked at many facets of Mahjong strategy, then, and many tips for playing Mahjong. But when asking how to beat Mahjong, then, with your Mahjong strategy, another key skill is going to be the ability to shift your strategy at any moment.

Switching strategy when it isn’t working

As important as having a Mahjong strategy is, if you want to know to how to improve your Mahjong skills, just as important is the ability to discard a given strategy when it does not seem to be working. You might have been aiming for a particular hand type which simply isn’t coming to fruition. You’ve got to be able to abandon that strategy before you’ve sunk too much time into trying to achieve it. Only time will tell how well your Mahjong strategy is working.

Adapting to the game

In general, then, when it comes to Mahjong strategy, you must be able to adapt to the game. Every single game of Mahjong is different, and so you must be always thinking about the direction the game is going and how you might need to adapt to prepare for that. The worst thing you can do is doggedly pursue your initial strategy when it is no longer working.

Advanced strategies and special hands

Hhh. So far we have covered all the basics of Mahjong strategy that you’ll need to know to get started playing and winning the game. But when asking how to win at Mahjong tiles, ultimately you will need to start thinking about advanced strategies and some of the special hands in the game.

Pursuing rare hands

Depending on the variation of the game you are playing, there are many special, high-scoring hands you can pursue. The standard rules of the game, otherwise known as Chinese rules, does not recognize as many special hands as other forms but there certainly are some.

Firstly, something to be aware of is how winning hands work. A standard winning hand is made up of four melds of any kind plus a pair.

Special hands, such as the “little three dragons” or the “little four winds” are more complex to form, but they can score you extra points if you are able to win with them. Again, Mahjong strategy is about assessing the risk vs the reward.

Risk vs reward

Pursuing special hands can be a tricky business. On the one hand, there is the obvious advantage to your Mahjong strategy that many of these special hands will score you extra points in the event that you do win. But at the same time, knowing these special hands at all, let alone recognizing real opportunities to form one, is the difficult part. By pursuing these special hands, there is always the risk that you might not ultimately be able to complete it. In the time that you were trying to form the special hand, you may have missed entirely another winning hand, lower scoring though it may have been, and given your opponents a way to win.

Influence of regional variations for strategy

In the two centuries since the game we know as Mahjong was invented or at least popularized, countless regional variations of the game have arisen. Naturally, the rules are going to be different for each form of the game, so again there’s the general advice that Mahjong strategy must be adjusted for the particular form you are playing. Think about the jokers and the Charleston in American Mahjong, for instance, or the high scoring red fives in Japanese Mahjong. Mahjong strategy is about embracing the nuances in every form of the game. Most of what we have so far said is in a broad sense applicable to most forms of Mahjong—for the regional variation of your choice, use these tips as building blocks.


Asking how to win in Mahjong game, then, is no simple question, and Mahjong strategy is a layered and complex thing. There are two main ways to sum up everything we have said so far about Mahjong strategy.

Evolution with experience

Starting to play Mahjong with the tips we have covered here is a great place to start, but again there is no substitute for experience when it comes to playing a relatively complex game like Mahjong. As you play more and more games, the logic of the strategies themselves will become clearer—and thus how you apply them will also adapt.

Adapt and experiment

Finally, then, Mahjong strategy is all about adapting and experimenting. Having a strategy is important—but what’s equally important is being able to abandon that strategy when it no longer serves you. As you play more and more games, experiment with different strategies as you become confident in what you are doing. Again, this will make your Mahjong strategy more intuitive, which is perhaps the most important thing. The better you implicitly understand the logic of your own strategy, the better you will be at applying it and ultimately the more effective it will be in practice.

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