This post was contributed by author Barbara Barrett. Her cozy mystery, Bamboozled, is currently on tour with Escape with Dollycas into a Good Book.
Mah Jongg Etiquette
The Mah Jongg Mystery series features four friends who play the game weekly and somehow wind up investigating murders that involve their friends, usually fellow mah jongg players. Part of each story includes actual game play to lend credibility. (They say write what you know, so as an avid addict of the game, that’s what I did. I have played the game for over nine years.)
Over time, one develops a set of expectations about the game in addition to the actual rules. Ways of playing that respect other players and tend to reduce misunderstandings. For this article, I am referring to these as mah jongg etiquette, but keep in mind, these are my thoughts only. The mah jongg-set scenes in this series employ this philosophy, either as the norm, or in some cases, to demonstrate abnormal situations.
First, there is a certain rhythm of play. Players tend to take the same amount of time setting up their tiles, selecting new tiles, exchanging tiles with other players and determining a hand. Players who finish faster than others either attend to their own business or help other members set up. Players who take too much time setting up may sometimes irritate the rest of the table, if they are consistently slow. Sometimes this happens with new players; more experienced players will tolerate this type of slow play better than that of other experienced players, who just tend to be slow. (Especially if those more experienced slower players are enjoying a winning day.)
Interrupted play is another area which can frustrate players. Occasionally, a player must excuse herself to attend to her personal needs in the middle of a game. Those situations can be overlooked; when it happens frequently, it becomes an irritant. The same applies to telephone calls. Some groups ask their players to silence their phones, but when they don’t, it is expected that calls will be handled expeditiously. Players who receive calls on a regular basis frustrate other players. Players who make calls on a regular basis are testing others’ patience.
I am not a fan of table talk. Talking during play, fine, as long as it doesn’t disturb play. But talking about play during play to me is a no-no. For instance, there are so many of each type of tile, like four Two Bams. It’s important to remember how many have been played for a player to know if she can make her hand. That’s part of the strategy. So when another player announces that three Two Bams have already been played, the player who still needs two Two Bams receives information she may not have known otherwise and may help her win.
Another kind of table talk occurs when one player indicates she knows what hand another is playing, which tips off the rest of the players. (I’m guilty of this on occasion.) Part of a good defense is to be aware which tiles the other players need and avoid playing them.
In this game, there are eight Jokers, which serve as wild cards. When a player uses one in a threesome (pung), foursome (kong) or quintet and another player has or draws the tile that was substituted by that joker, they may exchange their tile for the joker and use it for their own purposes. Some suggest it is good etiquette to hand the tile to the player with the joker and let them hand back the joker rather than simply exchanging it oneself.
Before play starts, players exchange three tiles at a time to the right, then across and then to the left. Typically, when four players play, this exchange continues in reverse order, to the left, across and finally back to the right. One player can stop the exchange after the first time to the left. This tends to irritate other players, because it limits the number of new tiles they can collect, but it’s a great defensive play for that reason. The good etiquette part is how the group determines this can happen; one way is to agree that play will continue unless the person wanting to stop it speaks up immediately after the first play to the left.
Speaking of passing, here’s another instance of faster versus slower players. In the exchange of tiles described above (called The Charleston), faster players can sometimes get ahead of slower players. This can become problematic when plays get out of order. Some feel good etiquette is to decide before the game starts that no one passes until everyone is ready. Not one of my favorite options, because I’m one of the faster players, but I understand why it might be necessary.
This is probably more than you ever wanted to know about Mah Jongg etiquette, but I thought it would help my readers understand the setting of this series as it concerns my four protagonists’ dealings with other players. Though it may seem like overkill at times, etiquette provides a framework of civility in the game. I see it as partly responsible for the depth of friendship that would prompt my quartet to move outside their everyday existence to investigate murders involving their mah jongg friends.
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