Monday, December 30, 2013

2013 Wrap-Up and More Mahjong Clubs

Yet another year has zoomed past.

The last entry on this blog was on 31st December 2012. The next one is this, almost an entire year after. I have neglected my blog again, but I do so without much regret! This year, I have been so busy doing all kinds of mahjong activities.

This blog was founded way back in 2007 to record the ups and downs of my interest in mahjong, and more importantly to document my efforts in promoting Mahjong Competition Rules (MCR), and competitive mahjong in general. Along the way, I got a little side-tracked into doing stuff in Singapore Style, but my main focus has always been MCR.

So, I am proud of what I and my associates and collaborators have achieved this year. Last year, we went to China to compete in the World Mahjong Championships 2012 (the major MCR tournament). This year, we built on our achievements and made preparations to get more deeply involved next year, for tournaments in China, Europe, and possibly Japan! This included growing a club network for competitive mahjong, and hosting a mahjong exchange with visiting players from China.

MCR Clubs: Nee Soon South CC Sport Mahjong Club and Thomson CC Mahjong Club
Besides the original club for playing MCR in Nee Soon South (see original post here), we have now set up another club for MCR in Thomson. This is to cater to the slowly but surely growing pool of MCR players. Sessions at the two clubs alternate for now, so this means at least one club session for MCR every week! Interested parties can contact me via the comments (remember to leave your contact details) to find out more!

Riichi Maajan Club
Additionally, since there was a void in the mahjong scene here and quite a lot of interest, we have also set up a section to play riichi maajan in the Sport Mahjong Club at Nee Soon South. Interested parties can go to this website, Playing Riichi Maajan in Singapore, to take a look. To get involved, go to the Newcomers page to get connected to the organiser, Feng.

There will definitely be more clubs in our plans! Hopefully, I will not be too busy to forget all about this blog. But that is a happy problem!

On to 2014! Happy New Year, everyone!

Monday, December 31, 2012

World Mahjong Championship 2012

In October 2012, I and a few other Singaporeans participated in the World Mahjong Championship (WMC), held in Qianjiang, Chongqing, People's Republic of China.

For me, it was my second time participating in a WMC; the first was in 2010. The World Mahjong Championship is a special event for me: it represents the highest level of mahjong competitive play, and it is a gathering of the most enthusiastic and knowledgeable mahjong players from around the world. Of course, this WMC uses only one of many mahjong variants, i.e. Mahjong Competition Rules (MCR), and thus only attracts the adherents of MCR, a small fraction of all the many mahjong players in the world. MCR, however, is a variant that was specifically designed for international competitive play, and there is no other ruleset/variant that is used regularly for international competition.

Into the World of Mahjong
As it was my second WMC, I naturally hoped for better results. I attained a rank of just 133 out of 208 competitors in 2010, and my goal this time around was to better that. It was not going to be an easy task, as we were facing some of the best players China has to offer, and there are a lot of good MCR players in China! Besides players from China, WMC 2012 attracted players from many other countries: Japan, Austria, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Russia, Spain, and Sweden.

From China itself, teams represented various provinces and regions: Beijing, Anhui, Henan, Hubei, Hunan, Inner Mongolia, Liaoning, Shaanxi (陕西), Shandong, Shanxi (山西), Sichuan, Xinjiang, and Yunnan. Some of the players came from regions that did not have full teams and thus competed in trans-regional teams (e.g. a mixed Tianjin–Beijing team) or as individuals (e.g. a competitor from Guangxi). Amongst these are some very well-known (in Chinese circles), veteran players such as Jiao Linghua (WMC 2010 champion and 5th China Majiang Open champion), Duan Tingxiu, Zhang Fengying, Zhang Bingcheng, as well as young but strong players such as Song Panjing, Zhang Zhangfeng, and Hu Zhiwei.

Because of the recent political spat over Diaoyudao/Senkaku Islands, some of the Japanese competitors faced problems in attending the WMC, and so pulled out of the competition altogether. On the European side, several top players opted to stay home, and there were fewer European competitors than originally anticipated (e.g. none from Belgium, Hungary, Switzerland, the UK; and rather few from the Metropolitan France, Italy, and the Netherlands, considering their large mahjong associations). Despite these developments, it was still a most exciting and intriguing mix of competitors. I think the Europeans and Chinese were also quite curious about us Singaporeans, since this was the first time so many took part in an MCR competition.

The World Mahjong Championship and the World Mahjong Culture Exchange Congress that preceded it were held in Qianjiang, a district in Chongqing Municipality. The Chinese organisers decided on this venue in order to help promote tourism in Qianjiang. So, on 24th October 2012, the majority of our team from Singapore flew to Chongqing Jiangbei Airport, where we met up with some of the Chinese organising team and volunteers, and some of the Chinese competitors (from Xi'an, Shaanxi), and then proceeded to take the long bus journey to Qianjiang some 400km away. Four of us had decided to attend the World Mahjong Culture Exchange Congress and the accompanying referee training; the other two members of our team would only come two days later for the actual competition. Arriving early gave us a little time to get used to the environs and the food (typical Sichuan cuisine which was fiery hot!), as well as get to know some of the other participants and to learn more about mahjong.

The World Mahjong Culture Exchange Congress turned out to be very interesting. Unfortunately, the main bulk of the congress (presentations and talks) was conducted only in Mandarin Chinese, and most of the non-Chinese participants were left scratching their heads since the Chinese-to-English translation was not really adequate. Thus, when it came to the discussion on the rules of MCR, I was roped in to help with Chinese-to-English translation. It turns out that being bilingual (as most Singaporeans are) is quite useful in such situations. My team-mates and I continued to act as impromptu translators for the European and the Chinese participants throughout the course of the WMC.

At the WMC, we met Sheila Hansen, a fellow Singaporean residing in Denmark. She had been living in Denmark for over 15 years and had married a Dane. She picked up MCR at the local mahjong club in Copenhagen, and came to represent Denmark for WMC 2012. So, we were quite surprised when the Chinese organisers checked with us about our seven competitors; we were actually only six players flying in from Singapore. Of course, I belatedly realised that Sheila was coming with the Danish contingent but the Chinese organisers had counted Sheila as Singaporean (going by her nationality as given during application for the competition)! In fact, this confusion over nationality/representation of country plagued a few other competitors: there was a German player of Russian origin, and another Danish competitor is actually Brazilian by nationality. This was eventually sorted out (all the competitors represented the countries that they were supposed to represent, nationality aside), but in the meanwhile we joked about Sheila being counted as Singaporean in order for us to win a prize in the country category. (The combined results of the top four players in each country counts toward the country score, so if Sheila placed within the top four Singaporeans, she could have helped lift our results.)

In any case, it was really great meeting Sheila. She still visits Singapore every now and then, and in order to play MCR in Singapore, she had to teach some of her friends MCR. Well, we asked Sheila to introduce her friends to our MCR club here in Singapore so that we could get more members!

The Tournament
The World Mahjong Championship this year featured a total of 188 competitors, hailing from twelve different countries. Prizes were awarded in three categories: individual, team of four players, and country (top four players). There were 45 teams (thus totalling 180 players, leaving 8 competitors not in teams), and eight countries eligible for the country prize (2 countries did not send enough competitors to qualify).

The competition itself comprised a pre-determined round-robin of eight games, and two final games using a Danish system of player-matching. In the first eight games, players were assigned to one of four sections, where players within each section would never meet, and at each table, a player would meet an opponent from each of the other sections. So, the Chinese players were placed in two sections fully (Sections 1 and 3), and the remaining were placed in the last section. The bulk of the Europeans (Austria, Denmark, France, Germany, the Netherlands) were placed in Section 2, while the Japanese, the rest of the Europeans (Italy, Russia, Spain, Sweden, and a misplaced German of Russian origin), us Singaporeans were placed in Section 4 with the few Chinese. This sort of table arrangement meant that a Japanese competitor always plays against two Chinese and one European opponents; a European competitor in Section 2 always plays against two Chinese opponents and another opponent (Chinese, Japanese, Singapore, European), and thus possibly against three Chinese opponents; a European competitor in Section 4 always plays against two Chinese opponents and another European opponent; while we Singaporeans always play against two Chinese and one European opponents.

In the final two games, because of the Danish system employed, players are matched according to their rankings in the competition (based on their table points, then competition points obtained during the first eight, and first nine, games). The Danish system means that competitors may meet opponents they had played before (something the Swiss system, a related tournament system, avoids). This results in some exciting matches amongst the strongest players.

The ten games for the WMC took place over three days. Three glorious days of intense and competitive mahjong. We played from 8.30 in the morning all the way to 7.30 in the evening for the first two days of competition, covering the eight games of the round-robin. The final two games took place in the morning of the third day, and we finally knew how well we performed. I did better than targetted (actually, just a modest goal of finishing within the top half of the field), with an eventual rank of 19th, but at the same time, I was disappointed I did not do well enough to place within the top 16. I was so very close, having even the chance to reach 5th! Still, for a sophomore outing at a proper MCR tournament, I was already very pleased with my improvement. My team-mates all did relatively well, considering that this was their first ever MCR tournament, but some felt they fell below their own expectations.

Then, it was time to socialise more, to get to know our opponents as friends, then to celebrate the conclusion of the tournament with a banquet and some merry-making!

After the Tournament
It was difficult to leave Qianjiang after such a wonderful experience, of mahjong playing and competing, of learning new things, of making new friends. Of course, now that we had all experienced the pleasure of competing at the highest level possible, our appetites for more competitions have been whetted. For my team-mates, this was their first competition, and WMC 2012 has stoked their desire for more competition, the same way WMC 2010 got me hooked on competitive mahjong.

So, 2012 is now coming to a close, and we are looking forward to 2013. It has been a rather good year for me and for my fellow MCR aficionados: we set up an MCR club, and we got to compete in the WMC. So, we aim to play in more MCR competitions in 2013 and beyond. There is no WMC in 2013, but there are still going to be competitions with strong players to meet.


Full results for the competition can be found here: WMC 2012 results.

Our Singapore team at WMC 2012.
(Photo credit: Lee Kau Fu.)

The opening ceremony at Zhuoshui Town within Qianjiang.
(Photo credit: Justine Tay.)

Sheila Hansen (centre), our fellow Singaporean!
(Photo credit: Sheila Hansen.)

Justine and YS in practice with some French players.

The bustling tournament hall, before the start of Game 9.

Two of Kau Fu's opponents. André Balagourou from France (left), highest-ranked European in WMC 2012, and Duan Yanbin from China (right), WMC 2012 champion.
(Photo credit: Lee Kau Fu.)

A private practice game with two of China's young experts. Li Wenlong (left) and Hu Zhiwei (right) are both members of a Beijing club, Fangzhuang Julebu 方庄俱乐部, and part of the winning team in the 5th China Majiang Open in 2011.

Myself (second from right) in action, with Danish opponent Jesper Willemoes Hansen (second from left).
(Photo credit: Sheila Hansen.)

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

A Need for Standardisation of Rules for Mahjong Tournaments in Singapore

I had started a series of articles on Singapore Style mahjong last year in an effort to document properly all the rules (well-known and obscure) of Singapore Style rules so that I can draft a more coherent set of rules for use in tournaments (see post on Tournaments and Singapore Style Mahjong Rules). This is necessary for me as a referee and technical advisor to community centres (CCs) organising mahjong tournaments, but this project is also a one-man show, and I hold no special authority other than the fact that I have done all my research on mahjong, as can be seen on this blog.

Anyway, a few incidents recently prompted some reflection on the state of mahjong tournaments in Singapore and the definition of Singapore Style mahjong: a few tournaments my students/associates (and I) participated in, a tournament where I served as referee and technical advisor, and ogiuemaniax's question (addressed here in Relative lack of low-value scoring elements in Singapore Style mahjong?).

Mahjong Tournaments in Singapore
Mahjong has an awkward position in Singapore: it is simultaneously reviled as an instrument for gambling and a social evil, and lauded as a tool to help active ageing. Up until recently, playing of mahjong was considered illegal (although apparently, it is not; even the police cannot really do anything about people playing mahjong, unless there is evidence of illegal gambling, or if the activity caused too many noise and disturbance), and playing of mahjong in public was outright disallowed. Mahjong tournaments, even if they were harmless and not associated with gambling, were also disallowed in public organisations such as the People's Association (PA) (see this ST report from 2008). Things have changed quite a bit since, and there are many mahjong tournaments being organised these days, and mostly by the CCs under the PA. Even so, the staging of mahjong tournaments is regulated by the Ministry of Home Affairs via the police, and permission has to be sought for such events.

So, while mahjong tournaments are becoming more common, the most important thing has not: the creation and adoption of a standardised mahjong ruleset. In Singapore, unfortunately, there is little interest in more standardised rulesets such as Mahjong Competition Rules (MCR), Zung Jung, or Japanese riichi. MCR, Zung Jung, and riichi of course also represent rather different variants of mahjong which Singaporeans are not familiar with, but they do have properly codified practices. Very well, Singaporeans may well ignore such standardised rulesets since they are foreign, but should they at least then look towards a standardised version of their favoured local rule variant, that is, Singapore Style Mahjong? From the looks of it, as experienced at various tournaments organised by different CCs, by NTUC U Live, and by private clubs, the answer seems to be a pathetic 'no'.

Rules? What Rules?
First off, some mahjong tournament organisers do not even bother to draft out proper rules, print them out and let the participants know beforehand of the rules to be used at the tournaments. Participants come to the tournament, clutching their own understanding of the rules and hope to be able to do well enough in an uncertain environment. Needless to say, without clear direction from the organisers, players often just arbitrate amongst themselves, leading to some rather divergent settlements. This is not exactly fair to participants who are sometimes disadvantaged by such arbitrary and non-standard decisions.

Worse, the rules at the tournament turn out to be quite different from the commonly used ones, so players have to adjust their strategies and styles of play on the spot. For example, at the recently staged mahjong tournament at Kampong Ubi CC (by the way, they called it a 'Friendly Mahjong Match'), the rules turned out to be quite different from expected. The notable differences were: no animals were used (!!); there was no one-double minimum, the flowerless pinghu value was adjusted from 4 doubles to only 3.5 doubles (actually, 10× the base stake; this is an ineffective adjustment anyway, for without animal tiles, this kind of pinghu is too easily achieved, so the value is highly inflated). Basically, these rules now resembled a hybrid form of Hong Kong Style and Singapore Style mahjong. Strangely, despite chicken hands (i.e. 0-double hands) being allowed, there was no properly allocated rate for 0-double wins. If the base stake was supposed to be 0.5/1, then the 1-double payment should be 1/2 and so on. But since a 0.5 chip was not feasible, the organisers decided to round up the value to 1, and so a 0-double win earned 1/1, which is hardly different from a 1-double win at 1/2. There goes any justification to even try for a 1-double win! This is patently a poorly thought-out solution because it closed the difference between 0 double and 1 double to almost nothing. A more logical solution would be to change the base stake to 1/2 (i.e. 0-double wins score 1/2) and double from there (i.e. 1-double wins score 2/4 and so on).

These changes were not minor and essentially changed the dynamics of the game so much that it was hardly fair to more seasoned players of the Singapore Style rules. In fact, this ruleset can hardly be called Singapore Style anymore! The worse thing was, had players known of such rules before registering for the tournament, they may have changed their minds and not joined it at all. My students and associates had tried asking for a copy of the rules, but were fobbed off with replies like 'oh, they will explain the rules on the day of the competition'. Evidently, they did not enjoy playing at the competition at all, and some have sworn off ever participating at this CC's tournaments.

Contrary to its aims of bringing people together, this mahjong tournament had annoyed veteran players with its seemingly idiosyncratic rules. Such atypical rules were explained as 'to cater for older players to make it easier' (I presume the organisers meant older novice players) but which at the same time confuses the veteran older players. Kampong Ubi CC's ruleset simply deviated too much from the more commonly used rules, as played by most people and as used in most other CCs.

I can only conclude that the organisers did not really know the rules very well, lacked experience in running such tournaments, and assumed too much of their participants (that they will be old[er] and are novices that require rules that make the game easier to play). With so many tournaments being organised by CCs nowadays, there are players who go around participating such tournaments as often as they can. Such players are not novices and hardly naive, and so, such non-standardised and arbitrary rules just make things difficult for them and are discouraging in nature.

Badly Written Rules
Some other CCs were not so poorly organised as to not have any rules and regulations to distribute to registrants for their tournaments. However, their efforts are often not good enough. For example, their rules (whether in English, Chinese, or a typically Singaporean mix of both) can contain many strange terms, Chinese characters, and bizarre explanations (see pictures below).


Fig. 1. An example of very poor copy-editing: where one important character is written as two different characters.

Figure 1 (above) shows the poor copy-editing that is found in printed rules and regulations for tournaments. In just one section, we can find examples of two different Han characters that supposed to be the same! Of course, in my view, neither 胡 nor 糊 are correct; the correct character that represents a winning/complete hand is actually 和 (and this is correctly used in PRC Chinese and Japanese publications on mahjong). But the point is, why do these people who organise tournaments and write/edit rules and regulations not spend more effort to ensure that basic things the name of a game element is written correctly and consistently? I do not even want to touch on the English names and the mixing of the Chinese and English text in the explanation for the scoring element.

Fig.2 An example of poor knowledge and/or research. How can such a common, basic word in the Chinese mahjong terminology be wrong?

Figure 2 (above) shows the lack of research and fact-checking that should be done for official documents (even if these are just for social events). It just shows a lack of knowledge, professionalism, and commitment to the cause. There is an abundance of mahjong materials in both English and Chinese available in our public libraries as well as on the Internet! There is no excuse to omit the basic research. What is even more unforgivable in this context is that the mistake in Figure 2 came from a set of rules and regulations prepared by a youth committee. So, even less of an excuse for not even giving Google a go! By the way, 冈 gāng is not even pronounced the same as 杠 gàng (the correct character), as was the case for the confusion between 胡/糊/(湖)/和 (all pronounced as ) as in Figure 1.

In another incident, I was helping out at a mahjong tournament at the invitation of the organising committee. But this invitation came about just three weeks before the event itself, and the organising committee had prepared a set of rules and regulations taken from another CC. Now, this set of rules and regulations seem to act as a common reference document as it seems that several CCs used the same for their own tournaments, but unfortunately, this original document had myriad errors, unconventional spellings, and wrong choice of Han characters (for example, 供 gòng instead of 杠 gàng), and poorly written explanations for the scoring elements. As referee, I had to adhere to a set of rules that I felt comfortable with (i.e. logical, consistent, and balanced) but the disseminated rules had so many errors and problems in them. Since the rules and regulations had already been released for dissemination, i.e. people who registered for the tournament received the already printed rules and regulations document, I was unable to revise the document totally. So, I ended up going through the entire set of rules during the rules briefing before the start of the tournament and answered all participants' questions individually. Even then, some participants came up to us (i.e. me and members of the organising committee) and berated us for giving them such a confusing and poorly written set of rules and regulations. What was I to say? I had no control over this particular matter.

The Need for Standardisation
All these recent incidents merely highlighted the need for a consistent and coherent set of Singapore Style rules that are stable and not change from tournament to tournament. Now that mahjong tournaments are becoming more common in Singapore, a pool of competitive players is growing, and there is a growing expectation that the rules conform to a common understanding of what constitutes Singapore Style mahjong. Whether there is true standardisation (and regulation by a governing body) remains to be seen, but a generally identical set of rules that recurs at the various CCs would be most welcome.

I now help two different CCs run mahjong tournaments and so they use my rules, and in a little way, I have helped create a little standardisation. It would be indeed presumptuous of me to suggest that CCs use my set of rules (which, by the way, is still a work in progress), but at the very least, they can use it as a form of reference to improve their own rules and regulations. I would welcome a form of forum amongst clubs that can thrash out all the rules to create a unified set of rules for use by all participating clubs: that would be the ideal platform for standardisation. But that would remain an improbable hope for now.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Relative Lack of Low-Value Scoring Elements in Singapore Style Mahjong?

I have just received an interesting comment/question from ogiuemaniax, who writes:
I am someone who primarily plays Japanese mahjong, but over the past year or so I've become increasingly interested in other forms of mahjong, if only to see what variety exists out there. In this time, I've had the chance to play Singapore-style online, whether against computers or human opponents (on Viwawa if you know that site), and I just wanted to ask someone more familiar with the game to see if my observations are at all accurate.

Coming from Japanese-style, I find the most significant difference to not be so much the lack of riichi or even the animal tiles (though they do contribute to a different experience), but the relative lack of low fan/tai hands. Things like tanyao (all simples) and iipeikou (two of the same sequence) don't exist in Singapore mahjong, and so I feel like the hands are more inflexible, that they don't flow into each other quite as easily.

As a result, it seems like you have to decide from the very beginning where you want your hand to go and that, unless you draw a relevant bonus tile, you have to stick to your path much more diligently, whether that's an all sequences hand or starting out with two honor tiles and planning around getting the third or aiming for a half flush.

I see that there is the possibiliy of increasing the tai minimum in order to make the game more challenging, but my opinion (based on my limited experience) is that high tai requirements are not suitable for Singapore Mahjong because of the relatively small amount of available hands. Unlike MCR especially where there are so many hands that you can realistically stack many of them together to meet more difficult fan requirements, I feel like anything more than a 2 tai minimum in Singapore Mahjong may make the game overly stiff and unwieldy, though whether the minimum is better at 1 or 2 is something I'm undecided on.

Anyway, thanks for hearing me out. I don't pretend to be an expert in even my own preferred mahjong, so I'm looking forward to a response.

A most interesting comment, with some interesting points to discuss! Below, I have laid out my thoughts and views in response to ogiuemaniax's comment. By no means are these points conclusive and definitive; there is a lot of scope for discussion.

1. Significant differences between Japanese riichi majan and Singapore Style mahjong.
I find it actually difficult to articulate the significant difference because Japanese riichi majan and Singapore Style mahjong are so different but yet still quite similar. I will try to discuss this point from a historical perspective.

Essentially, Japanese riichi majan and Singapore Style mahjong evolved from what is known as Chinese Classical, but in different ways. Both variants actually retain many features of Chinese Classical; we can compare this to variants such as American mah jongg (almost no resemblance to any other variant of mahjong anymore!), MCR, and Taiwanese. However, I view Singapore Style to be more conservative, and this includes the retention of most, if not all, of the traditional scoring elements found in Chinese Classical, whereas Japanese riichi majan innovated many new scoring elements (examples ogiuemaniax brought up include tanyao and iipeikou). Many of the newer styles of mahjong (e.g. Shanghainese, Hong Kong New Style, MCR, Zung Jung) have similar/identical innovations pertaining to new scoring elements. Singapore Style and Hong Kong Old Style, by contrast, use few, if any, new scoring elements beyond those inherited from Chinese Classical.

Because there are many more ways to obtain higher scores through hand manipulation, rather than through sheer luck (say, through the drawing of bonus tiles), Japanese riichi majan, MCR, Zung Jung have all developed to emphasise hand-construction and to de-emphasise luck. This is the reason, perhaps, why Japanese riichi majan use no flowers. Contrastingly, Singapore Style mahjong added four more bonus tiles. This makes obtaining the minimum of one double (one tai) relatively easier, and drawing more useful bonus tiles is not that difficult. In terms of play, a Singapore Style player can expect to win a lot of hands with one double, two doubles, three doubles, just using the bonus tiles alone.

So, if you were to ask me, the significant difference between Japanese riichi majan and Singapore Style mahjong is then not truly about the relative lack of low-value scoring elements, but the presence or absence of bonus tiles that fulfil the role of obligatory scoring element (i.e. the equivalent of yaku, not han). Since there are no bonus tiles that easily allow any player to meet the minimum requirement to win in Japanese riichi majan, the player is forced to use any of the available yaku to compete for the win. By necessity, a lot more yaku had been developed to allow the player more opportunities to complete the hand.

2. Flexibility and hand development
Well, it is true that without bonus tiles, the hand development in Singapore Style mahjong usually takes only one of three paths: All Chows (pinghu), All Pungs, and Mixed Suit/Half Flush. But this is not really very different from Japanese riichi majan. I doubt it is easy to 'flow' from an opened hand with a pung of Seat Wind back into something else other than All Pungs and/or Half Flush anyway. People tend to think of Japanese riichi majan as 'flexible' but only if the hand remains concealed (which then allow the completion of obligatorily concealed scoring elements such as riichi, pinfu, menzen, iipeikou etc. and some optionally concealed scoring elements). Singapore Style mahjong is as flexible as most other variants; opening up a hand always create a loss of flexibility. It is less of a hindrance in Singapore Style mahjong though, since bonus tiles usually shoulder the requirement for more doubles for high-scoring wins.

3. Scoring system dictates the strategy
Sometimes, it is rather difficult to compare different styles of mahjong. The very differences in the scoring system will create different conditions that then constrain the kinds of strategies usable. Singapore Style mahjong does not require the kind of flexibility demanded in Japanese riichi majan. If a player who is used to a style of play best suited for Japanese riichi majan play that way in Singapore Style mahjong, then he may not be able to do well. Since there is no restriction on concealment for pinghu in Singapore Style, players will readily open their hands to take chows to quickly advance their hands towards completion (moreso if such players have not drawn any bonus tiles and wish to aim for a 4-double pinghu win). The presence of bonus tiles affects the strategies of players in Singapore Style and cannot be discounted.

4. Minimum and maximum
Actually, as typically played in Singapore, a minimum of one double and a maximum of five doubles is 'standard' (well, 'standard' means 'very common' here) after decades of game evolution and equilibrium. The scoring system (with all the associated bao penalties etc.) have stabilised to be most balanced under the conditions of a minimum of one double and a maximum of five doubles.

If there is no minimum (thus allowing Chicken Hands), then there is not enough challenge for players; to meet a minimum of one double, players must know how to construct a pinghu hand correctly in the absence of a valid bonus tile. If the minimum is raised to two doubles, players cannot pre-empt dangerous players late-game with a cheap one-double pinghu hand; therefore any minimum above one double is typically unpopular with the more experienced and expert players.

The maximum of five doubles fits nicely with limiting the role of luck (especially for luck-based limit hands like Heavenly Win, Eight Flowers etc.), and at the same time making the role of bao penalties relevant and interesting. If the limit is too high, say, at 8 doubles, then a baoda penalty, where a player becomes penalised for discarding a tile allowing a dangerous player to go from 7 to 8 doubles (i.e. to reach the Limit; based on the exposed bonus tiles and Honour tile melds on the tables) becomes all too rare and thus pointless. It is common to see 4 doubles on the table, so a baoda penalty is quite likely in such situations; much less common to see 7 doubles on the table.


ogiuemaniax, I hope this answers your query in some part. Feel free to carry on this discussion with your comments.

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

MCR Club in Singapore

I am happy to announce the formation of a mahjong club focusing on MCR play! This new club is actually an interest group hosted by Nee Soon South Community Club, but it will be open to all interested players. I am the organiser for this club and will thus programme and coordinate the activities of this club.

This interest group is intended to provide a venue for mahjong enthusiasts to play in a serious, competitive manner. The choice of rule variant is MCR as MCR is the main variant used for international competition. So, this MCR club will cater to both very competitive players who intend to participate in international tournaments (as I did in 2010, at the World Mahjong Championships in Utrecht, the Netherlands), as well as more casual players who just want to play a good (but mentally challenging) game of mahjong.

The club will meet about twice a month for play sessions, mainly on Saturday evenings, and on the occasional Sunday afternoon. Play sessions will comprise 2-hour games, and players will be moved around to play against different opponents for each game. A small fee will be charged per game. Spectating is free though.

All interested mahjong enthusiasts are welcome! To play, proficiency in MCR is required. Newcomers to MCR can download a PDF copy here (China Majiang Net) or here (European Mahjong Association version).

Our very first session is on 16th June 2012, at 5.30pm. Nee Soon South Community Club is located very near to Khatib MRT Station.

Enquiries are welcome! Please leave a comment here with your contact details.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Rules of Singapore Style Mahjong: List of Scoring Elements

This is a list of the various scoring elements used in Singapore Style mahjong, organised by value (i.e. by number of doubles).

1 double/一台
Seat Flower 正花/门花 zhènghuā/ménhuā
Animal 动物 dòngwù
All Chows (with bonus tiles) 臭平和 chòupínghú
Pung of Dragons 箭刻 jiànkè
Pung of Seat Wind 门风刻 ménfēngkè
Pung of Round Wind 圈风刻 quānfēngkè
Concealed Hand (self-drawn) 门清 ménqīng
Robbing the Kong 抢杠 qiǎnggàng
Winning with the Last Drawn Tile 海底捞月 hǎidǐlāoyuè
Winning with a Replacement tile (for kongs) 杠上开花 gàngshàngkāihuā
Winning with a Replacement tile (for bonus tiles) 花上自摸 huāshàngzìmō
Flower Set Bonus 花杠加台 huāgàng jiātái
Animal Set Bonus 动物杠加台 dòngwùgàng jiātái

2 doubles/两台
All Pungs 碰碰和/对对和 pèngpènghú/duìduìhú
Mixed Suit 混一色 hùnyīsè
Mixed Terminals and Honours 混幺九/混老头 hùnyāojiǔ/hùnlǎotóu
Little Four Winds/Little Four Blessings 小四喜 xiǎosìxǐ

3 doubles/三台
Little Three Dragons/Little Three Scholars 小三元 xiǎosānyuán

4 doubles/四台
All Chows (without any bonus tiles) 平和 pínghú
Pure Suit 清一色 qīngyīsè

Limit (5 doubles)/满贯 (五台)
Heavenly Win 天和 tiānhú
Earthly Win 地和 dìhú
Thirteen Orphans/Thirteen Wonders 十三幺 shísānyāo
Big Four Winds/Big Four Blessings (immediate) 大四喜 dàsìxǐ
Big Three Dragons/Big Three Scholars (immediate) 大三元 dàsānyuán
All Honours 字一色 zìyīsè
All Terminals 全幺九/清老头 quányāojiǔ/qīnglǎotóu
Four Concealed Pungs (self-drawn) 四暗刻/坎坎和 sì’ànkè/gàigàihú
All Kongs 杠杠和/十八罗汉 gànggànghú/shíbāluóhàn
Kong on Kong Win 杠上杠和 gàngshànggànghú
Flower Win/Robbing the Flower (immediate) 七抢一 qīqiǎngyī
Flower Win/Eight Immortals (immediate) 花和/八仙过海 huāhú/bāxiānguòhǎi

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Rules of Singapore Style Mahjong: Animals

Animal
Chinese name: 动物 dòngwù
Value: 1 double
Description: When a player wins a hand, every animal tile in his possession will score 1 double. Animal tiles do not correspond to any player's seat, so any player can possess any animal to score doubles. Animals count towards the minimum requirement of 1 double for any win.

Comments: As there are four animal tiles used in Singapore Style mahjong but no correspondence between animal and players' seats, any player can get up to four animals and thus score up to five doubles from his Animals (see below for explanation of how to get five doubles).

Animal Set Bonus
Chinese name: 动物杠加台 dòngwùgàng jiātái (ad hoc term)
Value: 1 double
Description: When a player wins a hand, a complete set of animal tiles will score 1 double, in addition to the double individually scored for each Animal, for a total of five doubles.

Comments: This scoring element has no equivalent in other variants of mahjong, and there are thus no similar terms for such a scoring element. The flower equivalent is sometimes known as 一台花 yītáihuā, as used in Hong Kong Old Style (HKOS) scoring, but the use of this term is preferably avoided for Singapore Style mahjong to avoid confusion with the typical meaning of 'doubles' for 台. Since I used 花杠加台 huāgàng jiātái as the ad hoc term here in this blog, a logical extension to refer to a complete set of animal tiles would then be 动物杠加台 dòngwùgàng jiātái.


Related Posts
Rules of Singapore Style Mahjong: Index
Rules of Singapore Style Mahjong: Bonus Tiles
Rules of Singapore Style Mahjong: Flowers

Rules of Singapore Style Mahjong: Flowers

Seat Flower
Chinese name(s): 正花 zhènghuā, 门花 ménhuā
Value: 1 double
Description: When a player wins a hand, every flower tile in his possession that corresponds to his seat will score 1 double. Flower tiles that do not correspond to the player's seat are not Seat Flowers and do not score any doubles. Seat Flowers count towards the minimum requirement of 1 double for any win.

Comments: As there are only eight proper flower tiles in Singapore Style mahjong (the other bonus tiles used are animal tiles, though often referred to as flowers as well), and only one tile in each set that corresponds to each player's seat, any player can at most obtain two doubles from his Seat Flowers.

Flower Set Bonus
Chinese name: 花杠加台 huāgàng jiātái (ad hoc term), 一台花 yītáihuā
Value: 1 double
Description: When a player wins a hand, a complete set of flower tiles (either all the red-numbered flowers, or all the blue-numbered flowers) will score 1 double, in addition to the double scored for the Seat Flower.

Comments: This scoring element is sometimes known as 一台花 yītáihuā, as used in Hong Kong Old Style (HKOS) scoring. In HKOS scoring, however, 一台花 is viewed to be worth 2 doubles (but then excludes the 1 double scored for the Seat Flower). I prefer to avoid using the term 一台花, and use an ad hoc term 花杠加台 huāgàng jiātái instead. Reasons for this include: a need to avoid confusion on when to count Seat Flower; a need to have consistency and a logical counterpart to the Animal Set Bonus (something not found in HKOS mahjong); and a need to avoid confusion by using the Chinese term 台 tái with different meanings. In Singapore Style, 台 refers to doubles, but in HKOS it refers only to a group (of flowers); to use 台 to refer to a group (of flowers) where it also refers to doubles can be confusing to players, so this should be avoided.


Related Posts
Rules of Singapore Style Mahjong: Index
Rules of Singapore Style Mahjong: Bonus Tiles
Rules of Singapore Style Mahjong: Animals

Updated at 17:35, on 21st August 2011

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Rules of Singapore Style Mahjong: Scoring

Scoring in mahjong is a crucial part of the flavours of the different regional variants. Since the gameplay (i.e. the mechanism of the game) is largely identical across variants of mahjong, the differentiation between variants lies in the different ways scoring is done, which in turn motivates different strategies and approaches to playing mahjong.

Scoring is fundamentally about assigning different values to different ways of winning, and the values are usually correlated to the difficulty of achieving such ways of winning. More difficult methods have higher value and less difficult methods have lower value. So, the mahjong player has to decide how he wants to win his hand, in accordance with the score he wants to achieve.

The scoring system of Singapore Style mahjong is largely inherited from Chinese Classical scoring. However, there have been many changes, the most significant one being the removal of calculating basic points from the possession of certain tile combinations and the replacement with a fixed base stake.

In Singapore Style mahjong, points can be won from opponents by winning a hand with one or more scoring elements or by achieving certain tile combinations. Scoring elements (番种 fānzhǒng) are the various tile combinations, patterns, and winning situations that can give value to a winning hand. This value is expressed in the form of doubles (台 tái or 番 fān). Each scoring element has a value, which can range from 1 double to 10 (or more) doubles. Many of the scoring elements can be combined, so the final value of a winning hand can be quite high!


This article will discuss the various concepts and practices of scoring:
1. payment system;
2. doubles;
3. base stake;
4. limits;
5. unlimited scoring.

Payment System
Mahjong is a four-player game, and whenever one player wins, three players will lose. However, the three losers do not necessarily pay the same number of points to the winner.

There are two kinds of situations for a player making a winning hand: the winning hand is completed by a tile discarded by another player (this is a win by discard); or the winning hand is completed by a tile picked by the player himself (this is a self-drawn win).

When a player wins with a tile discarded by one of his opponents, the two non-discarder losers pays the winner the amount of points for the score calculated from the value of the winning hand, and the discarder pays the winner that same amount of points doubled. The discarder has to pay more because he is responsible for his mistake and is penalised accordingly. The winner therefore wins an amount of points 4 times the calculated score.

When a player wins by self-draw, the losers all pay the winner the same amount of points, doubled from the score calculated from the value of the winning hand. The winner therefore wins an amount of points 6 times the calculated score. This rewards the winner for making a win that is not dependent on mistakes by the opponents.

Some groups of players in Singapore favour the 'shooter' system of payments. In this system, unlike the typical one where all three losers pay in every deal, the two non-discarder losers do not pay the winner and only the discarder pays, and this discarder pays on behalf of the other two losers. So, in effect, the discarder always pays four times the calculated score.

This system is supposed to emphasise defensive play. However, without an orderly discard system and sacred discard rules as found in riichi majan, defence is not easy, and the winning tile is less predictable. Discarding a winning tile for another player cannot be easily attributed to poor defensive skills, and the 'shooter pays' system can therefore penalise good players unnecessarily. The rule that the discarder has to pay for the other two losers also reduce the role of bao penalties (explained in another article), and therefore dilutes the flavour of Singapore Style mahjong. Based on these reasons, the 'shooter pays' system is not recommended for tournaments.

Doubles
Doubles are the way the value of a winning hand is expressed, and actually represents how the score and points for payment between winners and losers are calculated. The 'double' is the literal English translation of the Chinese word 番 fān, which means 'to double'.

In Singapore, it is very typical to hear players use the term 台 tái, which means 'platform', instead. 台 is more commonly used by players who speak Southern Min languages (i.e. Southern Chinese languages such as Hokkien [i.e. Xiamen/Quanzhou/Zhangzhou dialect-group], and Teochew), and which was probably borrowed from Taiwanese usage. The majority (some 60%) of Chinese Singaporeans are of Hokkien and Teochew descent and share a linguistic heritage with the Taiwanese, who also speak Southern Min languages (a mixture of Xiamen/Quanzhou/Zhangzhou dialects). (In Taiwanese 16-tile mahjong, however, tai are actually used to calculate scores in a different manner from fan.) Singaporean players who speak Yue (i.e. Cantonese) or Mandarin tend to use 番, following more common practice in Hong Kong and China.

Either way, both 番 and 台 are used in the same manner in Singapore Style mahjong: each double adds a multiply of 2 to the base (points) to arrive at the final score. The more doubles, the more times the base is multplied by 2.

For example, in a game where the base is set at 10 points, a winning hand with 4 doubles will earn 160 points. This score of 160 points is arrived through the following formula:

base × 2^(number of doubles)
= 10 × 2^4
= 10 × (2 × 2 × 2 × 2)
= 10 × 16
= 160

Basically, the base of 10 points is doubled 4 times to obtain 160 points. If the base of 10 points is just doubled once, the score is 20 points; if the base is doubled twice, the score becomes 40 points; and so on.

If a winning hand does not contain any double, the score for this hand is calculated to be exactly that of the base stake. So, if the base is set at 10 points, the score of a 0 double hand is simply 10 points. In Singapore Style mahjong, however, there is a minimum requirement for a winning hand to contain at least 1 double, so hands without any doubles (i.e. valueless hands) is considered to be illegal wins and are penalisable.

Base Stake
Since mahjong is typically played casually among friends for small stakes, the base for scoring can vary. It can be $0.05 (i.e. five cents), $0.30 (thirty cents), $1, $100, or even higher! Of course, any base stake of more than $1 can hardly be considered small stakes gambling.

Below are examples of how some bases are doubled. The first example of the 0.5/1 base is the most commonly used base because of the ease in calculating the scores.

Score Table for Singapore Style Mahjong, Base of 0.5/1 Point
Number of DoublesWin by DiscardWin by Self-Draw
00.51
112
224
348
4816
51632
63264
764128
8128256
9256512
105121024
1110242048
1220484096
1340968192

A base of 0.5/1 point is quite common. 0.5/1 typically refers to a base of $0.50 (i.e. 50 cents) and $1. Two values are always quoted when referring to the base, the second value being doubled from the first. This doubling occurs because whenever a player wins a hand by self-draw, the score is doubled once as a bonus for the self-draw, this is not part of the normal doubling earned from scoring elements.

This 0.5/1 point base is considered to be the easiest to use because with the required minimum of 1 double to win in Singapore Style mahjong, scores will start on 1 and 2 points (for 1 double), then increased accordingly for more doubles. This base therefore uses basic and naturally round figures, and is convenient for players who play for small stakes.

In the score table above, notice that when the score consists of many doubles (particularly, when more than 6 doubles), the score becomes disproportionately high. This is because the doubling mechanism results in a geometric progression, and the increase in the score is exponential and low stakes gambling becomes unsustainable for friendly play. The result is that limits (typically 5 doubles) are imposed to prevent an unperceived unfairness in the scoring amongst players.

Score Table for Singapore Style Mahjong, Base of 0.3/0.6 Points (Before Rounding Up)
Number of DoublesWin by DiscardWin by Self-Draw
00.30.6
10.61.2
21.22.4
32.44.8
44.89.6
59.619.2

A base of 0.3/0.6 points is also rather commonly used. The use of a fairly odd figure like 0.3 results in many non-round figures for scoring. Therefore, all the scores are rounded up to produce round figures.

Score Table for Singapore Style Mahjong, Base of 0.3/0.6 Points (After Rounding Up)
Number of DoublesWin by DiscardWin by Self-Draw
00.51
112
223
335
4510
51020

With rounding up, all the scores are now round, and the effect of the rounding up results in figures that are easier to handle, particularly because such a base and its calculations are used in small stakes gambling. Values of $1, $2, $3, $5, $10, $20, and so on, are much easier to exchange amongst players when scoring winning hands, compared to awkward values like $1.20, $2.40, $4.80 etc. The strange effect of the unequal rounding up is that it is slightly more profitable to play for 2 to 3 doubles in a game with a 0.3/0.6 point base than in a game with a 0.5/1 point base.

In a tournament setting, a 0.5/1 point base is preferred, for the ease in calculation and handling, and it avoids distortions to the profit-value correlation that using a 0.3/0.6 points base causes.

Limits
In a scoring system based on exponential increment, winning hands with many doubles can score many thousands more points than hands with one or two doubles. This creates a situation where this unbalanced scoring leads to uncompetitiveness amongst players. For example, a player might be lucky and win a hand (on a discard) with 10 doubles. He therefore wins 2048 points. If his opponents only keep winning hands with only 1 or 2 doubles, earning at most 4 to 12 points each time, it is not possible for them to catch up to this lucky player, since high-scoring hands are not very easy to achieve. These opponents would therefore feel it is pointless to continue playing the game, since they are unlikely to catch up and recover their losses. In fact, it is quite likely that players in general would not want to play with a scoring system that does not have a reasonable cap on such high scores.

So, for such practical reasons of game balance and competitiveness, a limit is typically imposed in Singapore Style mahjong. This limit is the maximum number of doubles that will be counted during scoring, and any extra doubles beyond the limit are ignored during scoring. The payment between players will be capped to this limit. Limits are typically 5 or 6 doubles, depending on the agreement between players. A limit of 5 doubles is most common, for reasons of game balance and consistency of value of certain scoring elements (this would be elaborated in other articles).

If a player wins with a 10-double hand in a game with a 5-double limit, the losers only pay the winner the score for 5 doubles.

Unlimited Scoring
Some players feel that the use of limits reduces the values of some special hands (which are typically pereceived to be valued beyond 5 doubles). These include scoring elements like Big Four Winds, All Honours, Thirteen Orphans etc. High-scoring hands built on a combination of luck (doubles from bonus tiles) and hard work (doubles from scoring elements like Pure Suit and All Pungs) scoring beyond the limit are also not valued accordingly. So, some players do not play with limits, and these are usually players who play for rather high stakes, and if really high-scoring hands are won, the losers pay the price without complaint.

So using the exponential increment system of doubles can be quite damaging to the game balance. For players who want to make hands that score more than the limit and yet not deal with unreasonable losses, a compromise can be made by using bonuses for scores over the limit. For example, every extra double beyond the limit may earn an extra 10 points (regardless of wins by self-drawn or by discard), so high-scoring hands are still rewarded, but not in a game-breaking manner.

Score Table for Singapore Style Mahjong, Base of 0.5/1 Point, 10-point Bonus Per Double Over Limit
Number of DoublesWin by DiscardWin by Self-Draw
00.51
112
224
348
4816
51632
62642
73652
84662
95672
106682
117692
1286102
1396112


Related Posts
Rules of Singapore Style Mahjong: Index

Updated at 17:45, 21st August 2011

Friday, August 19, 2011

Rules of Singapore Style Mahjong: Bonus Tiles

In Singapore Style mahjong, two kinds of bonus tiles are used: flowers and animals.

Flower tiles are the tiles that usually have illustrations of flowers, or Chinese ornaments, or Chinese architecture etc., and that also have numbers on them. Each set of flower tiles comprise four members, so there would be a tile each numbered 1, 2, 3, and 4. Each set of flowers also usually represent a Chinese grouping of four related things. Typically, the sets of flowers would be the four seasons (四季 sìjì, the members of which are 春夏秋冬 chūnxiàqiūdōng) and the four noble plants (花中四君子 huāzhōngsìjūnzi, the members of which are 梅兰菊竹 méilánjúzhú). Sometimes, the mahjong set may contain other sets of flowers, such as the four occupations or the four arts. Usually, the Han characters for these members are also carved onto the tiles. The Chinese names for these flowers are not particularly important, the numbers are more important, being of particular use in the game.

In mahjong sets found in Singapore, the two sets of flowers are typically the four seasons and the four noble plants. Each set of flowers has its numbers coloured differently, typically one set's numbers in red, the other's in blue.

The Seasons

The Noble Plants

The other kind of bonus tiles used in Singapore Style mahjong, and which are more or less unique to this variant (and Malaysian variants), are the animal tiles. The animals typically used are the cat (猫 māo), the rat (老鼠 láoshǔ), the cockerel (公鸡 gōngjī), and the centipede (蜈蚣 wúgōng). Note that these animals come as two pairs with a predator–prey relationship: the cat and the rat, and the cockerel and the centipede. Also, these animal tiles do not have numbers, unlike the flower tiles. Sometimes, other pairs of numberless tiles are supposedly used as 'animals': rich man and pot of gold, fisherman and fish, boy and frog etc. Note that animal bonus tiles do not actually have to be depictions of real animals. Tom Sloper's mahjong website has some examples of more rarely seen flower (and animal) tiles (see page on mystery tiles).

The Animals

The flower tiles and the animal tiles are used for scoring, but in slightly different ways. The numbers on the flowers correspond to the four seats at the mahjong table, and so, each flower belongs to a different player. Because there are two sets of flowers used in Singapore Style mahjong, each player has two flowers that corresponds to his seat. During the game, if a player draws a flower that corresponds to his seat, then that flower would count towards his score; all other flowers are useless and do not count towards his score. Animals, on the other hand, do not have numbers, and thus may belong to any player. Therefore, any animal that a player draws would count towards his score. There are additional bonuses if any player completes a full set of bonus tiles. Specific details on scoring are found in the articles on the scoring of flowers and animals.

Note on terminology
Note that both flower and animal tiles are often referred to as just 花牌 huāpái ('flower tiles') in Chinese usage. This ignores the distinction Singapore Style mahjong makes between the flower tiles and the animal tiles, particularly in the way doubles are assigned and scored for these tiles. In this blog, I use the cover term 'bonus tiles' whenever I want to refer to both flower and animal tiles. A Chinese equivalent could be 积分牌 jīfēnpái (roughly meaning 'bonus point tiles').

Effect of Bonus Tiles on the Singapore Style Game
Singapore Style mahjong uses 12 bonus tiles, which is four more than the other common variants (such as Hong Kong Old Style, which uses eight flowers). With four additional bonus tiles, it becomes slightly easier to draw a bonus tile during the game. The general chance of drawing a bonus tile in the Hong Kong variant is about 5.6%, but it is about 8.1% in the Singapore variant. Moreover, the usefulness of the bonus tile to the player is also different between the variants: in the Hong Kong variant, only 2 out of 8 bonus tiles (25%) are useful to any player; in the Singapore variant, because all the animals are useful, any player can use 6 out of 12 bonus tiles (50%). This changes the way the game is played. In the Singapore variant, the element of luck becomes stronger, and it is easier to obtain high-scoring wins since the chances of getting a useful bonus tile is higher.

In general, the higher number of useful bonus tiles in Singapore Style mahjong has also affected the structure of the game, with changes in the scoring system: the requirement for a minimum of 1 double for winning; the adoption of bao penalties for enabling Limit hands based on exposed bonus tiles and pungs of honour tiles; and special scoring for All Chows (平和 pínghú), depending on the presence of bonus tiles.


Related Posts
Rules of Singapore Style Mahjong: Index
Rules of Singapore Style Mahjong: Flowers
Rules of Singapore Style Mahjong: Animals

Updated at 17:00, 21st August 2011

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Rules of Singapore Style Mahjong: Index

This is the go-to page for all posts under the Rules of Singapore Style Mahjong, and will be updated/edited continuously until all of the planned material is published.

Game Generalities
Bonus Tiles
Scoring
        Payment System
        Doubles
        Base Stake
        Limits
        Unlimited Scoring
Dice
Bonus Tile Replacement
Instant Payouts
        Kongs
        Bonus Tile Pairings
Bao Penalties


Scoring Elements
Common
Flowers
Animals
Pungs of Honour Tiles
All Pungs
All Chows
Mixed Suit
Pure Suit

Special Winning Situations
Winning with the Last Drawn Tile
Winning with Replacement Tiles
Robbing the Kong

Rare Hands Based on Luck
Heavenly Hand
Earthly Hand
Humanly Hand
Flower Win
Winning with a Replacement Tile after Two Consecutive Kongs

Special Hands
Thirteen Orphans (also known as Thirteen Wonders)
Big Three Dragons (also known as Big Three Scholars)
Big Four Winds (also known as Big Four Blessings)
All Honours
All Terminals
All Green
Four Concealed Pungs
All Kongs

Other Scoring Elements
Concealed Hand
Small Three Dragons (also known as Small Three Scholars)
Small Four Winds (also known as Small Four Blessings)
Mixed Terminals and Honours

Endgame
Reserved Tiles (also known as the Dead Wall)
Fresh Tiles and Danger Scenario
Bao Penalties

Updated at 17:40, 21th August 2011

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Tournaments and Singapore Style Mahjong Rules

I had become quite involved in Singapore Style mahjong in the past two years, despite my desire to focus on Mahjong Competition Rules. This is mainly due to my involvement in teaching mahjong at community centres (CCs) and the main variant that most people want to learn and play here in Singapore is naturally Singapore Style.

Besides teaching mahjong, I was also roped in to help out as a referee at mahjong tournaments organised by Nee Soon South Community Club, one of the community centres I usually teach at. (Ever since the relaxation of the prohibition on playing mahjong in CCs (see this past post), many CCs are now organising tournaments for their divisions' residents to participate in, and Nee Soon South CC was no exception.) The task of being the referee necessitated a hard look at the tournament rules that I was supposed to uphold. Of course, I had previously written course materials for teaching mahjong, and I had already prepared quite a bit of material on Singapore Style mahjong, but tournament rules are a different matter altogether. Singapore Style mahjong has no official, standardised set of rules, but it has a common form that many groups of players more or less adhere to. There are, however, many little details that differ from group to group. To come up with a coherent set of tournament rules that has commonality with the form most people in Singapore play with was a difficult task. Even up till now, after almost one year and two tournaments, I am still working on perfecting the tournament rules.

Here, I am starting a series of posts that will describe most, if not all, of the elements of Singapore Style mahjong, from the essential features of Singapore Style and the kinds of scoring elements, to obscure rules and weird situations (and how such situations should be dealt with). Besides describing the various elements of Singapore Style mahjong, I will be analysing each element in depth and give reasoned explanations as to which form these elements should take, especially in a tournament setting. These rules are not meant to be definitive (and variations will be indicated accordingly in the articles), but a main feature would to assess their utility in tournaments. Rules solely for gambling would still be described accordingly, but not recommended. There is no stamp of official approval on these rules, since there is no association or sporting body to govern these local rules of mahjong. This series of articles will be a constantly evolving body of work: I will amend these articles whenever I get new ideas, input and feedback from others, or when I face new situations that give me new perspectives.

I welcome all feedback and comments!

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Becoming a Better Technical Player, Part 2

In the previous post (Becoming a Better Technical Player, Part 1), I had listed what I think are qualities and skills that lead to better technical play in mahjong (recapitulated below).

List of skills/qualities for technical success in Singapore Style mahjong:
1. a good knowledge and understanding of rules and scoring elements;
2. quick decision-making;
3. ability to create and manage flexible hands for optimum tile-matching;
4. a good memory (to recall opponents' tile discards and discard order);
5. knowledge and judgement of when to build high-scoring hands and when to run off with low-scoring hands;
6. ability and willingness to give up hands;
7. knowledge and judgement of which tiles are dangerous to discard.

I had also elaborated on the first three points, which I consider to be rather basic skills that should be developed right from the beginning. Of course, I do not mean only beginners should develop such skills, advanced players should too! Advanced players can re-evaluate themselves to see if they have deficiencies in their game, and start developing skills that they lack.

For this post, which continues from the previous, I will elaborate on the other four points in the list. These four skills are a little more advanced, and generally defence-oriented, and so are not skills beginners would normally be concerned about when they start learning the game. These skills would need to build on more fundamental skills that beginners are still trying to master.

4. A good memory to recall opponents' tile discards and discard order

In some variants of mahjong, such as MCR and riichi majan, players have to discard their tiles by placing them neatly in front of them in rows. This allows their opponents to see clearly which tiles the players did not want, and in the order these unwanted tiles were discarded. For such mahjong variants, there is a clear element of defence, and for riichi majan, there are strict rules about defensive play and players with good defensive play are not penalised unnecessarily. In variants of mahjong that do not mandate orderly discards, Singapore Style mahjong being one of these variants, players simply discard their tiles all over the space in the centre of the table, often mixing the tiles as play goes on, to disguise their tracks as they go about building their high-scoring hands. Players would then have to keep track of the discards of their opponents by memorising the tiles and the order they were discarded, and using their deductive skills in tandem with this memorising of the tiles hope to fathom the intentions of their opponents.

So, a good memory is required for good play in terms of defence. In fact, a good memory would be useful for keeping track of what tiles each player discards himself! Very often, I have observed beginners discard some tiles, only to draw them again just a turn or two later, and inexplicably start to ponder about the usefulness of the newly drawn tile, even though this same tile was just discarded! Without major, obvious changes in the hands of the opponents, such discarded-and-redrawn tiles do not deserve so much (re)consideration!

I do not think it is necessary to really memorise exactly all the tiles discarded by the different opponents and the order in which they were discarded. Rather, it would be enough to have a general idea of the discard patterns, especially if such discard patterns are notable. For example, a player systematically discarding all his Character tiles then discarding all his Dot tiles would appear to be trying for a Pure or Mixed Suit. Or, a player may suddenly discard three identical tiles from one of the suits, which is rather unusual, and such a player's moves would have to be scrutinised more.

In Singapore Style mahjong, it is difficult to defend against opponents with low-scoring hands, since these hands are usually multi-suited and are usually chow-based, so their discards often do not give many clues. Additionally, low-scoring hands are not very damaging, so players may ignore defence to focus on completing their hands. High-scoring hands, however, require more effort from players. If players are working on high-scoring hands without the benefit of many bonus tiles, their options tend to be limited (it is usually Pure Suit, or Mixed Suit with various pungs of honour tiles) and their melds and discards would be rather telling. Careful players can then make good use of their memory and deductive skills to choose safe discards and not discard winning tiles for these high-scoring hands.

Memorising opponents' discards for the sake of defence is generally considered a more advanced skill, and beginners tend not to develop this skill. To become better at defence, I do think that beginners should learn to at least notice what other opponents are doing, in terms of their discard patterns.

5. Knowledge and judgement of when to build high-scoring hands and when to run off with low-scoring hands
How do mahjong players win against their opponents? If all players are equally matched, and the goal is to make a complete hand as fast as possible (as is the case for a game of basic mahjong without any scoring, known as 推倒和麻将 tuīdǎohú májiàng), it is most likely that every player will win roughly the same number of games, or around 25% of the time. A variant without scoring does not give higher scores to particular ways of winning, and any win is the same, so players would just go for the fastest and most efficient way of winning. But all major variants of mahjong assign different values to different ways of winning, giving different scoring elements different number of points or doubles or fan/han/tai, so players can choose how they want to win their hands. Usually, the more difficult it is to get a scoring element, the higher the score, so it is usually a balance between speed (to complete the hand) and value. Good mahjong players would try to get high-scoring hands and yet try to complete them as fast as possible too.

I have observed some experienced players when they play (Singapore Style mahjong), and I notice they tend to just go for a speedy win, regardless of what kind of tiles they get in the beginning. This is why such players lose in the long run. These players may be experienced and who have played mahjong for a long time. They know the proceedings of the game very well, and play fast and easily. Yet, they lose. Why? They always ignore good starting hands, and just play for a quick win, which is usually low-scoring.

Let me use a scenario to explain and illustrate this. We assume that these players are playing with other equally skilled players, so the winning rate can be assumed to be roughly 25% of the time. In 16 hands, a player only aiming for speedy wins (let us call him Player A) may win 4 hands, and since these speedy wins are low-scoring, Player A may win 16 points (for four 1-double hands on discards, on a 0.5 point base). Compare this to a player who plays shrewdly and capitalises on good starting hands whenever they appear (let us call this player Player B). For the sake of the example, we postulate that Player B may win one 1-double hand and one 5-double hand, on discards. So, Player B would win 76 points, which is much higher than Player A. Player A would in fact be losing over the 16 hands: if every player wins an equal number of time on the same kind of scores, no player actually wins many points; but Player A has to lose at least 16 points to Player B for that 5-double hand, so Player A does lose in the end.

Mahjong is a game with an element of chance: tiles are dealt randomly, and sometimes, a player would get a good starting hand, which has potential to score highly. No player is guaranteed a high-scoring win though (unless it is a Heavenly Hand, 天和 tiānhú), and the player has to be deliberate decisions to work towards a high-scoring hand or complete the hand in a different way but for a lower score. If a player does not develop the judgement of when a high-scoring hand should be aimed for and when it should not, it is unlikely that such a player will become a successful player, since this player will only keep losing to other players who obtain high-scoring wins.

The converse is also necessary: a player must know when to just aim for a low-scoring but quick win. He must be able to assess his hand and determine whether it has a chance to become a higher-scoring hand which may take a while to develop, or to just complete it as soon as possible with a low score, keeping in mind the actions and intentions of his opponents and their potentially high-scoring hands.

6. Ability and willingness to give up hands
This skill is a crucial part of defence. Defence in mahjong is about not letting the opponent win easily, especially for high-scoring hands. For low-scoring hands, it is usually inconsequential if a player does let his opponents win on his discards once in a while. If a player is working on a high-scoring hand, the returns are high if he does succeed with such a hand, and it would be worth the various dangerous discards to opponents who seem to be only working for low-scoring hands. If the player is only working on a low-scoring hand, but his opponent is perceived to be working on a high-scoring hand, then defence is needed instead of obstinate offence.

The start of defence is the ability to perceive danger, and this is carried out in two basic ways: observation of bonus tiles and melds by opponents; and observation and memorising of opponents' discards and tile discard order. The combination of these kinds of information should lead to the player judging whether it would be prudent to continue playing for a win, or to play for a draw instead. The player would need to judge the situation. Sometimes, it would be possible to continue playing for a win, as the player's hand may not contain any dangerous tile. At other times, the player have freshly drawn a dangerous tile that the opponent with the high-scoring hand may want or the player's hand may already contain dangerous tiles which are difficult to get rid of. So, the possible solutions are: to brave the danger and discard the dangerous tile for the opponent, hoping that the tile (and the ones after it) are not wanted for a win; or to give up trying to make a winning hand and keep all the dangerous tiles to prevent the opponent from winning, and hope for a draw.

What the player does in the end really depend on many factors: the potential winning value of his own hand, the potential winning value of his opponent's hand, the cost he would have to pay on discarding the winning tile to the opponent (for example, bao penalties affect the amount of points/money losers have to pay to winners in Singapore Style mahjong), the stage the game is in (it could be early in the game, or close to the endgame, where a draw is in sight), the amount of points the player has (he could be in the lead with a lot of points as buffer, so risky discards are affordable) etc. It would also depends on the player's mentality and playing approach: some players are naturally more prone to risk-taking, others are greedy and ambitious, yet others are cautious and disciplined. All these things would affect the decision-making, and consequently, the kind of defence a player has. For merely good technical skill, it is about the recognition of danger and the acknowledgement that defence through giving up the hand is a good direction to take.

7. Knowledge and judgement of which tiles are dangerous to discard
Besides knowing when an opponent is building a high-scoring hand, and that some tiles are now dangerous to discard, a good player would have to develop a sense of which specific tiles are dangerous. This skill ties in with good knowledge of rules and scoring elements, good memory and good deduction, and knowing when to give up.

High-scoring hands can come about in two basic ways: there are a lot of bonus tiles giving many doubles to the opponent; or the opponent is working very hard with his starting hand to build a high-scoring hand. For the first kind of high-scoring hands (found only in more luck-based variants, like Singapore Style, and not in variants like MCR), it is less easy to know or predict the dangerous tiles. All tiles can be considered dangerous, except tiles discarded by the opponent himself. Therefore, defensive play against such hands are to follow the opponent and discard the same tiles or similar tiles judged to be safe (for example, by using the '1-4-7' rule). Tiles discarded by other players and not taken by the opponent for a win are also considered safe for the turn before the opponent drawns a tile. So, good observation and memory of the tiles discarded are crucial for defence here.

For the second kind of high-scoring hands, where the opponent must work hard to make the high-scoring hand, it is usually more obvious, with the opponent making melds and discarding tiles in identifiable patterns. For Singapore Style mahjong, the number of scoring elements that lead to high scores are is small, so it is easy to predict the direction the opponent is going, so dangerous tiles are easier to identify.


So there, I have taken seven qualities/skills that I think good mahjong players possess (perhaps not all to the same degree), and explained them as best as I could. They are not the be-all and end-all of good mahjong play; I am sure there are many more specific qualities and skills that make players better.


Related Posts
Becoming a Better Technical Player, Part 1

Updated at 01:15, 21st August 2011

Monday, August 15, 2011

Becoming a Better Technical Player, Part 1

It has really been quite a while since I have updated this blog (this is getting to be a regular bad habit; I promise to change!) and there has been a backlog of things I want to blog about, including my experience at the World Mahjong Championships in Utrecht, the Netherlands, last year. For now, however, I am going to discuss what it takes to do well in Singapore Style mahjong.

When I look at tracker statistics of this blog (not that there are that many people visiting this blog), I do notice that a fair number of visitors were motivated by a desire to play better mahjong (i.e. they use search engines with the search terms "better mahjong" or "mahjong tips" or the like). So far, in this blog, I had not really touched on what makes a good and successful mahjong player or what the best techniques in playing mahjong are. It would be really difficult to accurately articulate the qualities of all good and successful mahjong players, or to list and describe infallible winning techniques and strategies. Yet, I believe that there are some areas that can be discussed, in hope of identifying ideas that help people play better.

A few months back, I did get a query from a visitor to this blog on how to improve his play. Off the top of my head, I wrote back a reply with a list of points that I felt good players should have, and it is this list from that original reply this blog post would be expounding on.

Do note that this list of points for better play is based on Singapore Style mahjong, but most, if not all, points are applicable to all variants of mahjong. More defence-oriented variants like riichi majan would require additional skills that are not covered here, since Singapore Style mahjong is rather less defence-oriented.

List of skills/qualities for technical success in Singapore Style mahjong:
1. a good knowledge and understanding of rules and scoring elements;
2. quick decision-making;
3. ability to create and manage flexible hands for optimum tile-matching;
4. a good memory (to recall opponents' tile discards and discard order);
5. knowledge and judgement of when to build high-scoring hands and when to run off with low-scoring hands;
6. ability and willingness to give up hands;
7. knowledge and judgement of which tiles are dangerous to discard.

I use the term 'technical success' because these points are related to skills that can be acquired through experience and learning. Other traits for success may be personality-based, or be based on more intangible qualities, and these are less technical in nature, so I have not considered these.

Although I did mentioned that these skills can be acquired through learning, I do not mean that these skills can be taught in classes and absorbed immediately by the learners. Players will need to play mahjong regularly to train these skills, sometimes by deliberately experimenting with different strategies. I will explain how each skill can contribute to better playing with reference to examples where applicable.

1. A good knowledge and understanding of rules and scoring elements
In order to excel in the game of mahjong, a player must of course know what kind of game he is playing. He will need to know the ins and outs of the game, all the various rules (even the obscure and arcane ones, if there are such rules present), and the basic strategies for the game.

Some of this knowledge of the rules is to allow the player a consistent framework to build a strong offensive strategy. In Singapore Style mahjong, there are less than ten basic scoring elements, and a limit of 5 doubles. For a player to do well, he would need to score highly, and to do that, he would need to know which of the scoring elements he can use to get high scores. At the same time, with a limit, a player need not go overboard and try for a hand with 8 doubles when 5 will do, especially if it is more difficult and slower to win with the hand with 8 doubles. A good understanding of the rules would therefore enable the player to have a more realistic appreciation of the situation and play better accordingly.

2. Quick decision-making
Mahjong is a fast-moving game. At the table with three other skilled players, the game moves very fast (whether for Singapore Style, riichi majan, or MCR). There is always the pressure to keep up! A player will need to make quick decisions, decisions on which direction to take the hand, which scoring elements to aim for, which tiles to discard and which tiles to keep. The player will need to constantly analyse his hand, as well as those of his opponents, based on the tiles being discarded. The player may have a respite when it comes to his turn, and take a bit more time in thinking through his moves, but when it is not his turn, when his opponents are relentlessly playing fast and discarding tiles without much time spent in deliberate pondering, the player would still have to act fast. "Do I pung this? Do I chow that?" the player has to keep thinking about these questions and make decisions accordingly.

Therefore, quick decision-making is a skill that good players have to cultivate, through a lot of practice and experience. Good players are constantly thinking about everything in the game. In my mahjong classes, I noticed beginners mostly analyse and make decisions only when it is their turn. Unfortunately, this means that they are only using about 25% of the available time to think through moves and in making decisions, not to mention they tend to neglect analysing opponents' hands and motivations. This is a bad habit that continues for many players, and it becomes hard to overcome, so quick decision-making is a skill that should be practised right from the beginning.

3. Ability to create and manage flexible hands for optimum tile-matching
Mahjong is a game that has a definite goal: players must match tiles in their hands to get a complete hand in order to win. Yet, the path to the win is multitudinous, that is, there are many ways to reach that winning point. How is that achieved? Each tile that is drawn into a hand can offer many possibilities, some good, some bad. Some tiles when added to the mix give rise to many better possibilities, others are useless in advancing the hand towards completion. The good player will develop the ability to see combinations of tiles as useful in many ways. Beginners, on the other hand, tend to be very single-minded when looking at the tiles.

Consider the hand below:

When assessing any hand, a player must identify which sets are usable and thus contribute towards the end result (i.e. the complete hand). A beginner may group the tiles into the sets as such:



There are four sets identified, and it is likely that 8c (8 Character) would be discarded soon. So, for example, a 7b (7 Bamboo) is drawn, the beginner will probably proceed to discard 8c.



However, the more experienced and canny player would not discard 8c because he would recognise the utility of 8c. 8c can form part of the fifth set.



Even if 7b is drawn, 8c would not be discarded so readily by the good player. Consider the probability of completing a 5b-7b set against completing a 7c-8c set: 4 chances against 7 chances. If anything, the best discard at this point in time would be 5d!

So, good players can twist their minds and look at their tiles from many angles, to find the utility of their seemingly worthless tiles. Such flexibility can allow faster and more efficient hand-building, which then translates to more wins, and therefore success as a player.


These three skills are rather basic ones, and should be developed right from the beginning. I will touch upon the other four skills in Part 2.