I had earlier discussed some features of Singapore Style mahjong in the previous post Mahjong, Singapore Style, namely, the use of animal tiles and immediate payouts in some situations. A third feature I consider to be important in Singapore Style mahjong is the pinghu hand (平和 Mandarin: pínghú, Cantonese: pengwoo, Japanese: pinfu). This pinghu hand is somewhat different from pinghu hands in other variants, such as Japanese riichi maajan and Cantonese/Hong Kong Old Style mahjong (HKOS), and this feature of Singapore Style mahjong will be discussed in some detail in this post, with reference to the other variants, and with some speculation on the development of this hand.
This hand is a difficult hand to learn for beginners to Singapore Style mahjong, despite its usefulness in the Singaporean game. The English name of All Sequences, or All Chows, suggests all that is needed to complete this hand is complete of four three-tile sequences and a matching pair. However, this is not the case, and the English name is just a convenient term to describe the general application of this hand. There are certain conditions required before the hand can counted as a pinghu hand in Singapore Style mahjong.
Making a pinghu hand in Singapore Style mahjong
Basically, the hand is composed of four three-tile sets of sequences or runs (顺子 Mandarin: shùnzĭ). Such sequences can be exposed or concealed; there is no requirement to have all sequences concealed like in Japanese riichi maajan. In order to declare a win with the pinghu hand, there are two main conditions: the hand has to have a multiple wait, and the eyes have to be tiles that are not a potential double.
The multiple wait refers to the number of different tiles that the hand is waiting for. This multiple wait has to be for tiles from the same suit, and can only be for two or three different tiles due to the nature of this hand. If the hand is only waiting for a unique tile (that is, only one tile can complete the hand, whether this is a closed wait, an edge wait, or a single wait), and the player wins on a discard, the hand would not be counted as pinghu. The exception to this is if the winning tile is self-drawn. However, this is not applicable to a situation where the player has a hand where he had melded four sequences leaving a concealed single tile, since this clearly does not allow a multiple wait. The reason why a player can win a self-drawn pinghu when waiting for a single tile, and not when he has only one tile left in the concealed portion of his hand, is that there are no specific rules about checking the winning tile, to see if it completes a unique wait or a multiple wait.
The eyes are the remaining pair in the hand, and have to be tiles that are not potential doubles. If these tiles can be melded as a pung, this pung should not give the player a double; this typically means that among the Honour tiles, only tiles of winds that are not the seat wind or the round wind can be used as the eyes in the pinghu hand.
Given that the pinghu hand has to be completed in a particular way, players of Singapore Style mahjong have to learn the rules correctly, although many beginners do not learn the pinghu hand correctly. These players are then most like to commit fouls when playing, a supposed one-double pinghu hand turning out to be a no-double chicken hand (the Singaporean game is usually played with a one-double minimum for winning), often an expensive mistake since the errant player has to pay the other players as a penalty.
Origin of the Singapore Style pinghu (with some speculation)
The pinghu hand is not simply a hand that has four sequences and any pair. There are certain conditions required while making the hand for it to be considered as pinghu and not any chicken hand. The Chinese term for this hand, 平和 (Mandarin: pínghé but usually pronounced as pínghú; literally a "flat or even" win), seems to indicate that this hand is very ordinary and has no value. This may seem strange to Singaporean players since the pinghu hand is worth at least one double in Singapore Style mahjong! However, we have to look at the history of mahjong development.
The style of play which predominated at the turn of the 20th century is known as Chinese Classical, and the point-scoring is more complicated than in most modern variants. Essentially, points were awarded pungs, kongs and bonus tiles (flowers etc.) as well as to pairs of certain tiles, as well as for declaring a win, or winning with a unique wait, and this counts as the basic score. Doubles are used to progressively multiply the basic score to obtain the final score. Riichi maajan retains this scoring of basic points (fu in riichi maajan) to some extent whereas variants such as HKOS and Singapore Style removed the need for such point-scoring, keeping only the doubling.
Thus, in Chinese Classical mahjong, a 'No-Score' hand can score one double for pinghu. This hand does not have any pungs or kongs, or pairs that can score basic points. This can be viewed as some form of consolation, since there are hardly any basic points to double (except for points scored for winning, and for points for bonus tiles, and a few other situations), unlike hands with pungs and kongs. The pinghu hand in Singapore Style mahjong can be analysed as a development of this Chinese Classical pinghu hand. This is the reason why the eyes cannot have tiles that are a potential double, since in Chinese Classical, such pairs (of tiles such as Dragons, Round Wind, and/or Seat Wind) score basic points.
Why the hand has to have a multiple wait is more of a mystery. According to Millington's description , his pinghu hand allows single waits ("filling the only place"). Of course, this may not be a standardised way to play a pinghu hand. Perhaps some players have a different view of what 'no-score' means, and this could mean points for 'filling the only place' should have been excluded as well and players therefore did not allow single waits for pinghu. In riichi maajan, this is taken even further: the winning tile cannot be for completing a pair, even if there is a multiple wait. Thus, in a sequence of 1d-2d-3d-4d, 1d and 4d can be valid waits for Singapore Style pinghu, but not for riichi maajan, as this counted as a single wait (nobetan "stretched single"). Completing the pair ("fishing the eyes") does earn some basic points according to Millington, and is considered a different situation from 'filling the only place'. The Singapore Style pinghu hand is likely to be a development from Chinese Classical, but in a way that is not exactly faithful to Millington's version.
Interestingly, the Singapore Style pinghu hand differs from other pinghu hands. In Chinese Classical mahjong, the pinghu hand is awarded one double. The pinghu hand is also awarded one double in riichi maajan and in HKOS. The Singapore Style pinghu scores one double only if the player has bonus tiles, and four if there are no bonus tiles (both flowers and animals). Given that the usual limit in Singapore Style mahjong is five doubles, a four-double pinghu hand is thus quite high-scoring. However, it is usually not easy to win a pinghu hand without drawing a bonus tile, and since there are twelve such bonus tiles in Singapore Style mahjong, the chances of drawing a bonus tile are higher.
As the structure of the pinghu hand in modern play has some precedents in Chinese Classical mahjong, the scoring for pinghu in Singapore Style mahjong could perhaps be attributed to the 'no-score' principle as well. The 'no-score' of the pinghu hand in Chinese Classical only encompasses points for pungs, kongs, and pairs of certain tiles; points for self-draw, "filling the only place", "fishing the eyes", "drawing the final tile", and bonus tiles, are allowed. The pinghu in Singapore Style mahjong seems to have gone one extra step: disallowing bonus tiles, thus reducing the basic points (that would have been counted in Chinese Classical), and in turn allow this hand to score more doubles.
Four-double pinghu and its consequence on play
The pinghu hand is generally easy to make, and a pinghu-based strategy is rather viable in Singapore Style mahjong. Players usually assess their hands at the start, to see if their hands has a good chance for a four-double pinghu, provided they do not already have drawn bonus tiles. If they did not draw any bonus tiles, and quite a few have already been exposed by the other players, they have a good chance at completing the pinghu without any bonus tiles. Once such a decision is made, players may break up pairs of Honour tiles with potential for doubles (such as Dragon tiles) and give up the chance to obtain doubles through making pungs of such tiles, since there is a more valuable hand if they pursue the four-double pinghu.
Even if they did draw a bonus tile, there is a good chance that the bonus tile carries some double (one-third of bonus tiles are animal tiles, which are worth one double for any player). This is why pinghu hands are quite common in the Singaporean game.
Players pursuing four-double pinghu are considered dangerous, and players sitting above them may play defensively, by discarding carefully to prevent chows (there is no restriction of exposed chows in Singapore Style, unlike in Japanese riichi maajan), that is, until the four-double pinghu player draws a bonus tile which reduces the danger immediately (a four-double hand to a one- or two-double hand).
The pinghu hand can be seen as a basic hand, yet it is one of the more difficult hands to learn for beginners. In the typical Singaporean game, where there is a one-double minimum for winning, the pinghu hand is commonly used to obtain the minimum, especially for players who dislike to depend on luck to obtain doubles through drawing bonus tiles. Moreover, the high score of pinghu when a player has no bonus tiles is an incentive to attempt this hand, despite the possibility of drawing a bonus tile later in the game that will reduce the score.
I hope that I have thrown some light on the pinghu hand in the context of Singapore Style mahjong through this discussion. Does this pique your interest in Singapore Style mahjong?
1. A.D. Millington, 1993, The Complete Book of Mah-Jongg, Weidenfeld & Nicolson.