Saturday, December 25, 2010

Amazing Mahjong

A Merry Christmas to all my readers!

I got a pleasant surprise when I was doing my Christmas shopping at the Kinokuniya bookstore at Ngee Ann City here in Singapore. There is a newly published book on Singapore Style mahjong, Amazing Mahjong by Celia Ching, published by Rank Books (a local publisher) in October 2010, and only recently available (around early December) from Kinokuniya. The book (pictured below) can be ordered online, so anyone across the world who wants to know Singapore Style rules in a book now has this option. Anyway, the book is also available in local bookstores like Kinokuniya, and interested mahjong enthusiasts in Singapore may want to look in these places for more convenient purchasing (and instant gratification).

Why am I so excited about the publication of such a book? As a mahjong enthusiast, mahjong teacher, and competitive player, I am always on the lookout for new resources on mahjong. As a Singaporean player of the local variant, i.e. 'Singapore Style', I am keen to see an authoritative guide on Singapore Style rules that all proponents of Singapore Style can rely on. So then, is it any good?

The author had worked in Shanghai, and had starting playing mahjong there, with friends from different countries. Having initially learnt mahjong in Singapore, she learnt Hong Kong Old Style (HKOS), Taiwanese, and Shanghainese mahjong variants from these friends. She had also learnt from reading books on mahjong by Chinese, Taiwanese, and Japanese authors. She hopes to fill the gaps in the mahjong literature by writing Amazing Mahjong, as there are few up-to-date books on mahjong in English, with information on the (new) Mahjong Competition Rules (MCR), and there is almost nothing on the Singapore Style.

The book is fairly comprehensive in its topics. It covers the basics of mahjong play (focusing on Singapore Style), scoring in Singapore Style (and comparisons with HKOS, Taiwanese, and MCR), payment schemes, penalties, strategy, specific techniques in discard selection, hand formation, calling positions etc., and tips on observing opponents and their hands. There are also some sections on the history of mahjong, the psychological aspect of mahjong playing, and comparison of practices across Asia.

I feel Amazing Mahjong does succeed as a guide on mahjong, especially with Singapore Style rules now properly available for readers to refer to, but fails as an up-to-date book on mahjong, hugely disappointing with regard to MCR. The book is relatively easy to read, there are many illustrations and diagrams in the book to guide the reader, and the sections on strategy and technique are definitely worth digesting. However, I am disappointed in a few areas: organisation and structure of the contents, level of detailedness for mahjong gameplay, choice of terminology, and general factual accuracy (particularly for MCR).

1. Organisation and structure of the contents
Since the book's aim is to bring out the special features of Singapore Style mahjong, I would have expected a focused section on Singapore Style mahjong. The author, however, had opted to structure the materials through the various aspects of the mahjong game, and make mention of the Singapore Style only when necessary. For example, in the section on hand patterns ('Winning Formations' in the author's words), hand patterns from China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Singapore variants are all listed, according to how high-scoring these patterns are. Where applicable, the author would state that a pattern would not be recognised in Singapore Style.

For the beginner interested to know all the important patterns used in Singapore Style, there is no easy way to learn such patterns without having to read about the patterns not used in Singapore Style. There is a list in another chapter, actually on MCR patterns, that compares the scoring of MCR patterns against the various Chinese styles (i.e. Singapore Style, HKOS, and Taiwanese). Here, the Singapore Style-specific patterns are clearly identified, but the explanation of such patterns have to be read in the chapter on 'winning formations'.

The rest of the book is equally uneven in its treatment of the various variants. In the chapters on strategy and playing techniques (i.e. on discard selection, taking of chows/pungs/kongs, call positions etc.), the contents are generally applicable to all variants (except MCR in several instances). This is because all the variants mentioned in this book (Singapore Style, HKOS, Taiwanese, Japanese, Shanghainese) are based on the same basic gameplay (unlike American mah-jongg). There are not many parts specific to Singapore Style mahjong.

Since one other aim of the book is to introduce MCR, I also expected a focused section on MCR rules and gameplay. As mentioned above, the author did not section the book into how different variants are played (except for a small chapter on differing practices across Asia), but through the various aspects of mahjong. Again, like for Singapore Style mahjong, the information on how to play MCR is scattered throughout the book, and often, it is not clear whether a particular point is relevant to MCR.

Despite this problem of organisation, there is a lot of good material to be read, and the beginner learning Singapore Style and/or MCR will just have to read through everything and pick out all the important information relevant to his needs.

2. Level of detailedness for mahjong gameplay
For beginners, who this book seems to be aimed at, learning mahjong is often a difficult endeavour, because there are just so many things to learn: recognising the tiles, setting up the tiles for play, the ritual of breaking the wall and taking tiles for play, choosing discards, flow of the game and mechanisms for taking discards, and learning what a winning mahjong hand is. The book has managed to cover most of these areas, but failed to explain exactly what a winning mahjong hand is. There is no explanation of what the structure of the hand is, what kind of sets it should contain, and no clear illustration of the grouping of the tiles into sets that form a winning hand. Interested gamers trying to learn mahjong from this book will definitely stumble at this point.

As a mahjong teacher, I usually cover hand structure in the very beginning, since beginning players need to be able to visualise the end result of the game. Even then, it can be tough for the beginners; after all, there are so many other things to learn just to play the game, much less win it. Without stating the goal of the game of mahjong (other than saying 'winning combination'), the book will confuse the beginner. What is a 'winning combination'? The beginner may think that he needs exactly the same hand as the winning combination shown in the book, and this is what I have encountered with several beginners when they learn MCR (since they have to learn so many patterns, and they think the example patterns are exactly what are called for to win).

So, beginners beware! Learning directly from the book may not be effective. Learning from a teacher combined with immediate hands-on play will probably be the best way to master mahjong.

3. Choice of terminology
Terminology has always been a bugbear for initiates into any field of endeavour. A beginner needs to learn many new terms, just to understand what is being taught. Terminology specific to any science, sport, art, or hobby is inevitable. It creates precision, accuracy, and conciseness in the language used. Terms may be used for very specific purposes. For example, when playing mahjong, calling out 'pung' is very different from 'hu'.

In Amazing Mahjong, I see problems in the choice of terminology in two areas: English terms and Chinese terms. It is definitely a plus point that Chinese terms (usually as Han characters, sometimes accompanied by Mandarin pinyin transliteration without the tone marks) are included. This gives the reader who is conversant with Han characters an idea of what the puzzling English terms may be referring to, even if the Chinese terms themselves are not totally accurate.

The issue I have with the problematic English terms is that these English terms are probably translated afresh, and without reference to established or familiar English terms used by other authors. This makes reading the book a little more difficult, especially for readers who may have read other mahjong books prior to this. Often, these newly coined English terms are puzzling, or they may create confusion where none existed before. Let us take a look at some of the problematic English terms.

Kind, which is used to refer to each different suit of numerical tiles (i.e. 筒 tŏng, 索 suŏ, 万 wàn). Typically, such suits are referred to as 'suits', especially since this draws parallels with the Anglo-American–French playing card suits. Most, if not all, other authors of mahjong books in English have used 'suits'. 'Kind' may be used confusingly in other contexts: e.g. 'three of a kind', which would refer to a triplet, or pung, and not actually three tiles from the same suit. In typical Chinese usage, a suit would be known as a 'colour' (花色 huāsè).

Suit, which is used to refer to a sequence of tiles in the same suit (this 'suit' has a different meaning from the subject here; the author uses kind instead). Other authors usually use 'chow', 'run', or 'sequence'. Note the potential confusion here where suit (the sequence) may be misinterpreted as 'suit' (the kind of numerical tiles).

Great Tri-Union, which refers to a specific hand pattern typically known as the 'Big Three Dragons' or 'Three Great Scholars' (大三元 dàsānyuán). Naturally, I was baffled by this term 'Tri-Union'. It bears no resemblance to the Chinese term (which can be literally translated as the 'Three Great Scholars'). When such a hand pattern is known as 'Big Three Dragons', it is derived from the English term for the dragon tiles (三元牌 sānyuánpái). In typical modern Chinese usage, the dragon tiles are known as 箭牌 (jiànpái), which translates to 'arrow tiles'. Such tiles are referred to as arrow tiles only when used individually, but the hand pattern involving all three sets of arrow tiles is still 大三元 and hence 'Big Three Dragons' or 'Three Great Scholars' are the most appropriate translations. The author uses the term 'arrow tiles' for the dragon tiles when describing the tiles in a mahjong set, but did not maintain consistency with a similar 'Three Big Arrows' (though this does sound odd), and creatively coined something so different.

I did mention some problems with the Chinese terminology as well. The Chinese terminology, though not problematic in the same way as the English terminology's, is not as accurate and standardised as it could be. This is with particular reference to established MCR terminology. For the reader reading only the English, this is not a crucial area of concern. I only have a quibble with the Chinese terminology only because I feel inaccurate usage of the Chinese terminology propagates the errors.

For example, the Chinese literature on mahjong is replete with the characters 胡 'beard/reckless' (or sometimes 湖 'lake') which is used to mean a win in mahjong; this is quite common in Taiwanese and Hong Kong publications, as far as I know. The correct term, seen in the Chinese version of the MCR rulebook, is 和 'union/harmony'. All three are pronounced as in the game of mahjong, but 胡 and 湖 were initially used to represent the call (derived from the original [Shanghainese] pronunciation of 和) because they sound phonetically correct, but not so historically, demonstrated by the meanings of the Han characters.

So, the author uses 胡 to mean a win in mahjong, instead of the more correct 和. First, this is surprising, considering she claimed to have been read Chinese and Japanese authors, who are unlikely to use 胡! Second, because the author has used 胡 instead of 和, this means that she has to change all instances of 和 that appear in hand pattern names used in MCR! So, for example, 抢杠和 (Robbing the Kong) becomes 抢杠胡, and 碰碰和 (All Pungs) becomes 碰碰胡; at the same time, there is some inconsistency where 无番和 (Chicken Hand) is left unchanged.

A point unrelated to inaccurate Chinese terminology is the glaring omission of the term 台 tái, a term most probably of Taiwanese origin (they use this term to refer to points during scoring), and very commonly used in Singapore Style mahjong as a substitute for the term 番 fān (which means 'double'). Some 60% of Singaporeans are Hokkien or Teochew, speaking Southern Min languages. When playing mahjong, Singaporean mahjong players of Hokkien or Teochew descent speaking their native Chinese languages almost always use the word 台, pronounced as [tai24] or [thai55] respectively. They do not use 番 which is used more exclusively by the Cantonese players. Although the Cantonese are rather avid mahjong players, I do not find mahjong playing to be more exclusive to the Cantonese, and there are many mahjong players in Singapore who are not Cantonese and do not speak Cantonese. Hence, the languages spoken are different, and the choice of terms used different as well. After all, the majority of Singaporeans are Hokkien or Teochew, suggesting that the majority of mahjong players would use the term 台 and its associated pronunciations. The omission of a mention of 台 and an explanation of the use of this term misleads the Singaporean reader with regard to the actual practices and realities of Singapore Style mahjong.

4. General factual accuracy
As one of the goals of this book is to introduce MCR in English to mahjong enthusiasts in Singapore and other parts of Asia, it is rather unfortunate that the book is actually rather skimpy on how MCR is played, and there are many factual errors pertaining to the information on MCR.

Let us start with a look at the name for the official variant promulgated in China as used in the book: China National Mahjong Competition (CNMC). It is odd that the author chose to use CNMC, which is different from the commonly accepted name(s) used around the world by enthusiasts of this Chinese official ruleset. In English, this Chinese official ruleset has been known as Chinese Official (CO) since 2001 (the new ruleset being established only after 1998), and in 2006, a definitive rulebook (the 'Green Book') used for international competition 《麻将竞赛规则》 was published. The Chinese title can be and is literally translated as Mahjong Competition Rules (MCR) and it is this name that is commonly used now. Since Amazing Mahjong is just published, it is unfortunate that the author chose to ignore the long-established and standard practice of using MCR to refer to the official ruleset.

Note that CNMC is not particularly wrong, but just inaccurate. This is especially so considering that MCR is meant for international competition, not just as a national standard in China. It may be that there are some Chinese authors of mahjong books who prefer the term 国标麻将 (guóbiāo májiàng, 'national standard mahjong') over 国际麻将 (guójì májiàng, 'international mahjong'), and Ching has followed such a practice. Note the small but crucial difference between the second characters of both terms. Of course, the World Mahjong Organisation itself uses 国际麻将 ('international mahjong') and Mahjong Competition Rules. For the sake of consistency and standardisation, I would follow suit and use MCR myself, and thus also would have preferred Ching to use a term more recognisable to enthusiasts worldwide. It is of little use to introduce MCR to Singaporean readers and mahjong players, only for them to be confused when it comes to searching for additional resources online or when interacting with international players of MCR, all because of a fundamental error in the name.

Besides an incorrect name, Ching also included some other errors in the sections on MCR, some rather fundamental in nature. The most glaring problem, as any experienced MCR player can see, is in the scoring of winning hands and payment scheme. First, the explanation on scoring is basic and does not address the important principles (e.g. the non-repeat principle, and account-once principle). Following that, the author is plainly wrong in her explanation of payment between players. For example, she states that any player who discarded the winning tile has to pay double the points for the winning hand; this error is compounded by the fact she omitted the calculation for the basic 8 points every losing player must pay, so self-drawn wins can be worth less than wins on discards. Hence, if a winning hand on discard was worth 9 points, the winner receives a total of 34 points (discarder pays 18 points [wrong], and other losing players pay 8 points each); for the same hand won on self-drawn, the winner receives a total of 27 points (all losing players play only 9 points [very wrong]). I suspect that either Ching does not have a good working/playing knowledge of MCR or she learnt a casual version from her friends/informants. Either way, these mistakes does a great disservice for the promotion of MCR: beginners are just going to learn the wrong things.

I feel that the information on MCR was poorly researched. There are now more resources on MCR available, and I am sure this is so especially for materials in Chinese. Even if the author has just used and followed the MCR Green Book (either Chinese or English version, both available online), her information would be accurate enough. In her list of the MCR 'winning formations', Ching does not even use the commonly accepted English names of all the scoring elements. Instead, she chose some rather personal translations, some in accordance to terms she uses elsewhere in the book, others based on what she feels are closer to the Chinese meanings. For example, she uses 'Dragon' to refer to a straight (in Chinese, a straight is indeed 龙 lóng, 'dragon'), but 'Two Dragons' to refer to Terminal Chows patterns (in Chinese, the relevant term is 双龙会 shuānglónghuì, better translated as 'meeting of two dragons'). In general, her choices are idiosyncratic, somewhat lacking consistency, unwieldy, and definitely not familiar to well-read mahjong enthusiasts.

One non-MCR error I detected so far is in the description and explanation for Seven Pairs (七对子 qīduìzi). The author states that the equivalent of Seven Pairs is popular in Taiwanese mahjong, and the winning pattern (呖咕呖咕 lìgūlìgū) requires eight and a half pairs since Taiwanese mahjong is a 16-tile variant. This is an error because the winning hand is not actually composed of eight and a half pairs. What is half a pair? Without knowing better, a beginner may think that half a pair can be any single tile. In fact, the winning pattern requires seven pairs and a triplet. The error is probably because of the alternative Chinese name for this scoring pattern in Taiwanese mahjong, 八对半 bāduìbàn, which does translate directly to 'eight and a half pairs'. Although Seven Pairs is a special type of pattern that violates the typical hand structure for winning hands, it is still based on pairs and thus requires 7 pairs in 13-tile mahjong variants. As an equivalent scoring element in 16-tile mahjong, 7 pairs are still required, leaving 3 tiles, which should logically be a 3-tile set (more likely to be a triplet than a sequence) and not another pair and a single tile. The author did not really go into much detail in her explanation of Seven Pairs used in Taiwanese play, but the careless description is misleading enough.

With the errors and omissions, the information on MCR is not very useful. Any serious mahjong enthusiast who wishes to learn MCR would probably be better served reading the MCR Green Book directly (and it is available online). For beginners who wish to learn MCR and need a guide book (and not a rulebook like the MCR Green Book), they can perhaps look for The Red Dragon and the West Wind by Tom Sloper, which has half a book devoted to introducing and explaining MCR, and the book is pitched at beginners.

Amazing Mahjong is still useful as a reference book for the Singapore Style rules, and the strategy and technique sections make it one of the more useful books for more experienced players hoping to improve their skills. Most of the advice and tips on better play are applicable to most variants, save MCR. Why is this so? For MCR, due to a relatively high minimum score and many scoring elements, winning in MCR requires good planning and the ability to craft combinations of scoring elements to meet the requirement for a win. This often precludes a flexibility in tile use, and techniques in discard selection and wait positions applicable to Singapore Style or HKOS are not the same in MCR. So, this book is probably not too useful for enthusiasts hoping to learn techniques to improve their MCR play.

Despite the flaws, the book is still a good resource. Hopefully, some of the problems (especially the factual errors) are corrected for the next edition. So, I would still recommend Amazing Mahjong to those interested in improving their mahjong play.

[Editor: Updated at 22:45, 31st December 2010]


YS said...

I chanced upon the book in the library a few days ago, and I have the book now. I especially agree with you on "2. Level of detailedness for mahjong gameplay". It seems odd that the author never touches on what must be a winning formation. In chapter 2 "The First Cycle", the author straight away talks about Heavenly Win, Earthly Win and People's Win. How would a beginner know what these are? So it would seem that this book is not for beginners. But then if it is not for beginners, why would the author talk about basic things like forming the walls?

EP said...

Well, I think that the book is indeed meant for beginners (and also more advanced players), but I suspect poor editing (perhaps due to insufficient knowledge on the editor's part) led to the omission of crucial sections such as an explanation of what 'winning formations' are.

YS said...

I wanted to feedback to the author (she said in the book that feedbacks are welcome) but couldn't find any contact information. I searched the internet and ended up finding out your blog!

EP said...

Perhaps you can send the feedback to the publisher who will in turn inform Ms Ching.

It is also possible that she may read my blog post with the review of her book and all these comments!

daas said...

Hi. I chanced upon blog just today. You teach mahjong at CCs? But when I went to the PA website, the mahjong courses offered are for people who want to learn mahjong. I wanna learn something more advanced, like how to increase my chances of winning, defence, etc, especially for Singapore mahjong so do you do private tutoring and how much do you charge?

EP said...

Yes, I do teach mahjong at CCs. My main focus is teaching beginners (especially senior citizens), and secondary focus to introduce MCR in the long run. For more advanced Singapore Style mahjong (especially defence), it is not so easy to teach in a classroom setting, and I do not claim to have that much expertise. However, I do conduct practice classes for my regular students who come to practise their mahjong skills and to improve on their basic game.

daas, if you are interested to know more, do leave your email address so that I can contact you privately. As all comments are moderated on my blog, your email address will not be revealed to any reader of this blog.

Anonymous said...

Hi Edwina - do you do private classes? we are a group of 4 who are looking for a teacher. thanks, M

EP said...

M, if you are interested to know more, do leave your email address so that I can contact you privately. As all comments are moderated on my blog, your email address will not be revealed to any reader of this blog.

Nicolas Morlino said...

I chanced upon your blog today. Do you know the rules of sam ka mahjong as played in Malaysia? I have not been able to find clear rules for this variant anywhere on the internet.



EP said...

Nicolas, I am not too familiar with Malaysian mahjong variants but Sloperama has a version of Malaysian 3 Player Mah-Jongg. You can look it up to see if this is what you are looking for.

Anonymous said...

Dear Edwin,

Why is the person who draws the wrong number of tiles called "xianggong?" I know this to be a name and a term that has both traditional and religious references

Thank you.

EP said...

Dear Anonymous,

'Xianggong' refers to an ancient Chinese form of address towards scholars. Such scholars are honourable gentlemen and obliging when at fault.

Thus, when a mahjong player ends up with too few or too many tiles, he obliges the other players by playing on even though he can no longer win.