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.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the post. Quite informative. I was the one who emailed u. Lol

Anonymous said...

Hi, can i inquire some info. due to mistakes, i had accidentally discard "Yi Wang, 1 Wang" out of 1,2,3 Wang formation. can i chow back 4 Wang to reform the sequence 2,3,4 wang again?

EP said...

Hello Anonymous,

Your question is a little tricky, because this involves a rule that is not universal, i.e. not everyone plays it the same way. So, it would be best to clarify with your fellow players before starting to play.

Basically, your question should be clarified to mean whether you can chow a 4c to form a 2c-3c-4c set within the turn after discarding the 1c (before your turn to draw a new tile).

Personally, this should be disallowed, because essentially, you have made a mistake, and the player who discarded the 4c is merely defending against you using the 1c you discarded as the cue. Logically, if you discarded 1c, you should not want to take a 4c with 2c-3c in your hand, because if so, why should you discard the 1c in the first place? So, because the game needs to have some defensive elements, there is usually a rule of 'immunity'. The 4c is treated the same as 1c, you should not be able to use the 4c since you have 2c-3c and discarded 1c.

Think about it in another situation: if you have 1c-2c-3c, and someone discarded 4c to you, would you chow the 4c then discard the 1c? First, you actually do not need to chow the 4c: there is no special pattern that would specifically require you to have certain sequences (e.g. Mixed Triple Chow [三色三同顺, san shoku doujun] as would be the case in MCR or riichi majan). So, to take the 4c and discard the 1c is not changing anything in your hand and wasting a turn to draw a tile. Second and more pertinent, the other players would most probably prevent you from making such a move (or penalise you directly) since such a move lets you avoid taking a tile but does not change your hand.

So, the discard-1c-then-chow-back-4c move has similar consequences. For players who like to think Singapore Style mahjong can involve defence, then this rule of immunity is usually used. But some players may not use this rule and therefore allow you to chow back the 4c (but not 1c).

But ultimately, when playing with friends, agreeing on the rules before playing first is important.

Anonymous said...

hey great blog! fellow mahjong lover here too!