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.


Kadenza said...

hi, i am wondering if you are still having any MJ sessions at nee soon south? I cant seem to find any info on their page.

EP said...

Hi Kadenza,

Yes, we still have mahjong classes at Nee Soon South CC. Let me contact you (via email) for more information, if necessary.

Racxelus said...

any upcoming mahjong tournament?

EP said...

Hi Racxelus,

While, I do not really keep track of all the mahjong tournaments in Singapore, I do know that there will be a tournament taking place on 23rd December 2012 at Jurong Green CC. You can contact them for more details.

Anonymous said...

Whether using 胡 or 和, I will tend to go toward 胡.

1) 胡 has not many pronunciation, Hu is most commonly used. As for 和, most will pronounce it as He as in "and" in English.

2)In Sg ,many old folk actually use and understand many Cantonese term for mahjong instead of their own dialect,one is 平胡 in Cantonese.

3)In fact in HK, they use 胡 and even in China , many still uses 胡 as well.

In fact, ask around, especially the old folk, show them the term 平和 on paper, and see whether they could understand what it is.

Then show them 平胡, I will bet that most will understand this immediately.

A for SG mahjong rule there are many variations which I once wanted to make a whole list with all the variations ,so that b4 the start of the game, the kakis will review them and agree upon which variation to be accepted during the game.

For example, Three Great Scholars大三元, some play this as immediate win, whereas some don't.

As for sacred discard(the tile that has been discarded within the same turn), in SG, we tend to play traditional method whereby one cannot win by identical tile.

For eg, the scared discard is 4dots, one cannot win by discard of 4dots during the same turn but can win with 7dots, dispute arise from this if one was not familiar with the Traditional method for sacred discard.

EP said...

Thank you, Anonymous, for your comment.

I would only say that house rules are house rules, and that is a problematic situation only if we really want standardisation. If people do not mind sticking to their own (and other people's) house rules, then there is no problem. Mahjong would forever be a mess of individual systems that often lead to arguments.

For people truly concerned about the development of mahjong as a game (or sport), they would look to standardising rules, terminology, etiquette, regardless of how some people may be using different terms regionally and historically etc.

For example, you mentioned players using terms in Cantonese. First, mahjong is not a Cantonese game, even though to some people it seems as if only Cantonese people play mahjong. That's ignoring the real world out there, where lots of Chinese from outside Hong Kong/Guangzhou also play mahjong, and in their own dialects/topolects. And how about non-Chinese, such as Japanese and Koreans, Vietnamese, Filipinos, Germans, Italians etc., who also play mahjong, and with their own languages and lingo?

What I am concerned about, and what this post was about, was about standardisation and with some reference to language and communication.

It is one thing to acknowledge that people use such and such terms when playing, and another to advocate one term over another term. We face this issue all the time when discussing MCR (international Chinese rules for competition) where we really have to deal with people from different countries and speaking different languages to play together without misunderstanding each other.