The game of mah jongg has been played in China for thousands of years. It is such a simple, yet fun game that it has managed to spread to every corner of the planet. Mah jongg came to the United States with the immigration of Chinese residents to the US in the second half of the 19th century. The game was introduced to other ethnic groups, especially Jews, and by the 1920s mah jongg sets could be purchased in most large cities in the country.
A mah jongg set is composed of 136 or 144 tiles divided into two main groups. The first group of mah jongg tiles is the simples. The simples are three groups of suited tiles. Each suit contains nine tiles. The first of these three suits is bamboos, sometimes called sticks. Each tile has pictures of bamboo strings holding coins, except for the first bamboo tile, which has a bird perched on a bamboo stalk.
The second suit of simple tiles is characters, or numbers. Each one of these tiles has the Chinese character for the number 10,000. Each also has one of the Chinese characters for the numbers from one to nine. The final simple suit is circles, also called stones. Each of these tiles has from one to nine circles on it.
The next set of tiles in mah jongg sets is the honor tiles. There are two groups of honor tiles, the winds and the dragons. There are four different wind tiles, each of which represents a different direction of the wind. The three dragon tiles are represented by the colors green, red and blue.
Bonus tiles make up the final set of mah jongg tiles. There are two groups of bonus tiles, the flowers and the seasons. There is a different season tile for every season of the year, making a total of four tiles. Four is also the number of flower tiles in a mah jongg set, bamboo, chrysanthemum, orchid and plum.
The game of mah jongg has many different variations, including three-player, four-player, heads-up and solitaire. The most popular of these versions by far is the four-person version. It is the most popular table game in China, Korea and Japan. It is also played throughout the world.
Four-player mah jongg begins with four players seated around a table. Each player has a wall of mah jongg tiles in front of them, made of 34 tiles laid face down in two levels of 17 tiles apiece. Each player competes against the others to see who can get a hand containing four sets of tiles and a pair. The first player to do this wins the hand.
The sets are made by matching identical tiles or creating consecutively numbered, suited runs of tiles. Most sets are made from three tiles, which is called a pung if they are a matched set and a chow if the tiles are consecutive numbers of the same suit. Sometimes players get a set of four identical tiles, which is called a kong.
Mah jongg is much like gin rummy, but it seems to be more exciting. Maybe that is because most players gamble on the outcomes, which always adds an element of excitement. The game is easy to learn, but players should be warned that it is also very addictive to play.
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