Getting something for nothing.
Scott D. Miller

AMARILLO, Texas - Who says you can't get something for nothing? On a week when there are no tournaments taking place, and no announcements to proclaim, it would seem there is no story to write about for Mahjong News - and that's something to write about. Mahjong News explores how having nothing is something; the history behind this strange scoring anomoly in riichi mahjong called the open pinfu hand.

Pinfu, or 平和 in Japanese, literally translates to no-fu, which is to say the hand earns no fu points. The name seems to say it all, that this is a hand that will score you zero fu. None. Zip. Ziltch. It must be composed of four chows, because having any pungs in the hand would earn at least 2 fu, which would be no good, and invalidate the hand for a no-fu pattern. Likewise, it must have a worthless pair, because having a valued pair would also raise the hand's fu above zero by two points, and it must be zero to qualify. It even has to win on a worthless wait, because winning with a scoring wait would also earn the hand a duece, knocking the hand out of the category for a no-fu hand, because, if you do the math, two is two more than zero. I'm sure by now you've picked up on the pattern here. When the hand says no fu, they mean it must earn absolutely no fu, right? That's why it is named a Pin-Fu hand.

0 + 0 = 0

It is so important that the pinfu hand live up to its name, that richi mahjong has even had to bend other rules to make sure to accomodate the no-fu requirements to win with a scoreless hand. Tsumo pinfu. This is a rule that says if you are aiming for a pinfu hand, and just by dumb luck you happen to draw your winning tile yourself, which of course will earn the hand 2 fu points, riichi mahjong is going to look the other way and pretend like it didn't see what you just did there. Riichi is violating another rule to be sure your hand will earn you that no-fu status so that you may still claim to have a worhtless hand and score it as pinfu. Pinfu clearly knows the right people in riichi mahjong.

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So why in the world, if you open up this no-fu scoring hand, does it now earn you two fu points for having it? Seriously. You earn 2 fu points for having earned no fu. It's kind of like having no tea, and wondering where you got your no-tea.

To understand this paradox, we have to go back to 1920's Japan, when mahjong was still just taking root there; before the whole riichi craze even existed. The style everyone was playing in 1920's Japan came from mainland China and was called twenty-two (二十二) mahjong, which the Japanese pronounced arushiaru (アルシーアル). The lowest possible score in 22-mahjong (before rounding) was of course 22, which is why it was called 22-mahjong. Pinfu was a recognized hand even back during this era, but at this time it was a recognized hand rather open or closed; it didn't matter. Even then, though, by definition, it still had to have no fu scoring elements in it. Therefore, winning with a no-fu scoring hand would, by itself, earn just the 20 base points for winning the hand. This used to be considered “too low” of a score for a game CALLED 22-mahjong, and so the pinfu hand was given 2 points to correct this… keeping in line with the lowest possible score in 22-mahjong being 22. Pinfu, in 22-mahjong, would earn 2 points rather open or closed. Better to violate the name of a scoring element (NO-FU) than to violate the name of the game itself (22-mahjong).

20 + 0 = 22

BUT, now fastforward to modern riichi mahjong. The requirement that the hand never be worth less than 22 fu-points has long since been abandoned. Consider the modern day closed pinfu hand. It currently earns just the base 20-fu just for winning, keeping with its namesake of no-fu points in it's composition! Yet somehow the open pinfu hand slipped thru the cracks and still exists. It is still bumped up that 2-fu points for existing to keep the hand's score no less than 22-fu. It’s a paradox that a scoreless hand, so important that it remain scoreless that another rule is warped to accommodate it’s worthless requirement, somehow still earns 2 fu points and violates its own namesake: NO FU! It is an anomoly of evolution, like the platypus of mahjong, which exists just to puzzle those who stumble across it in the wild. But we still love the platypus for all its evolutionary quirks, and fans of riichi mahjong of course still love its perplexing peaceful pinfu.

Comments on this article

Konsta Lensu: 

The open Pinfu rule has two benefits:

-No 1 han 20 fu hand that would score below the current minimum of 1 han 30 fu. Granted, it could only be a ron and scoring it as 700 for nondealer, 1000 for dealer wouldn't be too unreasonable.

-Fu doesn't matter for low-fu open hands. Presently you can instantly know that an open hand without a lot of triplet/quad fu is 30 fu. Makes score calculation and planning easier.

On the topic of Pinfu, I've got another petty grievance. One of the most common translations of it, when an all-English yaku list is desired, is "Peace". I disapprove of that.

While "平和" translates into "peaceful", it's the "和" character that gives that meaning. Its multiple meanings include "peace"/"harmony" and "win in mahjong". The same kanji is used for multiple other yaku, as well as winning in general.

So if Pinfu is Peace, then so are Toitoi (Toitoihou), Tsumo (Menzenchin Tsumohou) and Tenhou/Chiho/Renhou. You could even mangle Chiho into "Peace on Earth".

A better translation would focus on the unique meanings of the "平" kanji unique to the hand. Those include "flat"/"level"/"even" and "common"/"simple". "Flat hand" might be good, as it relates to the term "horizontal hand" which means a straight-focused one, as opposed to "vertical hand" which means a triplet-focused one.

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