So you’re a scientist and you have just discovered the game of mahjong. It is fascinating you, and you are puzzled: why are there so many variations? How many variations are there anyway?
Scott D. Miller from Amarillo, Texas, USA, is such a scientist. He has written a number of publications in his field, erythrasma, a bacterial infection that causes skin disease. In his spare time, he loves to play mahjong. But, what’s more, to explore it, and to get to know it in any way.
As every mahjong player knows, that is a tricky business. In his book ‘Mahjong From A to Zhú’, Scott claims to have found over forty variations. He designed a classification which makes sense. First, there are the core rules: the very basics of mahjong, which, by themselves, do not make a complete set of rules. Then there are the set rules. They detail the specific rules that make each type of mahjong unique. In Scotts system, the core rules plus one set rules will make a playable set of rules.
Finally, there are variations: subsets . According to Mr. Miller, by themselves these are not unique enough. Core rules, plus one set, plus a variation subset make a complete valid set of variation rules.
So far, so good. But after that, Scott enters the minefield of the countless mahjong variations. Sometimes, this is not too difficult since there are official bodies that guard over the rules. E.g., the World Mahjong Organisation in Beijing, gatekeeper of the Chinese Mahjong Competition Rules, or the Japanese Mahjong Professional Mahjong League (JPML-B), which is the authority over the Japanese riichi rules.
But, in most cases, there are no official bodies whatsoever. In his book, Scott teaches us about the Filipino rules, which I did not know at all, but which I think are mainly played in gambling houses or in the streets of Manila. The Hong Kong Mahjong Rules are known by virtually any Chinese, but are not monitored by anyone (and the rules may vary per street or family). The knowledge about these rules you have to learn through individual players, friends, from the internet (if it can be found there in the first place).
This Sisyphus labor is, to say the least, a great challenge. And even in officially authorized rule sets, Mr. Miller makes a gaffe here and there. ‘Set A’ in Scotts system are the Chinese MCR. ‘Outside of official Chinese state sponsored competitions, they are not often played’, claims Scott. When talking about absolute numbers of players, MCR are a minor variation indeed – but what Scott forgets to mention is that, in Europe, every year dozens of MCR tournaments are played and that there are official European championships and even world championships where these rules are applied. About Set B, Chinese Classical Mahjong, he says that the rules authorities are ‘regional tradition’ – yet, in some countries, they are the formal rules, and the rules are constitutionalized in detail.
Then there are minor flaws (e.g. that there are 3 dice used in MCR; it’s 2), which most likely will be repaired in future prints.
So far for the drawbacks. Now, let’s just start enjoying this book. It is fascinating to see the effort Scott has made. He tells us about the weird sides of Filipino mahjong, about Fujian sparrow, and many more fascinating kinds of mahjong. About dealer burning: the pot that can be won, is doubled if all four players discard the same tile in the first go-around, and doubled again if this also happens in the next one, etcetera. About ‘wild tiles’ that can be used as jokers in Filipino mahjong. Did you know that in Korean mahjong, one suit is omitted so it is considered a good variation for three players?
For everyone who has an interest in mahjong, this book is fascinating to read. Many mahjong players generally love to chitchat about other variations, even if they never plan to play them. For them, this book is some kind of delightful pornography. There’s a treasure of knowledge in it. In Korean mahjong, there’s a Horse Race: all players start with three counters and they can discard one for every fully concealed win; the first players who has got ride of them all, wins some money. In Kuala Lumpur, Bamboo and Character tiles are omitted.
Scott even introduces his own game, Full Monty, based on Japanese riichi but with rules from many more variants. He also has added a chapter about children’s mahjong, which is said to have been invented by his children. Mr. Miller gives an expose about safe tiles, and explains why some safe tiles are safer than other safe tiles.
I doubt if it will ever be possible to write the definitive mahjong encyclopedia. But this book is quite a good effort.