Achieving 4-Dan and Stepping Away to Improve at Mahjong


In December of 2010 I wrote a post about how I had finally achieved 3-Dan on the mahjong website Tenhou. Finally, after three and a half years, I have hit the next level and rose into 4-dan. The fact that it’s taken me this amount of time to get to 4-dan is either great or embarrassing depending on your own mahjong skills, but I realized that part of the reason I was finally able to break that barrier was that I had stepped away from the game for a while (unless you count posts about Saki or Akagi, I haven’t really posted much about mahjong lately), and that this has in some ways contributed to me being able to play better.

A few months ago someone asked me, “How do you not get angry when playing on Tenhou?” My answer was simple: I do get angry, all the time. Mahjong is a game that takes a lot of mental energy and so long sessions end up being quite taxing on the brain. Since about September of last year I’ve had to really focus on my work, so that risk that mental and emotional exhaustion that comes from playing mahjong wasn’t really worth it to me. During this time, I made occasional trips back to the table (virtual or otherwise) that reminded me of how rusty I become from playing less often, but also actually helped me to distance myself from mahjong and to improve my mental game immensely.

As with many things, one of the dangerous things about going on tilt in mahjong is that your “vision” in terms of what is possible or what is supposed to happen starts to narrow. When you’re not winning hands despite being in great positions, or when you feel like it’s totally “unfair” that you got screwed over in some way, it can cloud your judgment and cause you to make mistakes you may not have made otherwise. One sign I’ve learned to watch out for is when I get too desperate for pinfu. It may be the simplest hand in the game to achieve, but when I’m so obsessed with trying to win “anything at all” I realize I’m not actually playing mahjong. Stepping away from the game has helped me to realize this.

Another thing stepping away allows for, at least far as my relatively low level is concerned, is that it has helped me develop more versatility. Tenhou breeds a certain kind of mahjong player: someone who’s conservative in play, calculates risk extensively, and has a decent head for numbers. It’s the “proper” way to play mahjong, and so when on the Tenhou ladder you tend to learn to play against people like that. However, if thrown in a situation where others are playing “improperly,” doing the things that are suboptimal yet somehow winning anyway, I’ve noticed that a lot of better players have trouble dealing with this, including myself. What I realized eventually was that it was just as much my problem for not having the adaptability to deal with different types of players regardless of whether they pay no attention to theory and probability. It’s kind of like complaining about button mashers in fighting games or not being prepared for a Shedinja in Pokemon. “Nobody does that! You’ll lose more than you’ll win with that!” And yet, at the end of the day, you’re the one who couldn’t deal with it.

Speaking of fighting games, I recommend this video from fighting game community veteran James Chen on “reading your opponent.” I’ve skipped to the part where he talks about why “advanced” players tend to be kind of double-edged swords because they play too close to the theoretical optimal.

Perhaps the most significant if seemingly contradictory thing is that because I’ve distanced myself from mahjong, I’ve actually developed a better sense of my own style, how I want to play. Thus, when I managed to finally find not just some free time, but a week or two to where I could redirect my mental energy to other tasks again, I decided to get back on Tenhou and finally aim for 4-dan. There were of course many highs and lows, but I think that, as I explained to an extent above, trying to “make up for what you’ve lost” from one game to the next is the wrong way to look at it. The more you think, “I got 4th this one game, so I need to get 1st in the next two games!” the more likely you’re going to fall further down the hole. It happened to me quite a bit, as I hadn’t merely stayed in 3-dan the whole time, but actually moved between 1-dan and 3-dan as my own frustration got the better of me. Of course luck is a factor in this game, but not letting it get the better of you emotionally is also important.


In the end, if I can get hit by a chihou of all things (SERIOUSLY A CHIHOU) and still rebound, then I feel pretty good about my future prospects. That said, I still haven’t fully memorized the score chart. Oops.

If Only It Were a Ra Tilt Instead

A few months ago, after many hours of intense not-actually-gambling gambling action, I managed to graduate to the next level in the online mahjong client Tenhou. Then, two weeks ago, I squandered all of that and lost so much that I got demoted. From this experience I have learned many things.

When I was telling esteemed Anime News Network columnist and mahjong co-panelist Dave about it, he said that I must be “going tilt,” which I learned was poker lingo for someone whose emotions are clouding his or her ability to play well. At first I denied that this could possibly be happening to me, but in hindsight that was exactly the problem.

It all began when I actually became aware of the points system on Tenhou. On Tenhou, in addition to the scoring in the game itself, between matches you gain or lose what are essentially experience points. The better you do, the more points you receive, until you manage to break into the next level. Lose, however, and points are deducted from you. In my situation, I was just one point away from reaching the next rank, where even barely placing 2nd in a game would have been enough. Conversely, I lost the match hard and then proceeded to lose pretty much every other match following. I kept thinking to myself, “You were so close to moving forward! Just keep at it!” This eventually turned into desperation where I was trying to just win something, which pretty much had the opposite effect. And all that while, I was constantly looking back at my points. I became too obsessed with seeing those numbers go up and it completely affected my skill and it cost me.

While my life was not on the line, from this experience I can relate to Nangou in the first episode of Akagi. Nangou is in deep, deep debt to the yakuza, and in his mahjong game against said gangsters he is desperate for any sort of win, but this desperation also prevents him from accomplishing anything. He is too afraid to take risks when he should, and so behind that even a glimmer of hope for a high-scoring hand means he’ll go for it even when he has almost no chance of accomplishing it. It is not until Akagi himself arrives that Nangou is able to break the self-induced spell and play as he should, foregoing his frantic scurryings for a confident charge forward. For me, the realization hit when I ended up dropping down a rank.

From that, I looked at myself and figured out some of the tendencies that arise in me when I’m desperate. The first is to be bothered when someone declares riichi very early in the game. When one goes into riichi, it appears a bold declaration that they are about to win. Under normal circumstances I welcome the challenge, but when I’m going tilt it becomes almost nerve-wracking, and I get so eager to finish a hand that I easily throw away tiles I shouldn’t, as opposed to when I’m right of mind and am able to alter my hand much more readily. That leads me into the second sign, which is that I get too attached to achieving certain hands, and become too unwilling to deviate. This is more than just a matter of going for high-risk hands when I shouldn’t, because even the cheaper, easier to assemble hands can result in the same trap. When you’re aiming for pinfu (a hand that is special because there is absolutely nothing special about it) no matter what, pinfu starts to feel surprisingly distant. Even my favored ikkitsuukan (full straight) does its best when my hand gradually morphs into it, as opposed to when I am consciously aiming for it.

Although this can be attributed to simple probability, I have a rather occult feeling about it, which is that fear is a big problem in mahjong. Without the ability to overcome fear, the hand is often unable to progress and transform. Sometimes I have to be able to abandon a seemingly grand potential because in reality it is a stifling noose that keeps me and my hand from growing within the game.