Last weekend, I participated in my first Japanese mahjong tournament in about six years through AnimEVO Online’s Mahjong Soul competition. I had spent the weeks leading up to it practicing off and on, knowing that I had a lot to catch up on and plenty of rust to hopefully shake off.
The format was one I was familiar with: a series of six full games (hanchan) against random opponents, where your total score is basically the determining factor in your final placing. After about eight hours of play, I finished at 74th out of 256, well below the top 32 cut-off to make it to the next stage of the tournament (which happened just yesterday), but in what I consider to be a placing I can look at with some satisfaction. I was in the top third, and what kept me from advancing was partly that I couldn’t hold onto the leads I established for myself.
I can also take pride in the fact that I never actually got 4th place, though one of those matches I might as well have—my 3rd place was merely because someone else had gotten hosed more badly than I did. Even then, I could have easily dealt into a hand at the end out of desperation—I drew someone’s winning tile in that final hand, and had the wherewithal to not let it go. In other words, I had consigned myself to a bad game, but it’s what saved me from a worse fate. More than my good games, I think that says the most about how I performed.
I also realized a little too late into the tournament that I should have shifted my thinking away from the typical online mahjong site like Mahjong Soul or Tenhou, where ranking within a full game matters above all else. Instead, in this environment, the size of your win matters greatly. Finishing first with 70,000 points gives you a bigger edge than finishing with 35,000, as it helps buffer you against the games where things don’t work out in your favor.
One thing that was very clear at AnimEVO Online was that the skill gap between the top and bottom was massive, and that changed the dynamics of the game tremendously. In many games I watched after my own was done, there were often two clearly better players obliterating the less experienced opponents, and the fact that players could go into negative scores and keep playing only made the drubbings worse. The curious thing about Japanese mahjong is there’s a major difference when it’s two good players and two bad players vs. one good player and three bad players. In the latter scenario, the worse players can actually overwhelm the better one by making incredibly bad-on-paper decisions that allow them to win off of each other and circumvent the stronger opponent.
One thing that you have to learn when you get into Japanese mahjong is that blindly chasing points can backfire on you easily. I literally saw a player deal a very visibly dangerous tile into an All Green yakuman, which essentially killed their chances of getting anything higher than last place—all because they wanted to hold onto a tenpai by the end of the round. In an attempt to make 1,000 points, this player ended up losing 32,000 instantly.
If I had one complaint about the tournament, it’s that it was too long. There were no time limits on each full game, and while typical games of Japanese mahjong online end if first place manages to get above a certain point threshold, that was not the case here. Rather, if it’s South 4, and the dealer is in first place, they can actually just keep winning and winning, bringing up their final score. I suspect that this is done out of a sense of fairness (“Why should the other three players be allowed to get dealers’ runs going unimpeded, but the other one can’t?”), but it did drag the games on. Also, the twenty-minute halftime break was maybe not enough time to take a breather and relax, as real-life tournaments I’d attended had allowed for a proper full hour. I understand, however, that it would have been a Catch-22—do you extended the break and thus make the tournament end even later?
Overall, I’m on the fence as to whether I’ll play in another tournament at some point, but it did scratch a competitive itch I was feeling. I may slip back into the shadows when it comes to mahjong, but I know full well that I’ll always be fond of the game.
Yesterday was the Top 32, and Top 8 Finals starts tonight at 2pm PST/5pm EST. May the flow be with them.