My Conversation with a Singapore Mahjong Expert

Because of mahjong anime, I gained an interest in Japanese mahjong. And because I played so much Japanese mahjong and continued to consume anime and manga based on it, I began to wonder what it would be like if there was a series based on having to play all of the different styles of mahjong which exist around the world. This has led me to do some research and even attempts to play other styles of mahjong, and in fact the first post I made on this blog about other styles of mahjong was about Singapore-style. At the time, the only way I could play it was a single player java program, so no matter what my speculations about strategy and gameplay were the result of a very limited experience.

Since then, I’ve been able to find a website which allows me to play some form of Singapore mahjong against human opponents, and through it I’ve been able to put to the test some of my musings on Singapore mahjong from that post. Looking back, the post turns out to have been decently accurate, but I am of course still very much a beginner at it, so I wanted to find someone with more perspective and experience. That’s how I came across Singapore Sparrows, site dedicated to mahjong in Singapore (primarily the MCR—more on that another time—and Singapore styles), and through it managed to have an interesting and enlightening conversation concerning the similarities and differences between Japanese and Singapore mahjong.

I recommend reading the entire post as well as my follow-up comment, but to summarize I asked the blog owner Edwin a series of questions about strategy in Singapore mahjong, especially because the Singapore style has far fewer hands than Japanese and therefore the hands felt comparatively less fluid. Edwin brought up the fact that not only does Singapore mahjong have things called bonus tiles which can net you points just for drawing them, but it has more bonus tiles than probably any other style of mahjong, and so in his opinion the bonus tiles function in a capacity similar to cheap hands in Japanese-style such as tanyao and iipeikou.

Thinking about the function of bonus tiles, I speculated that rather than fulfilling the role of those smaller value hands, they were more akin to calling riichi: ways to empower worthless hands and give them some teeth and a chance to win. The big difference is that with bonus tiles they are the catalyst to deviate your hand into something simpler, whereas calling riichi always exists as an optional goal, beginning vs. end, but both carry risks unique to each version of the game.

Now, when considering how this would impact a narrative about a game of Singapore mahjong, the flower tiles really are wild cards, and I could see some maverick of a hero taking a risk to get just the right bonus tiles he or she needs, a foolish move normally, but one that the hero recognizes is the only path to victory. Along with all of that animal tile imagery of cats eating mice and chickens eating bugs, panels could be filled with really elaborate nature imagery.

Another fascinating point brought by Edwin was the way in which pinfu (or ping hu) hands in Singapore mahjong really influence the way the game is played. If you play riichi mahjong you may think pinfu hands are important because of how quick and probable they are, but their potency is nothing compared to Singapore pinfu. Not only can it be played open, but it has a special stipulation which makes it either a weak, simple 1 han (tai in Singapore-style lingo) or a monstrous and deadly 4 han hand, controlled by the presence or absence of bonus tiles (no bonus tiles means 4 han). As such, many players will aim for “ping hu,” but because it’s so clearly a good option no matter what, players of Singapore mahjong are also especially wary of its dualistic lamb/lion status. If you have no bonus tiles and a couple of open straights in your hand, people will get mighty suspicious and the player to your left will try to figure out ways to avoid dealing out tiles you need for your straights. It’s a dimension of strategy that is in many ways different from Japanese-style mahjong, and it’s the sort of thing that encourages me to try more styles.

And of course, the variable strength of Singapore pinfu is also a perfect place for some dramatic storytelling. Can’t you imagine a Washizu-esque villain playing his masterful 4 tai ping hu, ready to destroy his opponent, when suddenly he draws a flower bonus tile and all of his beautiful machinations slip through his fingers like sand? Can’t you imagine his agony as the hero willingly deals into the significantly downgraded hand, giving poor Singaporean Washizu a rather pyrrhic victory?

Fun times. Fun, fun times. Incidentally, thanks to mahjong comrade Dave I learned that Mahjong Hime allows you to play both Singapore and Taiwanese styles. Most likely, my next post regarding the hypothetical International Mahjong Manga will be about Taiwanese mahjong.


My First Mahjong Tournament!

This past weekend I was able to attend my very first ever “Riichi Mahjong Tournament” (quotes and capitalization used to convey my sense of awe), and to put it simply, I had a blast. I managed to do well at the tournament, and accomplished a number of things I can feel some sense of pride in. On the other hand, I made a number of mistakes that are a sign of my own greenness in competition. I’ll be trying to make this post fairly accessible, but keep in mind that I’ll be throwing a bunch of terms around, so it may wind up being obtuse for those unfamiliar with mahjong.

One thing that I realized while playing with the USPML over the last couple of years or so is that my mahjong stamina is not so great, and knowing that each day of competition would last many hours I tried to make up for it as best I could. I ate balanced breakfasts (making sure to include one egg for protein content) but also tried to avoid overeating (an easy problem for me to fall into), I took effort to stay hydrated, and I avoided overly sugary snacks in order to prevent a sugar crash at crucial points. I think it worked out okay in the end, though I still felt a sense of fatigue after a while which I think compromised my play.

In general, I’m not much of a tournament person for games at all (in my life, I’ve attended one Guilty Gear XX tournament, a handful of Smash Bros. tournaments, and some online Pokemon stuff back in the day), but I have to say that it was genuinely fun and exciting. This offline tournament was an intense experience with a really fun social component, both outside the game talking to fellow players, as well as inside the game. I think on some level riichi mahjong feels especially social because the rules, however daunting they may be for players to learn, encourage a high level of interactivity where you have to battle your opponents machinations as well as your own greed and cowardice. I might even go as far as to call mahjong a kind of window into people’s souls because of how the luck component combined with the potential decisions one makes in response to them shows how people may end up responding to situations beyond their or anyone else’s control. Go watch Akagi, and Akagi’s comment about someone being “weak against coincidence” makes that much more sense.

Interestingly, unlike the USPML which consists of mostly young folks who were exposed to mahjong through anime, the Dutch mahjong scene consists of older people (most at least 40 and up I would reckon), who came to it after playing other forms of mahjong. Talking to some, they had started to tire of the other formats and found riichi more exciting and interesting. I’ve never played other forms so I can’t agree or disagree, but I feel like I can see where they’re coming from given the interactivity of riichi mahjong. There was also a smaller contingent of international European players who just do this sort of thing semi-regularly, a world for which I hold a tiny bit of envy.

As for my accomplishments (which I hope you’ll let me bask in until I get smashed the next time), I played through nine full east-south (hanchan) matches and managed to avoid getting 4th in every single game. I even had a game where I was in dead last at the end of the east round (I was down 20,000 points!) and was able to surge back with some well-timed risky play to take first by the end. On the other hand, I actually misread one tile for another which cost me a round, drew from the wrong part of the wall at one point, and even dealt into a super obvious hand because I had too much tunnel vision while playing that round.

The tournament used the European Mahjong Association’s “Riichi Competiton Rules” (or RCR), and it made for a somewhat different dynamic compared to playing on the Tenhou ladder. The most obvious peculiarity of the European rules is the restriction of closed tanyao only (which means people cannot steal tiles to make this normally very basic hand) in combination with the presence of red 5s, tiles which can easily bolster your score and can turn weak hands into monstrous ones, but the one that caught my attention the most was the points system. Normally, you begin with a set of points (on Tenhou it’s 25,000) and whoever has more points by the end wins a match, and there is the added risk where if you go under zero points the game ends with you in dead last. However, with RCR there are no default starting points and everything is counted in terms of the points gained or lost. What this ends up meaning is that it is impossible to go bankrupt, and you can lose 1 billion points and still be able to play in subsequent rounds, though your morale might be shot.

The reason this was done, I think, was so that no one felt left out early in the tournament and everyone could play as much mahjong as possible. Supporting this was the fact that the format of the tournament was almost but not quite a round robin tournament, in the sense that it was not an elimination tournament like you’d see in Saki or Starcraft where 64 players/teams enter and then 32 advance and so on. Instead, everyone got the chance to play nine games (with time limits), so everyone wound up playing roughly the same amount of mahjong overall, whether they got 1st place or dead last. It’s quite a different format, but because it fosters enjoyment I like it all the same.

There was a second factor to the scoring system as well, what is known as “Uma” or the amount of points you gain or lose at the end of a match. In the most recent incarnation of the European rules, you get added to your existing score +30,000 points for a 1st place finish, +10,000 for 2nd, -10,000 for 3rd, and -30,000 for 4th. Thus, if in a game the 4 players wound up getting 10,000 points, 1000 points, -1000 points, and -10,000 points respectively, the final score of that session would be 40,000/11,000/-11,000/-40,000, and then you carried your score to subsequent matches. Thus, if the same results happened again to each player, they would end up with 80,000/22,000/-22,000/-80,000 going into their 3rd game. The gap isn’t entirely insurmountable, but the more 4th place finishes you have, the tougher it gets, which is why I was glad to not have any.

As a result of this format, your placement in a  match alone doesn’t matter as much as your place in a match alongside your points earned, which is different from other forms of riichi mahjong. In my case, I was in a game where I was practically guaranteed 2nd place at the end of a match, and was in potential range to get 1st so I took a risk and went for a hand and ended up dealing in and losing 8,000 points. While I still got the 10,000 point bonus for being 2nd, I would’ve had an additional 8,000 added to my total score if only I had played it safer. Similarly, if you’re in 4th and there’s no chance for you to take 3rd place, do you try to get as close to 3rd as possible to mitigate the damage, or do you just play safe in case you end up falling even more, and what would’ve been a big loss is now a gigantic one?

Mahjong, especially in this particular tournament style, is a funny thing in terms of competitiveness because you really have to decide what’s more important, your chance at claiming a top spot (or even the top spot), or being satisfied with where you are and not wanting to fall further. If you’re in 2nd in the overall tournament ranking with 1st place is 50,000 points ahead of you but 3rd through 10th place all nipping at your heels, do you avoid risks and try to hold onto your 2nd place position as much as possible, or do you take a chance and aim for 1st with the likely possibility that you’ll crash and burn and fall 10, maybe even 15 places? Which do you value more? It’s an interesting psychological test, I think, and I realize in hindsight that every time I imagined myself getting a top spot I ended up doing worse. Maybe it’s a lesson I need to learn better.

So overall, I’m more than glad I decided to participate. If I get the chance to attend another one, I most likely will.