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.

Don’t Play Tenhou on Firefox

This is just a little public service announcement warning people of a problem with the mahjong client Tenhou when used in Firefox. The problem is that sometimes no matter what tile you select for discard, the game will automatically discard the one you just picked. In other cases, sometimes if you try to call for a tile, the client won’t listen to you. This is a documented issue on Tenhou’s website, and if you can’t read Japanese you’ll at least notice that some sentence pertaining to Firefox is highlighted in bold.

For those who play mahjong, I’m sure you can imagine the frustration of drawing just the tile you need only for the client to not listen and throw away your chances of winning that round, or worse yet, throwing away a tile you know is clearly dangerous and that you yourself would not have discarded in a million years.

I’ve switched to using Chrome when I play on Tenhou and it works out fine, aside from some strange squeezing of the image that can occur when you go from window to full-screen. At the very least, it’s not the game actively disobeying your orders.

The Barrier to Mahjong is the Self

I haven’t been playing as much mahjong lately, due to a combination of lack of time and a desire to distance myself from it for a little bit, but every so often I decide to sit down for a couple games. When I do, I inevitably get clobbered, unable to handle the assault of my fellow tile slingers. To some extent, I know that this is due to rust on my already meager skills, but I think that there is another factor involved. When I stop playing mahjong for a while, my mind becomes unaccustomed to some of the psychological rigors of the game, and it takes a while to adjust back to normal. In this period, I’m especially vulnerable, so if I just come back to the game every few weeks I end up never quite leaving that mindset.

“So why not just keep playing until you get back to where you were?” you might be asking. I ask myself this too. The “problem” however, is that mahjong can be an incredibly nerve-wracking game in a way that few others are. The combination of luck and skill, where everyone is planning something and you can’t quite tell where luck ends and decisions begin, and the fact that the difference between winning and losing can come down to one unfortunate dealing of a tile, makes for an intense and mentally exhausting game, especially when you’re playing on the competitive Tenhou ladder and people mean serious business.

That tense do-or-die feeling is also why mahjong is fun in the first place, so the dilemma at hand is simply this: do I devote that amount of energy to playing it, knowing that while it’s a great way to really challenge myself and test my ability to handle luck and the machinations of others, it can also be a very powerful source of frustration?