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.

Reviving the Mahjong Panel

Otakon 2012 marks the return of the Japanese Mahjong panel, run by myself and Kawaiikochans creator Dave. It was a surprise hit back in 2010, and we’re so looking forward to bringing it back. What I’m about to talk about is related to some of the challenges we’ve faced in updating the panel.

Mahjong is a rather complicated (some might even say convoluted) game, and when we originally set out to do the mahjong panel we tried to make it as simple as we could while still covering just what makes mahjong (and by extension mahjong anime) fun. Naturally feeling a bit rusty with the material, we devoted some time to practicing the panel only to realize that there was a significant problem we did not have to deal with two years ago: we have both gotten significantly better at mahjong.

Mahjong is a game where subtle changes to the rules and even to the character and level of your opponents can impact the game tremendously. Playing multiple games to improve ladder ranking is a different beast from playing one or two significant games. When I attended the United States Professional Mahjong League in June, I had not played against flesh-and-blood opponents in over a year. Not only did I have to get used to the tiles again, but while I had definitely improved through playing online on Tenhou continuously (a process which forced me to constantly re-evaluate my play), I had become accustomed to that ruleset. So, for example, when I went into a game expecting it to last a full 8 round and began playing for the long term) I was sidelined by the fact that the UPSML games had a (necessary) time limit such that any round you were playing could be your last.

Though I was certainly thrown off by these unfamiliar rules, I was able to adapt reasonably well. It is the ability to recognize how those changes can potentially affect strategy that, at least for me, is an indicator of personal improvement.  However, it is that very same ability which can trip up an introductory mahjong panel.

When we were relatively inexperienced, we could deliver ideas with simplicity because the exceptions did not immediately spring to mind. Now, the danger was that our heads were too full of minutia. We knew where our statements fell short, and in an effort to correct them we continued to give explanations, but much like how the USPML’s time limit necessitates a different strategy, so too does the hour time limit for the panel.

The pursuit and refinement of knowledge in a given topic is actually what trips up so many intellectual presentations, whether the audience consists of professors or anime fans. The presenter has spent so much time exploring the limits of ideas and where their exceptions lie that it becomes difficult to “lie” to your audience, especially when improvement in your area (such as mahjong) is your main focus.

I think that the lesson to take away here is that we were so caught up in trying to teach strategy we’d learned that we had forgotten that before you learn how to play well, you have to teach how to play, period. And because our panel isn’t even about learning how to play, per se, we have to take that one notch down.

Tsumo Times and a Ron Wait

I was back in New York recently for a short while, a period that just so happened to coincide with the latest instance of my favorite mahjong gathering, the USPML‘s monthly open play events. Bringing with me exotic cuisine from beyond the oceans, I played my first offline mahjong game in many months.

It was good to see many familiar faces and even some new ones, as well as to learn that the USPML has only gained in popularity since I last saw them. Where once we barely were able to get sixteen players to fill four tables, we now had somewhere like 6-8 tables. I even saw an enterprising older woman there, learning the game amongst us young Turks. I wondered if she had experience playing an American form of mahjong and decided to expand her horizons. If that’s the case, she is a better person than me, who has no experience with mahjong outside of Japanese-style and one bad game of Taiwanese mahjong on X-Box Live.

I can’t say whether or not I’ve made significant improvements in my mahjong, but I did end up winning both games I played that day. The first was a rough-and-tumble game where I managed to win here and there and gain a small lead going into the final round. The difference was about 4000 points, so a mangan tsumo or a direct hit with about a 3 yaku hand could’ve knocked me off my perch, but I went for a quick, cheap, and most importantly closed hand. I purposely decided not to call reach as it would have made everyone overly defensive. In the end, I won with a simple pinfu.

The second game, I won a haneman and a mangan early on and held my lead by winning a large amount of cheap hands, many times with no yaku to speak of other than when I decided to reach. In a way it’s a dirty, yet effective way of playing. However, my victory is not the biggest story to come out of Game 2. That honor instead goes to my mahjong comrade, Dave aka Sub.

In an early round (it may have been the first), one of the players had called a closed kan. This was already dangerous, as it was a kan of the dora, but when this new dora indicator flipped over to reveal that it was a twin of a previous dora indicator, things got to a Washizu-level of bad. There, staring us all in the face was an 8-dora hand, an automatic Baiman, and who knew what else lurked within the the unrevealed tiles? Later on, we found out that this was a hand of much destructive power in more ways than one, as it not only turned out to be an 11-dora hand thanks to another kan that had been called, but that it was in position for a possible Yakuman, the Suu An Kou. But whether he got that standard Yakuman or not, the hand would’ve easily surpassed 13 dora, which would have given it equivalent power to a Yakuman. In other words, no matter how he would have won, he would have gained 32,000 points and potentially ended the game right there.

But Dave was a hero. Abandoning any notions of grandeur, he quickly called for some tiles. A few turns later, he won, and off the player with that amazing hand no less. Crisis averted. It was only after Dave’s smooth counter-offense that we realized how much danger we were really in. I may have won the game overall, but did I really?

See you guys around again. Playing has made me want to scope out the Dutch mahjong associations that I know exist.

It’s Been a Long Time, But Let’s Mahjong!

It’s been a few months since I’ve been able to attend, but tomorrow is another four-hour-long mahjong session with the guys over at the US Professional Mahjong League. I’ve had a whole lot of fun every time I’ve been there, and there’s nothing like playing the game in person.

If you’re in the New York City area and have some modicum of mahjong experience (having only ever played online is okay!), then you should come check it out. Don’t forget to RSVP on the official site.

Once again, it will be at:

Simple Studios
134 W. 29th Street (b/t 6th and 7th)
2nd Floor
New York, NY 10001

Map to Location

The event will be on Sunday, July 25th from 3PM to 7PM

Experience real tension with real mahjong!

May’s Live Mahjong Event: Where a Boy Becomes a Mangan

The United States Professional Mahjong League is holding another free play event this Sunday, May 16. If you’ve only played mahjong online and live in the New York City area, this is your chance to play against live opponents in Japanese-style mahjong aka “riichi” mahjong. Saki was right when the show said that playing on the internet and playing live are subtly different due to the external factors, and it’s an experience I recommend anyone try out. And it’s free!

Sadly I can’t make it this time around either, but don’t let that stop you from enjoying yourself.

Now if you’re really not sure whether you should be hanging with the “big boys,” no one is particularly amazing at mahjong to the extent that you’ll feel helpless. This is indeed one of the strengths of mahjong. You might see me talking about the game pretty often now, but realize that I’m not good at the game. It would be a stretch to call me “intermediate.” But I still win some sweet hands and have lots of fun. If you have experience playing at all, even if it’s just a little, you’ll likely do fine, and no one will admonish you for forgetting some rules.

But if you’re really worried about not knowing enough to play, or you know so little that you’d prefer to read “Baby’s First Riichi Mahjong,” then take heart in the fact that they’re also holding a tutorial event for absolute beginners on Sunday, May 23. The rules can seem quite overwhelming, but actually mahjong is a game you can ease yourself into with just a bit of patience.

The location for both events is:

Simple Studios
134 W. 29th Street (b/t 6th and 7th)
2nd Floor
New York, NY 10001

Don’t forget to RSVP on the forums, particularly with the tutorial session, as space is limited.

Take My Place, Fair Citizens, at the Mahjong Table

So a bunch of stuff has come up all of a sudden in my life, and this will prevent me from going to the monthly Riichi Mahjong sessions held by the US Professional Mahjong League in New York City.

But while I am unable to go, another continues to champion the cause, and you can join him in his endeavors to bring on the “its.” If you barely know how to play, that’s really not a problem, as it’s a friendly learning environment, and you get free snacks and soft drinks to soften the blow to your fragile ego. You’ll reach Akagi level someday. Or at the very least, Kanbara levels.

Wahaha.

This month’s Open Play session will be this Sunday, April 25th. The address is below.

Simple Studios
134 W. 29th Street (b/t 6th and 7th)
2nd Floor
New York, NY 10001

I’ll see you there.

What to Buy, Man? Why, a Mahjong Set of Course!

The March gathering of the US Professional Mahjong League was possibly the most exciting yet.

For those who don’t know the USPML is devoted to playing Japanese-style mahjong, which is probably best known for the ability to declare a hand as “ready” or “riichi” in order to score extra points and to clearly reveal yourself as the aggressor. While I was without my usual accomplice on this occasion, I was joined by thedigitalbug, who I believe had heard of these mahjong sessions from my previous posts on the subject.

We played two games total, one east + south game and a quick east-only game after that. The first game was quite intense, with people declaring ron and tsumo all over the place, and not a single round ending due to all the tiles being drawn. I was the first to lose points in the match, getting hit for a decent amount, but my fortune was reversed as I managed to win using a high scoring hand which turned the tables of the match and put me in the lead. Actually, at first I thought my hand was worth less than it actually was, misreading my “junchan” (All sets have at least a 1 or 9 in them) hand as the similar and less valuable “chanta” (All sets have at least a 1, 9, or “honor” kanji on them). On top of that, by declaring riichi and winning instantly off of it, my hand’s score increased further. In total, I netted 12,000 points. To give an idea of scale, for these sessions we start with 29,000 points each and games typically use 25,000.

By the final round I was about 17,000 points in the lead, and the other players were scrambling for second place. With such a comfortable lead, I could have very well ended the game by intentionally dealing into another player’s hand, but thanks to a mix of luck, greed, good reading of the game, and even a fortunate accident, I managed to end the game on a very high note.

For this round, I started my hand with two 8-su (bamboo), which was the bonus “dora” tile. If you have seen Akagi, the “dora” tile was the centerpiece in the final battle between young Akagi and the blind player Ichikawa (in that instance it was the pure white “haku” tile). Seeing another 8-su discarded, I called for it, which, while improving my potential score, also limited its freedom by removing the only pair I had in my hand. Having a pair in your hand is a vital part of winning at mahjong, and I could have very well thrown my only opportunity away.

Things were looking good however, especially because I had two of the “south” wind tiles which in sets of three are worth extra, provided you are playing in the south round, or alternately if you’re sitting in the south position. Both of these criteria applied to me at the time so I would score off of both of these if I won. However, when I looked down, I realized my opponent had already discarded a south tile and I had simply failed to notice it. Silently cursing, I waited for the next opportunity, hoping that the last south tile (there are four total in a set) would fly out of someone’s hand. As luck turns out, the same player who had discarded it previously believed it to be a safe tile and decided to toss it out again. Seizing the opportunity, I called for it, and was one step closer to completing my hand. Now the open parts of my hand looked truly threatening, and the other players were surely aware of it.

In the end though, they were unable to stop me, and with a shout of “Ron!” I won off of a player’s discard. My hand ended up being the following:

Toitoiho (All triplets)
Honitsu (Psuedo-flush)
Bakaze (Round wind)
Jikaze (Seat wind)
Dora 3 (3 bonus tiles)

Which all together looks like this:

A demigodly hand

In total, this hand was worth a “Baiman,” or 18,000 points. Winning like this was a rare and wonderful feeling, like I was actually in a mahjong anime and lightning and thunder had come crashing down as I revealed my hand. Actually, I once again did not initially notice just how much the hand was worth, and had to have someone tell me its true value.

What’s funny about this win was that had I paid more attention in the match, I would have probably called on the first discarded south wind tile, which would have then changed the flow of the match considerably. It was possibly my brief lack of concentration which let me win so gloriously.

After some mutual handshakes and a quick break, we started the next game. Here, I did not do so well, scoring dead last, but I did manage to get one good hand in, and I had better concentration than last time. Previously, I had made the mistake of drinking too much soda, which dehydrated me and wore me down and hampered my ability to focus, but this time I went with a non-caffeinated root beer as well as a bottle of water. I still lost, but at least felt alert the whole way through.

I had a great time, as I do every time, and I don’t mean that simply because I won so hard that I accidentally impregnated a woman half-way around the world. It just reminded me that while online mahjong is certainly fun, the direct human element is irreplaceable.

As for the Pringles, they were available once again, but this time I ate them with a pair of chopsticks. Yes, it was rad.

Now It’s YOUR Turn to Survive a Deadly Game of Chicken

For those of you who were regaled by my tales of exciting mahjong (as well as the tales of others) but were saddened by the fact that you yourself were not able to participate, fear not! There is a new opportunity for you (yes you!) to participate in a live session of Japanese-style “riichi” mahjong! Well, provided you live in the New York area.

This month’s “US Professional Mahjong League” meeting is Sunday, March 28, 2010 from 3-7pm. Address and further information are here. If you’re going, make sure to RSVP on the forums.

I’ll most likely be there, ready to lose.

Passionate Fiery Mahjong 2 – The Dora Revenge Wave

Just as I had in January, this past weekend I participated in another live session of Japanese-style mahjong, aka “Riichi” or “Reach” mahjong. It’s held by the “United States Professional Mahjong League,” but don’t take that name too seriously. These are not a bunch of hardened grizzled tile veterans who have mastered the game.

Since last time I’d done some more reading on the various types of mahjong out there, from Chinese to Korean to the outright outlandish American style (which features “jokers” of all things), and discovered that, for various reasons, Japanese mahjong is considered much more of a defensive game than the others. Not that this knowledge really helped me too much, but it was a new way of looking at the game. It also makes it clear why Akagi is so crazy: when it comes to his chosen game, a game where “not losing” is generally more important than “winning,” as Sub often puts it, Akagi is an incredibly aggressive player.

Speaking of Sub, he was there too, and we played two hanchan sessions together, i.e. the format which takes longer. I managed to do both well and terribly, winning the first session, where my waits were effective, and then hitting dead last in the second session, where I was largely unable to do anything.

Luck factors aside, and mahjong is certainly full of them, the big thing I realized about myself when it comes to the art of tile-slinging is that I have some issues with mental stamina. After a while, I was just making bad decisions because I couldn’t focus. Not to say I would’ve won had I done that, but I could actually feel my concentration slipping away partway through the second hanchan as I struggled to even think of hands to aim for. It’s something I really have to watch out for; maybe I should bring some fresh fruit to the event to keep my brain sharp and ready.

Or I could keep eating Pringles. Speaking of which, isn’t it amazing that the craving for Pringles feels so different from the craving for normal potato chips? I know I’m amazed.