In my spare time...I'm learning to play Mah Jong

My husband inherited a Mah Jong set a few months ago. It is a Chinese game of skill, strategy, intelligence, calculation and luck. The set consists of 144 rectangular tiles. With three different suits and the equivalent of court cards (dragons and winds), the general aim is to compile a recognised hand from a random mix.

The game is intended for four and can go on for days, but we play a shorter, home-grown version for two. It begins with the tiles being shuffled face down, a process known as ‘the twittering of the sparrows’‚ as they gently click against one another. A four-sided wall is then constructed and dice dictate the point from which each player draws 13 tiles. By discarding and drawing a tile in turn, the winner is the first to present a winning hand, which can vary from the complex to the relatively simple.

The skill comes from recognising which hand to aim for and changing as circumstances dictate. While I haven’t yet got beyond the more basic variants, I did win within my first few games. Another benefit is that it may look complicated to play, but it is really only the scoring that is difficult. I recommend keeping a guidebook close at hand.

Play can be as social or as serious as you want. And the elements of ritual, from the shuffling of the tiles to the building of the wall, originally intended to restrict cheating when playing for money, lend Mah Jong a gravitas that other games lack.

My husband grew up playing Mah Jong and says the sound of happiness is the quiet clicking of tiles by the gentle crackle of a log fire. But if that sounds too tame to you, you can always throw some money into the mix.

Dr Zoe Kelion is a GP in west London

Find a set and a guide

Mah-Jong sets

One-off traditional boxed sets. Unique gift ideas.


Headley and Seeley.

Mah Jong — Know the Game. A&C Black. ISBN 0 71 366009 0

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