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Experiences with Japanese Mahjong

Thoughts on the PML Riichi Mahjong Open 2016

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Hello everyone! I’m back with another article. And this time I would like to share the coolest mahjong experience I’ve had in North America. The Pacific Mahjong League Mahjong Open 2016 occurred on September 10-11 in San Francisco, CA. (Better late than never, right?) The Pacific Mahjong League (PML) is a mahjong group located in California. PML was associated with the Bugmoney tournaments, which I commentated for a few years ago, and they’ve been growing quite a lot recently from what I’ve heard. First of all, I would like to thank them for running such a great event and look forward to what they come up with in the future. I haven’t had time to put down all my thoughts about the event until now, but just like the NYC tournament they are!

The Venue

This tournament took place in a Holiday Inn that was very close to the SFO airport. I had to fly to this tournament, so this location was pretty convenient. Also the fact that it was in a hotel meant that players coming from all over had a place to stay (although I didn’t use this option since I stayed at a friend’s place in SF.) There was also a restaurant in the hotel, but it wasn’t very good or memorable.


The Tournament Room with AMOS tables


USB charger built into the table!

The most notable aspect of the tournament was that every table was automatic. This was one of the main reasons I really wanted to attend the event. Compared to NYC, the games went much faster, and I was not frustrated with games being unfinished. Out of 8 hanchan I played, only one hanchan was unfinished (because there was a chonbo). Six of the tables were Japanese AMOS automatic tables, and I believe that the rest were Chinese automatic tables. My only criticism is that some of the tiles on the Chinese tables might have been American sets because there were Arabic numbers on them and they were really hard to look at. (See Anecdotes below.)


Chinese Auto Table: This was the table with the largest tiles which were REALLY big. I played on this table 3 times during the tournament and the tiles would always thud them played.

The Format

The PML Riichi Mahjong Open followed the WRC ruleset just like the NYC tournament. One of the main differences between this ruleset and Tenhou/jansou is the akadora (red dora). Aka ari is the most popular game mode on Tenhou and almost ubiquitous in jansou while WRC rules ban akadora. The WRC uma is very flat (+15, +5, -5, -15) so raw point scores tend to matter the most. The time limit was 70 minutes, but at 10 minutes, an announcement would be made to finish the current hand and play one more. I was very impressed by the number of people at the tournament. There were 13 tables meaning 52 players total! There was a cutoff after the first 6 hanchans where the current top 8 players fought for the top 8 places while everyone else tried to improve their placement for ranks 9-52 during the final 2 hanchans.

I’m not sure whether I like this cutoff format or not. Having played in 2 tournaments like this where I didn’t do well on the first day but did well on the second day, I think that tournaments where overall performance should be used to determine final placement. The benefit is that it would reduce the luck factor given the small number of hanchan played. If a player gets unlucky in the first half of the tournament, he/she has no way of making it into the top 8. On the other hand, having a a cutoff makes things more interesting to watch because there is a semi-final and final round. Perhaps I’m biased since I’ve been on the bad side of this system twice, but I still believe that other tournament formats should be tried.

An interesting thing that PML did was have a live online ranking on their website. At the time of writing, the ranking has been taken down, but there is a record of the scores of each hand for every hanchan. This required every riichi and the score of every hand to be recorded. When a riichi was declared, the table would have to call a referee over to record the riichi. Whenever a hand was scored, a referee would be required to have the score reported. I think PML did a good job with making sure that this process didn’t slow down games, but having more referees would definitely be better for this system given that many games are being played concurrently.


Top 10 Players: Due to the cutoff, the top 8 may have lower scores since they play each other and cannot drop out of the top 8. After hanchan 7, the top 4 play each other and cannot drop out of the top 4.

The Players

This time around the caliber of players was much higher. Although there were still several players that were clearly novices, I got the impression that everyone knew how to play competently (i.e. not super slowly). In terms of skill, it was about what I expected. If I had to classify players using the Tenhou system, I would say that it was mostly ippan, some joukyuu, and maybe a handful of tokujou players or higher. I didn’t get the chance to play every player. This is simply my overall impression of the players at the event. While I was playing, I still heard several chonbos (see Anecdotes), so the level of mahjong in NA still has a lot of room for improvement. I hope this trend of players getting better at each event continues in the future.


My stories from the tournament

1.”Neutral”: My starting hanchan was really flat in terms of score and kind of set the tone for the rest of my games. East 1 I called yakuhai for tenpai with 2 dora. I had a ryanmen wait on 1,4 sou but was not winning despite being in tenpai since ~7th turn. Finally late game, the player to my right players 9 sou. “Ron,” says the player across from me. He had closed chinitsu with a shanpon wait on 1,9 sou. Haneman. During hanchan, I did not deal into a single hand and only won one cheap hand. Thus I ended up in 2nd place with 30,000 points, which was the starting score. Fun fact: over the course of the hanchan, everyone except me dealt into a hand worth 12,000 points. #facepalm #whatisdefense

2. “Close Game…for Some”: Hanchan 2 was really close for me. The general trend I observed was that one player would be really low on points while one player would have a lot of points. Either that or the other 3 players would be relatively even. I was still on an unlucky streak. I only won 1 or 2 cheap hands, and 2 players got a few mangan tsumos. I had a potential game winning hand in South 4 with a chiitoitsu dora 2 shape, but I couldn’t get tenpai and 1st place ended it with a damaten pinfu ron on 4th. I came in 3rd with 31, 100 points while 2nd place had 32,000 points. Thus the -5 uma for 3rd made me negative.

3.”Noob”: The combination of a novice at the table and bad luck screwed me over in hanchan 3. The player to my right was the dealer and had 1 call (double east). The player across from me called kan on the 5 pin. The new dora was 4 man which the novice to my left played. The dealer ponned the dora for a guaranteed mangan hand. I tried to defend but ran out of safe tiles. Due to the 5 pin kan and the fact that I could see all the 8 pin, I played 6 pin and the dealer ronned me for mangan with a shanpon. During the south round, was dealer and the dora was 6 man. I started with a pair of 6 man as well as several other pairs. I ponned the 8 sou early and discarded hatsu. However my later draws made the hand almost ryuuiisou! I had 22244466sou, 66man, and 8 sou pon. Thus I was in tenpai for guaranteed mangan with a potential haneman or baiman tsumo. The player across played 8 sou. “Ron,” declares the novice to my left. He reveals his hand. I see that he has a nobetan (extended pair wait) 5678sou. Searching for his yaku, I see south in the left part of his hand. Since it is the south round, south is yakuhai, however when I looked at it more closely, I noticed something strange. His closed yakuhai triplet was south, south, … and west. In other words, it was a chonbo.

4. “How to renchan”: I was walking around and looking at other tables after my game finished early. I noticed in the rankings that some players had extremely high scores even after playing only a few hanchans. This was disappointing to me since I had yet to score mangan. I went to one table that was still in progress. I looked at the score and was shocked. 1st place was ~60,000, 2nd place (the dealer) was ~50,000, 3rd was ~10,000, and 4th was ~-10,000. 1st place declares riichi followed by the dealer declaring riichi. Several turns later, the dealer tsumos. He tsumo’d 3 sou for an edge wait for ittsuu. “Tsumo. Mangan,” he said. “4,000 all with 7 honba.” I groaned on the inside. I had figured out how some people were putting up ridiculously high scores.

5. “Tilt”: Hanchan 4 was my worst hanchan. I was still on my streak of not winning. Fun fact: I did not win a hand worth more than 5800 in the first 4 hanchans. South 1 I was the dealer but dealt into South’s riichi ippatsu double south. For the rest of the hanchan, I decided to just push instead of trying to minimize my lossed. I ended the hanchan in 4th with 14,500 points.

6. “Suuankou Tanki”: While I was playing one of games, I head some commotion from another part of the room. After murmurs and whispers propagated through the room, I heard that someone won suuankou tanki! I was impressed by the yakuman but at the same time groaning because I was getting really flat scores. However after the hanchan, someone came up to me and said, “Hey, did you hear? That suuankou tanki was a chombo!” Apparently it went something like this: the suuankou tanki ron was declared, and everyone got excited and took pictures. As they were pushing the tiles into the center, someone said, “Wait, I saw a 3 pin in your discards!” Looking at the pictures, it was confirmed that the player was unfortunately furiten. The lesson here is never take pictures of your yakuman.

7. “Free Play Stomp”: After a disappointing day in the tournament, there’s no better way than to mess around in free play. During free play, some crazy hands happened. Somebody at my table got suuankou tsumo with ippatsu. Another game I got over 70,000 points. There was one instance where I missed a pon to get tanyao tenpai. Instead I drew an ankou for tenpai then got riichi ippatsu tsumo for baiman. During free play, I somehow managed to get huge scores. It felt pretty good since I hadn’t won anything higher than 3 han the whole day. Unfortunately they didn’t count for anything, but nevertheless I had a lot of fun.

8. “It was at this moment Garthe knew he f*cked up”: For hanchan 5, I was going to play Garthe Nelson, who was one of the pros at the tournament (as well as Thomas R. the winner of the NYC tournament!). I won the hanchan by taking an early lead in East 1 with yakuhai dora, but there is one hand that I remember in particular. Garthe was the dealer and sitting across from me. He declared riichi in the first row. I didn’t have any safe tiles, so I tried to find something relatively safe. I had a 5 sou ankou, so I played a 3 sou. Luckily it passed and that hand ended with Thomas winning honitsu toitoi houtei (iirc). After the hanchan, Garthe told me, “When I saw you play the 3 sou, I knew I was in trouble because you were pushing. You probably had multiple 5 sou and might have thought the 3 sou was safe. My wait was 2,5 sou.” I was quite impressed from his read because it was exactly what I was thinking, although I ended up folding in the end. さすがプロ。(Also I finally won my first mangan of the tournament. The back luck streak ended.)

9. “Jenn and Daisangen”: For hanchan 6, I was able to play Jenn Barr, another pro at the tournament. There are a few moments I remember from that hanchan. First was when I got daisangen. My starting hand included chun ankou, 344678 pin, and both hatsu and haku. Someone played haku on the first turn, but soon after I paired up the hatsu and haku. Someone played hatsu, so I ponned and chose to wait on haku and 4 pin instead of 2,5 pin. The player to my left immediately played 2 pin after I got tenpai and I drew 5 pin as well. These were disappointing, but I needed to go big to improve my ranking. Thus I was searching for the last haku. In Japanese Mahjong, the haku is the easiest tile to feel because it is blank and feels smooth. As soon as I drew the haku, I knew instantly what it was. Tsumo! Daisangen! To top it off, it was my first daisangen ever, so I was really excited.


大三元 Unfortunately this mahjong set isn’t very pretty

Also in that hanchan, I was the last dealer and was trying to go on a streak to get as many points as possible to improve my ranking. I actually missed a ron accidentally. I had something like 1233444 pin and a couple open pons which included 1 yakuhai. Someone played 3 pin and I said, “Pon!” It was my mistake, but then I rationalized it by going for toitoi. Unfortunately I didn’t win that hand, but it was a funny mistake.

10. “Atamahane”: In hanchan 7, I managed to pull off a head bump or “atamahane.” I noticed the player to my right was going (shimocha) for toitoi and had called 3 times. When I reached tenpai, I had to choose between a pair wait of 6 man or 7 man since I already had 4 other sets. I chose the 6 man wait and didn’t riichi. I had iipeikou, so I could ron if the tile came out. Soon after the player to my left (kamicha) played 6m. Shimocha and I both said ron, but under the tournament rules, only my hand counted. #snipe Also in that hanchan, I had a suuankou tenpai but had to ron. At least it was haneman! (toitoi, sanankou, and double south)

11. “Furiten dora 3”: For my last hanchan, I think East 1 set the mood and was the most memorable. I saw that the dora indicator was the 5 pin meaning the dora was 6 pin. I grabbed my first four tiles and there were three 6p. This was going to be a good hand. I intended to open the hand for tanyao but never got the chance. However I did get to tenpai, but an early 1 man discard made me furiten. My final wait was 147m with a 2344567m shape. Since I had three dora and a good wait, I decided to riichi. Even if the others push against my riichi, I know they won’t have much value. Also a good wait means that I can tsumo. It worked out in the end since I tsumo’d a 4m for haneman (riichi, tanyao, tsumo, dora 3). Also in this hanchan, I played with Zachery F., who represented USA at the WRC in 2014 and made it into the top 32 cutoff, and with Aldwin G., who is a very active member of the online mahjong community and a chatterbox. 😛

Sorry for the late post, but I was busy and had a lot to things to share. Overall the tournament was a lot of fun, and I met a lot of cool people. For example, I met some Japanese players from LA and I met someone from the same area as me! I was a little salty at times, but reflecting on the plays I made is a learning experience. Everyone at the tournament got a prize, so I got a signed copy of Jenn Barr’s book! Again I would like to thank everyone at the PML especially the organizers and referees. Thanks to their hard work, the event ran smoothly, and it seemed like everyone had a good time. I hope the mahjong player base continues to grow and improve in NA. I’m looking forward to more tournaments in the future, and I hope to see you there!

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