How to improve at Riichi Mahjong
By Nima with input from Bryant
Intermediate Lesson 1
Mahjong is a game where every decision matters. Every decision you make as a player permanently affects the gamestate and influences every future decision, both yours and your opponents’. This is why every choice counts. What tile to discard each turn, whether or not to call, whether to riichi or dama; you make hundreds of decisions in a single hanchan, many of them without even thinking.
All too often, when pressed for an explanation, some players respond with something like, “that’s just my style”, or “I felt like it”. These “reasons” are really just excuses. Players who give these types of responses are practically admitting that they are either not thinking about the choices they made or are unable to articulate their reasoning. Either way, players who cannot speak to their decisions have no real grounds to evaluate them. Hiding behind the facade of “personal choice” might bring players comfort because it makes them feel immune to judgement, but it is precisely this feeling that serves as a blockade to improvement for so many people.
If someone asks why you made a certain play, you should attempt to explain your decision to them. The explanation does not have to be entirely correct or comprehensive, but you should have at least some reason. Did you call that tile because you thought the increase in speed was worth the drop in value and defense? Did you declare riichi because you wanted to make the other players defend, or because you thought they would not discard your winning tiles anyway? Riichi mahjong is an incredibly deep game, and every situation is different, so do not worry about giving a “perfect” answer. Even if your reasoning is flawed, being able to discuss your decision-making process with someone else subjects you to review and provides you the opportunity to learn and improve.
That being said, you should also keep an open mind when discussing strategies. If another player criticizes your choices, try to understand their perspective first. It may be upsetting to have someone challenge your decisions, but it is an excellent way to improve. Think of this another way: it is unlikely that you would knowingly make poor choices during a game, so having another player’s insight could let you fix mistakes that you might not have noticed. There is no absolutely no need to take these criticisms personally; they reflect your play, not you as a person. Treasure this exchange as a opportunity to learn and improve.
Sometimes disagreements are inevitable, even after offering detailed explanations, and that is okay. You do not have to agree exactly; as long as you are able to rectify major lapses in logic, the exchange is already productive. Furthermore, it is entirely possible that you can change another player’s mind by explaining your reasoning. In this way, all players have the potential to benefit from this type of review. Even if you disagree with another player, you can still learn from this process.
So how can you practice explaining your decisions? The best way would be to discuss your choices as you make them, but you normally cannot talk like that during a game of mahjong. However, if you play mahjong in a video game, you could speak aloud about all of your decisions. Even if it is just to yourself, the point is for you to articulate your reasoning. Of course, having a fellow player with whom to discuss would be even better as they might have valuable insight. The most effective method would be to form a review group and play with all hands face-up. With all hands open like this, everyone can discuss every play in real time. Such an exercise may be time-consuming, but the rewards are well worth it.
Competitive mahjong players frequently discuss strategy and review each other’s play in this way. They review game records to see what they might have done differently, and they discuss interesting crossroads they encountered. This is done all the way up to the professional level.
Riichi mahjong is a game with no skill ceiling, so there is always room for improvement. One is not guaranteed to improve simply by playing more; it takes a conscious effort to make progress. Review is vital in improving your skills in mahjong, as is in many other things in life. Be conscious of your own thoughts, have the grit to review them, and be open to new perspectives; that much is necessary if you are to attain new heights.