Well Suit-ed

There are a bunch of things I can post about now that I’m back in the US.  I just have been trying to recover from the time difference while a pet is rather sick.

I actually thought about posting from Shanghai this post, but I just didn’t have the infrastructure that I do at home.

So, mahjong.

But, first, go.  I’ve never played go.  In a later post, I’ll talk about the games I played on my trip that I had never played previously.  But, it was funny that I woke up from multiple dreams on the same night dreaming about playing my first go match.  I think reading an article in China Daily about a go player had something to do with that.

I was asked what style we should play.  We had done half my family’s style and half a current popular style in China on one trip, followed by only the latter on another trip.  What I hadn’t played in 9 years was a/the Shanghainese style where you can only win with all one suit or all pungs.

One of our players hadn’t played the style before.  He didn’t do well.  I thought there was an additional rule that I had played under, I think something about declaration of being ready, but I haven’t been able to remember it.  So, it was pretty straightforward.

Cons

I don’t know if there’s an optimal style out there.  By style, talking about a combination of rules for what a legal winning hand is and how hands are scored, with the latter often being the greater variance, though having dragons act as flowers is a pretty big deal when it comes to play.

When I first played the style, the big drawback to me was that you knew what a lot of safe tiles were once a hand developed.  You had an incentive to eliminate suits early and play for rather limiting hands.

I still find it kind of odd to dispense with tiles that I’d normally cultivate in other styles, and I think it can be a bit easy to fall into excessively defensive play.  However, having played more, I do feel there are more things going on than what first appears and that there’s some strategic thinking that one can bring to the table.

I was definitely prone to playing far too defensively at first.  Because I could.  Various styles I’ve played don’t reward you much for defensive play, including the style I’ve played the most – my family’s.

I almost wonder if somewhere between my family’s style, where who discards the winning tile usually doesn’t matter, and a lot of other styles, where only the person who discards the winning tile pays exclusive of self-picked victories, there is an optimal middle path.  I kind of like the symmetry of discarder pays full and the other two players pay half, but that’s bad math, so discarder pays double would make more sense.

One thing about self-picked wins is that the local styles make these rather valuable.  If I win off of someone’s discard some 20 point hand, I gain 20 at the cost of someone else.  If I pick the winning tile (ignoring possible concealed bonuses), I gain 60 points.  That’s a huge swing.  When I first played with current coworkers, I won one or two hands by drawing the winning tile early, which gave me such a cushion that I could play defensively the rest of the time and pretty much guarantee coming out ahead.

Pros

I compare and contrast with my family’s style.  In my family’s style, all one suit is rather rare and all pungs is extremely rare.  As one of the reasons to play mahjong over cards is the aesthetic appeal of the tiles, all one suit and all pungs are both prettier winning hands.  While all pungs is still only one fan (i.e. double) in this Shanghainese style, it’s still far more common because of how limited winning hands can be.  All pungs should probably be two fans in my family’s style to compensate for the difficulty, though there’s a counterargument that all pung hands tend to be relatively good scoring hands due to how prevalent winds and dragons show up in them and how random flowers are in our style.

One thing I felt this go around but don’t recall the first go around is how you need to be flexible and committed in different ways than normal.  What the players to your left and right are doing matters a ton.  If the player to your left is in your suit, you are going to see hardly any discards of that suit to chow and one less player to pung off of.  If you are on the other side of this relationship, your right hand player is probably screwed unless they get ready off of draws, then your late game discards are incredibly dangerous.

I was generally playing my hands early on, keeping to my long suits even when nothing was progressing.  Later on, I got more flexible to the idea of either giving up on a stronger suit or just holding off to see what sort of draws I’d get, as drawing lots of tiles in a single suit can radically change the winning potential of a hand, where other styles are more prone to general value add from connected suit tiles.

Dragons and winds.  In my family’s style, unless you are going for a big scoring hand or difficult hands that rarely pay off, you discard winds that aren’t your own right away.  In this style (and others), there’s no concept of “your” wind.  In my family’s style, dragons are common early discards, we really play a lot to all chows (i.e. runs) as an easy way to win with a decent score.  Hoping to draw into pairs of winds or dragons is typically a loser’s path.  Also, you usually establish your “eye” (i.e. required pair) before you become ready or have some multiple way call that creates your eye.

With this style, because you are more limited in what can win and because winds and dragons always go with all one suit or all pungs, they have a lot of late game value.  Actually, a wind or dragon that has been discarded once often makes for a good eye.  That’s usually an awful call in what I’m used to.

Again, aesthetics.  Winds and dragons shouldn’t be automatic discards 90% of the time.  That loses flavor.

As mentioned, you can play this style very defensively, if you want.  I kept losing chips, winning no hands until about half way into our three hour session.  That came from focusing on not discarding winning tiles rather than realizing that it can be really hard for other players to make ready, too, and focusing more on giving myself a chance to gain chips.  In aggro styles, like my family’s, it’s usually a tactical decision to play defensively, with the possible exception of how the North player has added responsibility to “move the bank”.

A pro, in that interesting decisions are interesting, is how pairs of suit tiles have extra value.  Punging in a suit doesn’t commit you to the suit or to all pungs.  A number of styles don’t really encourage pungs because they break connectivity in your hand (and prevent all concealed bonuses).

Kongs are often not that exciting in my family’s style.  “Ten” more points or whatever just doesn’t usually matter and the odds of picking the winning tile from the flower garden for that fan are low.  But, in these styles, it can be rather scary if someone completes a kong and has a chance for the extra fan as even just the base score increase is nontrivial.

Lot more pros listed than cons, but I still wouldn’t say this style is normal.  And, whatever additional rule I played under before or that I think I played under before left me thinking that the format was a bit more luck based than what we were playing this time.

Shifting Winds

One thing I find interesting is how we go to MaiDanLao for dinner before we play because the place we go to is just down a driveway from it.  This would not likely be the case after the office moves, if it moves.

It cost all of 60 RMB for the four of us to play for three hours.  That’s like $2.25 per person for getting to use an automated table, having chips provided, not having to clean up our MaiDanLao waste, having privacy with no real cigarette smell even though there are ash trays.

So, how did I, supergrandmaster (a joke no one will get, let’s just say certain sudoku collections top out at a level higher than grand master), fare?  I lost 20% of my stack.  I was done to like 20% of my stack, maybe 10%, at one point before I shifted to focusing more on trying to win … and finally won a couple of hands.  The last hand, I had three possibilities for winning.  I don’t say chances because that means something a bit different.  I was down to one tile.  I chose to discard North and keep an eight of characters, as I didn’t want to be forced to discard a wind/dragon later in the hand.  Two other players cleared out their single copies of North immediately after my discard.  I agonized over keeping the eight or switching to a one of characters, neither had any copies in play.  I discarded the eight and immediately drew another eight.  I forgot what the other possibility was, maybe just that someone could have discarded a one but didn’t.

If I get a discard for the win, I’m up a bit overall.  If I kept the eight and picked, I’m big time up.  The math on whether to go eight or go one is not the sort of thing I bother with calculating.  I think there were sevens out somewhere, making me believe there was a good chance someone had a pair of eights in hand, but I could be totally not recalling.  I just figured an end tile discard was a bit more likely, though an eight wasn’t an unlikely discard.

It felt like we played for a very long time.  Maybe three hours is a pretty good chunk of time, especially when I’m adjusting to the time difference and would normally go to bed between 6PM and 8PM if I had nothing to do.  It was just really pleasant.  We don’t play for money, so there isn’t much pressure or frustration (at the randomness of higher scoring hands).  It was a good level of randomness.

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