Jenn’s Corner #3: Mahjong Parlors

ImageI would like to use this week to talk about Mahjong Parlors (‘jansou’) in Japan. There are parlors in other countries as well, but it is definitely an entirely different culture in Japan.

Imagine a dark, smoke-filled room holding a few strange perfectly square-shaped tables topped with green. Four people with visible tattoos and greasy hair sit in the middle of the room with cigarettes hanging from their lips, an audience of 7 or 8 scary-looking fellows gathered around and a wad of cash on 2 tables. Sound like a place you wanna visit?

If it is, you are out of luck. The type of place I just described only exists in Japanese comic books. While they are sometimes smokey, many Mahjong Parlors in Japan are clean, brightly lit with low stakes that are highly regulated. Despite operating through loopholes of the law, I always feel safe in Mahjong Parlors.

Finding a parlor in Tokyo, and most other parts of Japan, is a piece of cake. But how do you choose the right one? How do you know what the rate is? What do you do if you don’t know anyone there? How much money should you prepare for bad days? What if you can’t speak Japanese? A lot to think about, but keep in mind, gambling in a foreign country, especially a country where gambling is illegal, is not a bad thing to be cautious about.

So let’s start from the beginning. First, find a place. If you have a friend willing to go, it’s is definitely OK to go to a parlor in pairs. Three people is a little tricky, I wouldn’t recommend going in a trio unless you plan to play a 3-player game. It is much better to get a fourth and rent a table for yourself. So let’s concentrate on casino-style Mahjong. In Japan it’s called “Free Mahjong”, meaning that you are not tied down to your own friends and are ‘free’ to play with others. I made that definition up… Anyone know the original meaning?

Moving along, there are many advertisements in the Kindai Mahjong comic biweekly and also signs for most Mahjong Parlors on the buildings in which they reside. Many parlors nowadays have websites. Sometime’s you will see Mahjong Tiles on the sign or in the advertisement. These are explaining the rate. The tiles used are dots. The first one is the amount of money per 1000 points. The second is the bonus for the second-place winner and the third is the extra bonus for the first-place winner. Three 5’s on the sign is advertising the use of red 5’s.

Next, let’s walk in. Casino-style Mahjong Parlors have a place to sit while you wait. Sit down and wait to be approached by a Member (staff). They will get you a drink, a towel and explain the rules used in play. If there is a card-system, they will accept your deposit and exchange some cash for house-cards used like chips in a casino. They will take your first game fee out of the deposit. There are many places with subtle house rules, but most parlors stick to the same basics when it comes to play and scoring, so let’s get those out first. Some places play for cash and only take your first game fee.

Almost all Mahjong Parlors have a starting score of 25,000 and a return of 30,000. Think of the 5,000 point difference as a buy-in pot that the 1st-place winner keeps at the end. In addition, there is always a bonus or ‘Horse’ for the 1st and 2nd-place winners paid for by the 3rd and 4th place losers. Unlike the JPML A-rules, there are rarely 3rd-place winners in casino-style Mahjong. A normal Horse is 1-2 or 1-3, meaning that the 2nd place winner will get an extra 10,000 points and the 1st-place winner will get an extra 20,000 or 30,000 points. Most Parlors round a non-dealer’s 7700 point hand win to 8000 and a dealer’s 11,600 win to 12,000. Most parlors use 3 or 4 red tiles, usually one of each 5 and sometimes 2 red 5 of dots. Sometimes one of the 5 of dots will be gold instead of red. Red and gold 5’s always count the same as a Drag (lucky dragon), giving you one extra hand point for each hand won. In addition, there is a monetary bonus for using red and gold 5’s.

So let’s talk rates. The most common rates when playing casino-style in Tokyo are Point 3, Point 5 and 1. This explains the amount awarded for each 1,000 points you have over 30,000 at the end of the game. Point 3 is 30 yen, Point 5 is 50 yen and 1 is 100 yen. Point 5 is a very comfortable rate for both beginners and seasoned players so let’s use it as an example. At your average Point 5 Mahjong parlor, the ‘horse’ is going to be 10,000 points and 20,000 points. The prize for red 5’s will be 100 yen each. Often there is also a 100 yen bonus for pushing someone else under 0 points (also ending the game) and a 1000-1500 yen bonus for winning a Super Hand (limit hand). So the final score and payout would look like this:

Placing Final Score Horse Ante (1st Place) First Total Subtract 30,000 return Divide by a thousand Payout (points times 50)
1st 45,200 +20,000 +20,000 85,200 +55,200 +54 +2,700yen
2nd 32,500 +10,000 42,500 +12,500 +13 +650yen
3rd 21,700 -10,000 11,700 -18,300 -18 -900yen
4th 600 -20,000 -19,400 -49,400 -49 -2450yen

The totals are often rounded to the nearest hundred. As you can see, just for getting first place you get a 2000 yen bonus. The game fee usually costs 300-400 yen. So for a Point 5 game, take 10,000 yen with you and plan for 4 games. If you win you can keep going and if you lose, well, think of it as a cheap lesson fee. Also, since the first-place score is often counted last, the rounding errors get saved up into the first-place person’s score. That’s why the rounded score is 54 instead of 55.

There are also Mahjong Parlors that offer rate-less games just for fun and even Costume Parlors that feature girls in maid, cat and other costumes while they play with you! Check out our ‘Parlors’ section under the ‘Play’ menu for Mahjong Parlors in Tokyo. It’s not ready yet, but we should have some up in January!

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