USPML Update: Teaching Mahjong (continued)

As I mentioned in last month’s update, the USPML is gearing up to start recruiting new players and teaching them Riichi Mahjong. To test the teaching method we developed, the USPML held a private Learn-to-Play workshop last month. I will describe some of what I learned and observed during this workshop.


Overall, the workshop went well. Fifteen students attended. Of these, three had some experience with other types of mahjong, about half were familiar with similar card games like rummy, and the rest were not familiar with either mahjong or any related games. We used five mahjong tables, with one instructor and three students per table. The workshop was held on a weeknight from 6 PM to 10 PM. We took a dinner break about halfway through; food and beverages were provided.

Comments on topics from last month’s update.

Numbered sets: Success. Having the numbers on the tiles was a big help. No one had much trouble reading their hands.

Preset tables: Mixed results. I preset all five tables (shuffled, built walls, broke walls, dealt 13 tiles each). My intention was to let students get to the “meat” of the game right away, without first explaining all the intricacies of the setup procedure. Results were mixed. Preset tables were highly effective for three of the five tables. These three tables reported that students felt excited about getting to play the first hand immediately, that the first hand played quickly, and that students more easily learned the setup procedure while setting up for the second hand. These three tables also agreed that the students focused on the “key concepts” (how to take your turn, how to make calls, how to read your hand), and might have been confused or distracted by learning the setup procedure first. However, for the other two tables, pre-setting did not work well. Those two tables reported that the students wanted a chance to see and touch the tiles first before they had to start playing with them. In fact, one table’s students insisted upon this, and they dismantled the preset walls in order to look at and handle all the tiles. Preset tables may be effective.

Dora: Success. Zero confusion about how dora works.

More observations.

Handouts: I had prepared several handouts with descriptions and examples of many yaku, rules, and procedures. My intention was to provide visual aids and reference info for the students to refer to while they learned, or at home later for review; that is, the handouts are meant to support what the instructor teaches. Used this way, they are very helpful. However, on their own, they don’t really contain any instruction at all. At the workshop, I packaged all the handouts into a folder which I distributed to each student at the beginning of the workshop. At that time (before any instruction had started), many students looked through all the handouts and felt confused and intimidated by all the information there… understandably. At future events, handouts will be distributed at more appropriate times, when they can be most helpful.

Students with mahjong experience: Students who know Chinese or even American mahjong can learn Riichi a lot faster than students starting from scratch. Future plans may include developing an accelerated method designed for students who already have other mahjong experience.

Student-to-Instructor ratio: One instructor playing at the same table as his three students works well, very effective for teaching. Instructors can give students plenty of individual attention, and can also make adjustments to suit their needs.

Attendance: Because of the organization of the lesson plan, and because of the interactive format, learning the whole game takes the entire scheduled time, and four people per table are required. At the workshop, a few of the students left early, at the halfway point; as one might guess, they only learned half! While that might be sufficient for a “taste” of the game, they didn’t get to learn the whole game. Furthermore, people leaving mid-workshop means that seating arrangements need to be adjusted; some students had to be moved to a different instructor’s table when their table-mates left.

Length of workshop: Four hours seems like a long time, even with a dinner break. However, students (who attended the whole workshop) remained interested, attentive and lively the whole time. Some students even reported that they would have liked to stay even longer, to play and practice what they learned. I think this is partly a result of the interactive format; because students are playing and learning at the same time, the whole workshop feels fun.


All in all, our first Learn-to-Play event was successful. Some adjustments to the teaching method and workshop format will be made based on lessons learned from this first event, but in general, we found that the teaching method worked very well.

Thus, the USPML will start holding Learn-to-Play events that are open to the public! We have already scheduled the first of these: USPML Learn-to-Play Mahjong Workshop, Sunday May 23, New York City. An official event announcement with full details is coming soon. Please visit our website for the latest.

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