Sunday, 27 June 2010

UK Riichi Mahjong Open 2010

So I got back this afternoon (just in time for the dismal England v Germany match) from London and the UK Riichi Mahjong Open. Out of the field of 48 people for the tournament, I placed 14th, which I'm fairly happy about. The Cambridge University Riichi Mahjong Society actually had some pretty awesome success, with members taking 2nd and 3rd place, and five out of the seven of us finishing in the top half of the field.

I'm not really sure what to make of the result. On one hand it's nice to do well and have something of an ego boost (even though the short tournament format meant luck played a reasonable part), but at the same time the general consensus from the Cambridge guys was that the average skill level at the tournament was pretty low. I don't mean that as a negative to the people involved or the tournament, because everyone I spoke to was nice, and the tournament was good fun, but aside from a few players there who genuinely seemed pretty good, the majority of the field was at a fairly low standard. It didn't stop the tournament from being enjoyable, but it wasn't what I was expecting, and I'd say in some ways I could have enjoyed it more if I'd gotten slaughtered by playing people way above my level.

The basic thing that stood out was that a lot of people just seemed to ignore most of the strategic aspects of the game. There were a few players who knew what they were doing when it came to defending, and would discard sensibly, but a lot of people just seemed to continually be chasing any sort of hand that they could win out on. Most of the hand values were pretty low because people seemed happy to settle for poor, single-yaku hands instead of going for anything big, and defensive play especially just seemed to be non-existent. There was no need to go for clever waits after declaring Riichi because a lot of people just seemed to completely ignore any notion of not dealing in, and instead pursue getting their low-value hand out instead. It's actually quite hard to play when you've got some people floating around who are extremely good, and others which will deal into the most obvious and dangerous of hands because they don't really consider the idea of throwing a hand to avoid dealing into someone (which we all were like at one stage, or at least I definitely was).

Like I said, none of this applies to the tournament, which was extremely well run, both in terms of the sets and the food and drink provided, and everyone was fine. They just weren't that awesome at mahjong, or at least weren't as good as I was expecting people to be. I was expecting to get blown away, so it was quite a contrast to have people who seem to struggle with things like scoring up hands and any of the more intricate rules (though not helped I imagine by the fact that when playing online the computer tends to do it all for you). Though I guess for those people I just hope they keep playing and actually start to improve and develop some strategy, because that's what the sport needs. It's hard to fault people for essentially being beginners at the game, and I was expecting a few there, just not so many. And I guess I'd rather have a strong showing for the tournament than only a dozen people turning up. If anyone reading this was at the open and isn't particularly fantastic at MJ because they're just starting out, then keep playing, keep practising and I'll hopefully see you next year. And I recommend playing on Tenhou rather than other online games, because it's the best browser-based free one I've come across in terms of skill level. Sure, it's all in Japanese, but there is a fantastic English guide for it.

Really, on the flip side I can say that it just makes me more proud of the Cambridge society. I think that we'd all agree unanimously that the average standard of skill that we have on Friday evenings at the society meetings is far higher than the average yesterday, so I'm thankful that I have the ability to play with people like that on a regular basis (something that most people there probably don't have). It's also quite impressive given that a lot of people at the society didn't know how to play when we set it up last October (ie. less than a year ago), so the fact that we've progressed so far so quickly, and are already extremely strong, at least for the standard in England, is really good. It'll also be awesome to hopefully have the 2nd and 3rd place trophies from the Open on our stall for the Freshers' Fair next October.

Having said all of this, far from everyone at Guildford yesterday was poor. The few British guys who set the thing up and are also founding the UK Mahjong Association right now were good, as were a lot of the Dutch and the rest who had come from mainland Europe. There was also the president of the Korean Mahjong League there, who was a really nice guy, but a scary player. Even from his hand movements with the tiles it was fairly obvious he was fucking good (sort of the equivalent to experienced card/poker players doing little sleight of hand things with the cards/chips). I was lucky enough to play him in my second game, and was also lucky enough to win against him as well, which was a pretty nice thing to come away from the day with.

I say most of the stuff in this entry probably sounding somewhat big-headed and arrogant, but I know that I'm still not that amazing at Riichi Mahjong, and as a group the society isn't that amazing either. The majority of the people topping the European rankings weren't there at the tournament (or at least weren't as far as I can tell), and the most were just people who are relative beginners or clearly don't take the skill aspects of the game that seriously. Plus there's the fact that I'll watch videos of the Japanese pro matches on YouTube, and their skill at reading the game seems to go into a realm that I literally can't comprehend, because I watch those videos completely not having a clue at how they make all the amazing decisions they do without being able to see their opponents' tiles.

My only other point for the tournament would simply be that I don't like some of the EMA specific rules, or the seeming reliance on score tables which, in my opinion, are set out incorrectly (as in they ignore the two extra han for going out which actually give sense to how the scores are calculated). I think a fair amount of that can simply be attributed to "We play our way so think our way is the best way" from the society though. Except for how seating/dealership is decided. CURMS uses a simple method of just taking one of each wind tile, shuffling them around face down, and then everyone picks their wind and therefore seat for the first round, with East starting as dealer. Instead, yesterday they used some crazy system with the four wind tiles and an odd and even tile and a dice roll and only the Dutch players seemed to properly understand how it worked. Then there was a temporary East and then another dice roll to decide actual East, and it all seemed horribly complicated for what it was actually doing, and I don't get why they don't just do it the simple way.
The CURMS has basically just modelled it's mahjong rules on Saki, which is at least something of a valid reference. Saki is the framework, and then Tenhou fills in gaps that are left by the anime (except for a few society specific things we've decided on for fringe cases). The EMA however seems to have made it's own flavour of what is a game already hugely overcomplicated by various different rule sets. The EMA ruleset isn't something I've seen as a specific ruleset on any Japanese mahjong game, and seems to be a weird combination of various different ones (it's Nashi + red tiles + other tweaks) which, in my opinion, could be streamlined and adjusted to be made a bit better.

It's made me fairly excited for the society in Cambridge next year. Partly from the perspective of wanting to attract more members so we can have an even larger showing when, hopefully, there is a 2011 Open, which I will look forward to immensely. I'm also excited because this tournament has showed that the games at the society are to a pretty high standard, and therefore there's actual meaning in the results and the long-term rankings of the society. We are, probably by a good margin, not the best players in Europe, but we're certainly up there as a pretty strong group. It'd be nice to think that some of the people who were there yesterday as beginners will keep up the game, keep improving and picking up strategy, and that when Riichi Mahjong is a bit more established and people are more experience next year, it'll be a far stronger field and more what I was expecting this year.

PS. For anyone who has examined the CURMS leaderboards, I'm at/near the bottom not because I suck, but because I had a few experimental weeks and have played like a complete retard at certain points in the year, which have shoved me right down. It's quite hard to gain points for the leaderboard, but it's fairly easy to lose substantial amounts in a very short amount of time. I'm actually not that bad. Honest. No, really :(


  1. Great report from the UK Riichi Mahjong Open! I played in the first riichi event organized in Guildford last year, but couldn't find the time to come this year. I am happy to learn that it was a successful event and I like your honest account of skill levels which fits well with my own impression: The European players still has some way to go, and making friendly tournaments is such a great way to encourage people to keep playing and increase their skill level by encountering other players and their way of playing.

    Regarding the EMA rules, they are based on how the two biggest riichi groups in Europe used to play: the Dutch and the Danish, and yes there are some curiosities for historic reasons. English-language riichi sites on the internet is still a fairly recent thing; for people without Japanese skills it hasn't been easy to figure out "the right way to play", if one can even talk about that? So since the Dutch and the Danish independently played in pretty much the same way, that seemed a reasonable starting point for an official European riichi rule set.

    We will stick to the current riichi rules for a while yet and evaluate as we go along and revise the rules later. In order not to make too much confusion I don't want to change the rules all the time. Basically I don't want to change the rules until we are sure what we want. The riichi communities around Europe are growing and we (EMA) are getting in to touch with more and more players.

    Note: there will be a two-day riichi tournament in Copenhagen 1-2 October 2010.

    Tina Christensen

  2. Chris - Most of your observations are absolutely correct. Thank you for that. But, do realise that this UK Riichi Open is just the first international mahjong tournament which was organised in the UK. Of course, over the coming years the results will be better - if people like you and your friends keep supporting UKMA and help the other players learning better strategics,
    Just two remarks:
    - here are many ways to determine the seating at the tables, and one is just as good as the other. The one used in the tournament was not invented on the Continent, but in Japan.
    - the EMA rules were determined in the closest possible dialogue between European and Japanese riichi players. Since in Japan there is no official standard, sometimes decisions had to be made.
    The most discussed rule is that EMA decided not to permit Open Tanyo. This was done deliberately to prevent weaker players from choosing to easily for this all to simple hand, instead of using it as a defensive tactics. Which is, having read your comment, not exactly superfluous ;-) I expect this particular rule to be admitted within a number of years.

    Martin Rep

  3. Tina, Martin, thank you for the excellent comments.

    Martin, you make a good point that this is the first major Riichi tournament in the UK, and I guess in hindsight I maybe shouldn't have expected the skill levels to be huge. I was actually surprised in some ways that they filled all 48 places.

    I think lot of it will come down to two things. The first is that currently UK Riichi societies and clubs are very thin on the ground, and I don't know of any proper clubs at all aside from the one in Cambridge. Mahjong is a game that does sort of require four people to play, so if an individual is interested they can still struggle to find people to play against, in person, regularly. This means they're limited to playing online which detaches you from scoring, from discussing hands and tactics and is, in my opinion, not as enjoyable. All you can really ask for with that is that hopefully more people will pick up the game, so that more clubs and societies can form, and that the people currently playing will keep playing and improve (myself included, because I know I've still got a long way to go as well).

    The other would be that the dominant form of Mahjong in the UK, aside from the solitaire version, is the Chinese variant, which from the admittedly small amount I've played, does have a far lower emphasis on strategy and defence than Riichi mahjong does.

    While I'm used to playing with the Ari ruleset, which permits open Tanyao, I definitely see your point Martin, and I agree that it should remain closed until the game is more established and there's a larger base of strong players. I can remember very well that when I was a beginner playing, for a long time I would just rush out cheap, open Tanyao and Yaku Hai hands. It's not a strategy that fares well in the long run, but for small one-day tournaments it could probably have a negative affect on the results.

    I think a lot of the bits in the EMA rules that I disagree with are just because I'm used to playing differently, and it's fairly easy to get into a mindset that any way of playing other than the one you are used to is incorrect.

    A lot of the differences are minor, and a lot of the differences are actually contested within the Cambridge society as well, for example using three red fives (we use four), and having the UMA set as +9|+3|-3|-9 (we use +15|-5|-5|-5, and in this case I prefer the EMA way). In the EMA rules a new dora is revealed instantly when a player calls a kan, while with the rules I'm used to if a player calls an open or extended kan, the new dora is displayed after they discard, with the player only seeing the new dora within their turn if the kan is fully closed.

    Really I have to say that the tournament was excellent, and considering Riichi mahjong is currently a fledgling game in the UK it went well. I'm also really grateful to the people who had come from mainland Europe such as yourself Martin, because the tournament certainly wouldn't have been as good without them, from the perspective of providing extra skill, mahjong sets (which I really liked, as I'm used to playing with much smaller tiles) and also the international flavour of the tournament. The game I played in the second round against yourself, James Neve (from Cambridge) and Jaewon Yu was an absolutely fantastic game.

    I'd also appreciate an explanation to the six tile + dice roll method of deciding seating order. I doubt we'll use it for the Cambridge society, because our current method decides tables, seating and dealership in one go, but it would be nice to know for future reference.

  4. Thank you for a nice writeup, sounds like a fun tournament.

    Could you possibly post links to some of those games on youtube that you mention?


    Martin Faartoft,


  5. I'll try to explain the six tile + dice roll.

    You take one of each wind, one even tile and one uneven tile, shuffle them face down and line them up in a single row.
    You roll the dice and note whether the throw was even or uneven, turn the 6 tiles faceup, showing for example: S2WE7N.

    You move the two non-wind tiles to the nearest end of the row: 2SWEN7.

    If the throw was even, you start from the end where the even tile is placed (and vice versa) and take the first wind tile for yourself. The next one goes the player on your right, and so on.

  6. That's how I suspected it worked, it just always happened too quickly on the day for me to be sure.

    As for the YouTube games, I can't remember specific ones where I saw things and thought "wow, how did they know not to discard that?", but ones along the lines of this one:

    Surfing around related videos it's quite easy to find a lot that are very similar.

  7. Hello. I'm Jaewon Yu. I'm very glad to your praise. In Korea, there are many good players.

    We are planning to hold the competition between Japan and Korea. It will be hold through online(tenhou). Mr. Kajimoto suggested to us. We have no specific plan yet. But It will be realize. Because your community can play in tenhou, it will be possible to join the competition.

  8. Following video is introdunction of Korean mahjong club. The video broadcasted in Japan.

  9. Good luck to your club in Korea!

    (the video is 4GB though, not everyone can download that)

  10. My bad, had a display bug on the size. The actual file is 250MB.

    It was worth watching.