Monday 26 September 2016

Column: Being a good sport is more than just sportsmanship

Benjamin Boas as featured in a Japanese mahjong manga

Being a good sport is more than just sportsmanship, it can be the key to winning the table.

Everything is political. No matter how much one may abhor the idea of politics, learning how to manage relationships, compromise, and stay in the good graces of one’s peers are skills that are important in any area. However, many players may not realize how integral these are to mahjong. This may be because most people in the international mahjong community are more concerned with making the game enjoyable for everyone than just winning, but in actuality the two go hand in hand. Maintaining a good relationship with the people at your table improves your chances of winning. Conversely, if your opponents perceive you to be a bad sport, your score will suffer. This is because much of one’s success in mahjong has to do with how one’s opponents play.

This is a simple enough concept. Most players know that if your opponents play poorly then you are more likely to win. I would like to argue that this extends past poor play to poor sportsmanship, but before I get there let’s set aside sportsmanship for a second. Imagine a situation where you are about to discard one of two tiles in your hand: a 3 of bamboos and a North. Looking at the player after you, you see she has already called 456 and 789 in bamboos, making a pure straight in bamboos very likely and your 3 of bamboos particularly dangerous. In most situations like this, discarding the 3 of bamboos would be a poor play because that tile is dangerous and the North is safe. Discarding the 3 of bamboos not only risks losing the hand, it helps the player after you for no reason.

Now, let’s alter that situation a little bit. Let’s say that instead of choosing between a 3 of bamboos and a North, you had to choose between a 3 of bamboos and a 3 of dots. Additionally, you can see from the discard piles that the player sitting directly across from you is likely going for a full flush of dots and is probably waiting (tenpai). Also, for simplicity’s sake, let’s say both tiles are equally dangerous, that it's the final round and that there is no incentive for you to play defense. Additionally, whoever wins this round will win the table. You have to pick a dangerous tile to discard, it will likely decide who the winner is, and you have no strategic reason to choose one tile or the other. Which tile would you discard here? The answer, I suspect, would have to do with what you thought of the players. This is where politics comes in.

Most players, in this situation, would probably not consider their choice of discard to be political. They might think it to be totally random. Perhaps they flip a coin in their head. Perhaps they take a long look at exposed tiles on the table and declare one tile to be ever-so-slightly safer than the other. Perhaps they simply have an unexplainable feeling that one is the better play.  Anytime a situation like this comes up, it is impossible to know exactly why a player would choose one tile over the other. However, if statistics were to ever be taken on this example, I believe that most of the time the player will discard the tile that is more likely to help the opponent he likes more.

Now, this has nothing to do with cheating or collusion. If a player has such poor sportsmanship that he cheats, his score will literally be wiped out. Likewise, if two players are able to collude and discard useful tiles to each other they will benefit but this is neither legal nor what I am talking about. When I say “maintaining a good relationship” I simply mean being a good sportsman. Simple things like smiling, being respectful to one’s opponents and being well-mannered in general are not just good manners, they may serve to tip the scales for you in a situation similar to the above and this can mean the difference between winning and losing.

This political element is not specific to mahjong, but in most games is not nearly as important. This is because of an element that sets mahjong apart from many other table games—it is played in a group.  Most table games involve just two sides, whether they be composed of teams, as in Bridge, or individuals, as in most classic board games such as Chess or Go. Mahjong involves four people playing for themselves and, as a result, sportsmanship and intra-table politics are more important. In two-sided games, sportsmanship does not matter as much; Chess games are not affected by one’s impression of one’s opponent. However, in mahjong I believe they are.

Even if you disagree with me, consider this: imagine that you are the active player in the above situation and that the player after you has been obnoxious the whole game. First he showed up 10 seconds late and spent an additional 30 arguing that his tardiness didn’t count. Then he got up to get a bottle of water without telling anyone. Finally, he laughed at you when you missed a scoring point. If you had a choice between discarding to make him win or to someone else, would you not at think of throwing to the other person just to spite this player? I certainly would, and I suspect many others would as well.
“But,” you may ask, “that is only a hypothetical example. Surely situations like that do not actually occur in real tournaments.” While it is true that I have never witnessed the above situation in real play, it is hardly unrealistic. During the last tournament I played at, I witnessed something similar.

During the last Open European Mahjong Championship in Austria, one table had a player at it who the other three considered very annoying. There’s no reason to go into why but it was clear that the other three thought he was a poor sport. We’ll call him “X.” In the final hand of the table, “X” was in second place and another player, “A,” was in third. The difference between the two’s scores was so close that if A were to win the hand, he would pass X and take second. The other two players’ scores were hundreds of points removed from A and X, so much so that first and fourth places had essentially already been decided. As the round progressed, the player far ahead in first, “Z,” made an interesting choice; he began going for thirteen orphans.

Thirteen orphans is an odd hand in that the tiles required to complete it are normally useless, and the tiles that cannot be used in it are normally very useful. This meant that Z was discarding useful tiles nearly every turn. This benefited the player after him, who happened to be A. Since only A had the privilege of chowing Z’s discards, he was put at an advantage. By giving A the opportunity to claim a tile most rounds, Z was essentially doubling the amount of tiles to which A had access.  There is no question that Z’s play directly benefited A.

Was this unsportsmanlike of Z to do this? I am not sure of the answer to this question. While Z  was so far ahead in first that it did not matter what he did, he certainly has the right to go for an expensive hand (and the tournament did have a prize for the top score of each round). Alternatively, perhaps it would have been theoretically “correct” to play defense from the start. Many people would likely answer this question differently. However, the fact remains that this was a real situation and that Z’s poor impression of X had a concrete impact on the game. Player A would have been much less likely to win the hand had Z not gone for thirteen orphans.

The moral of this story is clear: it is in your benefit to sportsmanlike. I doubt many readers of this article will change their behavior based on the content; European players of mahjong tend to be the nicest and most polite in the world. For most players, playing a good game of mahjong is its own reward. But don’t forget that it can help you win as well.

Benjamin W. Boas is a Research Student at the Inter-University Center for Japanese Language Studies
Visiting Researcher, Institute for Amusement Industry Studies, Osaka University of Commerce
Former Fulbright Fellow, Kyoto University


Comments (2)Comments are closed
1Wednesday, 02 September 2009 10:44
Arthur Gent
People are nice because they are nice. Don't encourage people to play nicely so that they can win.
2Tuesday, 08 September 2009 17:50
Adrie van Geffen
If you ever wondered what EQ stands for: this is it! :-)
yvComment v.2.01.1

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