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I want to talk about Saki. Let’s talk about Saki for a moment. Any self-respecting mahjong-playing weeaboo knows Saki. It’s about a moe mahjong schoolgirl who always plays to get a break-even score. This is because when she was young, she used to play mahjong a lot with her family come New Year’s, which is a popular practice in Japan, since you have a bunch of people sitting around with nothing to do. Whenever Saki ended up winning, her father would rape her, and when she lost, her sister would rape her. I’d imagine 2D rape is not so bad but it probably gets kind of tiring after 4-5 han chan. In time, she managed to perfect a unique style of play that always gets her plus-minus zero for a score.

She never ever played to win.

That’s fine by me. I respect her for that. I don’t know why I respect her for that, but it seems like a cool and caring thing to say. It’s what all the douchebags say nowadays, and it amounts to something like “you’re dumb as a brick but hey, a hole’s a hole, and IQ and intelligence are not factors that inherently enhance the experience of plugging it”.

But I digress. She never played to win because someone would rape her if she got so much as +1.

Now let’s talk about the random people you play in the tenhou 0000 lobby. Why do they play mahjong? Enjoyment, presumably. Whether they enjoy making kans when 2 others are in riichi, or doing that single wait on the dora shit, or grinding 300 games to get to a 3 dan rank, they are deriving enjoyment from playing. I have nothing against that. It’s cool, kosher, acceptable, smashing, halal, pip pip, sugoi with me.

Quite a few people fall in that last subset, incidentally. I don’t have the tenhou stats with me, but there are thousands of players interested in ranking up as they play, in a sort of RPG-ish fashion, in an attempt to justify to themselves the amount of time they wasted clicking on tiles. And I guess it might demonstrate some modicum of skill, or more accurately the lack of lack of skill. To me, anyone who can reach 3-4 dan isn’t all that hot. But someone who is unable for the life of him to reach 3-4 dan despite putting all his time and effort into it probably has some room for improvement, if you know what I mean.

So let’s assume you, too want to rank up and show them online.

All the online mahjong ranking systems are pretty similar in that you have to accumulate an increasing level of points based on your placing in rated games. Kind of like that Greek chappie in Hades who was cursed to keep shoving a stone up a slope or something, and after he finished it would roll back down. Only it keeps rolling further and further away, so sooner or later you’re bound to say “Ah, fuck it.” For tenhou normal lobby, the winner gets +30, and the last placed player loses a certain number of points based on his rank. To successfully rank up, all you need to do is get points by winning, while cutting down on your losses to lose as few points as possible. The bulk of your points will come from placing first – placing second in a 4-player game gives you a small amount of points in higher-level lobbies.

But you won’t always win. In fact when you sit down to any given mahjong game, your theoretical odds of winning are 3 to 1. You will find you have absolutely no control over lots of hands, and many times there’s nothing you can do to prevent an absolute trainwreck. You’re sitting down with 25000 points and before long you’re staring at 13400 after dealing into a dealer 11600 hand. Or two players keep getting 4th turn riichis and there’s nothing you can do except throw your 6 shan ten hand away tile by tile. This is where loss prevention comes in. It’s not like you were a favorite to win anyway. But at least you aren’t gonna be the guy upon whom the delightful Negative Point Cup is bestowed. If winning seems too far away, just get into third place and kill the game off. Or when you’re in third with a slim margin from last place, just finish it and try another game before the guy in the depths of hell finds his magic sand. These are usual situations, and you’ll find them way more common than winning a match handily. You don’t think so? Just take a look at your win rate to refresh your memory.

You don’t want to lose points. Nobody wants to lose points. So when the match is going to shit, cut your losses and enjoy your sweet sweet +0, which could be a hell of a lot worse. Nobody is going to fault you for thinking that way. It’s not a life-or-death match, and your ultimate goal is not victory at all costs, but to rank up eventually while protecting your hard-earned points. You are playing the entire system, not just this one match, this one hand.

You are at a final table in a 20-player tournament. No prizes except for bragging rights. You are in third with 18000. Let’s kill the match off while you’re still in third. You never had more than a 25% chance to win anyway. Finish it now before you are in last place. There will always be other tournaments, other final tables, right?

Right?

Many times, I have caught myself settling into my routine grinding playstyle when there’s all to win and nothing to lose. Mahjong is a game where you balance the risk of winning with the risk of losing. If you lose nothing when you end the match last, who cares about finishing second? If two gambles of equal probability rewarded you with $100 and $50 respectively with the same downside, which would you choose?

More than a game of tiles, mahjong is a game of decisions. Many times in a match we are faced with decisions in the form of calling and discarding that impact the game’s outcome. One of the skills beginners (me included – just because I can say it doesn’t mean I can do it) have to develop is the ability to spot these critical junctures where what you do can change the course of the match, reviewing your alternatives, and choosing the better course of action. If all you’ve ever been doing is mechanically discarding tile after tile in search of tenpai, this might be one of the reasons why your win rate is shit.

This is even more important in casual games with friends because when nothing much is at stake, the hunt for victory is the only motivator that sets the tone of the match. Suppose you are up against a friend who plays to lose, forever chasing after the bitter taste of utter defeat. He always passes on rons, is delighted to finish third, and whoops with joy and does a little dance whenever he ends up last. When you introduce people like that into a match, everything falls apart. Sure, more wins for everyone. But it’s not like he cared about winning anyway. It cheapens victories – through action or inaction, you can’t deny that he played a role in helping you to first place – and frustrates the losers even more, because who knows what might have happened if someone sane were playing?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m asking you to play for first place, and step it up a little in casual games. What I am not saying is that you should barrel unerringly towards completing a hand like a rabid dog spotting a delicious young child across a busy street at rush hour. If you disregard everything else, you might not be in any shape to claim victory, even if you do grab a couple more hands than usual. But even that is better than being in third place by 7000 and assembling a yakuhai-powered one-han shit hand in all last. Sure, sometimes tiles are handed to you and it seems like they’re trying to tell you something. But you’ll never turn it around unless you have the courage to aim for a payout you want. It’s better to fail at succeeding than to succeed at failing.

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