How to Stay Off Tilt and Climb in the Ranks

If you’ve played mahjong for long enough, you’ll know that have everyone has their ups and downs. Their flow and no flow. Their Tenhou and their double riichiing of said tenhou. Situations like going into orasu after a hard fought 16 hand+ game, only to fall into 4th to a 3rd turn oya mangan on a sole 8m wait. Stuff like this can leave a particularly bad taste and might be the start of your 5 4ths in a row streak. You could go ahead and just blame this phenomenon all on your “bad luck”, “dumb luck of my opponents”, and of course the ever powerful ‘flow’. Though always be aware that luck flows both ways.

‘Dumb Luck’ is one of the most common causes of going on tilt. When you feel like you’re playing a ‘perfect’ game, only to have it fall to some bullshit tanki wait with a dora ankou or an ipptasu tsumo in orasu… No matter how hard you try this ‘dumb luck’ will not go away, but you can decipher this luck to better understand when and how it can occur and what you can do to respond to it.

Dora are not magical creatures spawned spontaneously from the netherworld, they are a set amount of tiles that can be used and disposed of in a predictable manner. One thing I stress as a vital piece of information that EVERYONE should be keeping track of while they play mahjong is the amount of unseen dora tiles. If you reach tenpai on a 7th turn pinfu and riichi with no confirmation on the dora, then wind up getting hit by a dealer haneman, this is NOT dumb luck; it’s just dumb play. Mahjong is all about risk and return. Without properly calculating the risk that you take when you riichi or decide to push your hand, how can you possibly be expect to consistently end up scoring more points than you lose?? Always be conscious of your opponents. Constantly ask yourself “Is this player in Tenpai? How high could his hand possibly be given the information I have from my hand and from the table? If I riichi or push and I win, what do I get? If I lose, how much could I lose?” Even if you lose in a situation when you specifically knew the potential risk and rewards, it’s OK. Mahjong isn’t the game where you should be reading the flow to make your decisions, but rather making decisions in situations that you would make over and over again if given the same one. This doesn’t mean you continually dealing into everyone is justified, as this could be an indicator that your actions may be flawed and your risk/return estimates are skewed. Dealing into hands or losing when somebody else tsumo’s sucks, but if you can accurately read these situations and make every effort possible to choose the best course of action and know potential outcomes, it will definitely not feel as bad. (It’s especially useful when you can begin consistently guessing the estimated value of opponents hands, which you can obviously use to your advantage).

Another useful method of avoiding tilt and playing inconsistently is to prevent panic attacks and thoughtless discards. Tenhou gives you a fair amount of time to wisely choose your move, so use it! Constantly, I see people people discarding tiles without a second thought, usually thinking something along the lines of “I’m going to discard this going for X, it’s the obvious choice~”. I firmly believe the ‘obvious’ choice is one of the most deteriorating things you can do to your play. Mahjong is not a static situation game, since the game state changes with EVERY SINGLE DISCARD. Yours. Your opponents’. Even Asapin, the first Tenhoui and local guy that spends too much time at cabaret clubs, very often uses the full 5 second time limit during his hanchan games, even for things that weaker players might call ‘obvious choices’. The obvious choice depends on a deeper game situation, especially when it’s something you’ve assured yourself to be obvious over and over again that you then incorrectly extrapolate to other situations. Stop, look again, and be sure you’re making your choices for the correct reasons.

Most importantly, STOP BLAMING ALL YOUR LOSSES ON BAD LUCK. I cannot stress this enough. Yes, luck is definitely a factor, but it is by no means one that dictates your thought process and how you play the game over time. All you’re doing by blaming your bad games on luck is crippling yourself as a player. The first step to getting good is knowing that you suck sometimes and that you can make mistakes. Even ASAPIN, who’s acclaimed as one of the best mahjong players in the world, says in his book that he feels he only understands a small portion of what can be understood about mahjong. Your play is not perfect and it’s not even close to perfect, so quit trying to fool yourself. Your losses can’t only be associated with ‘dumb luck’. Instead, ask yourself “What information could I have attained and used during this case? Did I really make the correct decision in going about it this way? Was I considering the thought process of the other players in my decision here? What do the discards orders and the dealer’s tsumogiri tell about their hand and how could I have attempted to use that to a more efficient degree?” Controlling yourself, controlling your mindset, and controlling your play goes hand in hand with stopping/preventing yourself from going on tilt as well as improving your play~!

So now that I’ve screamed to you about the pitfalls of blaming ‘dumb luck’, let’s start looking at ways you can actually improve your skills to avoid leaving yourself weak to luck. Mahjong is two parts: the first part is figuring out your mistakes, and the more important second one is not repeating them. Even with consistency, mahjong is a pretty hard game to advance your skill in at higher levels, and without consistency it’s down right impossible… Even if you know what to do, even if you can obtain all the information you need, if you’re not using your skills to their full potential, you’re taking a step backwards rather than forwards.

First and foremost, play with no interruptions; put Tenhou or whichever other mahjong client you’re using on full screen, turn any other monitors off, and put your complete and utter focus on the game. I think one of the hardest aspects of online mahjong is being concentrated when your attention can be so easily diverted by the internet. My personal computer setup has 4 screens across computers, each with a multitude of windows and tabs, also usually chatting on irc (and bragging about the sick riichi ipptatsu tsumo uradora 3 off a hell wait tanki I just got), but doing that can really hurt your average as well as your attempts at playing better mahjong. Also, if you’re of the opinion that you can play mahjong just as well while watching some anime to the side or chilling on IRC as you could while paying full attention, I can promise you need to work on your game and information tracking… Mahjong is an information based game that has lots of useful information that often goes unnoticed. Rather than thinking of mahjong as a side game where you can ride the flow in your free time while watching your weekly shows, treat it like an immersive game like LoL or something that requires your full attention. 

Second, don’t play with the sole intent of winning. Yes, you want to win, and wanting to win is important, but what’s more important while playing thousands of games on tenhou or other clients is a focus on you trying your hardest to get better at mahjong. Only by constantly scrutinizing your play, trying to keep track of important information, and attentively attempting to decipher your opponents can you climb the ladder in Rate, Dan, and Skill. This is because, while there is a lot of variance and people will often enter ‘loops’, your average over time is purely reliant on your skill and consistency. As long as you keep getting better and playing with your full arsenal, your averages will move up.

The vast majority of western players would wind up ranked in the Joukyuu room on Tenhou, which means there are two higher rooms full of vastly stronger players. For some reference on a world scale, middle level players can be roughly placed in the 5th dan area on tenhou, or on ASAPIN’s scale “Players who are in the 5th Dan to 8th Dan loop” range in regards to their skill level. They know what a complete hand consists of, and they have basic knowledge of tile efficiency and defense. The best thing that players in this range could do for their skill and breaking through the walls they encounter is immersing themselves in the foundations of mahjong, namely tile efficiency, scoring/hand formation, and defense.

“But I already know that stuff!” Yes, you do know it to a certain extent, but foundations are not just something that you should have general knowledge of. They’re the most essential basis of your mahjong playing that should be thoroughly understood and should be second nature to you. Tile efficiency is not just discarding tiles in an efficient order to get to tenpai, but a broader term that applies to efficiency in multiple aspects of your play, including efficient defensive tile discarding and advancement of your hand in response to risk. Similarly, defense is not simply the thing you do when someone riichis while you have a shit hand, or after someone calls a dora pon, but rather a constant awareness of your opponents’ hands and the path you must take to not deal into them. Just through understanding these foundations, you can most definitely enter a skill loop that includes 4th and 5th dan. 

Next, start trying to obtain and use important information as you play. One of the most important things that I stressed earlier is knowing how many dora tiles you can see. Other simple things include knowing exactly where you stand in regards to the other players, as well as what you would try to do in their situation. You can’t just be given a list of stuff that you could possibly remember while you’re playing and expect to instantly use it all (and if you can, call me because I have some ‘jobs’ for you~). You need to piece together all of your information bit by bit, and make the acquisition of information second nature before you tackle something new. Practicing acquiring information can be a good exercise, since it also helps you keep constant attention on the board and what your opponents are doing. An example training exercise I used to do is trying to know on any given turn how many safe tiles I currently had in my hand in regards to each of my opponents. The information itself is not too difficult to get (it just takes a few seconds of looking at the board), but getting into the habit of always having that information allowed me to see the board and tiles a lot more clearly. By constantly watching the board and scrutinizing it for specific tiles, I was able to ease the work of quickly attaining information from the board and keeping a running track record of information already on the board. This is especially useful for keeping track of continually updated information such as your hand’s ukeire. Always challenge yourself to obtain new information, don’t try to tackle too much at once, and make your information gathering an unconscious habit rather than something you have to think about.

Last, but not least, play a lot~ Like a lot of games, even if you have theoretical knowledge about it, if you’re not constantly using your knowledge in as many games and as many situations as possible, how can you expect to get better? Practice, practice, practice. If you can play at least 2 to 3 games a day (or if you ever become NEET like me, try to fit in 40 games+ a day: seriously try, go on, I DARE YOU), do it! While it’s important to play a lot, these shouldn’t be mindless games you do to pass the time, but games given your full undivided attention in which you’re desperately trying to get better and obtain various information. Mahjong is a strange road, and can definitely be forbidding and easily discouraging when you have dangerous situations you don’t know how to escape from. Even so, it has its joys, which is why we’re sucked into playing so much (similar to Crystal Meth I think?). And with that, I wish you good luck with your flow and keeping your sanity as you descend into mahjong hell~