"I didn't deal in even once, and still got fourth." "The other three people totally sucked, but I ended up last." "I played a perfect game, and I still lost!"
Yeah, hold it right there. I think you're overestimating yourself. Or at least, you're not looking at your game objectively. From the moment you think you didn't make any mistakes, you're just fooling yourself.
"Perfect game." While this is a widely used term, meaning that you're the only one who won any hands and also won the game, there is no such a thing as a game that is perfect. I've seen people playing terribly bad and badly terrible, making inferior discards and then getting rewarded by the walls and achieving these so called "perfect games." There is nothing particularly exceptional about it. If you're the kind of beginner player who just pushes every single hand, you're bound to get one of these when the winds blow in your favor. Likewise, if you're a player who knows when to push and when to back out, a "perfect game" will be but a casual occurrence at times when all the mahjong gods are on your side.
Perfect games and skill have nothing to do with each other. Furthermore, most perfect games are far from perfect. Sorry to break it up to you if you just got one of those recently, but you're not the mahjong God you thought you were.
Losing. It happens to anyone, at any given point. It happens more often to some people, and only casually to other people. The common factor is that everyone is sure to get a last place from time to time. You know what losing in other games mean. The loser lost because he's bad or just not as good as his opponents, and the better men win. A single game of mahjong, however, will not decide that. It is indeed hard to determine skill from a single game of mahjong, but I think that the lack of it is even easier to understand. There are quite a few signs.
The first sign of lack of skill, is the lack of discipline. It is a personal factor that, unless you happen to talk to the person you're playing with, you're not likely to realize. In other words, "whining." Someone who whines about losing, probably doesn't play much and loses pretty often. Experienced players are used to the randomness in mahjong, and they win often enough and have built enough confidence as to not get irritated by a single loss. The worst kind of less skilled player will proceed to tell you in gruesome detail (yet, accompanied by empty arguments and personal opinions) how he thinks you sucked throughout the whole game, in a whiny tone and without providing any positive constructive criticism. This kind of player is the pigeon player. Don't be a pigeon in defeat, you probably have a lot to learn yourself.
Other displays of a lack of discipline include, to a lesser extent, cognitive confabulation and excuses. "I'm pretty good, I didn't deal in even once, didn't make a single mistake and I still lost!" This may or may not be true. I find it hilarious when people somehow assume that the number of hands they discarded into is directly connected to their skill (I think most experienced players have been through this stage). Yes, sure, the lower your deal in percentage is, the better. However, it doesn't mean you played a game free of mistakes if you kept folding hands that you were supposed to push or if you screwed up and slowed down many of your hands that were supposed to be winning hands only to be outdone in speed by your opponent and having no choice but to resort to betaori, that's your own fault and your game was flawed, regardless of how many times you dealt into others. You're better off pushing and fighting your way out of 4th place, or speeding up your hand to declare insta-riichi, and -then- dealing in than just doing nothing for yourself the whole game and get last place in the end, only to complain about how luck wasn't on your side. Besides, not admitting to having committed any mistakes goes against the nature of mahjong, where in some occasions it is impossible to assess a 100% perfect judgment, but rather you eventually have to settle with a decision that is "less wrong" than others. When you go to look at the game logs of people who claim they lost without doing a single mistake, it is shocking to see how many hands they screwed up.
That brings me to my next point: denial. It is yet another show of a lack of discipline. After a game, when you try to discuss what judgments could have been better, and what would be better to do in each situation, when confronted with their mistakes, instead of resorting to sound arguments, they might respond with things such as "I don't play like that," "that's not how real men play," or my favorite: "even if I did that, nothing would have changed." Even if looking at the consequent draws and discards it becomes apparent that the result would have been the same, you need not to overlook the importance of a solid discard order. Because it will save you the following games, and prevent your whining at those times. You need to open yourself up to criticism, and learn how to defend your discards and decisions with a solid reason and argument, not just what you "like" or you "think feels right."
The other, impersonal signs of lack of skill are seen within the game itself. However, these are harder to tell apart. I don't think I need to explain this one, because when you can know, it will at the times when it becomes very self-apparent in the middle of a game. If it's not a huge display of mediocrity, it will just be really hard to tell. In any case, you can double-check later looking at the game log.
When you judge your game for mistakes, it shouldn't just be whether you won or lost, how many hands you won, how many times you dealt in, but actually how many sound and logic judgments you came to. Every time you discarded something out of "intuition" and "just because," you're probably wrong in quite a few levels. If you're a player who likes to leave things up to chance, you're a player who will win and lose based on chance alone.
Let me illustrate this with an example from a game I played last week. East 1, East Seat. This hand:
What would you discard?
It looks like a no-brainer at first sight, but I think the best answer is south and not west. My reasoning was, we're playing with Suu Fuu Ren Da. So, if you discard west and the person to your right decides to play along and discard west again, then if the west and south players both have a west as well, it's highly likely it will end in a draw. West won't feel like they need to hold on to west, then it'd just be up to South to decide if he wants to reset this hand or not. And right now you're thinking "it doesn't even matter, most of the time it will be the same!" That's just as I said previously, you are underestimating the importance of the discard order and the logic behind each discard. If you discard south, then even if the player to your right has a south, since it is his seat wind, he's slightly less likely to play along, since there are probably other tiles (guest winds, lone terminals) that he needs in his hand a lot less than his jikaze south. So you could assume that the chances of having this great hand washed away are diminished, and that's more power to you. If you think that for this purpose, it'd just be better to discard 8s an make sure a hundred percent that you won't get an abortive draw, you're just tearing your hand apart making it potentially slower, and you'd just moan upon drawing 678s. It's more like a marginal difference with south over west, and west over 8s by a higher margin. The issue is, that time in a thousand when you discard west and you get your abortive draw. You'll just think that "oh, I am so unlucky, even though I did everything right."
Tile efficiency, strategy, situational awareness, timing, it's hard to evaluate by yourself if you used all of these advantageously or not, so you'd be really cocky to assume that you achieved a perfect balance in all of them in the game you lost; while still keeping in mind that you lost.
Remember to judge yourself more objectively and be open to criticism. Otherwise, you'll just kee