Intermediate Lesson 6
The previous article covered the league and tournament formats for competition mahjong. These two formats are quite common, but the multiple-hanchan series is rarely seen outside of Japan. Because it is a format with which most players would be unfamiliar, this article will go into much greater detail and explain some concepts that are unique to this format.
In a series, players at a table play a set number of hanchan (usually 2-5) and are ranked using total points including placement bonuses. Only the standings at that table matter; there may be other players in the event playing in their own series, but you only have to worry about the overall scores at your table. That may make this type of format seem simpler than a league or tournament, but it is actually the most difficult of the three.
You may not have to worry about the players outside your table, but as a result, you have to pay much more attention to the situation at your table. In leagues or tournaments, your job is just to get as many points as possible. Then, towards the end of the league or tournament, you have a better idea of how many points you may need by the end. You are not playing against any player or players in particular; you are just trying to increase your overall score as much as possible.
Conversely, when playing in a series, you are only playing against the players at your table. The goal is usually to get 1st place or 2nd place overall. For example, you may be in the semi-finals of a large event and need to place in the top 2 at your table in order to advance to the finals, or you may be at the final table and need to end in 1st place overall to win a title. Regardless, you have a much greater influence over the final standings at the table in a series than in a league or tournament. You are directly competing with the only three players in your way, which means that you have the opportunity to take points from them every hand. Of course, this is true for all of the players at the table.
In a series, you may have to try and manipulate the placements in the current hanchan to better suit you. If you only need 2nd place overall to advance, and you lost points in the first hanchan, then it could be better to let the player who got 1st place in the first hanchan get 1st place in the next hanchan. That way, you do not have to compete with them when vying for 2nd place, and the threshold for 2nd place would also be lower. The greater the placement bonuses, the more effective this strategy becomes.
You may also find it beneficial to cooperate with one or two other players at the table to achieve a certain goal. If only 1st place advances to the next round or wins a title, then it is in the best interest of three players that the player who got 1st place in the first hanchan does not get 1st place in the next hanchan. Two 1st place finishes in a row would make it incredibly difficult for anyone else to catch up, so the other players will generally try to prevent this from happening. This is especially true if the placement bonuses include oka, which gives greater weight to 1st place.
These skills are unconventional, but they are not even the most difficult problem you will face when playing in a series. When the last hanchan of the series starts, every player will know how many points they need to achieve their desired overall ranking. Again, this is because you are only playing against the other players at your table. In a league or tournament, you may get an idea of how many points you need by the end, but in a series, you know with certainty. That certainty is a good thing, but it also makes playing in a series more difficult. This is why you have to understand how the placement bonuses for the series work so that you may calculate the overall scores during a game.
The multiple-hanchan series may be the most challenging format, but it has its faults. In the last hanchan of a series, players rarely get to play “normal” mahjong. Because the goal for that hanchan is set (e.g. getting 1st place overall), they must play for that goal, rather than just playing to improve their placement. Of course, for the player in the lead, this is no problem at all. But for the players who are far behind, they may have to make what would otherwise be unreasonable plays to preserve whatever chance they have of reaching that goal.
As long as a player has a dealer turn, they still have hope. No matter how many points they need, they could get them as long as they keep winning on their dealer turn. But if your last dealer turn has passed, and your only hope of catching up is to win multiple yakuman hands, then that is what you have to aim for. You may even find it beneficial to assist the current dealer if possible so that you have more chances to get expensive hands.
This effect becomes even worse towards the end of the hanchan, in South 3 or South 4. Sometimes, players will have no chance of reaching the set goal, even if they were to win a yakuman. This warps the game considerably. There will be one or two players who become unable to win any hands because doing so would result in their defeat. In order to show respect for the game, players in this situation have to do whatever they can to avoid interfering with the players who still have a chance of winning. That usually means trying not to feed anyone anything at all. These players essentially do not get to play anymore. This is widely recognized as this format’s greatest problem among competitive players. However, that does not change the fact that the multiple-hanchan series is the most skill-intensive of the three formats.
In a league, you may just play to try and maximize your score and improve your ranking. In a tournament, you essentially do this at the beginning, then have to aim for a moving target towards the end. But in a multiple-hanchan series, everything after the first hanchan must be done with the set goal in mind. You may not get to play “normal” mahjong past that point, especially in the last hanchan of the series. All three of these formats have their advantages and disadvantages, and they are all valid formats for competition mahjong. Understanding and being able to adapt to each of these formats will surely make you a stronger riichi mahjong player.