Is Mahjong Or Chess Harder? An Honest Comparison

If you’ve ever watched people playing Mahjong, you’ve probably noticed that it’s quite a complex game with a ton of strategy. That can make you think of chess and start wondering whether one is harder than the other? This is a great question but one to which there may be no simple answer and here’s why.

Is Mahjong harder than chess? Chess is probably harder overall than Mahjong because there is no luck involved in chess. Some variants of mahjong are harder than others but the luck factor is still there. The rules of Mahjong, however, tend to be more complex and it is harder to learn than Chess.

Let’s take a look at how chess and mahjong differ and how to weigh each game.

Is mahjong harder than chess? -
Is mahjong harder than chess? –

The Variations Of Games: Mahjong and Chess

Mahjong is infinitely complex, at least in part, because there is no standard version of Mahjong. In fact, it is played differently not just depending on which country a player resides in but often in which part of that country they live in. For example, there are over 30 different variants of Mahjong in Mainland China alone.

Three To Play?

You’ve probably seen the game played by four people but if you go to Southeast Asia, Japan or South Korea, then it’s very likely that you will find games being played, with different rules, by just three people.

To make matters even more complex, each individual table may introduce their own rules if all players agree to this (or a majority of players in some cases). This means that if you want to learn the rules for Mahjong – you’re going to have to work out where you want to play first.

Chess Is Simpler

By contrast, it’s not that there aren’t variations of chess, there are, and we’ve looked at some of the games you can play on a chess board including some chess variants here. The truth is though that unlike in Mahjong where every community has its own unique version of Mahjong that they play – chess doesn’t work like that.

Standard Rules

While chess may have variants and players may experiment with these variants at different points in their chess journey, the vast majority of chess players around the world all play the same game – chess as defined in the FIDE rules (the International Chess Federation which always known by its French initials).

That means you don’t have to go out and canvass your local area before you start to play chess – you can grab a set of standard rules and start to learn them immediately.

Thus, chess is much easier to get started with than Mahjong.

The Rules Of The Game: Mahjong And Chess

Chess is made up of 32 different pieces which act on an 8 x 8 board. Of these pieces there are only 6 different pieces and each of them has a set pattern of moves. While there are a few complicated moves (pawn promotion, castling and en passant) in addition to the basic moves, there aren’t very many of them.

There are then a handful of other rules to learn but not very many. This means that a player of even a fairly average ability to learn new things, can easily learn the rules and moves of chess in a day or two.

Mahjong Has More Pieces

Though rather like rules, Mahjong has no standard tile set, the majority of tile sets are based on what are known as the Old Hong Kong Mahjong set. There are 144 pieces in a tile set and they are all different!

They Aren’t So Hard To Learn

However, this doesn’t mean that a player needs to learn 144 different pieces. There are three sets of “simple” tiles these are like suits in cards and are numbered from 1 to 9, the suits are dots, bamboo and characters. As long as you can read Chinese numerals (which appear on the characters) then it shouldn’t take more than two minutes to learn these tiles.

The Honors Tiles are more complex. A native speaker of Mandarin will have a big advantage here as the Winds are named East, South, North and West and this is written in Chinese calligraphy on each tile. The Dragons are red, green and white and the Chinese character for red and green appears on the appropriate tile, to make things confusing the “white dragon” is generally a blank tile.

Speaking Chinese Is An Advantage

It’s going to take a little longer for a non-Chinese speaker to remember these than chess pieces but not so long that you’re going to lose sleep over it.

There are then two sets of “bonus tiles”. These are separated into flowers (broken down into plum blossoms, orchids, chrysanthemum, and bamboo) and seasons (spring, summer, autumn and winter) these are, again, fairly easy to identify if you speak Chinese as the appropriate character appears on each tile and they are illustrated to make them clearer too.

All told, it might take an extra hour or two to learn the pieces in Mahjong when compared to chess.

The Rules Of Mahjong Are Very Complex

Unfortunately, the Old Hong Kong Mahjong rules are substantially more complex than chess rules. You need to learn everything from the order of play each round (each round has all the players acting in different orders) to how to stack the tiles to begin with, how to draw tiles and then, of course, how to play.

Play in Mahjong has many more rules than Chess. If you wanted to learn this one variant of Mahjong, it would take a week or so to master the rules. This is much longer than it would take in chess.

So, learning Mahjong is harder than learning chess. At least, when it comes to the basics.

Mahjong Vs Chess: The Complications

There are two further complications to consider when weighing up these two games against each other. The first is the matter of luck vs skill. In chess, there is no such thing as luck. While it might feel lucky when your opponent makes a mistake that enables you to capitalize on it, this isn’t “luck”, it’s their lack of skill.

Similarly, when you play a perfect midgame and enter the endgame confident of victory, that is your skill at play nothing more.

In Mahjong, tiles are drawn at random. In the same way that a poker player’s hand is shuffled from a deck and then handed to them. This means that not all hands are equal and thus, luck plays a substantial element in Mahjong, though rather like poker, Mahjong is still mainly a game of skill. We don’t know how you offset this issue, but it is an important one.

Mastery Of Chess May Be Harder Than Mastery Of Mahjong

The other thing is that if you compare chess to Old Hong Kong Mahjong, we think that chess is much harder to master than Mahjong. Sure, you can learn it in a day but with the incredible volume of different possible games in chess, no-one, not even the most powerful computer, can be sure that they are making the best possible moves.

This is less true in Mahjong, where strategy is important but so are bluffing skills, etc.

Thus, we’re going to say that while Mahjong is definitely harder to learn and to begin playing with, we think chess is probably the harder game over the longer-term though we cannot guarantee this and no-one has, yet, done a mathematical analysis of the two to prove which game is hardest.


Is Mahjong harder than Chess? Potentially, it could be. The rules of most games of Mahjong are more complex than chess, that certainly makes it harder to learn. Mahjong is also often played at an incredibly rapid pace far faster than “lightning” chess which means that it may be harder to gauge your strategic opportunities when it comes to calculating your precise odds of a winning move.

However, there is also an argument to say that while chess is very easy to learn (see our article here on how easy) it is far harder to master than nearly any other game. We recently wrote about whether chess could ever be solved? In order to play through all the possible permutations of chess, a computer would need more time than there is left to the universe! So, “solving chess” is for practical purposes, impossible. It can’t get much harder than that, can it?

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