Push/Fold Judgment

Lately I’ve been reading Makoto Fukuchi’s latest mahjong strategy book, 押し引きの教科書 (Oshihiki no Kyoukasho) which, as the title suggests, is a textbook on pushing forward and pulling back. As Fukuchi says in the afterword, it’s the book that he most wanted to write, and with good reason – according to the foreword, push/fold judgment makes up less than 20% of mahjong strategy, yet it decides whether you win or lose in over 80% of games. Despite being such a crucial element of the game, until now there has been very little teaching material on the subject, in both English and Japanese. With that in mind I’ve decided to pick out a few key points that I feel would be particularly helpful to English-speaking players.

1. The four components of push/fold judgment

According to Fukuchi, they are:

  1. The value of your hand
  2. How good your wait is
  3. How close you are to tenpai
  4. Your current placing

Contrary to popular belief, current placing is specifically ranked last after the other three factors to consider. Conversely, how close you are to tenpai is more important than many people expect.

2. Preemptive riichi is powerful

You’ve probably heard this one before but it’s so important that it bears repeating. If you’re the first one to tenpai, you should almost always declare riichi before anyone else can. The chance for ippatsu and uradora mean that riichi significantly raises the expected value of your hand. Nanba Shibukawa, a member of the Nihon Pro Mahjong professional organisation and 10d Tenhou player, says that riichi and tsumo with one other han (excluding pinfu) is the easiest way to achieve mangan. The last han is left to luck.

As Fukuchi says, mahjong is a game in which even just getting to tenpai is difficult, so you should immediately declare riichi with almost any wait unless you’ve got a kanchan with no other han. Many people like to delay calling riichi thinking that they can improve their wait, and that’s certainly a valid option, but count the types of tiles that improve your wait and consider whether or not you can realistically draw one before the other players reach tenpai.

It’s also crucially important that if someone else calls riichi first and you’re nowhere near tenpai, be sure to defend. This is especially important if the other person is the dealer.

3. Mangan is the golden standard

Mangan gives the best balance between hand value and likelihood of winning, and is far more effective at securing a good final placing than a cheap yakuhai or open tanyao. If you’ve got a hand with potential, it’s a huge waste to settle for 1000 points. If you have time left in the round (up until the 8-10th turn, according to Fukuchi), you should maximise your hand. As mentioned above, riichi and tsumo with one other han is one easy method of reaching mangan if your hand lacks obvious potential.

If it’s past the tenth turn, then it’s time to stop dreaming and start looking at reality. Take what you can get, or even settle for yakuless tenpai to avoid noten penalties.

4. If you’re in the lead in east round, keep pushing

In accordance with the fourth component listed above, Fukuchi says not to pay too much attention to your current placing in east round. Keep playing normally and try to build your lead further. There’s little point in trying to defend a small lead.

When it gets to south round, your job is to pass the rounds as fast as possible (except for your dealer round – keep pushing!). This may mean assisting other players in cutting off the dealer. Pay attention to the player on your right and think about how much you can support him with tiles to call. However, don’t sacrifice your own points to try and pass a round. The most effective way to pass a round is always to just win by yourself.

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