It doesn't feel right to leave Carl alone to post about this subject, as I too have been hitting the mahjong hard as of late. The game has fascinated me since I saw Akagi-- this is a common symptom of American players of Japanese mahjong-- and I've made attempts to learn to play in the past, but only in the past few months can I say I know what the hell I'm doing.
I was grinding away by myself online, but in a very unlikely and convenient situation, a local group (the USPML) formed here in NYC. If you know how to play and you're local-- this is itself exceedingly unlikely-- you should be coming to these meets. It's a very friendly environment, and as Carl and I have both mentioned, Pringles, Kindai Mahjong magazine and Dr. Pepper are on hand. If you don't, and you're local, they are going to start doing teaching events. I recommend giving the game a shot: you may find yourself having as much fun as we are. But why are we having so much fun with this game?
From one moment to the next, reach mahjong is a game of chance, a game of skill, and a game of balls. I won't bore you with too many of the details, but the closest thing you've likely heard of is rummy. Four players take turns drawing and discarding tiles to make a 14-tile hand. Certain hands are more valuable than others and a match usually takes place over eight or so hands, so the goal of the game isn't necessarily to race to finish one hand. It's to finish having taken the most points from everybody else. You have to think of the war and not so much the battle. People say it's not so much a game of winning as it is a game of not losing.
While Japanese-style mahjong heavily rewards a player for putting together their hand by themselves, it's also possible to steal tiles: particularly in the endgame, the need to finish your own hand presses against the potentially disastrous possibility of dealing into somebody else's. When a player's hand is one tile away from winning, they can declare "reach" or "riichi" (take your pick), formally declaring their status to the table. From a practical point of view, you wouldn't want to let people know you could win at any moment. However, winning on a reach gives you a number of point bonuses, so it's a very common move. Reach is at the heart of the game: you can prop up a low-scoring hand with it, you can use it as a semi-bluff, you can turn a strong hand into a monster.
When the reach stick goes on the table, the mood gets really tense: I was in a hand at the last meet where one player after another reached, and I was faced with the terrifying possibility of dealing into any one of their hands at any moment. I survived by simply folding: taking my hand apart and discarding only tiles I knew all three players didn't need. The danger of trying to win here greatly outweighs the loss of a small hand. When we finished in a draw, it turned out that I was in fact holding every single tile the other players needed, including one tile that two players needed. Had I dealt into this, I would be paying for both players' hands, which could have well knocked me out in one shot and ended the game with me in last place. This is the shortest match I have ever played: I won on the second hand. This game is a very tense, very dangerous, and mostly blind negotiation.
That's what I like about the game, anyway. When I was writing this post it got really huge and out of hand, so I'll be posting one of these a day.