Sunday, 12 August 2018

Riiching New Heights

Post 11 of ? for Blaugust 2018.
As is becoming my habit this Blaugust, this post ended up being almost, but not quite entirely unlike the post that I set out to write.

It's hard for me to believe that just this time last week I was in Surrey for the UK Riichi Mahjong Championships, and the thing that I can most emphatically say that I learnt there is that there are many players here in Europe that are drastically and unattainably better at the game than I am. This isn't a surprise, exactly, I'm not accustomed to being the best at anything in my life and mahjong is one of very casual hobbies rather than a thing that I devote a lot of time to, but the sheer gulf between us was pretty intimidating. And the best European players feel that gulf and more between their best play and that of the Japanese players, who play at a level that I can't hope to comprehend, let alone emulate.

I don't think this gulf is due simply to experience. Riichi isn't big enough in the west to support the range of strategy books, training tools and quality players that can help you get dramatically better. But experience definitely counts for something, and as I play with more skilled opponents more regularly, partially through playing more regularly online through tenhou, and partially because my students are fast becoming stronger players in their own right, I've noticed a number of ways where I'd like to improve my play, which I'm listing here in the vain hope that I'll remember them in the heat of battle and actually follow my own advice.

If you've never played mahjong, first let me congratulate you for braving to read down this far in what is almost certainly going to be a pretty inaccessible post. I'm sorry to say it, but this post just isn't FOR you. If you'd be interested in some kind of video introduction to the game or something, do let me know and I'll try to oblige, there are lots out there but I am yet to find one that I really like in order to recommend it. In the mean time, I give you full permission to skip the rest of the post. Not that you need my permission or anything, but whatever.

Anyway, some ways to improve:

Give up when your hand is dead
At the tournament it was clear that I was doing a much better job of playing defensively and not throwing losing tiles when I was trying to do that. However, I am definitely still chasing hands for too long even after it's evident that they're not going anywhere and leaving off playing defensively for too long. I need to develop some kind of metric for when I should and shouldn't push that is a little bit more sophisticated than my current system.
Keep honours and terminals longer
I identified this one I while ago, but I still tend to throw the honour tiles, particularly single dragons, much earlier than I ought to, and finding that it regularly comes back to bite me when I waste turn after painful turn then throwing precious tiles that I can't keep because they'll put me in furiten.

Think more about safe tiles
One of the reasons that I ought to keep those loose honours and terminals some of the time is that they often end up either being safe tiles, in which case they're worth keeping until I need safety, or they end up being danger tiles that I shouldn't throw under any circumstances. Spending more time thinking about the long-term value of dead tiles (often but not always loose honours and terminals) as safety throws later rather than quickly discarding since they're not useful to my hand has got to help me out.

Don't be scared of more complex weights
I have this compulsion to throw the fourth tile in a run in preference to a lone tile elsewhere that often greatly reduces the flexibility of my hands for fear of placing myself in furiten. I'm unlikely to spend time practicing and memorising good and bad weight shapes like I'd probably have to if I actually wanted to get good at this, so for now I just want to resolve to keep close tiles in preference to loners and inside weights for a while and see if it helps.

Care about the number of tiles, not the types.
I've come to realise that I'm overly reliant on two-tile weights. I sacrifice speed and sometimes even points to be waiting on two different types of tile to win on. However, I need to start trying weigh these decisions more with respect to the number of actual available tiles there are, not just how many types. Too often lately I've been on a "two-tile weight" that was literally that, two or three individual tiles, when I could have more easily been waiting on a single type of tile with a higher chance of coming out in reality. This is tricky, as it requires paying more attention to other players' discards than I currently do, but I suppose I should be doing that more anyway.

Stop declaring riichi when you don't have to
Declaring riichi is a great tool to get a lot of points quickly, the game is called riichi mahjong after all. That said, though, there are plenty of situations where the wise course is to take a smaller potential gain in order to stay safer. I'm getting better at identifying these situations when I'm in the lead, but when it comes to close fights where every point count, I have been finding that the drain of a thousand points here and there in riichi sticks is costing me more often than it should. I need to see these situations before they arise and work a little harder to build hands that aren't going to require me to riichi in order to go out.

If I can do those, maybe I'll get better. Maybe I'll realise that I preferred the way that I play at the moment, too, but I guess we'll just have to wait and see. If nothing else, spending a little more time thinking about the nuances of the game that I enjoy so much can't hurt me, as long as I restrain myself from talking about it everywhere I go. So, anyone for some riichi?

1 comment:

Steve Dunn said...

You're correct. As someone who knows only enough to recognize mahjong when I see it, the last bit didn't make a whole lot of sense.

Still of value to me though. I at least picked up some vocabulary and a greater respect for the ability to play it. It's written well enough that I was able to comprehend the ideas without really understanding them.