Mahjong (the name literally means "sparrow") is a tile game of Chinese origin, invented there in the mid-18th century but
For all the fuss that is made about the popularity of internet poker and the boom in online bingo, the game that is quietly creeping up on them both is one that involves kongs, pongs, and chows – mah-jong. With an estimated 700 million players worldwide this game of tiles is one that e-gaming operators cannot afford to ignore.
Of course, the majority of these players are based in Asia, with an estimated 500 million in China alone. Mah-jong became China’s 255th sport recognised by the country’s General Administration of Sports of China back in 1998 and the China State Sports Commission published China’s first official set of rules for the game.
Speaking to Jonas Alm, chief executive of Mahjong Logic, the Isle of Man-licensed mah-jong software specialist, he told Global Betting and Gaming Consultants that Japan is also a particularly good market for online mah-jong. There are some 10,000 mah-jong parlours in Japan, as well as a professional mah-jong league. These factors are combined with the fact that it is easier to conduct business online in Japan (in terms of payments etc) than mainland China.
But there are sizeable mah-jong playing populations across the world. Mahjong Logic estimates a mah-jong playing population of 3 million people across Europe and a similar figure for the US, where there are 350,000 members in the National Mah Jongg League (NMJL) (founded 1937).
In the UK, Mahjong Logic has recently signed a deal with the Hippodrome Casino, which is shortly to open in London’s Leicester Square, near the capital’s China Town.
Explaining the reasoning behind the deal, the Hippodrome’s George Constantinou said, “The Hippodrome Casino will have a large percentage of Chinese and Asian players who all know and love the game of mah-jong. Partnering with Mahjong Logic allows us to immediately offer online mah-jong to our customer base and leverage their already existing player liquidity pool”.
Online mah-jong works to the same business model as online poker. The game’s operator takes a rake from the amount wagered on the game. In the same way as poker, therefore, a successful peer-to-peer online mah-jong network also depends on player liquidity. Mahjong Logic states that the ‘average’ mah-jong player lives in Asia, is male, and 29 years old. The ratio of male to female players is 82:18 and 88% of players are aged between 18 and 45 years.
Mah-jong is permitted in the casinos of Macau but the revenues derived from the game are negligible compared to baccarat. In 2011 mah-jong revenues in Macau were just MOP 70 million (US$ 8.75 million), although this was an increase of 105% on the previous year.
One of the complications of offering online mah-jong is that there are numerous variations of the rules and scoring systems in different regions and countries including: Chinese classical mah-jong, Hong Kong mah-jong, Sichuan mah-jong, and American mah-jong.
A major benefit that mah-jong does have, however, is that is often considered to be a sports or game of skill. This means it is more accepted by governments as a “cultural norm” rather than being seen as “gambling”, although wagering is an integral component of the game for most players.
Asia is where the future of gambling lies, both in the online and land-based spheres. It is a region for which e-gaming operators have to develop a strategy. Mah-jong, with its cultural history and popularity, is a game that has to be in an operator’s plans as they seek to diversify into new games and new markets.