What's a Professional Mahjong Player and How Can You Be One?

Nicolas ProBy Nicolas Pro8 min read

Mahjong is a game that has been enjoyed by people in Japan for many generations. Professional Mahjong players are an important part of this mahjong culture, and there is more to being one than you might think! In this blog post we will explore what it means to be a professional mahjong player, where they play, how they do it and how you too can become one!

"You're a professional mahjong player!?"

Yes, that's an interesting title to hold. Because, if you asked me "so... do you play mahjong for a living?", I'd have to answer...

"Yes... no... eh, sometimes..."

It's complicated!

Nicolas Guest as Killer Tune in Umeda

Being a guest at a Mahjong Parlor... yes, 11 hours!

What is a mahjong professional player? What do they do?

A professional player is a mahjong player that belongs to a recognized professional association. There is no other requirement to be a professional.

As you know, professional players in most regular sports receive nifty checks from their organization, their sponsors, agencies, or from the team's budget in exchange for playing the game.

You'd imagine that mahjong players as well would share some fame, glory, and also receive a steady income from mahjong itself.

However, this is not the case with mahjong. A lot of people seem surprised to learn that most mahjong players aren't in fact making a living off mahjong. Actually, the system is made so that you will need a stable job and a decent salary just to pay for your monthly/yearly fees and mahjong expenses (although amazing projects like M-League are coming to change that!).

"Fees you say!? You pay to be a professional!?"

Yes. Belonging to a professional mahjong association costs pro players a lot of money.

Professional mahjong players are required to pay fees just to be allowed to call themselves a professional

Expenses associated to being a professional mahjong player:

  • Pro License fees
  • Yearly League entry fees
  • Multiple tournament entry fees
  • Transportation fees (especially if you have to travel from other cities to Tokyo)
  • Depending on how many competitions you enter, and what organization you belong to, your payments can amount to anywhere between $600 and $3000 US dollars per year.

It's not that much, but if you're a pro player and don't have the money to pay for your membership fee every month then it can be an issue.

You might end up without professional status which means no more access to tournaments or mahjong leagues... unless you want to play in some shady places! Your reputation could suffer greatly from this sort of trouble.

Most players are usually professionals in other jobs, such as IT or sales, or writing, and they take their profession very seriously - so much so that it often leads to them becoming better at mahjong than those who play full-time! There are many examples out there; lots of people have heard about Sonoda pro, M-leaguer. It's pretty cool when you think about it.

Sonoda Ken, Mahjong Pro

Sonoda Ken, Salaryman Mahjong Pro

Many people are interested in pursuing a full-time mahjong player career instead of just sitting down with friends, but there's one thing most don't realize before beginning: You will need money if you want to play like these guys (or gals!).

What about winning tournaments? Can't you make your money back with those?

Tournaments yield a very low return on investment no matter how often you can win, so tourneys will never really become a steady source of income; the most important prize that comes with winning a tournament is the title itself, and also the "bragging rights" that come with it.

Mahjong Tournament prizes yield a negative EV in the long run

Fame and a polished image (many of which will come with tournament titles) are vital to mahjong players because it allows you to re-invest in yourself and sell yourself, get your name out there and market yourself. You have to build a brand around yourself to stay relevant.

How do you become a professional mahjong player?

You might wonder how you can become a pro player, and the answer is that it's not very easy. It takes some time for studying and practicing to make it as a professional mahjong player - you have to be good at many aspects of the manners and rulesets.

Players in Japan often start out playing online so they're able to practice while working on their games or studying for exams. However, I feel like each year the pro community is becoming more open and it's every time easier to get in than before.

You can literally become a professional player from scratch in just 1-2 years time. All you need to do is usually:

  1. Find the association you want to join and check their Pro Test dates
  2. Study their rules, regulations, and famous players
  3. Pass a written exam, an interview, and a practical exam
  4. Go through the basic training (usually less than a month)
  5. Pay your fees

You can realistically become a professional mahjong player after only 1-2 years of starting the game.

In the future, if you're just starting out and want to play Mahjong competitively - it's not too late. Japan is making huge strides in welcoming mahjong professionals from all backgrounds. The country has a rich history of supporting players through its long-running pro system for both men and women.

It's not incredibly difficult to become a professional mahjong player, the incredibly difficult thing is not quitting once you're in.

If you want to practice, or need my help for studying, please get in touch!

How can you make money off mahjong as a player?

If you really want to commit to work "only in mahjong", there are a few ways that can help you turn mahjong into your main source of income as a professional player.

The most popular ways are:

  • Working in mahjong parlors as a member or guest (especially female regular guests are in somewhat high demand)
  • Publishing mahjong books by yourself or with others
  • Appearing on mahjong broadcasts as a commentator, invited player, or otherwise
  • Working as a mahjong teacher or consultant
  • Offering other mahjong-related services

The big shots in the biz might also get to appear on TV and movies, or perhaps play for money against rich CEOs... who knows! Usually, professional players will never admit to being involved in gambling.

Note: Lately, more and more players are being welcomed into **"M-League"**, where the teams have sponsors and players of the league receive a very good yearly salary. It's very difficult to get inside (less than 1% of professional players). In the future, hopefully, this could become more of a standard and less of an exception.

Are professional mahjong players strong?

Not all of them, but many strong players also happen to be professionals.

The only requirement for entering a pro organization is knowing the rules of the game inside out and paying the fees. You don't have to be "strong," playing level and skills are not objectively measured or evaluated by any recognized association.

Nevertheless, the competitive environment of any mahjong league will definitely make you stronger very quickly if you put in the effort.

The competitive environment of any mahjong league will definitely make you stronger

Who are some notable professional mahjong players?

There are a few, legendary-level, very strong players I admire, including but not limited to:

  1. Suzuki Taro, Murakami Jun and Tsuchida Koushou from Saikouisen
  2. Ogura Takashi, Kim Taehyon, Yajima Gaku from NPM
  3. Ooi Takaharu from RMU
  4. Kobayashi Go from -Myu-
  5. Horiuchi Masato formerly from JPML
Mahjong Professional Players Ooi Takaharu and Suzuki Taro

Ooi Takaharu and Suzuki Taro being awesome

But there are several others.

You can find footage of their games on YouTube.

Why would you decide to become a professional mahjong player?

As a pro player myself I can say it straight out: it's not the best idea to become a professional mahjong player.

That is unless you love the game so much that it borders both obsession and addiction.

You will find that pro players who stayed active for more than 10 years are stoic, they are all in "for the game!". Also, many of them happen to truly believe they're the best player in the world...

Some other players also like a small taste of fame and the fancy title.

There are plenty of reasons why to become a professional player, but it's pretty difficult to stay for the long run unless you have some pretty good, high form of motivation.

Every year it's getting easier and easier to enter professional mahjong associations and the image of mahjong pros isn't precisely the best right now (although it is slightly getting better thanks to M-League).

Currently, many of the strongest players in Japan are actually living as amateurs (or teachers, or gamblers!) with no intention of joining the professional mahjong world.

It's not that hard to become a professional, but the professional world itself is very difficult.

It's not that hard to become a professional, but the professional world itself is very difficult.

The two biggest merits of holding the "pro" title are: access to big title tournaments and media coverage.

If you plan to release a mahjong book, you better have those two points well covered. Every month at least 2 new mahjong strategy books get released, so mahjong readers are becoming pickier and pickier about what they will read.

Do you make money off of mahjong?

Sometimes; it's neither my only nor my main source of income right now.

I'm hoping I can switch to a full-time mahjong player someday. Would you like to help me towards this goal? Even a little bit? Please, support me here.

So how about it? Would you like to learn to play like a professional, too? Maybe get started with these free riichi mahjong tools.

And of course, I'm a professional mahjong player myself, so is there anything you would like to ask me? You may ask anything you want through email, or in a coaching session or through my Patreon page. I'll always be glad to help you.

See you at the mahjong table!

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