Kung Fu Mahjong

The second movie we watched in the CGR film series was a Cantonese comedy, Kung Fu Mahjong. When I was asked to choose a gambling movie, several Mahjong movies came to my mind, largely due to the influence that the game has in the culture I grew up in. I settled for Kung Fu Mahjong at the end, which is one of the most popular Mahjong movies of all time.
Unlike gambling games of pure chance like roulette and slot machines, Mahjong involves a mixture of skill and chance. Canton-style Mahjong is a 4-player game using 136 tiles, and the objective is to be the first player to form a winning pattern with the tiles in your hand. In each turn, the player draws one tile from the batch and strategically discards an unwanted tile. The strategy comes from identifying potential winning combinations, good discarding decisions, and reading the other players. We saw a lot of similarities to poker, which reminded us of the flexibility dimension in Arthur Reber’s (2012) EVF model of types of gambling games.

Mahjong features heavily in this movie, which tells the story of a duo: Wong, a smart man with eidetic memory, and Chi Mo Sai, an experienced gambler. After discovering that Wong can memorize all tile placements in Mahjong, Chi is determined to teach Wong how to master the game. Together they begin winning lots of money, but quickly get into trouble with a triad boss who also plays at the club. After several bizarre plot twists, Wong becomes the Mahjong master by winning a major Mahjong competition at the end.

Some of the Mahjong portrayal is obviously (and deliberately) unrealistic for comedic effect. For example, memorizing the tile placements would be virtually impossible: Miller’s famous short-term memory capacity of ‘7 plus or minus 2’ items falls way short of 136. However, the film also highlights some other strategies that players can reasonably use to improve their odds of winning. Unlike our views on 21, we felt that Kung Fu Mahjong did more accurately portray the inherent variability in the success of these strategies; for example, Wong stopped pursuing rounds with a slim chance of winning in order to avoid big losses.

The movie also touched on some superstitious beliefs in gambling, which we found interesting. For instance, Chi mentions wearing red underwear to the casino, linked to red symbolizing luck and prosperity in Chinese culture. The existence of these superstitious beliefs in gambling is not necessarily harmful, although one needs to be wary and not be overwhelmed by those beliefs and fall prey to illusory control.

Overall, we felt that the movie was good fun and it was interesting to learn something new about Mahjong. Keep your eye out for the next film in our series, in a few weeks time!

About the author: Stephanie Chu is a first year Psychology Masters student at UBC. She studies gambling behaviours and cognitions at the Centre for Gambling Research.