POKER LIFESTYLE

Let’s Drink! Let’s Enjoy! Poker in Japan at a Tokyo Poker Club

By Mike Patrick
September 21, 2023

“Gaijin okay?”

To which I received a friendly nod and a laugh. Yup, a friendly poker table is a friendly poker table no matter where you are in the world, including the Land of the Rising Sun.

For those who don’t know, ‘gaijin’ is a Japanese term for a foreigner or non-Japanese person, and I was most certainly that as I sat down for my first-ever poker session in Japan.

We’ll get to the meat and potatoes of poker inside a Tokyo poker club in a moment, but first, the backstory of why I was there in the first place because, honestly, it’s probably a little more fun than the actual session was (mini spoiler alert).

How I got to Japan

My career as a poker reporter (yup, I can definitely call it that now), has taken me to an incredible amount of places. Just this year alone, I’ve made stops in the American Midwest, Florida, California,  India, Paris, France, and Paris, Las Vegas. I’d worked a ton to start the year and was fully intending on taking some time off after my third stint at the World Series of Poker, but once the World Poker Tour offered me a chance to work in Jeju, South Korea, there was no way I was passing that up.

The chance to work at one of Asia’s premier poker locations, the Landing Casino at Jeju Shinhwa World, which is basically a giant resort complete with a theme park, water park, and more was incentive enough, but it was what I could potentially tack onto that work trip that was what had me really excited.

Right next to South Korea is a place I’ve always wanted to visit, Japan.

The combination of hearing tales from friends who have visited or lived there, seeing it on screen in movies like Lost in Translation, and having grown up a big video game geek thinking that Nintendo is basically the biggest influence in that country, made Japan a dream destination. There was no way I wasn’t making the most of the opportunity to be flown across the world for work and stopping in for a vacay.

As soon as I arrived at Tokyo Narita airport, my assumption of the incredible influence of Nintendo was confirmed, as look who’s right there to greet you as you walk off the plane.

Mario at Airport

Yup, this was gonna be a good trip.

And it was, with endless cool adventures and experiences over six days. Along with the head-swiveling joy of just wandering and exploring the biggest city in the world, having a drink at the Park Hyatt Tokyo (the centerpiece location of Lost in Translation),

Park Hyatt Hotel

attending a Tokyo Yakult Swallows baseball game,

Yakut Swallows

taking a day trip to Nagano to visit a Snow Monkey park,

Snow Monkey Park

a day trip to Osaka to check out the world’s biggest Nintendo store, discovering a craft beer bar randomly inside a converted farmhouse in the Japanese countryside, watching people drive Mario Karts through the busiest intersection in the city, and endless delicious meals, every minute was stuffed with something to tell a story about.

And yes, there was poker, so let’s get to that, shall we?

I honestly had no intention of doing anything poker-related while in Japan. The closest gambling experience I had any inkling of partaking in was visiting a pachinko parlor. Which, let me tell ya, I just don’t get. Imagine instead of a casino full of slot machines ringing and beeping, it is full of machines dropping tiny marbles down a screen into a row of slots. Kind of like a cross between a slot machine and ‘Plinko’ on The Price is Right (RIP Bob Barker).

The problem is, you don’t technically “win” much of anything, and what you do win seems to be a giant pain to claim. Let me explain, and this will come into play when it comes to the poker.

Bellagio Pachinko

Gambling is actually illegal in Japan.

Apparently, what happens is players exchange cash for marbles to play in these machines in an attempt to win, wait for it… more marbles! Once players ‘cash out’ they exchange these marbles for small prizes or tokens, kind of like kids do at a Chuck E Cheese. These are then taken to a separate shop off-site, where they are then traded in for cash.

And that’s how we get around Japanese gambling laws, kids!

Bellagio Tokyo

So, if gambling is illegal and you can’t actually play for anything, how the heck does poker work?

Plain and simple, imagine if you sat down at an online play money table and everyone at the table actually really, really tried.

As I mentioned, I had no intention of playing poker while in Japan, knowing full well coming in that gambling was illegal so there would be no serious poker to play. And honestly, I was in Tokyo, what better place to take a break from poker and just have a vacation?

But just randomly on my first day in Tokyo as I explored the wild neighborhood of Kubukicho (I’m not even going to start to tell you about everything going on in this neighborhood. Holy moly, Google it or check out the show Tokyo Vice), I stumbled upon a sign on the side of one of the endless multi-story buildings. Not one, but two poker clubs were housed inside.

Poker Sign

Some form of poker was there if I wanted it. And I’m not going to lie, since I now knew where to go, I was kind of curious. But I wasn’t going to make it a priority. There was still too much to explore.

After a couple of days exploring this incredible city and with this option a short walk from my Shinjuku hotel, curiosity got the better of me. Trying out poker in Japan was worth a couple of hours of my time and would at least make for a story… so here we are.

Let’s enjoy! Let’s drink!

I entered the indistinct brick building and took one of two small elevators up to the 9th floor to “Casino Live” Poker and Bar.

Poker building

Upon entering the small lobby which contained a bar along with the registration desk, I was greeted with a ‘konichiwa’ and a smile by a friendly staff member. I saw a couple of tables in use, four to be exact with just under a dozen total within the room including the ‘feature table’ on a small stage with lights and cameras for live streaming. I was told that three of the tables were for the evening’s tournament, while the other was for a “cash” game. I asked what players played for and what they were trying to win.

Tokyo Casino Interior

I was told that the goal wasn’t necessarily to “win” anything other than a good time and to have a few drinks along the way, as was illustrated by a sign on the wall which is echoed on their website. Their concept? Let’s enjoy! Let’s drink!

To my understanding, the “cash” game worked similarly to the pachinko parlors, where a player’s winnings could be exchanged for “prizes” like drink tickets, while a percentage of those winnings could also be exchanged for online funds that could be added to a players account on a prominent online site that players in Japan could access.

Shuffle up and Deal!

As I was there firmly for the ‘let’s drink, let’s enjoy’ element of the experience, I opted for the tournament, which cost 2,000 yen (approximately $14 USD). The tourney had been running for about a half hour when I arrived and had a turbo structure, so I sat down with my 30 big blinds, smiled, and as the only non-Japanese person in the place asked, “gaijin okay?”

This got a smile and a chuckle from a couple of my tablemates, and away we went.

poker chips

Moments later, a server approached to take my drink order, which I can unquestionably say was the best cocktail service I’ve ever received in a poker room. In the small room which contained just nine tables, service was fast and plentiful. I was determined to get as many beverages in as my 30 big blind stack would allow. ‘Let’s enjoy, let’s drink’ could indeed be a very achievable goal.

With this being what’s known as an ‘amusement casino’ and with nothing of significance to play for, the vibe of the players and the room was far more like a home game or a really well-lit, non-sketchy underground game. Almost everyone was here with friends, as sociability and a night out was undeniably the priority. While everyone who spoke enough English that I could converse briefly with was very friendly, I have to admit I did still feel like an outsider. Bringing a friend would have definitely improved the experience and my own comfort level.

As my stack dwindled and the blinds rose, I flagged down a server to grab another biru (beer). They did come at a cost above my tournament entry fee of about $7 USD, but I only planned on playing a single entry, as re-entering a tournament with no prize seemed like a seriously -EV proposition (i.e., non-poker training site approved). I at least wanted to enjoy a couple of beverages before going broke if I was unable to spin up my now sub-15 BB stack.

Unfortunately, the cards never came, and my time in this lovely little social cardroom was short-lived, as I couldn’t win a flip with queen-jack versus a pair of tens. A trip to that live-streamed final table was not to be, and it was back into the bright lights of Kabukicho for me.

Kabukicho

Would This Work Elsewhere?

While this brief excursion into the world of a Japanese social poker club was short-lived, my biggest takeaway from the experience was thinking about whether this model of a purely social, non-gambling poker club would work in North America, where playing the real thing is plentiful and readily available in most locations.

Could this model be an outlet to draw new people to poker and get them comfortable in a live setting before they put their money at risk in a casino?

Would enough experienced poker players be interested in spending an evening in a setting like this, just playing for the love of the game and having a few drinks with friends?

Bar poker provides this option in pubs and lounges that occasionally offer a poker night, but would establishments, built purely for poker and socializing, with nice poker tables, professional dealers (who were far better than many I’ve seen in some casino poker rooms), and knowledgeable staff succeed in this day and age, especially with a new poker boom unfolding before us?

It’s a question that I’d love to see an answer to, potentially provided by someone far more savvy in business than I, because my poker in Japan experience was definitely a fun time and something I’d love to see on North American shores.

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Mike Patrick poker author
Written By.

Mike Patrick

A veteran of both the Canadian sports media industry and poker scene, Mike has made the jump into poker media with cardplayerlifestyle.com. Having worked his way from intern to television producer and from home game hero to semi-professional poker player, Mike brings knowledge and a competitive outlook from his experiences in the newsroom and at […]

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