Game Boy

Game Boy

Metropolis talks with one of Tokyo’s high-stakes gamblers... and the nicest shark around


Originally published on on January 2010

826-F_1stSpread_DSC0219-CMYK It’s Saturday evening and the game is craps. A flock of stylishly dressed Japanese men crowd around the table, tossing the dice and yelling each time a player wins or goes bust. The dealer, “Rei,” coolly regards each one of them as he manages the chips on the board. Suddenly, one of the men decides to liven up the evening by throwing a handful of gold-studded black chips at the pass line. Rei calmly stacks them up and counts, “Hachi, kyu, ju man-en.” A ¥100,000 bet. As the player picks up the dice and prepares the roll that will determine where his weekly pay will go, someone asks Rei if he thinks he’s going to win. Rei looks up and grins, “I don’t care.”

Gambling is huge in Japan. Although nominally illegal, games of chance account for more than 5 percent of the country’s GNP—and that’s only what’s on the books. According to an article for The Japan Society by journalist David Plotz, Japan has the largest gambling market in the world, with over ¥20 trillion wagered each year. Japanese have been gambling since the beginning of their written history—literally. The Nihon Shoki, Japan’s oldest written document, depicts the emperor playing dice. During the Heian Era, a noble was not considered truly elite unless he gambled regularly. This is no longer the case in modern Japan, but gambling remains widespread and professionals like Rei are happy to profit from its popularity.

The gambling professional is, in general, not who you think he is. For a pro gambler, Rei looks pretty normal. He has an average build, wears average clothes and works a regular day job. He lives in a messy six-mat apartment. The paint on the walls is peeling off, and his stuff is strewn about the room. In the corner lie a couple of duffel bags thrown there the previous night. By all appearances, it’s a standard Japanese bachelor’s apartment.

Except that those bags contain enough ¥10,000 bills to wallpaper the entire room.

“Four million yen,” Rei says as he pats the top bag, “that’s how much you need on hand to play.” This is the bankroll a player needs to sustain himself for a week in Japan’s grueling high-stakes gambling games.

Every day, players like Rei tuck neat stacks of currency into their briefcases and gather in small rooms to conduct the evening’s entertainment. After a night of play, a participant might be up or down as much as ¥1 million—or more, if he’s an adventurous type.

But most people aren’t like Rei. The reason he’s unique is because he wins. “There’s a lot of luck and big swings, so I can’t win every time, of course,” he says. “But if I were to calculate it by the hour, I’d guess I make between ¥10,000 and ¥15,000 per. So maybe ¥70,000 on an average evening?” Not bad for a night’s work.

Contrary to what you may think, Rei is not a mind reader, nor does he possess any sort of superhuman skill.

“Nothing as interesting as that,” he says with a chuckle. “I just keep good records.”

He’s also a modest guy, so he doesn’t mention that he plays an excellent game. Mahjong, hanafuda, tehonbiki, chinchirorin, and oichokabu are all part of Rei’s arsenal, as well as Western games like craps and blackjack. He takes on all comers for wagers that range from thousands to millions of yen, but no matter how risky or reckless his wagers may seem, all of them are rooted in a deep understanding of psychology and, more importantly, math.

“For any bet, as long as my expectation in the long run is not negative, I’ll take it,” he says. “Even if it’s an even-money bet, I’ll still take it because it gets people in the mood to gamble more.”

Although Rei brings to the table formidable skill and experience, the real reason he’s able to take millions of yen from his fellow gamblers every year is this: he’s one of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet.

Wait a minute. Nice? But aren’t professional gamblers more the menacing type? When people imagine what a typical gambler looks like, it generally goes something like this: dark cold eyes hidden behind an intimidating pair of sunglasses, black clothing, and perhaps a cowboy hat and a couple of scars.

“Those sorts of people, like from manga, they come to the games sometimes,” says Rei. “But they’re all really bad obochama, spoiled rich kids with money to spare. They always lose. All they are good at is dressing up.”

You might say that it’s Rei’s job to let marks like these live out their fantasies.

“There are bored salarymen all over Japan. I provide them with some entertainment. That’s what my job really is.” Even on days when he doesn’t have a scheduled game, Rei will carry a set of betting chips and cards. If one of his clients suddenly gets an itch to play, he’s ready.

“The trick is to find shacho, company presidents and other people with money to spare, like international businessmen or famous authors. They want to play, but if the stakes aren’t high enough it doesn’t satisfy them.”

Of course, being such aficionados of the game, these shacho are generally strong players.

“They’re good but I have an edge, since to me it’s work. If they lose big, they are unhappy, but if I lose big, I have to go to a loan shark,” says Rei. “Maybe I also have more energy than them because I’m so much younger. They like that, playing with someone genki like me.”

Rei’s ability to attract people older and richer than him lies at the heart of his success. With his big smile and lively banter, it’s hard to believe that he makes his living by taking money off of other people. Yet not only do his opponents lose to him constantly, they actually enjoy it.

The trick, according to Rei, is to be well-known—but not too well-known. Maintain contact with your network so you don’t miss a chance to put a game together, but don’t talk to anyone unless someone you know first introduces them. And keep the games fairly small and in private locations, like Rei’s craps game.

The dice fly from the shooter’s fingertips, hit the edge of the board, and bounce a bit before they settle on three and four. Seven, a natural, the quickest way for the player to win in craps. Rei reaches into the bank and pulls out a stack of ¥10,000 chips to match the player’s bet and hands them over. Yet his grin is unwavering.

“The swings come and go, but the odds never change,” he says. “That player will be back. And so will my chips.”

Glossary of Japanese Gambling Games

A four-player tile game similar to gin rummy, and the most popular table game in Japan. Parlors can be found near every major train station and will generally admit anyone who knows the rules.

Hanafuda (“flower cards”)
A special set of playing cards with intricate designs, used for several gambling games. The most popular, koi koi, involves matching cards to create seasonal patterns. The highest-quality hanafuda are printed by Nintendo.

Game played with “kabu” cards, similar to blackjack. The nickname for the worst hand in oichokabu—an eight, a nine and a three—is phonetically expressed as “ya-ku-za” and is the origin of the Japanese word for “gangster.”

Nearly identical to American cee-lo, this game is played by rolling three dice in a bowl. It’s fast-paced and popular among the older generation. Interestingly, this game is gaining fans.

A game in which the player tries to guess which number from 1 to 5 the dealer has selected. Also played with “kabu” cards.

Fun Facts About Gambling in Japan

Do you think that just because casinos are illegal, there aren’t any in Japan? Think again. Academic Ichiro Tanioka estimates that there are over 1,000 underground casinos in Tokyo alone.

  • In 2000, several national police administrators were accused of illegal gambling. Their response? “We were only betting gift certificates for bookstores.” No charges were filed.
  • If you think this is bad, in 1893, the entire Japanese Supreme Court was arrested on charges of illegal gambling.
  • When it comes to large wagers on a game, the biggest gambling activity in Japan is likely golf. Fresh air and exercise aren’t the only reasons all those ojisan are excited.
  • Doing research on Japan? There’s a good chance you’re being supported by the gambling industry. Every year The Nippon Foundation donates roughly ¥30 trillion to charitable and educational causes. It all comes from boat racing.
  • As a foreigner, the only beatable gambling games you have access to (as opposed to sports like horse racing and keiba) are slots, pachinko and mahjong. Everything else is either impossible to win at or requires access to an underground establishment.
  • If you’d like to experience the thrills of gambling without hazarding the associated risks, check out some of the popular manga on the subject. Gambling Apocalypse Kaiji, serialized in Young Magazine, is currently the most popular series. A movie based on the comic was released last year.
What the Pros Know

Ever wonder how players like Rei come out on top? For pro gamblers in Japan, success is as easy as 1-2-3-4.

Keep records Period. Every game, every night. Rei and other successful gamblers all have their different styles, but all of them do this religiously. Most gambling aficionados in Japan have a general abhorrence of statistics and many would consider keeping a detailed spreadsheet to be unlucky. This is one of the reasons there aren’t many successful gamblers in Japan.

Be humble This isn’t just about keeping your customers happy. In Japan, bravado and arrogance aren’t just rude, they’re a means of social suicide. If you have a regular circle, etiquette demands that if you win, you pay for drinks that night. This may have the added benefit of making your companions feel obligated to “pay you back” by playing with you again.

Never burn bridges Remember, in Japan, “no network” means “no income.” Never offend another player, even if you catch him cheating. A losing player was once spotted fixing the game at one of Rei’s sessions, but none of the sharks said anything—they just made sure it didn’t happen again. “If you catch someone cheating, all you can do is cheat back,” says Rei. “Even if you catch them in the act, all it does is make you look bad.”

It’s not a competition Most people think gambling is about competitors vying to be the best. That’s fine for spectator events like tennis or bowling, but real gambling is about taking money from people weaker than you. Look around the table and make sure there’s a healthy population of people who are there to play and pay, not win. Remember, if you don’t know who the fish is ten minutes after you sit down at the table, the fish is you and it’s time to go home.