Holdem Poker in Japan

In Japan we traditionally played card games with hanafuda (花札) style playing cards. This, coupled with the fact there are no legal casinos in our country, meant that it was not until recently that the game of No Limit Hold’em (NLHE) became popular here. It is now played in clubs and amusement casinos in Tokyo, and several Japanese players have found success on the high-stakes international tournament circuits.

What Sites Support Japanese?

In this article I will discuss Holdem in detail. First if you are looking to play online, understand that in Japan we use the same poker sites that players from Europe and the rest of Asia use. Hold’em is a popular international game and the largest sites service many countries and operate in multiple languages. The ones below are available in both Japanese and English.

Best Poker Sites for Players in Japan
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All the sites above can be downloaded in Japanese if that is your preference. However, only the top two have their website (as opposed to software) available in our language. As each has its own unique benefits, I have taken a moment to provide a small review of these companies.

Best Japanese Poker Sites

The two best sites in Japan are 888 and Dafa.

888 is a website that Japanese players will immediately feel comfortable using. All aspects of their service are available in many languages including Japanese. In addition to poker they also have a full casino and real money online games, as well as a popular sports betting site. This is a well respected public company listed on the London Stock Exchange that had approximately ¥38.5 billion in profit last year. Their software is audited and approved as being fair by eCogra and they are licensed and regulated in the UK overseas territory Gibraltar. This is both a safe and enjoyable site to use.

Dafa operates on the largest gaming network – iPoker. They are owned by the largest sports betting company in the Philippines which owns a large number of betting shops throughout the country. Here poker, casino, and sports betting are available. For the latter, they have odds on many Japanese sports including domestic basketball, soccer and baseball competitions.

Bodog88: Anonymous Tables & Japanese Mahjong (麻雀)

Update: Bodog88 are currently not accepting deposits from players in Japan. Their Asian poker site is restricted to poker players in China.

bodog88Bodog88 is an all in one gambling site focused on Asia. While their website is not yet available in Japanese, their poker software and online mahjong site can both be downloaded in our language.

At most online poker sites, there are experienced players who data-mine[1] or purchase hand histories. They then use software programs to help identify the flaws in their opponents games. This means that casual players are already at a disadvantage, even before the first cards are dealt.

At Bodog88 data-mining, hand histories, and analysis-software are useless. This is because their site features anonymous tables where players are identified simply as Player 1, Player 2 (and the number changes each time) as opposed to a user name. As a result the games have a lot more weak and casual players, as the pros and stronger players, prefer to use sites that allow software to be used.

They also have a real money Mahjong site that can be downloaded in Japanese. This features the style of game we’re most familiar with. This is of course Japanese Mahjong (Japanese: 麻雀, 麻将 or マージャン; mājan), also known as Rīchi Mahjong.

PokerStars Tops for Tournaments is the world’s largest poker site. While their website is not available in Japanese language, it is an option when downloading the software. If you are a tournament player this is the number one website to play at. They have the largest fields and biggest prize pools. This is also the best site to use if you are interested in other variants such as Omaha, Stud, Razz, Badugi, Triple Draw and 2-7 lowball. Another nice feature is the ability to win seats online to play in major tournaments in Macau, Las Vegas, Seoul, the Philippines, and various places in Europe and Australia.

Texas Holdem History

If you are new to No-Limit Hold’em and are considering learning the game, it might be interesting to know its history. No one is too sure when and where the game was invented but it was played in the United States during the 1950s under various names including ’Hold Me Darling’.

In the 1960s a group of gamblers from Texas, United States realized this was one of the best games to play. This was true for reasons it is easy to learn, anyone can get lucky and win, but over the long run the best players win the most money. In 1967, four of those players from Texas – Crandell Addington, Roscoe Weiser, Doyle Brunson, and Amarillo Slim – brought the game to Las Vegas where gambling and casino games were already legal.

Initially only the Golden Nugget offered this and called it Nugget Holdem. These same four players and others would sit daily at this downtown casino playing it for hours. On occasions they would leave in rotation in an attempt to recruit rich gamblers off the Vegas Strip, offering them a chance to try this new game.

In 1969 the Holiday Hotel in Reno, Nevada, United States hosted a gambling fraternity convention which featured the first ever No Limit Holdem tournament tournament. 30 top gamblers were invited to play a weekend of poker, and Hold’em was one of the many games included. At the end, Crandell Addington was the winner, becoming the first ever champion.

After the event Benny Binion purchased the rights to the tournament. The following year he hosted it as his Horseshoe Casino located in downtown Las Vegas, under the name the World Series of Poker (WSOP). This went on to become an annual event. The 1970 and 1971 WSOPs were won by Johnny Moss via vote by his peers.

In 1972, the WSOP was changed to multiple freeze-out style tournaments – the same as are played today. From this year on the Main Event has been a $10,000 (≈¥1.02 million) buy-in No-Limit Hold’em (NLHE) tournament. Amarillo Slim was the first champion under this format. After winning, he went on various talk shows including the hugely popular Tonight Show where he helped to promote the game.

Doyle Brunson then wrote a book on poker strategy called Super Systems that sold for $100 ≈¥10,319) per copy – a lot of money in the 1970s. He would go on to win the WSOP Main Event in 1976 and 1977. His book remains one of the best written in the field.

doyle brunson wsop 1976

Doyle “Texas Dolly” Brunson heads up in the 1976 World Series of Poker

In spite of all of this, the game was only really popular with high stakes gamblers. It was about the sport and prestige. However during the 1980s it started to spread to casinos and card rooms across the United States. It wasn’t until the online and televised formats of the game came to be that Texas Holdem started to grow into the international sensation it is today.

In 1988 a movie called Rounders was released. This has become a cult classic and did a lot to promote the game. That same year the first internet poker site launched. This saw the number of WSOP Main event entrants grow from 350 in 1998 to 631 in 2002.

The 2002 WSOP was aired on television with limited trial use of hole-card-cams for the first time. During the tournament, poker celebrity and former WSOP champion Phil Hellmuth joined the commentary booth after he was eliminated. Hellmuth was so confident that amateur player Robert Varkonyi would not win that he made a wager that involved him shaving off his own hair if this happened. Well Vakonyi did win and the television coverage ended with Hellmuth losing his hair.

Televised poker caught on big time the following year. This was mainly due to the airing of the World Poker Tour (WPT) on the Travel Channel. Due to the fact this channel is available in many countries across the globe, it helped in bringing Texas Holdem to a whole new audience. Just like that, much of the world was suddenly exposed to an exciting new card game that anyone could play.

The 2003 WSOP had 839 entrants. In dramatic fashion, it was won by an accountant from Tennessee, United States, named Chris Moneymaker (yes that’s his real birth name) who had little experience playing poker. Throughout the television coverage, multiple times the commentators mentioned the fact that Moneymaker had won his $10,000 (≈¥1.02 million) buy-in seat in a PokerStars tournament which had cost only $39 (≈¥310) to enter. That year his first place prize paid $2.5 million (≈¥258 million).

The coverage that Moneymakers Cinderella-style victory brought the game was astonishing. The number of WSOP entrants then grew from 839 in 2003, to 2,576 in 2004, to 5,619 in 2005 and 8,773 in 2006. This saw rushes to create new major high stakes tournament series all over the world. These included the European Poker Tour (EPT), Asian Pacific Poker Tour (APPT) and eventually WSOP Europe and WSOP Asia Pacific. Even China made tournaments legal and welcomed the WPT to their shores. By 2008 the game was well spread in Macau too. This did wonders for the online version as there is now hundreds of thousands of players logged in from all over the world 24/7/365.

Reasons to Learn Texas’ Hold’em

Today No-Limit Hold’em is truly a global game. It is played by people of all walks of life. As mentioned in the introduction many sites now support Japanese language too. Anyone can learn hold’em; it is a very easy game to play, but it takes a lot of practice to get good at it. It is a great game for playing with friends or for those who want to try their luck with gambling. If your goal is to become an international superstar while amassing a small fortune along the way, this is a possibility too.

This is the beauty of Texas Hold’em. It can be played for tiny micro stakes, low limits, or even high stakes on the internet.

Meanwhile, the live high stakes tournament version has a large international following similar to that of sports. The biggest tournaments are even aired on television, and several of the players have contracts and sponsorship deals with online poker rooms. However, unlike the major tournaments in golf, tennis, and other sports – here, anyone who can afford the buy-in can play in the championships.

Top Japanese Poker Players

Even though we have no ‘gambling’ casinos in Japan – the game was slower to catch on here – many Japanese players have had success on the international tournament circuit.

In 2012 Naoya Kihara traveled from his home in Tokyo to Las Vegas to play in the World Series. He managed to win the $5,000 buy-in Pot Limit Omaha event winning $512,029 (≈¥52,836,281) in prize money while becoming the first Japanese WSOP Champion. Many Japanese newspapers and magazines have contacted him for interviews and more than a dozen have written about him. He has since signed a contract with PokerStars to become one of their sponsored pros.

Masaaki Kagawa is another very successful player from Tokyo. While he might not yet be a champion he has won more money in tournaments than anyone else from our country. In 2007 he won $262,909 (≈¥27,129,584) at the Aussie Millions and in 2008 $170,737 (≈¥17,618,354) at an EPT event. More recently he won $508,535 (≈¥52,475,735) for a 5th place EPT finish in an April 2012 and $336,523 (≈¥34,725,814) at the 2013 Aussie Millions. He has about a dozen smaller cashes too, and has amassed $1,621,971 (≈¥167,371,214) in career winnings.

These are only the two most popular examples. Other Japanese players worth mentioning are Takashi Ogura with $381,698 (≈¥39,387,423) in career winnings, Kunimaro Kojo with $375,538 (≈¥38,751,772) and Kenichi Takarabe with $352,643 (≈¥36,389,237).

japanese poker stars

4 of Japan’s leading poker players, l to r: Naoya Kihara, Takashi Ogura, Masaaki Kagawa, Kunimaro Kojo

Japanese Poker Rooms

In Japan we do not have traditional casinos or card rooms. About a decade ago clubs started popping up offering holdem tournaments. Some have even been sponsored by Nintendo. In case you’re not aware, well before video games, Nintendo started as a manufacturer of hanafuda (花札) style playing cards. They have been helpful in promoting holdem in our country. This developed into what is now known as amusement poker most commonly played in amusement casinos.

Akihabara district of Tokyo has Akiba Guild which is an example of an amusement casino. This take ups two floors of a building on Chuu-ou Dori across the street from Usagi no Jinja. The cost to enter is ¥2,000 which comes with a free drink and 300 chips. These chips can be used to purchase food and drinks, or can be gambled at casino games or Texas Holdem. For most, this is simply about attempting to win meals and drinks, but there are also small prizes that chips can be exchanged for. One neat thing is that they host regular competitions where you can win a ticket into big buyin tournaments held overseas. This means you can win a seat to play in a Macau tournament such as the Asian Pacific Poker Tour (APPT) at Akiba Guild.

Other than illegal gambling done in homes or underground gambling dens, amusement poker is all that is available in Japan. This is done tournament-style and the prizes are chips that can be used to purchase food or drink, or other prizes, sometimes even as high in value as entry in major high stakes tournaments. For the most part, playing online is best. If you have aspirations of playing in the major live tournaments, a flight to Seoul or Macau is the best bet for gaining live playing experience.

[1] Data mining involves using a piece of software to record hands that take place online, even when a person is not playing. By doing this, players can build up databases of hundreds of thousands if not millions of hands. This gives them a large advantage as now when they sit at a table, they will have data-mined information on the majority of their opponents that will give them important information about how each of them plays.