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Is Live Poker Coming to Japan? Hai!

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The latest version of the proposed Integrated Resorts (IR) Implementation bill in Japan contains provisions allowing for poker games to be dealt in brick-and-mortar facilities. Previously, only games between the house and individual players were to be permitted. This legislation will allow for the licensing of up to three casino resorts.

The Purpose of the Bill

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The intention behind opening up gambling to the public is not to serve Japanese citizens but rather to cater to the tourist market. Indeed, locals would have to pay an entry fee to enter, and the total number of visits an individual resident could make within given timeframes would be capped. Visitors to Japan, however, would not have to comply with these restrictions.

About Poker in Japan

Information: Blue Button

There's currently only very limited real money gaming authorized in the country. Pachinko parlors use weird legal loopholes to offer gambling for prizes, which are then exchanged for cash. Lotteries are common at the municipal and prefectural levels, and there are certain racing events on which wagering is allowed. All other betting is illegal, but it can sometimes be found, like in the illicit mahjong parlors operated by organized criminal yakuza syndicates.

Did You Know?

The very name “yakuza“ itself is derived from a gambling card game.

In the traditional card pastime oicho-kabu, the object is to come as close to 9 points as possible, making it similar to the Western casino game baccarat. Just as with baccarat, card values totaling more than 10 only count the rightmost digit of the sum. The combination 8-9-3, which can be read in Japanese as ya-ku-za, thus is worth 0 points: the lowest possible total (by convention, cards that add up to exactly 10 count as 1 rather than 0).

Poker is considered gambling in Japan and is thus against the law. Nevertheless, it has been growing in popularity lately.

There are a few live poker events in the Land of the Rising Sun, like the PokerStars Japan Open Poker Tour, now in its 14th season, and the World Poker Tour festival held in Tokyo in November 2017. The way the organizers of these events get around the rules prohibiting gambling is by offering only entries to future tournaments located outside Japan as prizes.

It's believed that after observing the participation levels in these events, including the many players who attended from outside Japan, legislators were convinced that it was a good idea to add poker to the gambling menu. This jibes with the unquestioned fact that countless players from around the world head to Macau and Las Vegas to partake in the poker action.

Why Had Poker Been Excluded Before?

Red Question Mark

Initially, the IR bill only dealt with house-banked games, like blackjack and baccarat, because it was felt that only in these games could fairness and integrity be guaranteed. Some contended that peer-to-peer games, such as poker, introduced the possibility of collusion and other shady goings-on.

The new thinking is that with properly trained dealers, such shenanigans could be kept to a minimum. Still, there are a few unusual aspects of the bill that tackle the subject of possible cheating. Players who are acquaintances would be barred from sitting at the same table, and dealers would have the power to select which people from the waiting list would be next to join the game. It's unclear how these rules would work out in practice especially since none of the major land-based poker rooms currently have anything like them in place.

The WPT ran a special tournament in JapanImage courtesy of World Poker Tour Japan

More Details on the IR Bill

Magnifying Lens

Previous legislation in 2016 merely established a vague power for the government to authorize casinos to be set up. The IR bill is an attempt to flesh out a detailed framework for legalized casino gaming. It has been submitted to the Diet, the national legislative body, for debate, but it's unclear if there will be enough time to pass it before this body adjourns on June 20.

Casinos would pay a 30% tax on gross gaming revenue under the terms of the bill. People from outside the country would have free, unlimited access to the premises of the casinos. Japanese nationals would have to pay ¥6,000 (about $55) per visit, and no visit could last longer than 24 hours. Moreover, no citizen of Japan would be able to visit a casino more than three times a week or ten times in a month.

Photo of Shinzo AbeJapanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe

The bill has the strong support of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, head of a parliamentary coalition comprised of his own Liberal Democratic Party and partner Komeito Party. Perhaps in order to help ensure its passage, his government has recently introduced a separate bill dealing with gambling addiction. This bill would authorize the creation of a Headquarters for the Promotion of Gambling Addiction Countermeasures, and it would provide resources for the treatment of problem gaming.

Casinos' Potential Economic Performance

Dollar Bills

Because all the relevant regulations need to be debated and approved by the legislature and the authorities before any work can begin on the new casinos, they're not expected to open until 2023 at the earliest. Yet, when they finally do launch, they're expected to quickly become a big economic force. Initial revenue projections by industry experts are in the $6 - $15 billion range.

You Don't Have to Wait to Play Poker

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If you live in Japan and eagerly anticipate the introduction of live cardroom poker, then you might wish to hone your skills online in the meantime. Although almost all gambling in Japan is against the law, the relevant statutes date back to the early part of the 20th century, and they were not written with the internet in mind. Suffice it to say that nobody in the country has ever been prosecuted for heading online and joining the virtual poker tables.

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