Underground Poker Club Busted in Tokyo, Country Sees Surge in Popularity after WSOP

Posted on: November 29, 2021, 12:37h. 

Last updated on: November 29, 2021, 06:02h.

Some 14 people were detained in Tokyo, Japan, last week after police raided an illegal poker room in the city. Law enforcement took four individuals into custody for allegedly leading the operation.

Kazuki Ikeuchi, 2021 World Series of Poker
A masked Kazuki Ikeuchi is seen at the Freezeout No-Limit Holdem table during the 2021 Annual World Series of Poker. Poker is gaining popularity in Japan after Japanese figures have played in recent WSOP tournaments.

Police also arrested 10 individuals who were participating in the events.

The raid netted an operation that reportedly made ¥27 million (slightly more than US $237,000) since May, according to local media outlets. The 10 who were found participating were released; however, they could still face charges of illegal gambling.

The alleged operation was located in the Shinjuku district, which features upscale hotels, bars and restaurants and the 2020 Olympics stadium.

It’s uncommon for poker to be the target of underground gambling establishments in Japan. Usually, the game of choice is baccarat. However, with popular Japanese figures, such as Kazuki Ikeuchi and Motoyoshi Okamura, having participated in this year’s WSOP poker series, the game has seen a surge in popularity. Both Japanese poker players took home bracelets during the most recent series.

Gambling is mostly prohibited in Japan, although pachinko and lotteries are allowed under certain conditions. Playing poker for recreation isn’t prohibited, but offering cash prizes for tournaments is still illegal.

While it isn’t clear whether the poker room was rewarding prizes, it was stated that the organizers charged a 5% rake on all hands.

Gambling Causes a Stir in Japan

Over the years, a number of illegal gambling operations have been broken up in Japan.

Earlier in the year, a raid in Tokyo nabbed a supposed Yakuza boss. This was reportedly tied to a poker room in the Sumida Ward. While not as lucrative as the illegal casino, it was said to have turned a profit of around US $111,000 in less than a year.

In September of last year, police announced the arrest of a boss of the Yakuza, who they said was running an illegal casino in Tokyo. That operation, reportedly in business for almost two years, had seen revenue of around US $4.5 million during that time.

In both cases, the money was helping fund organized crime in Japan, according to media reports.

As legal gambling, through integrated resorts (IR), begins to possibly move to the final stages of acceptance, there are concerns that it, too, will be controlled by organized crime. When the Japanese government finalized its IR Policy in 2018, the Yakuza warned that it would find a way to take over the legal market.

Japan’s Move Toward Legalized Poker

Legalized gambling, despite the Yakuza’s threat, is meant to help combat black market gambling. Japan is hoping that will be the case as it prepares to consider possibly approving up to three IR hosts next year.

Poker has had an interesting path in Japan. It hasn’t yet received the level of acceptance as other forms of gambling, which means it isn’t on legislators’ radars, either. Little by little, organizations are working to change this and give the game a front-row spot.

The World Poker Tour (WPT) has spent the past couple of years trying to change the paradigm, but still has a long way to go. Since it cannot offer real-money prizes, it has to be creative with its rewards.

The WPT Passport is a prize that covers the expenses of participation in a WPT event held elsewhere. However, for many, it’s not the same as winning cash. As long as cash games can be found, even illegally, they will continue to flourish.