The JOPT's record attendance bodes well for legalized gambling in Japan

Jon Pill
Posted on: May 25, 2021 12:01 PDT

The Japan Open Poker Tour's tentative return to live poker resulted in a turnout far higher than anyone could have expected. Despite Japan being in the grips of its fourth and worst COVID spike of the pandemic, the series broke all JOPT attendance records. There were a total of 5,989 entries across the 33 events.

These attendance numbers might not impress Western players particularly. That comes out to just 181 players per tourney on average. However, when you remember that live poker for cash prizes is illegal in Japan, then you can see why the tournament directors might be pleased with the turnout.

The lack of cash prizes doesn't mean that winners go away empty-handed. Instead, players win sponsorship packages to play in overseas events. This tactic bypasses Japan's stringent gambling laws.

Yuta Aikawa took down the Season 19: Grand Final for a player contract worth $21,860. Toshiya Ishikawa took town the Season 20: Tokyo Main Event for a player contract valued at $31,020. These main events had comfortably the best turnout of the series. There were 396 players who won entry to the Grand Final, and 507 to the Tokyo Main Event. The latter marked a series high for number of runners and first place prize.

Buy-ins for the series ranged from ¥5,000 for the Main Event to the ¥30,000 No Limit Hold 'Em Platinum event. The series put on an impressive spread of tournaments. Not only were there plenty of no limit Texas hold 'em events of varying buy-ins, but most of the Omaha variations were represented, including pot limit 5-card Omaha. There were also H.O.R.S.E. events and a badugi/2-7 triple draw mix.

There were two Main Events for this series, as the event organizers opted to combine the delayed Season 19 Grand Final with the Season 20 Tokyo series — which sported its own, separate main event.

All 33 events were squeezed into a single week and took place at Port Hall in the neighborhood of Takeshiba in Tokyo.

New rules for old games

Players had to qualify for the main events through a series of satellites held across the country. GGPoker, the JOPT's new sponsor, also hosted satellites online. GGPoker signed on as a series sponsor last month. This seems like good timing for a couple of reasons.

The first reason is that Japan seems poised on the edge of major changes to their gambling laws.

Until last year, the laws only allowed for legal gambling in a few contexts. These were the national lottery — for example — and a few specific sporting events like boat and bicycle racing.

However, new laws allow for the creation of several integrated resorts which will sport luxury casinos, hotels, and shopping centers in the style of Vegas resorts. These will be regulated tightly, but the idea of legal casinos of any kind on the Japanese islands is a marked cultural shift and may mean a movement towards more lenient gambling laws in general. GGPoker would love to get a foothold in the Japanese online poker market. Japan has the third-largest economy by GDP. GG would like their cut of that.

GGPoker also has a hedge against legal online poker falling through.

While gambling is mostly illegal, pachinko parlors are not. Through an effective grey-market laundry system for prize tickets, pachinko parlors are de facto casinos. They serve Japanese gamblers with a legal alternative to going online and playing games on offshore sites like GGPoker.

But the government is putting pressure on the pachinko industry from a number of angles. Puritanical elements in the government want them closed because they are seen as dens of vice. Energy security experts want the parlors curbed because their electricity consumption is diabolically high, and puts huge strain on the grid during peak hours. Epidemiologists want the parlors shut down temporarily as possible COVID superspreader sites. And the IR advocates regulation to reign them in as a source of competition.

If any of these groups get their way and the pachinko industry takes a hit, black market online poker sites become a major alternative. And GGPoker's unspoken business model was initially to serve black and grey market customers in Asia, especially the PRC.

Events like the JOPT show there is a taste for poker lying latent in Japan. By sponsoring events like this, GGPoker is poised to be the place those players get their fix.

Featured image source: Twitter