Chapter Twelve — The Intrigue of Poker

Something I got obsessed with in my 30s was poker. Until then, I had been going to casinos and participating in all forms of gambling, including baccarat and blackjack. This happened when I was visiting Barcelona, Spain, and went to a casino to play baccarat. In one corner, there were a row of tables assembled that had a completely different atmosphere. Guests were gathered around the tables watching what was going on. When I asked, “What’s this?” the staff told me, “Poker.”

“How do you play it? With a hand of five cards?”

“No, this is called Texas Hold’em Poker. There’s a community board of five cards, and you combine a total of five from the board and your two cards to make the strongest hand, and compete by betting. If your opponents all fold before the showdown, then all the chips are yours, and when there is a showdown, the person with the strongest hand wins.”

It was difficult to understand all of this at once.

“Guess I’ll give it a try.”

I took a seat and the person next to me started a conversation, “Where are you from?”


He asked, “What do you do?” and I replied, “I’m a singer.”

A Game In Which You Show Respect

When I said, “Poker is interesting, isn’t it?” he answered, “It’s quite interesting. Do you know what the best thing about poker is?” He asked me, and then continued, “No matter how rich or poor you are, when you participate in a game at a table, you all stand on the same start line. Everyone starts under the same conditions. It doesn’t sound unusual, but in reality, it is. In baccarat, if you lose 100 dollars, you can double up to 200 dollars. Those who can exert more money pressure are hard to beat. You can’t do that in poker. It’s a world where everyone starts with the same amount, so if you don’t have skill, you can’t do it, and on the other hand, if you do, you can aim as high as you like. The sporting world is similar, but there are realities that are based on things other than skill. Poker is special. “I see,” I said, surprised by poker’s depth.

He spoke to me normally even though I didn’t know anything about poker, but I later learned that he was a 5 billion yen player from FC Barcelona. When you lose a poker game, you show respect to the winner by tapping on the table. I’d never seen a game like that. This encounter was what motivated me to study poker, and I became obsessed with the intrigue of it.

The definition of gambling is a game in which the winner is determined by luck alone. Even if there is a winning strategy, the main element is nothing but luck. But in poker, even if you don’t have a strong hand, you can win based on skill. It’s 95% your own personal skill. Luck only determines five percent of games overall. Of course, it’s not that luck is irrelevant, but when I found that out, I was amazed, and thought, “What a game!” After that, I also learned that it’s the game with the greatest number of players worldwide.

I still go to casinos with people I know. But I don’t play anything but poker. And I only play poker in tournaments. I don’t play in the cash games known as “ring games”1. If you get used to playing in ring games, you become weaker at tournament play. I suppose it’s fine if you can separate them, but I’m focusing on polishing a tournament-only play style. I began practicing, determined to enter a tournament and make my mark. I still haven’t taken first place in a big tournament, but in 2017 I began entering tournaments, and I was number one on the list of Japanese players by winnings that year. At a high roller tournament held at a casino called Wien in the US2, I took 4th place, the highest for a Japanese person. I’ve set a few records. In the recent USOP Series held in Vietnam, I placed third in the “Superstar Challenge”, a high roller tournament with 200 players. I began focusing on entering tournaments and making my mark, and quit everything that could be called gambling. I guess you could say I lost interest.

The Ability To Judge People

Once, I lost while playing against friends at my home in Malaysia, and was taking video of what was going on with the remaining players. I showed it to my staff and said, “Isn’t this interesting?” I started talking, “Don’t you think this could be a TV show?” That ended up leading to the creation of the AbemaTV show.

However, I felt that it would be meaningless to do a show while I still had no achievements in poker, and thought I’d enter tournaments and make my mark. The first tournament I entered was in Macau. It didn’t go well at all. The second tournament I entered was the APT (Asian Poker Tour) in the Philippines, and I took 7th place in the main event, which had 500 entrants. After that, there was a tournament with 400 entrants that was a sub-event of the WSOP (World Series Of Poker), the most famous in the world, and I finished 100th in that. Even that was the highest rank for a Japanese person. That was my opportunity to connect with professional poker players, and they appeared as guests on the show. I was able to start the show at the stage when I had left people with the impression that I could play poker. Since then, I’ve been entering tournaments when they fit into my schedule.

Poker develops your ability to judge people. Observation plays a key role. There are a lot of people who just play based on the odds, but I’m not that type of player. I always take into account the position, habits of my opponents, their personalities, and the flow of the game on top of the odds. There are players who deny these things, but I’m completely committed to this style. If you could really win based on odds alone, then the players who could calculate the odds most accurately would be the strongest, but that’s not the case. It’s the ability to balance each player’s theory of the odds and observational ability, including each player’s playstyle. That’s why I only play live poker. I observe them in person and judge their attitude, pauses, movements and habits comprehensively to deduce whether a bluff will succeed at present, and challenge them based on that. In that way, it greatly develops the way that you look at people. That’s why there are many players who might be strong in online play, but as soon as you put them in a live game, they can’t achieve good results.

The head of the WPT (World Poker Tour) organization is a close friend of mine, and I’ve attended charity events and the like that he presided over. There are several people who are legends in the world of poker, and I’ve become quite good friends with them as well. When I made an offer to Yamada Takayuki3 to appear on the AbemaTV show, he participated as a poker player. I don’t know if he had much interest in poker, but I personally think he’s suited to it. There are people who think that poker is gambling, but particularly with tournaments, poker is absolutely an e-sport. Of course, it’s not that there are zero elements of luck (gambling). But it’s no overstatement to say that it’s mostly skill. If luck was the prevailing factor, or if it was a game of luck alone, then in a tournament with thousands of people, it wouldn’t be the same people who make it to the top. One look at the top players in a tournament will tell you it’s not just luck. The last remaining players in any tournament are all famous players. When there are a lot of people, even famous players are often eliminated part way through. In a tournament of 300 people, it’s sure to be the strong players who remain.

An Asian player who I thought was amazing was Mike Takayama from the Philippines. Apparently he’s of Japanese descent but he doesn’t speak Japanese. I get a good sense of how amazing he is when I play at the same table as him.

In any kind of contest, you always hear that the people who started young have a definite advantage. Baseball, soccer and combat sports like kendo are like that. It’s not just sports, it’s the same for shogi, go and chess. Poker might be the only thing where you have the chance to become a pro no matter when you start. No matter when they start, people have a chance to become strong players. That’s why it’s interesting. The plays and trends change with the era. You need to study constantly.

Apparently it became a hot topic that I wear my hood up in the tournament venue, but that started when I went to Las Vegas. I was freezing to death in the venue. It was 40°C outside, and 16°C inside. I was worried that I’d get ill just from having my ears exposed. If there’s another reason, then it would be that when I have the hood up, it blocks my peripheral vision. It allows me to create an environment where I can concentrate. Basically the reason that I’m always wearing headphones at the table is because my ears are cold. I’m not listening to music very often.

Study Sessions

In the last few years, I’ve been entering tournaments in different countries when they fit into my schedule. Once a week, I usually get together with my friends in Malaysia and pro players for a study session. We get together on the weekends and study while giving our opinions to each other— “That’s not a good play,” “If you make that play, here’s how it looks.” That’s how we improve our skills. One of the people I play with achieved third place in the POKER DREAM tournament in Malaysia. That made me happy. He called me in the middle of the night, excitedly, “G, thanks for teaching me poker!” When my friends work hard to get stronger, it makes me as happy as if it were myself.

After the first year in Barcelona, when I visited a casino in Barcelona for the second time, I was completely into poker. The person next to me was a Spaniard with Asian features. He had deeply chiseled features, but as I played, I was peeking at him, thinking, “There are people in Kyushu, Japan that look like this…” An hour went by in this manner before his companions arrived. They asked him, “Are you winning?” in Japanese. I saw him reply, “Yeah, sorta,” and then exclaimed to him, “You’re Japanese!?” We met through that twist of fate and we’re good friends now. It was the famous vice president of a major restaurant chain.

A lot of entrepreneurs and business owners play poker. Even if we don’t speak the same language, we can communicate. We can become friends just by sitting at the same table for a short while. Lots of foreign business owners enjoy poker, whether they’re good at it or not. If I suggest a game, they all know how to play. So much that I think they play it in the same way that Japanese people play Othello.

When old Japanese people hear the word “poker”, they think of the game where you have a hand of five cards and exchange some of them. That’s called draw poker and it’s an old style that’s been around for ages, but these days Texas Hold’em is the mainstream version around the world and the most played at tournaments. The tournament with the largest prize, TRITON, costs 200 million yen in entry fees alone. The prize is 2 billion yen. Even if you want to participate, it’s invitation-only, so they don’t let just anyone enter. Even pros can’t get in. It’s a tournament just for famous entrepreneurs and business operators.

The prizes for the WSOP main event have currently risen to 1.5~1.8 billion yen. The entry fee is 1.8 million yen.4

More than 8,000 people participate just in the live venue. They also hold it simultaneously online, so the total number of players is in the tens of thousands. There are too many. When I first attended, it was live poker only, but seeing 8,000 people in the venue was intense. The venue was subdivided, and the toilet facilities were made up of an extraordinary number of trailers all lined up. During the breaks there’d be long queues for the toilets. There were about 300 Japanese people participating, still not many, but increasing year by year.

Emotional Ups And Downs

What did I gain from poker? What I gained was no longer having emotional ups and downs over every little thing, and no longer getting irritated. You play several thousand hands of poker from the preliminaries to the main event to the finals. If you get preoccupied with one of those thousands of hands, or get irritated over each one, you’re sure to lose. This is a lot like life, which has an incredible number of events, some good and some bad. If you go on emotional ups and downs over each of them, it will affect your work, not to mention your psyche.

Humans are creatures whose work outcomes are greatly affected by their mental state. People who can’t preserve their mental state well can’t stay in it until the end. If you get heated the instant you lose, then you’ll just keep on losing, and it’s not unusual to lose all the chips you brought in the blink of an eye. You could call it a microcosm of life.

You need the strength to reset yourself and become cool-headed again even if you lose big. In the same way, I stopped having emotional ups and downs. I make decisions with a cool head and don’t get stuck on a single play. It increases your ability to concentrate too. Those who have emotional ups and downs are called fish, and targeted by other players. If a fish is found at a table, all the other players will start taking his chips. You can tell that the people around them are also observing carefully. If they can tell at a glance that someone is a fish, they’ll quickly start to challenge them. Even people who wanted competition quickly get heated and lose the ability to make cool headed decisions. That relationship is fascinating. These days, if I’m at a tournament in Asia, everyone calls out, “Hey, GACKT,” to me.

Basically, the largest tournament in the WSOP overlaps with my birthday, so I usually can’t go. And I don’t like the place it’s held, Las Vegas. It’s terribly dry, and another reason is that the city isn’t interesting. It’s all flashy and artificial and doesn’t move me emotionally.

I am swayed when the tournament is held in Barcelona, or the Czech Republic, or Austria. Just walking the city streets gets me in high spirits. I particularly like tournaments in Barcelona and they’re my favorite even out of the European tournaments. I can’t often go to tournaments in the Czech Republic because of the timing, but as a country it has a fantastic atmosphere.

Recently, I’ve often been receiving many invitations from tournament organizers. Even TRITON, the tournament with the largest prizes that I mentioned before, has invited me each time, but the timing hasn’t lined up even once. I’ve always been filming or on tour. I’d like to enter next year. The tournament in Taiwan also coincided with a concert so I couldn’t go. I communicate with each of the organizers and tell them I hope to attend when my schedule allows it. There are also frequent tournaments in Southeast Asia, in Vietnam, the Philippines, Cambodia, and Malaysia. I was invited to a tournament in Cambodia a few months ago, but I felt there was no need to go. The food is bad and so is law and order. I definitely can’t recommend it. Vietnam is interesting. Hanoi is a mixed bag, but there are a lot of fun things there. It’s 80% motorbikes and only 20% cars. Da Nang is the opposite, 80% cars and 20% motorbikes. It’s also a resort area and new properties are expensive, but it’s fun and the city is interesting. More than anything else, the food is of a pretty high level. I recommend it as a place to enjoy with your family or romantic partner. Public order in the Philippines has improved quite a lot recently, and you can reach it easily from Japan. I lived there, so you could say I’m used to it, but the Philippines is also quite interesting. If there’s another poker tournament in Asia that fits my schedule, I’ll definitely enter. If we meet in that location, don’t hesitate to call out to me. I’m looking forward to competing with you as a poker player in a tournament.

  1. In general terms, a poker tournament is a game in which players “buy in” with the same amount of money and continue playing in a fixed group until all but one of them has run out of chips and been eliminated, with the victor receiving a predetermined amount of prize money. A cash/ring game is one where there is a minimum buy in that a player can exceed if they wish, where players can buy in or cash out at any time, and can rebuy as many times as they like. Essentially, tournaments are primarily a contest of skill with a definite winner at the end, while in ring games, players with money can continue as long as they want, or simply choose to leave the table after winning or losing a certain amount of chips, therefore the players who stay the longest are not necessarily the best. (A ring game is specifically a cash game played in a casino with chips representing real money, a cash game in general can be played anywhere and may use chips to represent money, or actual cash.) []
  2. ウィーン usually corresponds to “Wien” (Vienna), but I can’t find any US casino named “Wien”, “Vienna”, “Win” or anything similar, so I honestly don’t know which one he’s talking about. []
  3. Yamada Takayuki is a Japanese actor in his 40s. []
  4. In 2023, the entry fee for the WSOP main event was $10,000USD and the winner took home $12.1 million. []