[Roy: The following is a short article by my friend Benjamin Boas, which was recently published as the back page “Last Word” column in Tokyo’s free English language paper, Metropolis. Ben and I actually met around 12 years ago when we were both attending Buck’s Rock Summer Camp and then after a decade of no contact, both happened to be studying at Kyoto University at the same time last year. Ben spent one year at Kyoto University on a Fulbright grant, which he used to conduct field work researching the anthropology of Japanese gambling, particularly the social role of mahjong in Japanese office culture.
He has a sporadically updated blog on his mahjong studies, found here.]
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During last year’s All Japan Poker Championship, one of the finalists made a play that seemed strange. Despite only having an unmatched ace, he called an all-in bet by his opponent at the flop, caught nothing on the turn and river, and lost to his opponent’s pair of tens. Since he could have folded his hand and taken a small loss instead of losing the whole championship, making that call was at best very risky and at worst a terrible play. I mentioned this to some of the expert players at the tournament, and they agreed, but one Japanese spectator had a different opinion.
“Did you see that last hand?” he said. “You didn’t know who would win until the end. It was so exciting!”
When I pointed out that that the chances of the losing player winning that hand were very low he was unmoved.
“But you don’t know what card is going to come next!” he maintained. “He could have gotten the ace.”
Assuming my Japanese had been misunderstood, I got my friend, a former champion, to explain that although there was a chance of this happening, it wasn’t high enough to justify not folding. This, too, fell on deaf ears. It was more than just not understanding how poker worked; the guy didn’t seem to understand that there’s a difference between luck and probability.
In my years studying the Japanese gambling world, I’ve run into this a type of thinking quite often, and sometimes I wonder why.
Now, myopic reasoning is definitely not limited to Japanese people. No one besides card counters, poker sharks and casino owners comes away from Las Vegas ahead in the long run, but that doesn’t stop millions of people of every nationality from trying. What makes Japan different from America, however, is that gambling parlors aren’t limited to a couple of cities and Indian reservations; they stand on nearly every street corner of Tokyo and dot practically the entire countryside.
I am speaking, of course, about pachinko parlors, which account for roughly 4 percent of Japan’s GNP and are patronized by nearly a quarter of the population. Although commonly described as “Japanese pinball” and legally defined as something close to an arcade game, pachinko is machine-operated gambling and nothing more. Thanks to the advent of automated shooting and computer controlled payouts, after a player sits down at the machine, skill is practically nonexistent. Despite the fancy CG and byzantine prize-redeeming system, pachinko is probably best described as a slot machine in a kimono.
And that’s not the worst of it. If you factor in all other forms of gambling and take into account differences in population size, Japanese and Americans spend roughly the same amount on gambling-but Japanese people lose twice as much money. What accounts for this difference?
Part of the answer may be found in another Japanese gambling game, mahjong. Although Chinese in origin, mahjong was introduced here over 100 years ago and is currently one of the country’s most popular board games. Several manga dealing with mahjong are released every month, and the stories, written by pros, often touch on the subject of luck. Some of these writers’ ideas about how probability works are pretty suspect, particularly when they recommend “analog” methods over “digital” approaches.
Analog players try to play in accordance to their luck. If they feel lucky, they make risky plays and shoot for big hands; if not, they give up on hands regardless of how promising they may look. Digital players, on the other hand, make plays which are statistically likely to favor them.
Think about that. If this debate were brought to the attention of skilled poker players, it would get laughed out of the room. Yet I have interviewed very senior mahjong pros who insist that the young ‘uns who play only according to the numbers are “idiots.” “If you can successfully take your opponent’s luck,” they say, “you can win in any situation.” Just like with the spectator at the poker tournament, no explanation will get through to them until they recognize the significance behind probability math.
So, in the end, I had to agree that yes, the losing player was very unlucky and yes, poker is interesting because you don’t know who is going to win. What I will always remember about that conversation was seeing the expression on my friend’s face as we gave up. It was the same face I see Japanese people put on when they just can’t get a foreigner to understand the way things work in Japan.
22 thoughts on “Dumb Luck: Japanese gamblers love hunches—and throw statistics out the window”
“What accounts for this difference?”
I think that one of the things that accounts for the difference is the size of the payouts. Some slots have jackpots going up to $100,000 and more. For Pachinko, a top win is more like $1000. In the US, some people are walking out rich but I’d say that the number walking out poor is actually MORE in the US than Japan as it takes a lot of chumps pouring in quarters to make $100,000 for one. Ditto for lotto – the Japanese jackpots are usually $2-3 million while $50 million plus is not uncommon in the US. The US number just means more people losing more money to make up for the one person who walks away with mad cash.
Nagare really is a key concept in Mahjong. I don’t trust it, and always get burned by somebody who does.
I think you’re right that the distribution of wins and losses in America is much wider than in Japan, and that there are probably more people who ruin themselves in casinos than in pachinko parlors. However, I don’t think that accounts for why Japanese gamblers lose over double that of Americans per capita.
The simple answer to the question is that Japanese gambling establishments have higher profit margins. (Or rather, because most people don’t play Pachinko correctly, the house rate essentially becomes higher). But that leaves another question–Why do Japanese gamblers put up with them?
“Nagare really is a key concept in Mahjong. I don’t trust it, and always get burned by somebody who does.”
Agreed. I can’t count the number of times this has happened to me. As chess legend Aron Nimzowitsch once said, “Why must I lose to this idiot?”
Pachinko keeps packing them in because its the only game in town. There is a lot more diversity in the way that gambling gets set up in the US (do you go with the $2 buffet and the 89% payout on the slots, or go the other way).
The low stakes also hide the danger of getting burned in Japan. In my own Pachinko daze, I never lost enough to really get pissed off about the profit margins but I can see people pissing away a lot over time and not realizing it. In the short term, it would be hard to toss away 10man playing pachinko in one day, but I’ve seen relatives blow that in 30 minutes in the US where the slim chance of the huge return smoothes things over.
Of course, in Mahjong, I’m the idiot. I can’t keep track of what’s left in the yama with an acceptable level of certainty, even in a friendly game, and I can’t rely on nagare, so I’m always going to be third rate. I can do a decent job counting tiles on kokushi or chitoi, but mostly, I’m lost.
M-Bone, you make the same mistake a lot of people make about the Japanese Jumbo – although the top prize is “only” $2 or $3 million, there are multiple first prizes – I think there were 47 at the New Year Jumbo. Then, when you look at the overall payout, the Japanese lottery is about 4x%. I can’t find definite figures for the US, except a news article saying that national guidelines recommend at least a 35% payout, although the article also mentioned that Geogria paid out 58% of receipts.
On pachinko, the Japan Times recently published (reprinted from Metropolis?) an article on it with the same “luck” business, including explaining how winning is just a question of getting on the new machines which haven’t had time to pay out yet.
On the article itself, I’m not sure how the “Japanese lose twice as much money” comes about. Who collects this cash? Is it one-to-one on Mahjong, or is it the house at the pachinko, bikes, boats or nags? If the latter, does government regulation limit the payout percentages more strongly in the US versus Japan? I know the Vegas casinos are very strictly regulated, but I wouldn’t be surprised in the slightest if pachinko was as bent as a nine bob note.
Considering that legally pachinko isn’t gambling at all, I imagine the regulations have to go through some pretty twisted hoops to manage them. My housemate actually bought a used Japanese video slot machine to play with for 5000 yen from a nearby recycle shop, and it turns out that there are six different levels of payout ratio that it can be configured to. Apparently the parlor managers stagger the payout ratios throughout the place so customers will try a lot of different machines in hope of finding the ones that are set to a higher payout, and there is a regulation making it illegal to alter the payout rate on a given machine more than once per day, which they do when the parlors are closed for the night.
“M-Bone, you make the same mistake a lot of people make about the Japanese Jumbo’
Damn, maybe I have to start playing….
“On the article itself, I’m not sure how the “Japanese lose twice as much money” comes about.”
This is taken from the research of Ichiro Tanioka, president of Osaka University of Commerce. According to him, Japanese spend per capita slightly less than Americans do, but lose over twice as much. The analysis takes into account all legal forms of gambling plus semi-legal forms (pachinko & mahjong). The numbers are fairly old (1996), but he said he still suspects this remains true in an interview last year.
“On pachinko, the Japan Times recently published (reprinted from Metropolis?) an article on it with the same “luck” business, including explaining how winning is just a question of getting on the new machines which haven’t had time to pay out yet.”
Im not sure what article you’re referring to. Do you mean Japan Today? Last week’s issue of Metropolis ran a feature article on Pachinko which suggested you always aim for shindai. This used to be a good bet with both pachisuro and pachinko but, from what I’ve heard, times have changed. Going to a parlor opening is still a solid bet.
“Who collects this cash?”
The parlor owners.
Where it goes after that is an interesting question. Naive people say the yakuza, they got cleaned out almost a decade ago. Japanese people “in the know” say its north korean, which gets funds sent from all the korean parlor owners. This too has been on a steep decline. The correct answer comes only from people living outside of Japan or people who keep their voice down, because it is the police. Too tired to go into detail right now.
You make money at Mahjong by renting tables, not by taking it from players. Think like a pool hall or card room. In the US it would be classified as class II (Poker rooms) whereas pachinko would be class III (casinos)
“The analysis takes into account all legal forms of gambling plus semi-legal forms (pachinko & mahjong).”
If this is taking Mahjong into account, it must be based on surveys of individual gamblers, no? How much do you gamble vs. how much do you lose. Otherwise, there can be no may to measure Mahjong winnings and losings other than player reporting as you are correct in pointing out that the Mahjong shops don’t even record these things – they just rent the tables.
If this is the case, can we really trust what gamblers say about their own winnings? Damn, whenever my aunt comes back from Vegas, I hear stories about how she is up a few thousand. My uncle usually tells a very different tale…. It could be that American gamblers are simply more delusional.
Also, further reading from David Plotz, currently editor of Slate:
(He calls Mahjong a multi-million dollar industry, which I think is loony. The rest of the article is very interesting)
“If this is taking Mahjong into account, it must be based on surveys of individual gamblers, no?”
My mistake. It doesn’t take into account Mahjong. I got confused for a second and though I was listing semi-legal games.
I’m not sure exactly where he got the numbers from, but I think they’re from industry white-papers and not from surveys. Industry whitepapers in the leisure world tend to have very conservative figures.
By the way, if you are playing furii Mahjong at a parlor (not just renting but playing in a fashion similar to a poker table) your losses and winnings are being recorded if the manager is running a good shop.
The number 1 mark of a good gambler is keeping a spreadsheet. I only know of two people who do this, and they’re the most successful poker players I’ve heard of in this country.
This cross-cultural gambling comparison is interesting. It was mentioned that “there are probably more people who ruin themselves in casinos than in pachinko parlors,” however to me it seems that many folk who plant themselves in pachinko parlors are in one way or another ruined to begin with. I have never been to a casino in the US, and don’t know whether it serves the purpose of a place to escape to, like many of the local pachinko parlors serve here in Japan.
Can anyone comment on this?
Common folk are woefully bad with weighing science against pseudoscience. Case and point: The sucker’s bet that is takara-kuji. It’s bad enough that people ignore the statistics when they pay for the ticket, but there are also the folk who believe that one particular booth is more likely to sell the winning ticket than another.
“however to me it seems that many folk who plant themselves in pachinko parlors are in one way or another ruined to begin with. ”
I could say the same thing about the folks at the horse and boat races here, and you could probably say the same thing about many people who regularly go to gambling establishments. (The point I was trying to make is that it is *easier* to ruin yourself in a casino because you can bet more at one time)
I don’t like pure gambling myself, but I can understand that there is enjoyment for some people in experiencing the ups and downs. I personally don’t think there’s anything wrong with spending time at a casino so long as you know you’re never going to come out ahead in the long run. Plenty of people go to casinos to get away from everyday life to live a short sort of fantasy, just like people go to the movies. The difference is that they’re not going in to win.
In the same vein, it’s been said that part of the reason people like playing the lottery is that they enjoy “thinking” about winning, even though they know they won’t.
“Common folk are woefully bad with weighing science against pseudoscience.”
You know, I once met a judge who wanted to talk to me all about how to control nagare (flow of luck) and how people who are good at mahjong must be so attuned to their nagare. A judge. In Japan. He got into Toudai Law Faculty first try, passed the bar exam first try, and is currently at the Tokyo district court. By any standard Japanese measure, this guy is one of the smartest and best educated people in the country. And he thinks that being good at Mahjong is being able to “read” luck.
“your losses and winnings are being recorded if the manager is running a good shop.”
And they don’t change a decimal place when counting the tenbo?
“He calls Mahjong a multi-million dollar industry, which I think is loony. The rest of the article is very interesting”
Must include the sales of Kindai Mahjong.
“I have never been to a casino in the US, and don’t know whether it serves the purpose of a place to escape to, like many of the local pachinko parlors serve here in Japan.”
Some people in Japan treat Pachinko like arcade games – a form of escapism but at least some people are tuning in for snippets of narrative and the like that pop up in the cut scenes of the games. Some of them are really quite funny and are worth watching as a pop culture product. I will, from time to time, check out a Pachinko game based on an anime / movie that I like just out of curiosity.
In contrast, slots in the US are just mind numbing crap.
In both environments, the number of glassy-eyed sheep is about the same, I’m afraid. For the US, you do hear more horror stories about vending machines selling adult diapers in the casino washrooms so that people don’t have to leave their spot. In some Pachinko places you can actually leave the store and get them to hold your machine for you. I see this as a big difference.
In any case, for anyone who is curious about Pachinko – play it at your local game arcade. They don’t pay out cash but you can get a feel for it without getting sucked in. Pachinko and slots both are just a nightmare.
“The sucker’s bet that is takara-kuji.”
It is value added though. Some people who don’t expect to win just like the thrill of checking the numbers. $1 ain’t much to pay for a dream.
Benjamin, do you not change your seat after you get you butt kicked in a few hands of Mahjong? Or are you just way beyond that?
I must say, I do enjoy some halfass superstition when I play.
“By any standard Japanese measure, this guy is one of the smartest and best educated people in the country.”
This is often how pseudoscience works. It doesn’t matter how inanately intelligent you are, or how much you have succeeded in life. You need to learn certain skills, certain mindsets, to be able to detect, as Carl Sagan put it, baloney. Someone who is attuned to detecting baloney in the law may not be equally as good as detecting it elsewhere. Another aspect is that people fool themselves a lot more than they like to think. All those physicists who were amazed by Uri Geller – they were well trained in science, but not in magic.
“They don’t pay out cash….”
Good for a crutch. I almost want to buy into nagare because it gives me an excuse – I no longer have to admit that I’m a third rate player if it’s all luck.
I always tell my wife that it is all skill when I win… when she wins, it is all nagare.
In a similar manner, why admit that you don’t know the ins and outs of LDP misrule when you can just make up some #&$^ about ninja Masons?
Shear statistics never get the same poker players at the final table in every poker tournament. No statistic is ever in favor of the same group of pros every year. It’s more about skill and strategy in playing the other players, reading their plays, bluffing where needs be, and at the end, shear luck of the river.
No one knows nagare like ninja Masons
Of course “shear statistics” dont get the same poker players at the final table every year. Thats because there’s an incredible amount of variance in poker and particularly in poker tournaments. Skill and strategy will help you get to the final table of the WSOP, but a lucky streak will help you a lot more.
HOWEVER. if you’re talking about *cash games* then in the long term luck isnt really a factor.
” “They don’t pay out cash….”
Jade, are you saying that video game arcade pachinko sometimes offers cash exchanges? As far as I knew, people just played those things for “medals.” Those things baffle me, people pay about 10 yen per medal even though they can’t change them back into money. The only thing you can do with a lot of medals is put them into that arcade’s “medal bank” so you can use them on the tiny mechanical horse races the next time you come.
If there’s one argument to be made for Japan’s uniqueness, its the only country I know of where people will bet on miniature robot horse races with betting tokens that they pay money for, but can’t cash in.
As far as I can tell, the “medal” games pretty much only appeal to elderly people who don’t want to pay for heat or aircon at home, depending on the season. With games like Dinoking paying out like they do, it is pretty much impossible to run out of medals.
The horse race game is fun for 5 minutes.
“video game arcade pachinko”
Okay, I must have missed the “video game arcade” bit there, sorry.
“As far as I can tell, the “medal” games pretty much only appeal to elderly people who don’t want to pay for heat or aircon at home, depending on the season”
I dont think the appeal is that small. When I went to arcades in Kyoto, I would see the medal machines packed with young people. Many of them were there with their dates, since most machines seat two and have two medal-shooters. The only thing weirder than the concept of “pachinko dates” and “medal game dates” seems to be the reality that they’re actually popular, at least in Kyoto.
“With games like Dinoking paying out like they do, it is pretty much impossible to run out of medals.”
Wow. I used some of my er, research subsidy to see if it was possible for a gaijin like me to enjoy those games and it was definitely not impossible for me to run out of medals. Many times 🙁
“The horse race game is fun for 5 minutes”
Actually a friend and I figured out a way to make this fun. It involves setting it up as a competitive game and *caring way too much.* Its no fun to just drop a few medals on a piece of plastic, but what if you pretended like it actually mattered? Cheering your horse on and then cursing, loudly, when it lags behind in the final stretch and your dreams of a new car are shattered is oodles of fun. This experience goes best with potato shochu.
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