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Chips down in the pandemic, Japanese poker pros open non-gambling store to promote the game

Pro poker players and YouTubers Masato Yokosawa, right, and Hiroki Nawa are seen at their recreational poker room business Roots Shibuya, in Tokyo's Shibuya Ward, on June 3, 2021. (Mainichi/Kaho Kitayama)

TOKYO -- Japanese professional poker player and YouTuber Masato Yokosawa, 28, makes his living gambling at international tournaments. A top-flight player in Japan, his "Sekai no Yokosawa" YouTube channel has about 600,000 subscribers, and he has earned prize money at tournaments across the globe totaling some 93.6 million yen (about $850,000).

    On June 11, Yokosawa paired up with his channel manager Hiroki Nawa to open an "amusement poker" store in the capital's Shibuya Ward, where money is not played for, nor are prizes given.

    In poker, the five cards in one's hand offer a number of winning combinations with varying levels of potency, including a pair of two cards of matching rank, to a flush of cards in a matching suit, and the strongest hand -- a royal straight flush containing an Ace, King, Queen, Jack and 10.

    Under conventional rules, players can typically exchange their dealt cards once or twice, but foreign casinos run the game differently. Players get just two cards, and create a five-card set from their two cards and the five presented to the table. They bet chips to up the stakes and potentially come out with more money.

    A lively poker room in Roots Shibuya is seen in Tokyo's Shibuya Ward on June 5, 2021. The rules and a booklet on hands are distributed during beginners' tournaments, and players can enjoy the game while listening to explanations from the dealer. (Mainichi/Kaho Kitayama)

    I tried it out as a journalist with no experience of poker. I was shown how to play from the very basics, starting with how to bet chips, and after about three games I had gotten the hang of it.

    But my opponents were pros. I was continually caught up in their bluffs of betting high amounts to show strength even while they held a weak hand. "Are they lying again?" I thought as we headed into another game, but this time their hand really was a good one. My chips rapidly left my side.

    Although it might appear that luck is a significant factor, actually playing poker made it apparent that the game is influenced by experience with tactics such as making a strong show with a weak hand and losing a game with only a minimal loss of chips.

    "If you play just once, then luck can mean you lose to an amateur. But if you go on a long while, you find that actually this is a world that tests ability," Yokosawa told me.

    Masato Yokosawa is seen betting chips at the poker room in Roots Shibuya on June 3, 2021, in Shibuya Ward, Tokyo. (Mainichi/Kaho Kitayama)

    He was 20 when he found the game. At 18 he dropped out of university to start his own company, but was scammed and left with 40 million yen (some $360,000) in debt after two years. At rock bottom, a friend invited him to an amusement poker room. He gave it a try and found he was better at remembering the rules and tactics than his friend. He was instantly hooked.

    Many casinos bar under 21s from entry. In December 2013, Yokosawa announced on social media that he would become a poker player on his 21st birthday. Immediately after, he won a World Poker Tour tournament held in South Korea, becoming the first Japanese person to win one of their events. His glittering debut came with 12 million yen (about $109,000) in prize money.

    The bigger the tournaments, the greater the cost of entry, with admission ranging from the hundreds of thousands of yen to tens of millions of yen. Losing can come with a huge financial hit. The time Yokosawa spends in Japan is largely dedicated to analyzing whether there was a better hand available in past games. He uses artificial intelligence to calculate the best hands and tries his hardest to get his own cards to reach the same point as them.

    Nawa, who heads the planning and editing of the Sekai no Yokosawa channel, praised Yokosawa as "a downright bright, hard-working genius." Nawa himself won 35 million yen (about $318,000) in prize money in 2019 at a tournament held by the World Series of Poker (WSOP), an international organization with more than 50 years of history.

    Professional poker players Masato Yokosawa, left, and Hiroki Nawa are seen during an interview in Shibuya Ward, Tokyo, on June 3, 2021. (Mainichi/Ririko Maeda)

    He said of Yokosawa, "He takes the kind of misses that would leave me low for a while and just accepts them positively. Even during a tournament, he usually doesn't neglect to reflect on his performances. His capacity for work is unlike other people's."

    The pair came to feel they wanted to improve poker's profile in Japan; Nawa quit his job as a company employee and made YouTube his main profession. They don't just feature the world's casinos in their videos, but go into the details of poker's rules.

    Their subscriber numbers have gradually risen, and they receive many comments, including many telling them their videos have shown them poker's appeal, and that they want to try it for themselves.

    But amid activities, the coronavirus began spreading across the world. In March 2020, Yokosawa was competing in Washington when a hotel employee told him orders not to go outside would be issued the following day, and that the hotel would soon close and require him to leave, too.

    The remaining players in a knockout poker tournament at Roots Shibuya are seen with series expressions on their faces, in Shibuya Ward, Tokyo, on June 5, 2021. Players can enjoy a taste of the real competition in an amusement setting. (Mainichi/Kaho Kitayama)

    His flight to Japan was three days later. He rushed to Las Vegas, where a lockdown had yet to be enforced, and managed to get back home. "The staff at the casinos were worried and told me how it will be the first time the casinos, that run 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, have been deserted."

    It was around this time that they started making progress on a plan of Nawa's: Opening an amusement poker store. He wanted a base in Japan while Yokosawa flies around the world, and in February 2021 he became the CEO of a joint-stock company for the business.

    Nawa says he wants to work to give back to poker by improving its popularity in Japan, and for the shop's opening he invested all of the 35 million yen in WSOP tournament winnings he had saved. Now, Roots Shibuya has opened in Tokyo's Shibuya Ward.

    Yokosawa himself is unable to leave Japan amid the pandemic, and he's lost his source of income, but for him what has been harder than that is not being able to show off the attractions of poker on YouTube through his activities. "For us, being in Japan really is boring," he said. "We wondered what we were doing when showing people interesting content is our role."

    Masato Yokosawa shows off the pose he displays when his victory is assured, called "make sense!" at poker room Roots Shibuya in the capital's Shibuya Ward on June 3, 2021. (Mainichi/Kaho Kitayama)

    Precisely for that reason, they set their sights on opening the store. The two say that working to improve awareness of poker in Japan has been a lifesaver for them: "We think we've made a store that beginners coming alone or women can feel comfortable coming to."

    The shop only accepts reservations, and customers must present ID. In accordance with requests from the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, the shop is not serving alcohol for the time being, and it currently closes at 8 p.m. As for the shop's name, the two said it came out of the idea of roots as a starting point, and the hope that it could serve as a starting point for players.

    "Poker is, unlike karaoke or bowling, a game you can suddenly find yourself playing with people you've never met before," Yokosawa said. "I want people to make friends through poker like we did. That's why we want to communicate the appeal of the game."

    (Japanese original by Kaho Kitayama, Digital News Center)

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