WSOP winner Naoya Kihara celebrates Japanese ‘patience’

by , Nov 25, 2014 | 3:15 am


Image by  World Poker Tour 

Poker is a minority sport in Japan at the moment, but it is growing fast. According to Naoya Kihara – the first Japanese grinder to claim a WSOP winner’s ring – it is a game perfectly suited to the Japanese mentality.

Kihara won his title in 2012 in a $5,000 Pot Limit Omaha Six-Handed event, and ever since he has been blazing a trail for poker in his homeland. In a country where the game is little played and even less understood Kihara’s $512,029 WSOP win earned him instant celebrity status, and he has not been slow to use that as a platform to promote the game.

The former Tokyo University physics student’s route to professional poker was unconventional, but it is one that he sees as a perfect model for his fellow countrymen. Having started out playing recreational games of backgammon, shogi and mahjong Kihara began earning a living from pro backgammon around 2005. From there, has admitted that once he was introduced to poker the move was a relatively straightforward one.

Online intensitity

But in the absence of real-life poker rooms in his homeland it was online poker at sites such as 32Red and Party Poker that provided Kihara with his competitive education. He has pointed out that the intrinsic pace of the online game combined with the ability to play multiple games simultaneously provides a fast-track education. Playing nine tables at a time, as he does, Kihara argues that it is possible to play up to 27 times as much poker online than in a physical poker room over an equivalent timespan. And as he says, playing his how you learn.

It’s an intense way to get to grips with the game but Kihara’s journey from novice to WSOP winner in the space of just five years shows what can be achieved. He is still an active online player under the user ID ‘nkeyno’.

National advantage

In terms of encouraging his fellow Japanese to follow in his footsteps the Tokyo native insists that their shared cultural character gives them an innate competitive advantage. Kihara insists that the restrained Japanese national temperament is perfectly suited to a game that – above all – calls for patience and self-control. He points out that not everyone can pass up hand after hand as they wait for a winning equation to present itself: “One of the traits of Japanese people is their ability to be patient” he told the Ignition website earlier this year, “This attribute can give you the upper hand in poker.”

To date Kihara’s winnings have not matched his 2012 peak – he currently holds a ProRank position of 334 – but it is fair to say that in his role as unofficial ambassador for the rapidly developing Japanese poker scene he has plenty of other draws on his energies. And, of course, he is happy to bide his time until the cards next fall in his favour.

Kihara is a regular celebrity interviewee in the Japanese media and is in the process of putting together a book to promote the game to a specifically Japanese constituency. And with the advent of smartphone apps and the ability to play in yen – as provided by the likes of 32Red – there is undeniably a vast potential waiting to be tapped into.

Exotic attraction

There is little historical or cultural familiarity with poker in Japan, but whilst that will take time to overcome, it does means that the game has an exotic appeal that is not laden with the cultural associations of traditional intellectual games such as go and shogi which have their own professional circuits and which are played by an estimated 10 million Japanese. In comparison, poker offers a fresh, new gaming challenge.

At the same time, the recent heated political debates over the possible legalisation of bricks and mortar casinos point to a healthy proportion of Japan’s 127 million population who would welcome greater licence to play.

Against the backdrop of that debate it is notable that Kihara has drawn a line between the intellectual and the chance aspects of the game. As he told “Poker is a game and you can use it to gamble but the way I play is as an investment business. Poker is a skill game and I’m trying to tell that to people in Japan.”

In a peculiarly Japanese twist, the game is proving particularly popular in the form of what is known – in English at least – as Amusement Poker. In this variation tournament winners claim tangible prizes rather than cash, including seats at big money games in nearby Macau. The model is drawn from the game of Pachinko which operates along similar lines in Japan. What it amounts to is tournament poker with a distinctly Japanese accent. If Naoya Kihara’s patient one man promotion succeeds it is one we may be hearing a lot more of in the near future. The number of Japanese grinders is increasing all the time.




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