Oicho-Kabu [おいちょかぶ] (lit. “eight-nine”) is a traditional gambling game in which a group of players compete against the banker to assemble a hand of cards whose value is as close as possible to nine.
A simple and widely popular game, it in many ways resembles Baccarat and Blackjack. It also has strong cultural associations with the criminal underworld; Oicho-Kabu is a mainstay of Yakuza gambling parlours, and the very word ‘yakuza’ derives from the terminology of the game.
Game setup involves choosing a dealer - 親 [おや, oya], deciding the seating arrangement of the other players, and shuffling the deck. Certain ground rules should also be agreed upon before play begins.
Oicho-Kabu is traditionally played with a kabufuda deck. This simple deck contains 40 cards, consisting of four identical series of the numbers 1 to 10.
Since kabufuda decks are somewhat uncommon, they are often emulated with a hanafuda deck by removing all November and December cards and assigning values to the remaining cards based on month order. So all January cards are 1, February cards are 2, and so on, up to October which is 10.
Alternatively, one can take an international 52-card deck and remove all Kings, Queens, and Jacks, leaving only the pip cards. Ignoring suits (and counting the Aces as 1), the result is exactly equivalent to a kabufuda deck.
In addition to the deck, a collection of chips to represent points will be highly useful. Using different colours of chips for each player will help with tracking bets.
Before play begins, the group should agree on the following:
To begin, each player draws a card from the deck. The player with the lowest number becomes the dealer, and the remaining players seat themselves in order anti-clockwise around the table- the second-lowest number sits to the right of the dealer, third-lowest to the right of them, and so on. Since play begins with the dealer and progresses anti-clockwise, there is a distinct advantage to sitting close to the dealer’s right.
If the dealer represents an establishment- say, when playing at a casino or gambling parlour- then their role will obviously be fixed, though the other players may still use this process to determine their seating order.
In the event of a tie, the players in question should draw a second card and compare again.
When playing with a hanafuda deck, the ranks of the cards can be used to break ties in the usual manner- Brights beat Animals, which beat Ribbons, which beat Chaff.
With a standard 52-card deck, suits could be used to break ties instead.
Over the course of the round, each player attempts to form a hand whose total value is as close as possible to 9. Totals that go over 9 ‘wrap around’ by discarding the tens digit. So 10 is equivalent to 0, 11 is equivalent to 1, and so on, much like Baccarat. Similar to other banking games, the players are not competing against each other, but are only aiming to beat the dealer.
Only the dealer has a ‘hand’ in the traditional sense- the players hold no cards of their own. Instead, four hands are dealt to the table in a step-by-step process, and the players bet on the hands they consider most likely to win against the dealer’s.
The dealer shuffles the deck, then passes it to the player on their right. This player may either cut the deck, or simply tap it to signal their satisfaction with the shuffle. The deck is then returned to the dealer, and play begins.
Variations of this process are common- for example, the deck may be passed around the entire table, being shuffled or cut by each player in turn, until it returns to the dealer.
To begin, the dealer deals one card to each player, face-down. Each player looks at their card, without showing it to anyone else, then sets it aside.
These cards are ‘dead’ and take no further part in the play. Their purpose is to give each player a little bit of insight into the cards remaining in the deck, and what the chances are of drawing each one.
Sources differ as to whether the dealer gives themselves a dead card in this manner as well. Be sure to agree on this before playing!
Now, 4 cards are dealt face-up to the table in a row. This is known as the first field- each of these four cards will form the basis of a hand.
Then, starting from the right of the dealer and working anti-clockwise, the players take turns to bet on these potential hands. Each player may bet on as many of the four cards as they choose, and may bet different amounts on each. They signal their bets by placing the appropriate number of chips on top of each card.
It is entirely possible for multiple players to bet on the same card- players are free to bet on cards that already have bets on them. (Different bets on the same card should be kept separate, however; different colours of chips will be useful here.)
Note that the total amounts of points bet by all players cannot exceed the agreed-upon maximum total bet. Players cannot make bets that would push the total over this limit, and if it is reached, no further bets may be made.
This means that, for example, if the total bet was 50, then the first player could immediately bet 50 points on their turn and prevent any of the other players from betting. This is, however, considered exceedingly rude.
Note that the first field is always 4 cards, regardless of the number of players!
At this point, the dealer draws a card from the deck and places it face-down in front of them, without looking at it. This card will be the first in the dealer’s hand.
Uniquely, the dealer may choose to draw this card from the top of the deck, the bottom of the deck, or to take the card 4th from the top of the deck.
The dealer now deals 4 cards face-down to the table, one below each of the cards in the first field. This row is the second field, and each card forms a hand with the one above it; that is to say, each column of cards on the table is a hand.
Each player then looks at the face-down card for each of the hands that they have bet on, again without showing it to anyone else. Players cannot look at cards for hands they have not bet on.
At this point, each player should know the total value of the hands they’ve placed bets on, and how close each one is to 9.
Moving anti-clockwise, the dealer asks each player in turn if they would like a third card for any of their hands. If they say yes, then the dealer places a third card face-up below the hand in question, forming a third field of sorts.
If a player has bet on multiple hands, they may make this decision for each of them independently. If multiple players have bet on the same hand, then whichever of them is earliest in the turn order will get to make the decision.
There are two rules that affect this decision:
The dealer now adds a second face-down card to their hand. Once again, they may choose to draw this card from the top of the deck, the bottom of the deck, or to take the card 4th from the top of the deck.
The dealer then looks at their hand and decides if they would like a third card. If so, they draw one, again keeping it hidden from the players.
Finally, all cards are revealed. The second field cards are turned face-up, and the dealer lays out their hand for all to see. The dealer’s hand is then compared with each of the four hands on the table.
This comparison is performed independently for each of the four hands- it is entirely possible for the dealer to win against some hands while losing against others.
Three special rules are in effect here:
Note that dealer 4 and 1 or dealer 9 and 1 take precedence over three of a kind, should they both occur together. The latter rules are also order-sensitive- the first card must be a 9 or 4, and the second card must be a 1. They do not apply if the order is reversed!
No particular setup is given for playing additional rounds. When playing at a casino or parlour, the dealer will remain the dealer, though the players may cycle their seating positions.
In casual games, the dealer may either remain fixed, or lose their role whenever their hand loses against every hand on the table. In this case, the player to their right becomes the next dealer.
Games played with kabufuda traditionally use special names for the numbers 1 through 10. While hardly essential, their use can add a little bit of extra flavour to the game. They are:
The worst possible hand in Oicho-Kabu is considered to be 8, 9, and 3. This hands sums to 20, which is equivalent to 0 given the wrapping around of scores. With the appropriate choice of readings for the kanji 八九三, the sequence 8-9-3 can be rendered as ‘ya-ku-sa’, or yakuza [ヤクザ]. This hand, as a symbol of bad luck, is what leant its name to the Japanese organised crime groups.
(todo: pretty this up)