Friday, December 31, 2010

Card Players in North Korea

In a recent blog post, titled Casino Gambling Inside North Korea, I shared some information about the casino in Pyongyang, which I had the opportunity to visit on my trip to North Korea, earlier this year. One thing that I really wanted to do, while visiting the DPRK, was to meet some local people and due to my interest in gambling I also wanted to find out what kind of gambling and/or card playing people might practice in North Korea.


I had my first encounter with North Korean people right at the boarding gate in Beijing. I approached them and found out that they were North Koreans living in Japan. They explained to me that there were many North Korean communities in Japan and that their kids all go to Korean schools.

Although those folks didn't seem like they could tell me much about gambling I'm still glad I talked to them because they confirmed one piece of information that had me puzzled in the past. When I was in Japan, a couple of years ago, I checked out some of the pachinko parlors, which are basically gambling halls scattered throughout Japan. As expected some of those gambling halls are owned by the yakuza, but as I was trying to learn more about them I somehow got wind of the information that some of the pachinko parlors are also owned by North Koreans. At the time I was very reluctant to believe that particular piece of information because it wasn't clear how North Koreans could open businesses in Japan, or how they could even live in that country. But now that I've met a few North Korean expatriates living in Japan, I guess I can say that this piece of information has been confirmed.

In North Korea gambling is strictly prohibited and the only exception is casino gambling or foreigners. Anyone caught gambling would be in serious trouble, I was told. I tried to find out if there was any kid of underground gambling anywhere in the country and was told that there wasn't. I asked if people ever gambled in the privacy of their own homes. The answer was, again, no. So, either that's all true or they don't feel like talking about it to foreigners. I personally have a hard time believing that no one ever puts down a wager.

But even if I wasn't able to find any illegal gambling, I've seen a lot of people playing cards in public. If you think about it, this makes a lot of sense because there aren't many entertainment options available in the DPRK, at this time. That's because, at this time, the country is under strict sanctions; that's the simplified explanation, but I don't want to talk about politics.

I took a few pictures of people playing cards, outdoors. I also asked some people what card game they were playing and was told that the game was called sa-sa-kki. It was really hard to get them to explain the rules, so I just let that one go. They just said that I wouldn't be able to understand. But I did ask if this was a gambling game and was told that it wasn't. The only piece of information I was able to extract was that the game had something to do with numbers 4-4 (in Korean, the word sa means the number four). I don't think the there's any big secret to this game, or that people were unwilling to share this information with a foreigner, I just think that they felt it would be too difficult to explain the rules, due to the language barrier. But the people were really polite and happy to talk to me and were also nice enough to let me take a few photos. I wanted to explain to them that I would be publishing these photographs on my blog, but as you can see these are older gentlemen and I don't think I'd be able to explain to them what a blog was. Nevertheless, I don't think there's been too many photographs of North Korean card players, published in the West, so here are a few shots.



It is true that any foreigner visiting North Korea must be accompanied by a minimum of two guides, but my guides were pretty relaxed about my visit and at one point I even walked around on my own for about 20 minutes (and almost got lost). Those older gentlemen were surprised at my "excellent" knowledge of the Korean language, by the way.

The next photograph shows a group of people playing cards near one of the city's landmarks; a mural of The Great Leader, Kim Ill Sung. This was really the only picture I was able to take of people playing cards in front of a recognizable landmark.


The last photograph was taken through the window of the van, while the driver was maneuvering out of the parking lot. Too bad you can't really see that the people are playing cards, but that's in fact what they were doing.


Scenes like these are quite common throughout Pyongyang. It would have been more interesting to me if people were playing for cash, like I've seen people do in China, but that's all I was able to capture on this trip.

In closing, I feel I should also say that people in North Korea were very welcoming and pleasant. They don't see a lot of foreigners so they're definitely curious about any foreigner they get to meet. I initially thought people would be very shy and unapproachable, but my experience was quite the opposite. I was particularly surprised that young ladies were really not shy at all. Unlike South Korean girls, which are generally very shy, North Korean girls seem to be very straightforward. Regardless what you might think of the DPRK, I think it's important not to judge the people by what you might think of their government. The fact is that most of what Westerners know (or think they know) about the DPRK is from what's been published in the Western media. But the truth is, if you want to know more about that country you'll have to do a bit more effort than getting the information from Western resources. Thomas Jefferson said it best: "To be truly informed, one must learn how to completely ignore newspapers." I think I'm a pretty good judge of character and I can say with confidence that all the people I met while visiting the DPRK were genuinely nice and not at all uptight about the fact that I happen to be a Westerner. In other words, I really didn't feel any bad vibes.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

A Stereoscopic Image of Card Cheats, from 1901

This is a stereoscopic image of card cheats from my personal collection. To be perfectly hones, I don't even like this picture. As a general rule I prefer images that are more subtle.


I think it's pretty obvious that this image was intended to amuse the viewer. I think it's also pretty obvious that the image was specifically intended to amuse a white audience. I'm not sure if this kind of humor was considered sophisticated at the time the image was produced, but I don't find it particularly funny on any levels. Obviously, racial humor has fallen out of fashion in our time.

I'm kind of curious to know what brand of playing cards were used on this set. The only clues that might help determine that are the backs of the cards, which are visible in the hands of the player on the rear left, the ace of spades, which is passed under the table, and the year the image was taken, which we know from the copyright to be 1901. Unfortunately, I am not good enough of a playing card historian to pull the right answer out of thin air, so I'll have to do some more digging if I want to know what brand of playing cards are those.



Since I've had this picture for about two years I can't remember exactly how much I paid for it, but I know I would never pay more than 10 bucks for this one, so that that must be more or less how much it cost me.

The picture is titled A Skin Game (which was obviously meant to be witty) and the copyright is 1901, by H.C. White Co., from North Bennington, Vermont. I would imagine the H.C. White was just a lucky coincidence and at that time might have been considered quite funny that this kind of humor was produced by a Mr. White. It would probably not be as funny if the publisher was a certain H.C. Brown or H.C. Black. But whatever the case, the funniest part is that Mr. White probably never thought that one of his pictures would end up in the collection of Mr. Pink.