The best gambling anime

In the West, anime (meaning animation produced in Japan with its very distinct style compared to American or European animation) is a relatively niche interest. True, its fanbase has grown in the millions over the last two decades (and even before then, it wasn’t uncommon to find it on VHS or airing on TV), but most people still dismiss it as either being for children or as incomprehensible trash. In Japan, however, the attitude is entirely different – anime is one of the country’s biggest industries, and it produces more animation than the rest of the world combined. Several of its top-grossing movies are either anime or live action remakes of anime, and all audiences have found something to love in it. That is because, unlike what certain Westerners are convinced of, anime is just as diverse as American movies and TV shows are – perhaps even more so! High school romance can coexist with high-concept sci-fi, pulpy noir, historical drama and epic fantasy, to the point where everyone can find at least a few anime genres to really enjoy.

And yes, that includes us gamblers. Because not only is “gambling anime” a real genre, it’s also filled to the brim with amazing shows to check out! Unlike Western gambling media (such as casino movies), gambling anime rarely depicts the struggle of “man vs casino/institution”, instead choosing to pit their respective main characters against very human opponents. Winning at these games isn’t a matter of luck, even when it’s literally presented as such – it’s a matter of resolve and actual cleverness on the part of the gambler. While many of us have grown up with Yu-Gi-Oh as children, where winning the game essentially amounted to drawing the exact right card by pure luck, fear not: gambling anime is nothing like that. Instead, they tell stories of grand battles and brilliant strategies using nothing but playing cards and a few slips of paper.

#5: Joker Game

Joker Game

We can already sense the anime purists reading here for recommendations rolling their eyes. “Joker Game isn’t a real gambling anime! Gambling’s barely in it!” Yeah, it’s barely in it, but it’s also at the very core of the anime and gives it its name, so we say it counts! In many ways, “Joker Game” is the Japanese “Casino Royale”, a spy thriller which uses the game of poker as its framing device in order to introduce the spy action to us.

Set in the mid-to-late 1930s, just before the beginning of WWII, Japan establishes a top-secret spy unit known as “D Agency” with the goal of obtaining valuable socio-economic data from the countries that will very soon be embroiled in one of the biggest conflicts in history. As a result, eight “D Agency” spies are sent off to different countries in order to embed themselves deep into their highest ranks. But these aren’t your ordinary spies, they’re not James Bond-esque “blunt instruments”.

  • They’re the best of the best, highly intelligent manipulators that are meant to maintain their cover at all costs and do whatever it takes to fulfill their objective.

The anime takes us through the stories of each spy, but the framing device it uses for it is actually really cool and creative. The idea is that, once back in Japan, the eight spies engage in a traditional poker game known as the “Joker Game”, where they put their skills of perception, bluff and manipulation to the test not against foreign enemies, but against each other. And if the idea of eight of the most elite spies of the era playing poker while recalling their deep cover exploits sounds interesting to you, we can guarantee that you’ll enjoy “Joker Game”!

#4: No Game No Life

No Game No Life

In a casino, the house always wins, there’s just no way around it! All casino games are stacked at least somewhat in the casino’s favour, to ensure that, at the end of the day, the people running the casino will be the ones that make the most money. Sure, maybe you’ll win and double or triple your deposit, but that will come at the expense of someone else, and if you win too much, you might even be accused of cheating and banned from the casino. You could be the world’s greatest gambler, and your skills won’t necessarily make you a millionaire. Wouldn’t it be much cooler to live in a world where your power and status are directly tied to how good of a gambler you are?

That’s the world of “No Game No Life”, a magical place where only the most cunning and talented gamblers get to succeed. 18 year old Sora and his 11 year old sister Shiro start off as a legendary gaming duo in the real world, both excelling at different levels of strategies:

  • Sora is a master at tactics and reading people, while his little sister is a math wiz able to logic herself out of any problem. With those skills they’re even good enough to beat God!

That’s not a blasphemous exaggeration, that actually happens, an 11 year old and her big brother beat God at a chess game.

Impressed by their skills, the god, known as Tet, invites them to live in a parallel world where your place in society is determined by gambling. The world is entirely peaceful, as magical laws prevent any kind of conventional violence or crime. If you want to get anything, you need to challenge and beat your opponent in a gamble, with magic enforcing both the rules and the reward for the winner (and punishment for the loser, respectively). Cheating is allowed, unless your opponent catches on, which is what reinforces the rules: meaning that Sora and Shiro need to not only worry about their strategy, but be actively on the lookout for how their opponent is cheating. What follows is, of course, a whole lot of mind games and out of the box gambling – which is pretty much exactly what you want out of a gambling anime!

#3: Death Parade

Death Parade

What would you do to get another shot at life? Would you even be willing to deny someone else their own?

This is the core premise behind “Death Parade”, a gambling anime that mixes its gambling with hard-hitting and very personal stories. In its world, once you die, your soul is sent to one of millions of different “bars” – alternate dimensions between life or death shaped to look like a simple bar, presumably because a bar is one of the few locations with a consistent look between countries and cultures. Once there, the souls are judged by an emotionless, detached being known as an Arbiter, who decides whether they are to be reincarnated (losing their memories and appearance, but carrying on their virtues and vices) or are better off sent into complete oblivion.

The main character, Decim, is unique among the arbiters in that his bar is for those who died at the same time. Sometimes they may have a relationship to each other, like a couple that had a car accident together, and sometimes they happened to die at the same time by pure luck, like a teenage boy and a TV celebrity. Whatever the case, if they’re sent to Decim’s bar, they must play a game to decide whether they’ll get to be reincarnated or will face erasure in the Void.

  • The games can be anything, from a simple game of darts to much more involved games that we don’t dare spoil. Regardless, there’s no mistake that this is the ultimate gamble.

But here’s the twist, and what makes Death Parade so fascinating and interesting to us: the winner doesn’t always get what he or she wants. Logic would dictate that the winner gets to be reincarnated while the loser goes to the Void, but at the end of the day, the bar is little more than a testing ground where Decim can pass judgment. Instead, he uses the games as a test of character. Whether you win is significantly less important than what you do once you win, and what you did to get there. The moral qualities you display are, ultimately, what you get to keep in your next life, not your gambling skills or memories, and that’s exactly what Decim judges. And while we’ve never been reincarnated (to our knowledge), we can certainly relate to the feeling of a gambling loss that feels like a victory, and vice versa, so we’re happy to have an anime that wraps those feelings in a supernatural and really creative package.

#2: Kakegurui

Kakegurui

Probably the most famous gambling anime in the world thanks to its premiere on Netflix (thus giving it exposure to millions of households), and one that, in many ways, has earned its reputation through its colorful cast of characters and intriguing gambling. “Kakegurui” tells the story of Yumeko Jabami, who has just transferred into the elite Hyakkaou Private Academy, a school with extremely strict entry which is usually reserved for the children of millionaires, celebrities and influential politicians. Since most of the students have more money than they know what to do with, gradually, a unique dynamic has formed: those with the most money reign at the very top as the Student Council, while those at the bottom are treated as literal slaves, given the demeaning name of “pets” and forced into menial labor for the top brass.

If you wish to change your status, then you have no choice but to gamble. Gambling has taken over the entire school, and while technically prohibited by the rules, has been not only enabled, but strictly encouraged by the Student Council who wish to retain their positions of power at all costs. Yumeko gets quickly thrown into the deep when a powerful student decides to take advantage of her by cheating her out of her money during a card game.

  • However, it’s quickly revealed that Yumeko is a genius who’s able to quickly formulate a plan in order to not only figure out how her opponent is cheating, but also win despite that, often turning their cheating against them.

Determined to change the status quo, Yumeko embarks on a quest to challenge and defeat each member of the student council at their own game, hoping to abolish this predatory gambling once and for all.

It’s worth pointing out that “Kakegurui” suffers from the same problem that many anime series do (including a few on the list): a nearly invincible main character. While this often isn’t a problem, Yumeko feels like a particularly bad example, in that she will pretty much never lose the game she’s playing, or if she does, the consequences won’t be too bad. So if you’re planning on watching the show and being on the edge of your seat about whether the main character will prevail, you’re going to be a bit disappointed. But once you go into it with that in mind, “Kakegurui” becomes one of the most enjoyable gambling anime out there. Yes, Yumeko will usually win – but she will never just luck into a victory. Each of her victories is against an opponent in a significantly better position than her, and the strategies she comes up with to knock them down despite being the underdog remain consistently brilliant. By season 2, the other students have stopped underestimating her and start pulling all the stops in order to achieve a decisive victory against her, which in turn only escalates the level of strategy that she has to contend with. So while some have complained about Kakegurui’s invincible protagonist, we ultimately found that we didn’t mind it too much – unlike DragonBall Z, Yumeko never wins just because she got a new power or form at the last moment. Plus, it feels really refreshing to see a gambling anime about a female character who is simply brilliant enough to consistently outsmart her opponents without needing a male to motivate her or drive her in the right direction, as is usually the case in so many series. If all this sounds good to you, then trust us, Kakegurui is a blast!

#1 Kaiji: Ultimate Survivor

Kaiji Ultimate Survivor

“Kaiji” is probably the most obscure anime on this list, and yet, if you look up lists like ours, you’ll consistently find it resting comfortably at the #1 spot. Why? Just how has this ugly-looking anime that nobody has ever heard of beaten out incredibly popular shows like Death Parade and Kakegurui? Well, if you’re thinking this, then you better brace yourself, because “Kaiji” is pretty much in a league of its own when it comes to gambling anime. Yes, it really is that good!

Set in 1996, long after Japan’s economic bubble of the 80s has burst and in the midst of its biggest recession since WWII, a young man named Kaiji has been unable to find any kind of work, much like thousands of other people. While he’s been getting by on small-time gambles and odd jobs, that no longer becomes an option when a large debt Kaiji had cosigned for a friend defaults to him, straddling him with a sum he can’t possibly hope to repay.

  • He has two options: either spend ten years in a “debtors’ prison” working off the amount or board the casino ship “Espoir” hoping to win enough money to clear the entire debt in one night.

And who knows, maybe even make a little something for himself while he’s there! Kaiji, rather carelessly, chooses the latter, which spirals him into a deep gambling hole that he will spend years trying to climb out of.

We don’t want to spoil too much about what happens after (the Espoir story covers only the first few episodes of “Kaiji”, with the rest of the season being split among several other games), but we need to talk about what sets this show apart from all the others: and that, of course, is Kaiji himself. Keep in mind, the show isn’t called “Kaiji: Ultimate Gambler” or “Kaiji: Ultimate Winner”. His special skill isn’t being incredibly skilled at games like Sora and Shiro, or a brilliant strategist like Yumeko. Instead, his greatest asset is the uncanny ability to keep himself alive and in the game no matter how bad things get. He knows the deck is stacked against him, so he usually doesn’t even try to “win”, he tries to bend the rules so that he can survive the game without ending up with even more debt, or worse. And if he’s going to lose, then he’ll try to lose with the least amount of damage possible. Which doesn’t always work out, because, certain exceptions aside, most of Kaiji’s opponents aren’t brilliant strategists or amazing cheaters, but rather fellow “survivors” who are doing their best to get out of their own bad situation. If red wins, black has to lose – and even if you hold nothing against those who bet on black, you still want to do your best to make sure red wins. This results in brilliant, tense and ultimately incredibly satisfying gambles, because we’ve seen just how hard Kaiji works to win, and how much he stands to lose. Even if none of the other anime on our list won you over, we still implore you to at least give “Kaiji” a shot – we promise, it’s worth it!

Other Anime for Gambling Fans

Did you watch all of the recommendations on our list, but still want more? Fear not – we’ve got you covered! While we don’t have any more gambling anime to recommend, we feel that, at the end of the day, what makes gambling great is two characters going into battle against each other wielding not their fists, but their intelligence, cunning and creativity. So even if we ran out of anime to recommend about people competing with each other in card games, there’s plenty to enjoy about people competing in all sorts of other things! Without further ado, here are some of our favourite anime series for gambling fans!

Death Note

Come on, how could we NOT mention Death Note? It has served as the direct, or indirect, inspiration behind several of the series on this list, and to this day remains one of the best examples of anime about two people going head to head not in a battle of fists, but a battle of wits, cunning, ingenuity and overall willpower. Just like the best gambling anime, the winner isn’t the luckiest or even the one who cheats the best, but the one who can adapt the best to the ever increasing odds.

“Death Note” tells the story of Light Yagami, a brilliant high school student with a bright future ahead of him… Until he randomly happens across a black notebook discarded on the street.

  • Soon he realizes that the notebook, called a Death Note, used to belong to a god of death and can kill anyone whose name is written down within seconds.

While initially trying to use this power for good, Light’s twisted sense of justice and his own ego very quickly get the better of him, resulting in an intervention from a famous, anonymous detective known as L, determined to crack the case and discover the identity of the mysterious murderer.

The anime tells the story of their mental struggle, as both try to outmaneuver each other in order to learn the other’s true identity while carefully guarding their own. In many ways, “Death Note” feels like a high stakes poker game, with both ‘players’ constantly raising the stakes to put pressure on their opponent and trying to get them to fold, or at least slip up. Will the murderous Light be finally captured, or will he be able to outwit L and create his ‘ideal’ world? Regardless of the outcome, there’s no denying that the trip there is a hell of a ride!

Kaguya-Sama: Love is War

Who says that high stakes mind games need to be about life or death, or cripplingly large sums of money? Most of the anime we’ve described so far have been about these giant larger than life struggles that can leave the loser either dead or so financially crippled that they might as well be dead, and while those types of gambles are very exciting and thrilling to watch, they’re not the only ones that matter. Sometimes the stakes can only be high for the participants. Sometimes, all that’s in the pot can be as simple, and as grand, as a confession of love.

Kaguya Shinomiya is the closest there is to a modern day princess. Her family owns and operates a multi-billion dollar conglomerate with over 1000 subsidiaries, which she’s been prepared to eventually inherit since birth. Everything about her has a refined, regal aura, and yet she’s got the cunning and ingenuity to prove to anyone who doubts that her position isn’t just a meaningless, inherited title.

  • However, when it comes to the student council of the prestigious school she attends, Kaguya is only the vice president.

The President himself, Miyuki Shirogane, is a genius in his own right, with test scores regularly topping not only the academy, but all of Japan. Despite his poor upbringing, Shirogane is clearly talented and ambitious enough to secure himself any position he wants. The two of them work rather closely at the student council, and it’s clear that there’s plenty of romantic sparks flying around.

The problem? Due to their stubborn and arrogant personalities, both of them see confessing that attraction, or even acting in a way that may be considered romantic, to be a sign of weakness and an admission of failure. Because love isn’t cute, or fun, or sweet – it’s war, and every war has its battles! These battles usually consist of either Shinomiya or Shirogane carefully orchestrating a situation where the other will have no choice but to do something romantic, while their opponent will have to stay on their toes to watch the obvious traps in order to turn the tide in their favour. You thought Kaiji was good at coming up with survival strategies on the fly? Wait till you see what these two geniuses are capable of for the sake of not losing the war for love!

JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure

It’s tough to talk about “JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure” as a whole, since it’s almost like several different anime series in one – each “part” has its own setting, characters, atmosphere, themes and mechanics, with only a few characters (very occasionally) crossing over between parts. Really, there are two big things that connect the individual parts with each other. One is that the protagonist of each is a descendant of the same family, the Joestar clan, whose name often begins with the letters “Jo” (which is where the “JoJo” part of the name stems from). The other is that, regardless of which JoJo we’re following, his or her adventures are always bizarre.

While part 1 (a 19th century vampire horror) and part 2 (a more traditional “shonen” battle series set in the 1930s) are great in their own right, our personal recommendation for gamblers would be to start with part 3, Stardust Crusaders, set in the 1980s. In it, Part 1’s vampiric antagonist, Dio, returns after a century-long absence, with his appearance unleashing special abilities in seemingly random people. These abilities, called Stands, manifest in a variety of ways, but more often than not as spirits summoned by their users that allow them to shift reality and set their own rules within it.

  • And you can probably guess where this is going – indeed, some of these Stands can indeed be used for high-stakes gambling, the kind that results in the brutal death of the loser.

The creator of “Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure”, Hirohiko Araki, is a huge gambling fan, with his first ever manga being based around poker. As such, he has channeled this affection into “JoJo”, resulting in several of its episodes being themed around gambling.

Don’t get us wrong – “JoJo” isn’t a gambling anime by its nature, and not all of its battles are themed around opponents outwitting each other. The characters aren’t exactly opposed to some good, old-fashioned fisticuffs, using their more battle-oriented Stands to simply pummel each other. But what we enjoy a lot about it is that, even when no cards are involved and the objective is to punch the opponent the hardest, strategy and mind games continue to be employed. After all, arguably the most memorable antagonist of the series, Part 4’s Yoshikage Kira, isn’t nearly as powerful as Part 3’s Dio in terms of sheer strength, but is infinitely more dangerous due to his sheer intelligence, cunning and utter, psychopathic brutality. So even when he has to be beaten down, he needs to be outsmarted first, giving us the best of both worlds. If you like gambling and more mental-based battles, but also enjoy the bombastic showdowns of something like “DragonBall Z”, well… We’d recommend “JoJo”, but we have a feeling you’re already a fan!

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