Gambling spices up holiday stewOn every major Korean holiday when family members gather in the living room, inevitably a deck of hwatu, colorful playing cards for a game known as gostop, appears. Chuseok is no exception. A deck of hwatu consists of 48 plastic cards small enough to be hidden in one’s palm. Unlike playing cards that have symbols and numbers engraved on them, hwatu contain colorful pictures describing the four seasons, with images of creatures like wild boar and white cranes.
Once a game gets under way, players will smack those cards for hours and, in extreme cases, spend the entire night at it. If a neighbor sounds rowdy on Chuseok, you can probably blame it on gostop.
Nobody knows how gostop became a holiday favorite, and it’s not clear when it came to Korea. Some believe it landed on the peninsula in the 19th century, passed on by Japanese merchants. Others argue that it must date to the Korean War era of the 1950s, considering that two English words, go and stop, form its name.
The origin of gostop is said to be hanafuda, a Japanese card game, which dates to the 16th century. Hanafuda, in turn, is thought to have been introduced to East Asia by the Portuguese, and was popular among the upper classes at one time.
In Korea, gostop took the form of high-stakes gambling in the 1970s, when Gangnam, the part of Seoul south of the Han River, became the center of rapid residential construction. For professional swindlers, the new rich who sprang up in Gangnam were easy prey.
Gostop hit its prime in the 1980s, and today it has adapted to the times with an Internet version. The online Web site Hangame, which accounts for one-third of online gostop games in Korea, gets at least 1.2 million players daily, according to its operators. That would suggest that three million players visit all gostop Web sites each day ― one in 16 Koreans! Some pundits comment that online gostop has prodded older folks to become familiar with computers and the Internet.
In much the same way that other forms of gambling have been controversial, so is gostop. According to Kim Bae-seop, a detective with the Seoul police, professional gostop swindlers, known as tazza, number around 200. Mr. Kim says tazza will go wherever they smell money.
“Last fall the tazza moved to Gangwon province, where they caught a whiff of the large flow of donation funds for flood victims in the area,” Mr. Kim says.
Shin Young-cheol, a doctor who works with gambling addicts, concedes that during the holidays he won’t refuse a game or two of gostop. “There’s nothing like gambling to break down awkwardness and bring joy to those who participate,” Dr. Shin says.
Should one play gostop during Chuseok, then put the cards aside for the rest of the year, there’s little to worry about. It only becomes a problem when a person get addicted. “A child who grew up in a household where gostop is played will be four times more likely to become a gambling addict than one who grew up in a household that does not gamble,” Dr. Shin says.
According to Dr. Shin, housewives in their 30s and 40s take up gostop in earnest to break out of a depressed mood. Once addicted, such women will continue gambling with those pretty little cards even after losing their roof.
Mr. Kim, with the Seoul police, said last month he arrested a 50-year-old housewife involved in a professional gostop swindling crew. “That woman started to play gostop for the first time two years ago when she went to the market to buy some bean sprouts,” Mr. Kim says.
Then why play this addictive game? Chae Yoo-ra of Hangame says most online users consider gostop nothing more than a fun way to while away the hours; he says it’s less addictive then other card games.
It’s also an oft-heard remark that if it weren’t for gostop, there’d be nothing much to do over the holidays when the extended family gathers ― especially if we only see our families during the holidays. That can be an awkward situation, since it only takes a few minutes to ask “how’s life,” which leaves a lot of time to fill.
Heo Young-man, a cartoonist whose work includes a cartoon series on tazza, suggests that instead of complaining about the darker side of gostop gambling, we should think about the dearth of leisure in our society.
by Son Min-ho