All it took was a little smooth-talking, and some serious prostration, for Daniel Lee Gray to spring his friends from Korean jail. How they got in there in the first place? You can blame that, at least partially, on tradition.
Gray, a Korean-American adoptee who returned to Korea to start a culinary tour business and open two restaurants, makes a living immersing his clientele in Seoul culture—a vocation that often involves copious amounts of drinking. After one very boozy night, he received a 3 a.m. call informing him that a trio of his buddies had been tossed in the tank. They’d powered on well after their guide called it quits, getting so rowdy that a local senior was forced to alert the authorities.
After convincing the cops and the elderly complainant that his foreign friends meant no harm, Gray got his friends to throw down a proper keunjeol, a dramatic showing of respect reserved for formal gatherings. “Grandpa thought it was hilarious that these three white guys were trying to bow to him,” Gray recalls. Then? Placated, the old man suggested they all go out for drinks—a proposal they politely declined.
If they had taken the guy up on his offer, however, there’s a good chance the crew would have ended up where they started: draped around a raucous table, slamming beer, soju or makgeolli and hustling to keep up with a breakneck Korean drinking game. In a party-friendly culture that takes its fun very seriously, these homespun competitions vary wildly in approach and execution, but the objective is consistent: get as drunk as possible, as fast as possible.
If that doesn’t sound that different from the ultimate goal of an American party game like Kings, first consider the nuanced role alcohol consumption plays in defining Korean identity. Booze-fueled outings are viewed as a means of solidifying relationships with friends, coworkers, colleagues and potential business partners. The better you are at keeping up with the group, the more legit you become in the eyes of your companions.
As long as you keep yourself together, that is. “It [shows] others how you were raised and what kind of person you are,” says Gray, pointing out one’s dedication to etiquette (pouring drinks for others; deference to elders) remains a sticking point no matter how many glasses have been drained.
More than merely enhancing one’s ability to tell filthy jokes or bang out impressive Katy Perry karaoke, alcohol, in Korean parlance, is the most efficient conduit to common ground. “The belief is that you get to know somebody best when they are absolutely shitfaced,” says Matt Rodbard, author, with chef Deuki Hong, of the forthcoming Koreatown: A Cookbook. “[And] the best way to get absolutely shit-faced is through drinking games.”
Daniel Eun, GM of The Walker Inn and The Normandie Club in Los Angeles’ Koreatown, remembers being thrown into competition via the Korean student groups he joined as an undergraduate. “No one ever sits down and tells you the rules—you have to pick it up as you play,” he says. Luckily, they’re straightforward enough for anyone to get involved, even if they’re inexperienced. “The mechanics are usually so simple,” adds Eun. “The speed and repetition is what really gets you. You have to pay attention.”
Common collegiate drinking diversions, like Quarters or Beer Pong, are considered “burdensome and dirty” in the minds of many Korean drinkers, according to Gray—too much fuss, too many funky foreign objects in your drink. Instead of testing how much Natty Ice it takes to fry one’s fine motor skills, Korean drinking games tend toward accessibility—pointing, counting and clapping are common actions, though keeping an eye on other players is just as vital. One example: “Nunchi,” or “The Awareness Game,” is named for a Korean social skill that involves the unspoken appraisal of others’ feelings. The game itself involves the group randomly counting up from 1 out loud. But only one player at a time can speak, and if two people go for the same number and interrupt each other, they have to drink. “It’s more cerebral…less feats of skill or strength,” Gray says.
There are also games involving props—flicking the twisted ring on a soju cap till it pops off, or filling a shot glass bobbing in a glass of beer with soju until it capsizes—and rapid-fire numbers games, like “3-6-9” or “Baskin Robbins 31,” that demand listening skills and generally cogent counting. But “Nunchi,” plus the equally popular “Image Game,” make up the most interesting subcategory. They force players to observe each other’s habits and tendencies, and sometimes even pass lighthearted judgments. Such interaction, lubricated so liberally with alcohol, speaks to the essence of this social pursuit. “It’s how you get to know each other,” says Eun. “You can feel that built into the games.”
Flick the Cap: This might be the most popular Korean drinking game, considering how easy it is to facilitate. A player removes the cap from a bottle of soju, making sure to leave the tamper band connecting the cap to the bottle attached. That band then gets twisted out until it’s dangling by just a thread or two from the cap. Players take turns flicking this twisty protrusion, in a sort of low-rent Russian Roulette; whoever knocks it off must drink (usually the contents of a filled soju glass, but sometimes more).
Titanic: “Like Jenga, but with soju and beer,” according to Gray. Placing a shot glass in a beer glass, players take turns pouring small amounts of soju into the floating receptacle. The participant whose pour causes the shot to sink, forming instant somaek (the commonly consumed soju-beer combo), is the one who must chug it.
Baskin Robbins 31: A classic example of a Korean counting game, the objective here is to avoid being the rube who utters “31.” Starting with 1, players count off in ascending order—each person can decide to utter one (“2”), two (“2, 3”) or three (“2, 3, 4”) sequential numbers, a feature that comes in handy as you eke closer to the titular figure. Whoever gets stuck with 31 has to drink. It all happens very fast.
3-6-9: Another easy-to-learn counting game, in which players count off from 1 in ascending order. The only rule to remember is that any instance of the numbers 3, 6 or 9 must be replaced by a clap; doubles, like 33 or 69, require two claps. Mess up? Drink.
The Image Game. After everyone gets situated in a circle, the action begins with one player making a declarative statement describing a personal “image”—“this person is likeliest to get into a fight,” or “this person is the biggest flirt,” or “this person has the shortest temper.” Every other player must then select who among the group best embodies this description, and point to him or her immediately; the player who draws the most fingers drinks. There is a built-in defense mechanism—if you know you have, say, the shortest temper and anticipate being picked on, you can “block” by making an X with your hands in concurrence with everyone pointing. If you indeed get the most fingers, all those judgmental people must drink. Miscalculating and throwing up a block when you’re not the top point-getter, however? That means you’re drinking.