Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Don’t bet on the joys of the pokies

When I was working in the Cairns Casino I’d often arrive on the floor to replace a guy who had been in the industry as long as casinos had been in Australia. He had started back at Wrest Point in a time when people would dress up to go to the casino, and the penalty rates for dealers were so outrageous that some used to work casual for half the year, then take the other half off skiing around Europe. He would often greet me by saying, “Welcome once again, young man to this international playground of the idle rich.” It was a standard joke the two of us had as we then looked around and saw no playground, and certainly no idle rich.

The line was a sort of gallows humour – an attempt to divert us from the grim task we were there to do – namely, take money from people, and make them feel good while doing it. One of the other jokes we had was to refer to the pokies in the casino as “wages” – they took people’s to pay ours.

This joke was unfortunately much nearer the truth.

Working in a casino provides an interesting insight into people’s psyche – on both sides of the gaming tables. One of the first things a new dealer has to get used to quickly is to not give a damn about whether the punters won or lost – because they mostly lost. Often the reaction of the staff was then to become indifferent – all that mattered was that things were run well, that everyone was happy, that turnover was good, that no mistakes were made. Punters would often accuse us of wanting them to lose – mostly that was not the case (unless they were particularly loathsome), we didn't need to want them to lose, mathematics took care of that for us. On the games I dealt and supervised the House advantages were as follows:

Blackjack – 0.80%
Baccarat (banker) – 1.17%
Baccarat (player) – 1.63%
Roulette (single zero) – 2.7%
Caribbean Stud Poker – 5.26%
Big Wheel – 11.1% to 24%
Sic-Bo – 2.78-18.98%

We didn’t need to wish or try and rig the game, the mathematics had rigged it for us already. All we had to do was keep the turnover going and keep you happy – happy enough so that if you did happen to win, you would come back. Because the the golden rule of the casino world is that the house always wins in the end.
Usually I worked nights, but for 6 months I worked on the day shift and it was without any doubt the most depressing time of my life (the only time that came close was the period that I worked night shift). At night there is always a chance you’ll be dealing to tourists and people out for a night; but during the day for the most part you are dealing to addicts.

The casino doors would open at 10am, and within a week I could predict 6-7 of the first 10 through the door. Many were pensioners. Those I did know played roulette; the many more I didn’t know played the pokies.

In life you often look around for someone or something to compare yourself favourably with. For the games dealers and supervisors in a casino whose souls are troubled can look to the poker machines and say, well at least we provide entertainment (we’re in the hospitality industry, don’t you know!). But in reality, that was just bullshit we told ourselves. The machines blinked and made music while they took the money; we smiled and chatted aimlessly while we took it. 

We liked to think that the pokies were the ones that did the damage but the fact is all casino games do damage, just more slowly, and with a smile. If you were a regular we quickly signed you up to the Casino Club.  This meant that when you bet you gave us the card and we recorded how much you bet, for how how long and how much you won or lost. It was like a frequent flyer card – the more you bet the more points you were awarded that got you free drinks, meals, rooms in the hotel etc.

Of course that was all just a guise. It was there to ensure we knew where our money was (it is the casino’s money – if you are a regular and you won, we’d refer to it a “short term loan” – and we sure as hell knew it would come back with interest).

The worst moment for me as a dealer was during that 6 month day-shift stint, when on a quiet day in came a couple on their honeymoon. They were full of joy and love and life was grand and beautiful. And then they came to my Blackjack table. The husband, took out $50 from an envelope – it was obviously their holiday spending money – and the careful way they treated the envelope gave a pretty good indication that it was all they had to spend.

They bet $10 a hand and I took it all off them in 5 hands. This was unlucky, but not remarkable. It was a bugger because they were actually very nice and I would have liked to be able to chat to them on this very boring shift; and given it was their honeymoon it would have been nice to see them win. 

They moved to leave, but then they looked at each other with a “well we’re only here once” and put down another $50. This time it took me a bit longer to win it, but win it I did.

Now the faces were losing that flush of joy and happiness and life and grandness and beauty. For the first time in ages I was truly sad and wished I could somehow help them to win (but alas, mathematics had them beat). I apologised and wished them well – almost telling them to leave – but instead of going the husband said let’s try it one more time and pulled out not $50 but $100, which I then took in less than 20 hands. Blackjack can be fast, but when you are the only player on the table, it is lightning.

And so they put the envelope back in her bag, and it dawned on them that the $200 which could have been spent on a trip out to the reef, or on a couple dinners, or presents to each other, or perhaps just a crap load of souvenirs was now in the money box on my blackjack table, and it wasn’t coming back. No beauty, grandness, life, love, joy or happiness went with them.

Such examples caused me to go very close to the edge after two years of full time work, and so I went back to university, worked casual at the casino for another four years until the bile inside me from working there reached a point that I walked out after one shift and never rang up to ask for another shift.

This of course – in a very long and windy way – brings me to the Wilkie-Xenophon anti-pokies proposal.
One of the other jokes we had was about the poker machines in the casino was that no casino ever took out poker machines to put in more blackjack tables. It was another gallows humour joke, because we always knew our job could be replaced by a machine. The reason of course is because each poker machine doesn’t need a dealer, they have a lot higher turnover and better winning percentage.

The truth of this can be seen in the Productivity Commission’s 2010 Report into gambling. Pokies are to gambling like Crack Cocaine is to drugs. We on the gaming tables were dealing out the gambling equivalent of marijuana and Ecstasy (not good, but good enough that in a moral free zone you could convince yourself you weren’t too bad), but the pokies? Wow.


It’s all about speed. The best thing about my abilities as a dealer was that I was fast; I may have been the least hospitable dealers in the history of the industry, but management loved that I churned out the cards and kept the ball spinning. Turnover is the key. I was fast, but unless you were the lone player on the table, there was no way I could match the pokies.

And the horses? There may be race meetings all over the country and throughout Asia, but you’re still going to have to wait to bet – and geez they take ages to run around the track and then there’s the whole correct weight thing.

You want to spend money, and you want to spend it quick (and let me tell you that is what the owners of casinos and clubs want you to do)? Then sit yourself down and start feeding in the notes – no need to worry about some human changing the money for casino chips and then dealing out cards – just press that button as fast as you can.

And how fast is that? The Productivity Commission tells us that as well:


In NSW there are no regulated spin rates – so you can be sure it’s short – all the quicker to allow you to press the button again, and given Victoria can allow 28 spins a minute (up to $10 a pop) that is zipping by too fast to even register the losses. But losses there can be – $1,200 an hour.

Now I certainly saw people lose $1,200 in an hour – but not at the seemingly low value $10 a hand. In fact $10 black jack tables are about the cheapest you can get nowadays – the casino makes up for the lack of speed by increasing the minimum bet. To lose $1,200 in an hour on blackjack would have meant you doing some serious punting – probably $25 a hand at minimum.

The Productivity Commission also nicely shows the adage that the House always gets you in the end is true. As you can see in the upper left graph below, 30 per cent of players can win if they just play the pokies one session of one hour. That sounds about right – a group of 10 friends playing the pokies – three winning, the rest losing seems about right. Come back four times though and that winning percentage is down to 21 per cent. Sixteen times – and only 7 per cent. Sixty four times – and yes, we may well be talking problem gamblers here – and the winning percentage is 1 per cent.


The problem is that people addicted to gambling focus on the 30 per cent and ignore the 1 per cent. How many people do you know who gamble who tell you about the wins, but from whom you never hear the losses? It’s not just because they don’t talk of losses, it often is because they have forgotten them – until the time comes that they are so big that they can’t be ignored, and so they keep playing thinking this session they’ll be one of the 30 per cent, not realising they’re already in the 99 per cent losers category. (And remember we;re not talking the horses where you can study the form guide and make an educated bet – this is you against mathematics – the machines are programmed to win)

Reading the submissions from clubs into the Parliamentary Inquiry into pre-commitments scheme is like going back in time and hearing the protestations from tobacco companies when they were being banned from sponsoring sports. All the talk is of the valuable input into the community and into sport that the revenue from the clubs provides. For example the submission from Clubs WA which is the only state not to have poker machines in clubs complains about that fact:

"Western Australian clubs are smaller and have much lower revenue and smaller capital expenditure, employ fewer people, are able to donate less to charity and sport groups, provide more limited services, and have a smaller economic presence and contribution. A stronger club industry in Western Australia would bring benefits to all. It would increase club viability and expand the benefits they could provide to their communities."

I love how there is all this talk of more revenue but with bugger all acknowledgement of what that means – it means people are losing money. The Commission also found that the people contributing to this lovely revenue are not all just having a “flutter”:
About 4 per cent of adults play gaming machines weekly or more often. Around 15 per cent of this group would be classified as problem gamblers, with around an additional 15 per cent experiencing moderate risks. And their share of total spending on machines is estimated to range around 40 per cent.
So how good is it to know that 40 per cent of any so called “benefits” of sporting equipment etc comes from people addicted to gambling?

The Productivity Commission also looked at these societal benefit claims as well, and found they were all a bit rubbery. Take sport. The PC found there was no correlation between number of poker machines and kids playing sport:


WA had more kids as a percentage playing sport than either NSW or QLD – the two states with the longest and deepest pokies and clubs cultures. The commission also found that the bigger the club was in terms of poker machines, the less money as a share of revenue was spent on sporting facilities – ie more pokies did not lead to better facilities:


The Productivity Commission also found that the talk of employment was pretty iffy as well – because the assertion by the clubs implied that the people employed there would not be able to find other work. It found

Many people are employed in the gambling industry. However, most are highly employable and would be in demand in other parts of the service sector were the gambling industry to contract. In that sense, the gambling industries do not create net employment benefits, because they divert employment from one part of the economy to another.
But the Productivity Commission then did the figures and found this surprising statistic:
While it is not possible to be definitive about the costs and benefits of gambling, the Commission estimates that in 2008-09:
  • the benefits from tax revenue and enjoyment of gambling for recreational gamblers ranged between $12.1 and $15.8 billion
  • the costs to problem gamblers ranged between $4.7 and $8.4 billion
  • the overall net benefits ranged between $3.7 and $11.1 billion.
So it seems all is good then – there are costs to gambling, but the benefits outweigh it? No need to do anything? Well yes, except straight afterward the Commission includes this very telling point:
The net benefits could be much larger if governments reduced the costs through effective prevention and harm minimisation policies.
And what do they consider to be the best harm minimisation policy? Well there are many – but the key one for poker machines was this:
Each state and territory government should implement a jurisdictionally-based full pre-commitment system for gaming machines by 2016, subject to initial development (recommendation 19.1), trialling (recommendation 19.2) and compatible monitoring systems (recommendation 10.6). This system should:
  • provide a means by which players could voluntarily set personally-defined precommitments and, at a minimum, a spending limit, without subsequently being
    able to revoke these in the set period
  • allow players to see their transaction history
  • encourage gamblers to play within safe spending and time limits, by specifying default limits
  • include the option for gamblers to set no limit on their spending as one of the system options, but with periodic checking that this remains their preference
  • allow occasional gamblers to stake small amounts outside the system
  • include measures to avoid identity fraud
  • ensure players’ privacy
  • be simple for gamblers to understand and use
  • present few obstacles to future innovation in the presentation and design of the system
  • apply to all gaming machines in all venues in a jurisdiction, with an exemption until 2018 for venues with less than ten machines that also face significant implementation costs relative to revenue.
This is what Wilkie wants – note a few key things – “allow occasional gamblers to stake small amounts outside the system”. So no, it is not a licence to gamble. Is this an infringement on liberty? Pfft. No more than my having to show ID when I buy the pseudoephedrine cold and flu tablets at the chemist. Does it stop me buying them? Nope.

Let’s cut the crap about “nanny state”. You like betting on the horses? Nothing will change. You like playing blackjack? Nothing will change. You like betting on the AFL? Nothing will change. You like playing the pokies. Well you would need to get a card and set a limit on how much you will lose. The big thing – you choose. Here’s what Xenophon says:
Mandatory pre-commitment allows gamblers playing these high intensity machines to choose what they are willing to lose before they start using the machines. It will be a national system to protect all Australians who may become addicted to poker machines.
So people choosing for themselves how much they are prepared to lose is a restriction on people's rights?
Please. Imagine if say you had a credit card where you were able to set how much you could borrow against it, would you consider that an infringement on your rights? Of course not, because we all have that right now. My wife and I constantly get letters from our bank telling us we can increase our limit, but we don’t because we are happy with what we have – it protects us – it forces us if we want to use more credit to transfer real money into our credit card account.

The Clubs Association in response to the Wilkie-Xenophon reforms have gone absolutely ape-shit. And started an advert campaign including this absolutely stupid ad:

First off, who the hell do the Clubs think are their members? If this advert is anything to go by they think they are all Neanderthal dopes whose parents are supremely glad they learned to walk upright.

Need a licence to bet $10?  Nope. Government tracking you? Nope. (But don’t worry, the clubs will but think of it a frequent flyer points, remember). And as for the Government telling you how many beers you can have? Well they do already – unless you haven’t noticed all the signs in pubs saying they can’t serve people who are intoxicated. In SA for eg:
It is an offence to serve liquor to a person whose speech, balance, coordination or behaviour is noticeably impaired and it is reasonable to believe that the impairment is the result of the consumption of liquor.
So yep the law already says how many beers you can be served. And then there’s the sporting grounds who don’t allow you to bring beers into the ground etc etc, so let’s not carry on like the world is a total beer free-for-all.

Sure my views on gambling are biased from my time being part of the problem, but the Productivity Commission is not generally known as a cuddly, basket weaving won’t somebody think of the children type organisation. I would be against the Government setting limits on losses – but we’re not there – as Xenophon above points out.

Gambling is already restricted to those over 18 – you think that might give away the fact it has some negative impacts – so let’s not pretend that we can come out of the womb and start playing the pokies.

These new laws aren’t about stopping your fun, they’re about helping those for whom it is no longer fun, and they no longer can stop. And what the clubs want you to forget is that 40 per cent of their revenue is from these people. I don’t think Governments need to always tell us what to do (but I have no problems with say seat belt laws or road speeds) but Governments should help the helpless.

Problem gamblers need help, if that means you have to get a card before you go blow $200 on the pokies? Big deal.


thirdborn said...

Well done Grog, you're the first person to explain this properly such that I now understand it. I can't see the clubs getting any popular support behind them.

jez said...

Thank you Greg - an incisive, cogent and searing analysis. I shall send the PM a link.

Anonymous said...

Has it been proposed how people will set the limit and who would issue the "licence"? Can the limit set then be altered?

wobblyboot said...

I wish I could be optimistic that this will have no influence on govt policy but after the mining tax campaign I'm not so sure.
With a little reinforcement from 2GB et al. this will be presented as a liberty issue rather than social policy. Many will follow that line simply because it fits their anti labor sentiment, without considering the obvious benefits for their fellow Australians.

RosE said...

thank you - your blogs always contain so much sense!

paddy said...

Definitely one of your best and most useful posts for a while Greg.
Pieces like this really do help to cut through the industry crap.
Especially when written by someone who's worked on the dark side of the fence and seen the damage first hand.
Hope it gets plenty of airplay.

john b said...

Great post.

But I don't understand how "allow occasional gamblers to stake small amounts outside the system" is possible within the framework that would be required to have a precommitment system. Because if Bob Jones from out of town can stick $5 on the pokies without a card, then Dan Smith the problem gambler can do the same thing.

Unless we're saying that Bob Jones has to play the Tab or the Keno and not the pokies, in which case fine, and I agree with the policy, but it does still mean that a "licence" is required for pokies players...

Meg Thornton said...

A small side note regarding the whole "pokies in clubs in WA" thing.

There are a few key factors here. Firstly, most of WA's population (and thus the majority of Western Australian gamblers) lives in the Perth metro area. Perth, coincidentally, just happens to be the home of the only casino in the state (at Burswood, easily reachable via train, bus and private transport). The Burswood casino has pokies, as well as all the other standard casino games.

Having lived over east (in Canbrrra) for a while, I can say there is a WA alternative to the bustling club culture of NSW and the ACT - over here, it's the pubs. Hotels here sell food and drink, as well as alcohol, and there's often live music as well. Quite often, there's a TAB agency in the bar as well (so you can get your bets in on the gee-gees and the footy while you wait for your beer).

Chase Stevens said...

Once problem Gamblers reach their pre-commitment limit aren't they just going to substitute the pokies for another form of gambling?

I hope they don't because I would really like a pre-commitment to work. It sounds like an excellent idea, but that substitution is what worries me.

Casablanca said...

A timely and informative piece Grog. A comment following an SMH article by Phillip Coorey is also of interest and worth repeating here. The commenter stated that s/he used to work in Engineering Research and Development in Australia’s biggest poker machine manufacturer.

“All poker machines built in Australia in the past 10 years have a player tracking facility already built in to allow for bonus points, house prizes, linked super jackpots etc. all the punter has to do is swipe their club membership draw in the machine to go into the entry to win the major draw. It is also in the machines in the pubs as well.
A minor tweak of the software would allow the cards to be issued free of charge at every venue so as to activate the machine to play it.

People accept that when they get a credit card, it comes with a predetermined limit on it. When a patron of the club or pub goes into play the pokies, their card will have a designated limit on it, once used, it can't be recharged for 24 hours. Make the maximum limit $100.00 in a 24 hour period.

The most a person could lose in a week would be $700. The problem is that the Clubs, pubs and state governments are addicted to the revenue of the income of the pokies as much as the people who are addicted to playing every dollar they can beg borrow or steal to put into them.

The other thing that needs to change is to start removing the complexity of the multi-line, multi-mode machines as not even those that created them can explain the winning combinations properly...”.


Lloyd said...

Have a feeling this one will come back to bite O'Farrell and Clubs Australia. Community sentiment might not be as easily manipulated as they think. The campaign is SUCH an obvious lie I think public opinion for once will come down firmly onside with Wilkie and the Government.

Anonymous said...

Was married to a person who was addicted to the pokies, and I had no idea just how much money he was 'donating' to the local clubs as he looked after the finances. It wasn't until we split up and I, as a single Mum on single parent benefits, suddenly had more money than I ever had before. I think of all the wasted opportunity, the 12 years where not a cent was saved, where we lived in a stinking little flat, lived on two minute noodles and weetbix and often had the phone and electricity cut off for lack of payment, when in reality we had perfectly adequate income for a modest lifestyle *had it not been for the pokies*.

He excelled at hiding his addiction, and had any number of excuses as to why we had no money (and I believed him for 11 of our 12 years). Would these proposed new restrictions have stopped him gambling. No, not at all, he was (and still is) an addict. But is there a possibility that his addiction would not have had such an impact on our lives? Yes. and as such, I support them fully.

If it saves one other family from going what I went through, then please, bring them in.

Rachel said...

I can tell you from personal experience, no I wouldn't replace pokies with an alternative form of betting. This is needed, and it's needed now.

Anonymous said...

Musician mate has made a comment that it'll be interesting to see if restrictions on pokie 'entertainment' in pubs will mean a return of the pub live music scene us older people recall. We then got into a discussion about whether the pubs could afford to employ the bands after losing the income.
This got me thinking about a secondary 'benefit' from this legislation. It's largely acknowledged that there's a drinking culture problem in some areas of the country, not least exacerbated by an oversupply of venue licenses. Maybe, just maybe, there'll be a side effect of reducing the number of licensed venues - something the Federal Health department probably wouldn't argue against, whilst never ever really having the constitutional power to be able to do so. If you get my drift.
Just a random thought.

Anonymous said...

The Clubs industry and the people behind it are pond scum.

Back when pokies first came in to being in South Australia, I lived in a pub that brought them in; I saw at first hand the damage they did to the seniors who get hooked on them.

Dong said...

Thanks for a clear explanation Grog.
I was thinking about licences. We need one for a car becuse it is dangerous to ourselves and others to drive without prior instruction. We need one for a gun similarly, and we need one to work in certain trades because of harm we can do to others. Gambling can let off steam, entertain or fill in time but the danger of doing harm to others is incredibly high. And it is not just those who know the gambler who suffer. Society as a whole has to pick up the tab. Society has to care for those families devastated, those businesses that fail and those people whose health fails because of the gambling.
Society has to set limits on things that will damage the society, we do it all the time.

FQ said...

I agree with Rachel. I teetered on the edge with these things for a while. I sat in front of them and with every hit told myself I was crazy but kept going.

It's pretty simple. Just look at all the good the clubs do and ask if the ends justify the means.

I don't want my kids footy club given new jersey's at the expense of some poor bugger with a family losing his house.

BigBob said...


Pre-committment for pokies works on the fact that pokies are well and truly the fastest method of stripping money from gamblers.

The problem gamblers may well move off to other means, but as Grog shows above, the speed at which they lose is much reduced. As such, their total losses should be well down on where they are now.

BigBob said...

I remember seeing research that shows the biochemistry of gambling addiction is not related to winning but to losing.

It's one of the reasons that gambling is such a pernicious addiction.

Way2fargone said...

The psychological manipulation techniques built into the programming of these machines are designed to reinforce the gambling behaviour. People are sitting at a computer designed to turn them into addicts.
For anyone interested, I am referring to Classical Conditioning and Operant Conditioning.

These are the same techniques used to train performing dolphins and with which I trained my dogs to evacuate from the house when the smoke alarm is triggered.

It works fantastically well. When I burn the toast, the dogs are out the doggy-doors in 2 seconds.

Casinos even admit to it.

Anonymous said...

great post Grog,

Having a bit of experience in the industry myself (5 yrs as a regulator in the 80's & 90's) I can relate to many of your observations.

During those years I witnessed the advance of gaming machines into the pub & club environment within the jurisdiction that I worked.

It was like watching the spread of a foul, corrupting disease. In fact it was one of the reasons I left the industry.

Good luck to the government, Sen X and Mr Wilkie in their endeavours to bring some control into the industry, they should be aware though that behind all this noise from the AHA and Club associations are the big players who make and distribute the machines.

Way2fargone said...

This is a layman's guess, but what you are referring to in the brain chemistry, is probably a reaction when a person (or animal) has a pleasant reward not only removed, but replaced by an unpleasant sensation. (Negative reinforcement, or punishment.)

Winning is pleasure. Losing brings on unpleasant feelings, and even mental and physical distress. Addicts (and potential addicts) do not go from 'being a winner' to neutral, they become 'losers', a very emotionally negative and distressing state. They can even have physical reactions, like the lowering the pleasure-inducing chemicals in the brain. They can end up feeling stress-induced physical pain.

If pulling a lever gives you a chocolate and stopping pulling that lever showers yor groin with ice-water, you have an extra incentive to pull the lever.

Of course using negative reinforcement like that to train animals s not only cruel and illegal but can cause them to go insane. But it is OK for gambling venues to to do it to people, so it seems.

Anonymous said...

Grog, linke below is the most clear and insightful piece on pre-commitment that I have seen. Written by Mark Dickerson, the Father of pre-commitment in Australia, it's well worth a read by anyone interested in the matter.


Mark should get a lot of the kudos for whatever pre-commitment mechanism is ultimately introduced (if done properly).


Caesar Wong said...

Would it be reasonable to make Pokies so that instead of betting real money you have to buy tokens, like the old Arcade Games? That way you are forced to consider your spending at the time you purchase your tokens. After all, don't we use chips for table gambling? (Or am I really out of touch?)

drillvoice said...

Arggh I have seen the ads and been appalled. As you say, the simple reality is that 40% of the funds come from problem gamblers. Sure it's great to have facilities and employment, but not on the back of addiction.

aidan said...

Been to a casino (Canberra) once. Was quite expecting to lose my money on the blackjack table, but wasn't expecting how quickly it would go. I pulled out $20 (this was 1994!) and it took 20 mins for it to go. Thought, "bugger that, bit too quick", so got another $20 out. That lasted 10 mins.

Lesson learnt. Stayed for another 2 hours while my flatmate made $150 from his $20 stake, didn't gamble any more and have never been back.

I guess I am one of the lucky ones eh?

obakesan said...

well done, well researched. Have you looked into what some of the Scandinavian countries do to track gambling? PAF for instance have government responsibilities to track and assist rehabilitation of problem gamblers. I've had some exposure to their software systems for doing this too.

Anonymous said...

Is it not that any gambler, including problem gamblers, can set their limit to 'no limit'?
What's the point? To give people a choice?

Marek said...

$1200 an hour! You can nearly go and party like Charlie Sheen for that kind of cash!

Interesting to see craps in one of the graphs. It was traditionally one of the high volume games that casinos used to love. Now there are only 2 tables in the whole country

Anonymous said...

The ads are so bad one can only conclude that Singo's trying to bring down the campaign from within.

PinkyOz said...

Grog, I love this piece, it's insightful and thoughtful. Thanks for taking the time to write it.

I must admit, I love games. All types of games (board, card, computer etc) and even know I love to play casino games, I am aware of my odds of winning and go in with a budget, it's the only way to work, because you will sink to fast (As you described).

To be honest, I don't play very often, just for the reasons you mentioned. It should be fun, and after watching too many walk out of casinos with an unsteady financial future it's not nearly as much fun as it should be. And poker machines? don't get me started, they are barely games at all.

I would support any reform that makes games fun. Including everything that has been mentioned, and quite possibly more. Here is hoping that for once someone has the spine and drive to see it through

kazann said...

Some time ago I received a call from a distressed friend. She had just stopped in at the local pub to put twenty dollars through the poker machines. An hour and a bit later she left and when she checked her bank balance discovered she had spent closer to $300. Her husband is a well known tight wad and she was in a frantic state as this wasn't the first wad of cash she had blow since he had gone. We talked about her families love affair with poker machines and I suggested that maybe it was time to seek some help. She did and hasn't gone near a poker machine since. It took her about five years just to enter a club or pub again, such was her fear of relapse. Her family thinks there was nothing wrong with her little flutter and somehow hold her husband responsible for her, they perceive, over reaction to gambing away her money. Such is the depth of their denial. They used to tell me how much they had won but got sick of me asking how much they had lost between this win and the last. This problem, like alcohol, seems to run in families. I grew up watching my relatives drink and gamble their money away always seeking help to pay their bills from my non gambling father. The Whitlams had the right idea "Blow up the Pokies".

Venise Alstergren said...

What a masterful precis on the gambling industry. Specifically the Pokie Machine owners and franchisees.

Why is it the much bleated about by the gambling hierarchy-the low income earner and his right to blow all his money, is incapable of understanding W H Y they are losers?

If one was to take these same half-wits into a public lavatory and order them to stand by the nearest cistern while tearing up folding money and flushing it down the system, they would be outraged.
Why can't they realise this is exactly what the machines are doing?

Anonymous said...

As a pokies addict of 5 years I really hope this comes in. It will be of great benefit. I became hooked on the pokies not long after turning 18. At first it wasn't so bad; I got some high destinctions at uni, performed to high acclaim in amateur theatre groups, had a job and plenty of friends. There were no obvious traumas in my life. But it steadily took over my life and all those things fell by the wayside. I dropped out of uni, became isolated and unemployed. No money saved and nothing achieved in all these years. still living at home at 23.

I'd like to correct some mis-conceptions/ challenge some stereotypes:
* Most addicts understand we can't win. We know the statistics and I for one understand the gamblers fallacy.
* I have never stolen anything to feed this habit. I ransacked my mum's room looking for my money she was keeping safe from me and obligations such as birthday presents have not been met, but never any theft.
* At GA there are a few exceptions but from my experience and what I've seen of others GAMBLERS KNOW THEY HAVE A PROBLEM AND WANT TO QUIT. I knew very early on that there was a problem and I've been trying to quit ever since, never any denial. If this technology can get me off the machines then ill set the limit at zero. I've been banned from fourty pubs (the maximum aloud) but I currently just go further afield to get to a pub.
*The crack-cocaine versus marijuana analogy is an apt one. I have never had a problem with any other form of gambling. According to my councillor only one of the countless gamblers she had treated over the years had a problem with another format and even he/she primarily used the pokies.

Government/Business I say to you: Please don't blame the victim. Don't use "personal responsibility" (sic) to wash your hands of responsibility. This epidemic is the result of the system.

Wilkie, you are a champ! Your unlikely election coupled with the unlikely hung-parliament has been great for democracy in this country.

Anonymous said...

I also worked casually on a gaming floor once but now I've got 23 years of employment in NSW clubs. One of the key differences is that the PC recommended a jurisdictionally-based full pre-commitment system NOT a national system. A big difference. Each state/territory operates and monitors machines differently and this is one of the reasons for disagreement. It’s not as simple as you say, big deal get a card.

In NSW it's a significant technological change and to retrofit an existing machine ($3K +) or an older machine would need replacing ($20-25K).

Another key difference is that clubs support a voluntary, affordable venue based pre commitment scheme and argue why you need a mandatory program for 100% of players when problem gamblers represent less than 1% generally & problem gambling prevalence rates are already falling.

We’ve had responsible gaming legislation since 2001. Personally I've spoken directly to problem gamblers alone, with their partners and with families of problem gamblers. We direct people to counsellors, execute self exclusion deeds and genuinely seek to help. No system is perfect and self exclusion alone won’t solve problem gambling. Education and professional assistance are the drivers for long term solutions.

In NSW, problem gambling rates halved from 0.8% 2006 to 0.4% 2008 (NSW Population Health Survey). Calls to G-line, the Govt help line for gambling, fell from 12,300 in 2002, to 6,100 in 2009, despite substantial marketing of the service, including in venues.

The Qld Govt conducted four surveys over seven years from 2001, and found a systematic decline in adult prevalence rates, from 0.83% to 0.37%.

In Norway, they removed all poker machines in 2008. In Nov 2008, SINTEF (Scandinavia’s largest independent research org0 found no change in the proportion of problem gamblers in 2008 compared to 2007, despite all poker machines being removed. It found problem gamblers switched from poker machines to internet gambling when the machines were removed.

A leading academic on problem gambling, Professor Alex Blaszczynski, advised the Parliamentary Committee (chaired by Mr Wilkie) "that pre-commitment is unlikely to have a significant impact on the majority of problem gamblers, and may even exacerbate problem gambling.”

So despite evidence of problem gambling rates falling, examples where problem gamblers 'move' to alternatives and independent academics querying the program, Wilkie will not budge & consider that he may destroy an industry & NOT get the most important outcome, helping problem gamblers.

My club will barely afford the implementation costs and if we did we’d last perhaps 2 years at the estimated revenue drop. No doubt many would say ‘who cares’ but let me give some final comments about my regional club.

Gaming is 64% of our income, food 18%, beverage 11%, 7% other. Aside from gaming, we have members/visitors who rarely or never play pokies attending our club for 1 of 12 intra club sports/activities, dining, entertainment or functions. Weekly, 750 people attend meetings of a non profit/charity (Rotary, Lions, Probus etc) who enjoy either free or heavily subsidised room hire. The computer club, run by volunteers has trained 1,000 people (mostly seniors) in 3yrs at less than $4 per lesson.

When our local Vietnam Veterans club lost the venue that hosted their annual Long Tan Day service we built a garden and memorial and every year host the service and provide a luncheon afterward (we are not an RSL club). My staff created a benevolent fund where weekly payroll donations are used to help other staff in need or community groups.

Yes we have pokies and yes we’re not perfect. But we are not industry scum, I am not a fat cat manager and my staff are decent people. We are a community club.

Many people would be sad to see us disappear. If Andrew Wilkie thinks mandatory pre commitment is the silver bullet and is prepared to see an industry decimated I guess he and I will be looking for a new job in years to come.

Steve Pratt said...

Nothing to add to this excellent piece, except...I am glad I live in Western Australia.

Anonymous said...

I'm delighted to see your piece appear on the Drum. It's such an insightful analysis of the problem that it deserves the widest possible circulation. Well done!

Anonymous said...

As someone who's worked at the Adelaide Casino, I fully agree with you Grog. Staff used to joke that the Thursday when pensioner's got their pay would be the busiest day shift of the fortnight. It's depressing watching people in their 60's and 70's piss away their money on a hopeless dream.

Greg Jericho said...

Marek - your point about the lack of Craps tables in Australia is quite interesting.

The area few reasons why there aren't more.

The first is labour - it takes 3 staff to deal the game - far too many, when blackjack et al needs only 1 (and pokies none at all - or one per 30 odd)

Secondly the House advantage is too short - about 0.6% - less then blackjack. So more staff for less return.

Thirdly, it is complicated and hard to deal - so many Aussies don't play it (it's not in our culture like it is for the Americans) - and also it means you need very good dealers to deal the game. The old saying is there is no such thing as a bad Craps dealer, because bad dealers don't get to deal Craps.

I would have loved to deal Craps - it is a game where the dealers actually have to think - most of the Casino games are constructed so dealer have to do as little thinking as possible!


Anon - yep pension day was always busy. What made it worse was when special deals would be organised for Thursday's. What a coincidence...

Tim Byron said...


Not sure if I can do links in comments? Anyway, someone in the comments mentioned being curious about how gambling affected the brain. So: the above article is by science writer Jonah Lehrer, about how gambling affects the brain. It seems as if, for gamblers, a near miss - e.g., the pokies come close to giving you a payout - leads to almost as much activation in the brain's reward centres as actually winning.

Sonia said...

I have spent my adult life working in a courthouse. There is nothing more depressing than watching some middle aged woman sent to gaol for ripping off her employer to fuel pokie addiction. No record, good family support but just some insidious habit that ruins their life.
I also lived with a poker machine addict for several years. I didnt kow it at the time but I always suspected there was something as she was always broke. Then came the borrowong money from her friends/family and then finally the stealing. We managed to pull her out of it for a time but I fear she has been sucked back in. The lure is too strong and her will to weak. Bring on pokie reform

Andrew Elder said...

One of the great blog posts, well done.

protoplasmtango said...

And let's not forget the horrible instances of kids who've, well, basically, boiled to death in the car while their parent ducked in to play the pokies for a few minutes and emerged hours later to find a tiny corpse.
I think that says all that needs to be said about the insidious addictiveness of these vile machines.
You can bet your bottom dollar (she said, wryly) that these parents loved their kids and didn't intend to kill them, but they were lulled into some twilight state where nothing else mattered. Or even existed. Jesus god.

Pauline Gambley said...

Excellent post Greg

Anonymous said...

I'd just say that taking the nice couples only $50 was probably the best thing you could have done form them in the long run!

Anonymous said...

My bad, you took all their $200, let it be a lesson!

Anonymous said...

My concern is that the government will contrive to sell this as badly as the CPRS, the insulation scheme...

Shockadelic said...

Strange how restrictions on liberty are always called "reform".
Ooh, reform, that's sounds good.

If the limit is voluntary what makes you think an addict will bother setting one?

Our freedom is being taken inch by inch, and always in the name of "helping solve some problem".
So because less than 1% of the population are gambling addicts (exactly how many of that are pokie addicts?) *everyone* has to be subjected to even more regulatory rigmarole.

You think they'll stop with pokies?
Next it'll be TAB cards, Lotto cards, Alcolhol cards, Tobacco cards, Confectionary cards. All with limits.

And the limits will be voluntary *at first*.
But that just doesn't "solve the problem", dammit.
So we'll make them compulsory.

Totalitarianism: It won't happen overnight. But it will happen.

Anonymous said...

OK Grog or Greg or whoever how many of you there are, I would seriously consider that your best post ever.
You taught me something and as much as I didn't like pokies I like them even less now.


L said...

Sorry Shockadelic, but you're no Rachel Hunter.

Doug said...

Bingo, Grog - I think you hit the jackpot with this one. You are right on the money.
@ Shockadelic - I hope you were just as incensed and moved to express your indignation when we were lied to about Iraq. I hope you were really pissed off that the mining companies shelled out $20 million to con our fellow taxpaying Australians about the unfairness of mining companies paying tax. I hope you are disgusted at the intrusion of the privacy of possibly hundreds of people by News Ltd's hacking into their mobile phones.
Events such as these are worth getting really worked up about. Requiring people to nominate how much they plan to lose on the pokies in a gambling session is hardly a serious infringement of peoples' rights. They are not being prevented from gambling, just required to recognise how much they are prepared to lose.

Anonymous said...

Ha ha ha - Shockadelic. Very funny. Would you like a cup of tea for your party?

Club Manager said...

Wilkie’s Law to implement mandatory pre-commitment uniform across all states and territories by 2014 is NOT what the Productivity Commission recommended.

As Greg noted, the Commission ‘recommends a staged approach of partial pre-commitment introduced in jurisdictions with compatible monitoring systems, while ensuring that the systems underlying this are compatible with the later adoption of full pre-commitment in 2016. A trial of a full pre-commitment system with the design features should be conducted’.

Under Wilkie’s Law there are no trials to test the design features for modifications nor as the PC suggests, ‘substantiation that full pre-commitment has sufficient advantages over partial pre-commitment to justify proceeding with its implementation in all jurisdictions’.

If it’s as easy as getting a card to gamble as suggested, anyone remember Victoria’s myki ticket system? In 2005, then Victorian premier Steve Bracks announced that the myki ticketing system for all Victorian public transport would be fully operational by 2007. The myki ticketing system was to replace Metcards & paper tickets for 1,700 metropolitan buses, 350 trains, 500 trams, regulated in one jurisdiction and to cover the approximate 1 million trips made on Melbourne’s public transport system daily.

By comparison, it is estimated there are at least 650 million transactions each day on poker machines nationwide. There are 197,000 machines in 5,700 venues, with at least 15 existing systems operators, with 9 operating protocols, in 8 jurisdictions. In one year, around 5 million Australians will play a poker machine at least once, each requiring a smart card or similar device. Who pays for the software/hardware changes? And of course, a myki card that has reached its limit does not have to cause a bus to shut down.

For myki, more than five years and $700 million later: ‘Obviously it's been a disaster in the terms of the cost to taxpayers and its failure to roll out successfully... The bottom line is myki's been a financial disaster, it's been a functional disaster, there are serious questions about the Farebox, about the hand-held devices, about the functions available and indeed about its distribution and the take-up from commuters.’ Victorian Premier Ted Baillieu, Herald Sun, 28 December 2010

Clubs & Pubs SUPPORT partial pre commitment on a venue by venue, jurisdictional basis.

Darren said...

In Syndey there is a club the Rooty Hill RSL, spending millions of dollars for it's own postcode. A stupid idea in it's own right, but guess who pays for these ads? that's right the pokies and gamblers, that 40% in other words.

I also work with abused kids, where you can see some of the neglect issues come from not only the normal drugs adn booze, but gambling which can be associated with drugs and alcohol. Look at how many people gamble with booze int heir hand, and all you have to do is press a button for more. Alcohol causes one to lose judgement, loss of judgement + pokies = very happy clubs.

As far as I'm concerned clubs and their pokies can go f**k themselves. Sorry about the explitive, but I'm sick of their BS campaign and that idiot Abbott siding with them.

Anonymous said...

Congratulations on a superb post. Very enlightening. Perhaps because it justifies my prejudice!
I don't use pokies or other forms of gambling, but I volunteer to pick up some of the pieces by working with Vinnies. Ban poker machines and we would have our workload drop by 30% immediately.
It'salways the kids and innocent spouse that bears the real brunt of poker machine addiction.

Anonymous said...

I read this piece at The Drum Greg and commented there. Impressive. For the nay sayers @Shockadelic I have personally known someone whose addiction has shattered his life. He, in the end, had to leave the country to conquer it. If the limits work many people will be better off.

Shockadelic whilst I understand that you are 'concerned' about liberties being eroded I also think your response to be ill informed and niave. Limits are not a bad thing for anyone for any leisure pastime because for many, and this is the intended goal for clubs and the poker machine producers, it ceases to become a pastime it invades their lives totally. Knowing what I know about poker machines and their users over many years I laugh about the statistics being used to define how many addicts there are. It's totally one of the biggest under estimates I have ever read.

The bastard clubs have literally been laughing all the way to the bank. I despise how they trot out that they do so much for the community. Football clubs in particular are pariahs on society. They pay outrageous salaries to administrators and obscene pay cheques to players. Where do they get the money - I wonder!

Anonymous said...

Packer sends buses to pick up people out west of Sydney to come to his casino. Mainly pensioners. Eastern Suburbs Leagues Club picked up on this idea and does the same with a mini van.

I made mention in my other post here just now about pariah football clubs this transport freebie is the ultimate in engineering social degradation and their absolute denial of how much they contribute to constant grieve for families in this country sickens me to my stomach. Yes I have known suicides and I concur with another commentator here who works with children the victims of this addiction limits set do have the distinct promise of having a massive impact for the better on every charity working with broken lives. You see, its not only Australians getting addicted its tourists yep they are amazed at how many there are and I have also known some tourists getting badly addicted. Australia as a free service to visitors when they leave the country should offer a debriefing session to help with the withdrawals. Kudos to Wilkie and Xenophon for their committment.

Bellistner said...

Fantastic post, Grog. It would certainly be interesting to get the word out about just who is behind the advertising campain. Colesworth own something like 50,000 machines, don't they?

As an aside, never before has a Life with Rippy comic (http://www.rhymes-with-witch.com/lwr12282006.shtml) been more appropriate, as well as the next comic, which introduces the Misery Monkey (http://www.rhymes-with-witch.com/lwr12292006.shtml).

Cullen Habel said...

Best thing you've ever written, Grog

Marianne said...

This is a powerful and (to the daughter of a compulsive gambler) very moving piece. Brilliantly argued.

emjar said...

Thankyou.A well written and timely piece. I live in an area where $17,000,000 was put through the pokies a couple of years ago and no doubt that $ value has kept rising. No one in the community was really aware of this figure and those who did know didn't seem to think it was an issue. At the same time a non government welfare agency in the area was being "funded" a pittance of that amount to offer welfare support and counselling to addicts and their families.Not much reflection is given to where the profit from gambling on the pokies comes from(mostly from the addicted who by the very nature of that addiction are amongst our most disadvantaged).Once again the non governments who operate on the smell of an oily rag are left to pick up the pieces.I think that one of the issues about any addiction is that most of the community don't really understand the nature of what and how this works for the addict. It's not just a question of will and self control. Addicts don't wake up one morning and say "Guess what??I'm going to become a gambler today-it's going to be so fun!!" This is an issue of social justice-not social liberty.We need to be thinking about the victims of this community sanctioned "game"-the addicts and also ther families.

wilful said...

I've got a solution (well, the Whitlams did): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ogj5ztTE0zw

tortfeaser said...

Great work Greg. Tight analysis wrapped in heart. I'd recant every moan I ever had about Wilkie if he can make it fly. Tony Windsor needs to grow a spine and do the (obviously) right thing.

Simbera said...

I don't know if other states have similar programs or not but in Victoria we have Self-Exclusion Programs whereby people can sign legal documents to ban themselves from the gaming areas of clubs, so they're not tempted.

While this has probably helped a lot, it doesn't seem to have come close to solving the problem. So why are we so sure that further voluntary systems will? Your credit card analogy is all well and good for people who have some self-control, but by definition, compulsive gamblers don't.

If the government imposes limits, it might get the job done. But if it's left up to gamblers, I don't see how this voluntary system will be much more effective than the current one.

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

Professor Alex Blaszczynski (University of Sydney), a member of the Ministerial Expert Advisory Council, co-authored a recent article “Gambling Motivations, Money-Limiting Strategies, and Pre-Commitment Preferences of Problem Gamblers Versus Non-Problem Gamblers.”
The article concludes:

[The] study is the first to explore gambling motivations in the context of pre-session monetary limit-setting strategies and attitudes toward pre-commitment as a means of limiting gambling expenditures.

An increasing number of manufacturers are marketing proprietary software and computer devices for pre-commitment without scientific evidence that such innovations will, in fact, decrease gambling expenditures among problem gamblers or arrest the progression toward problem gambling from those who are at low- to moderate-risk.

Results of the current study suggest that those most in need of limitsetting, problem gamblers, are the least likely to adopt the use of smart cards and other pre-commitment technologies and the most likely to find ways around limitations.

Anonymous said...

Wilkie’s agreement to implement mandatory pre-commitment uniform across all states and territories by 2014 is not what the Productivity Commission recommended.

The PC stated ‘in the next three years, partial pre-commitment should be introduced in jurisdictions with compatible monitoring systems, while ensuring that the systems underlying this are compatible with the later adoption of full pre-commitment.

So why no initial partial pre commitment (jurisdictionally based)?

Further, the PC said trialling should test the design features of full pre-commitment for possible modification and substantiate that full pre-commitment has sufficient advantages over partial pre commitment to justify proceeding with its implementation in all jurisdictions.

So why no testing and trialling?

Remember the Tcard fiasco in NSW? The myki saga in Victoria? The scale of national full pre commitment dwarfs both projects.

We’re talking about new technology on an untested system for 197,000 machines in 5,700 venues, with at least 15 existing systems operators, with 9 operating protocols, in 8 jurisdictions conducting an estimated 650 million transactions daily.

What chance of working first up?

What help will a dysfunctional system be to problem gamblers?

Shockadelic said...

Anonymous said "For the nay sayers @Shockadelic I have personally known someone whose addiction has shattered his life. He, in the end, had to leave the country to conquer it."

What, there's no pokies in other countries?
No matter where you go, there you are. The addiction is in *you*, not your environment.

"Shockadelic whilst I understand that you are 'concerned' about liberties being eroded I also think your response to be ill informed and niave."

Of course, you do.
The very idea of negative liberty is considered naive in these days of utopian progressivism.
Liberty just won't "solve the problems", dammit!

Doug said "Shockadelic - I hope you were just as incensed and moved to express your indignation when we were lied to about Iraq."

I despise fraud and dishonesty as much as bureaucracy.
Why do presume I wouldn't be?
I would have the same opinion, even if we weren't lied to about Iraq: we shouldn't be there, either way.

"I hope you were really pissed off that the mining companies shelled out $20 million to con our fellow taxpaying Australians about the unfairness of mining companies paying tax."

Not at all.
They can spend their money on anything they like.
And I oppose 'unfair' taxes myself.
Slugging one industry with taxation that doesn't apply to anyone else *is* unfair.

"disgusted at the intrusion of the privacy"


"Events such as these are worth getting really worked up about."

Don't compartmentalise.
Violations of liberty and trust are always wrong.
All wrong, all the time.

Totalitarianism starts with the 'little things' nobody will make a fuss about.
It doesn't end there.

Anonymous said...

Clubs NSW took down the ad from their youtube channel but you can see it here (warning: horrible)


James Abbott said...


As a Wrest Point croup for 10 years, your description of the ennui and tawdriness of fleecing the addicts (whether "problem" gamblers or not) is spot on. Probably 60% of my customers were "regulars". Some of them could afford their addiction, others.. not so much.

It was kind of sad for me too, not just the problem gamblers, but being surrounded by dealers who'd been at Wrest Point in the early days when it was glamorous and exciting (and comparatively well paid) - seeing the disappointment in their faces when describing how the industry had devolved to working as glorified human "pokie machines". Quite a few of my first inspectors had been there on opening night back in '74. Every few years, the tables section got a bit smaller, another game got closed down. I was one of the last at WP to learn to deal/box two-up.

And yes, I was an inhospitable prick of a dealer too, lol :-) Does this ring a bell? "Go on, smile, it's your job!"

Excellent post!


Anonymous said...

Have been on/off gambler at casino's most my life & although love good game of black jack I know damn well esp., these days, with the use of continuous shuffle machines that winning against such things is impossible and if only the average punter realized the impossibility.

Casino's and the like are just making a lot of misery for this country.
Nothing wrong with gambling its just the sheer claculation and odds the casino owners have at their disposal. How can these people getaway with highway robbery in a suppossed democracy??


Anonymous said...

Well written. I hope you have sent the URL to Wilkie and Xenophon.

Re the comment " The Burswood casino has pokies". No. The pokies in the Burswood casino are not like the pokies in the other states. Government law permits only older models that require two presses of the button -- you may know these as the gaming machines such as the draw poker or Keno variety where the user has to make some automous decision during the course of the game whereas the "pokies" in the other states are purely randomised games of chance with the rotating wheels. The former variety of "pokie" or EGM (electronic gaming machine) has a far slower turnover which means, in turn, slower losses.

The gaming industry not only destroys families, it does not really create meaningful employment, it actually cannibalises the workforce by creating McJobs; low-skilled, low paid jobs where the employer demands disproportionate loyalty from employees. I should know; during my undergrad years I was a casino dealer and a union delegate in a Brisbane casino.

Observer. (ex-dealer now public servant)

blackjack-jogar.com said...

This blackjack site, helps you to learn the rules of blackjack game quickly and you will soon be playing at a blackjack table in a casino online to earn money while having fun.

William said...

really nice,, very well researched..

IjustLiketo play said...

This is a load of bollocks.
Players should be aloud to spend there money on whatever they want. Who give you or anyone else the right to tell me where and what i spend my money on.
You live by you decisions, and if you decision is to blow all you money away then thats your fault.
This is political correctness yet again going tooooo far.
I bet this doesn't get past the author because you only want favorable comments on you page.

Greg Jericho said...

You lost your bet " IjustLiketo play". But then I guess you'd be used to that.