Exposing the cynical power of the pokies

September 22, 2018
'I make these machines in order to grab your money,' one machine technician said. 'I would not be so stupid to play myself.'

One Last Spin: The Power & Peril of the Pokies
Drew Rooke
Scribe, 2018, 325 pages

Ever wondered if it possible to win against the pokies? Why not ask someone who should know, like a poker machine technician.

“I make these machines in order to grab your money,” one such techie said when asked by freelance Sydney journalist, Drew Rooke. “I would not be so stupid to play myself.”

In his book, One Last Spin, Rooke expands on the simple truth that pokie machines are rigged to make you lose. They are deliberately engineered to hoover up the loose change from the pockets of casual punters and to deep-mine the bank accounts of the addicts. They are concentrated in the poorer suburbs, from whom the real pokies profits (40% of them) are made.

These jackpot junkies, the “problem gamblers”, have their lives shattered in the process.

A typical pokie machine can chew through $600 to $1200 of a person’s hard-earned every hour by dangling the shiny lure of the big payout, with just enough small wins and frequent near misses engineered into the machine’s program to keep the desperate glued to their seat.

The machines lie in wait in massed battalions. There are 193,000 pokies in Australia. Excluding the casino jurisdictions of Macau and Monaco, this is the highest per capita in the world.

Australia has achieved global leadership by allowing pokies to colonise much of the pub and club scene. Pokies are highly profitable for these community venues. Across the whole sector, pokies generate 28% of total revenue for pubs and 61% for clubs.

The upper reaches of the pokies industry also profit handsomely. Pokie machines creamed $40 million in profit in 2016 for the Sydney-based corporation Aristocrat Leisure, the second largest pokies manufacturer in the world.

Australia’s two supermarket giants know a solid income-stream when they see one. Woolworths is the majority owner of Australian Leisure and Hospitality Group, which owns 12,000 machines in 400 hotels and clubs. Coles’ parent company, Wesfarmers, owns 3000 pokies in 89 hotels.

To ensure the House always wins, pokie machine manufacturers employ vast teams of “mathematicians, software engineers, sound engineers, musicians, artists, graphic designers, industrial designers and animators” to keep their human cash cows engaged.

All the bells and whistles of the machines augment the activation-by-gambling reward centres in the brain in the same way that substance addiction does. Pokies addicts chase the next high from the “feel-good neurotransmitter”, dopamine.

The pokies industry covers itself with public relations spin every bit as cynically loaded as the spin of the machines’ reels. They acknowledge the issue of problem gamblers, but lay the blame on the individual as a matter of personal psychological flaws. They present the industry as an altruistic, community-minded provider of harmless entertainment, as well as essential financer of community sports, charities, schools and hospitals.

This camouflage is embroidered by two main auxiliaries -- the anti-nanny-state ninnies and the usual academics-for-hire, at a loose end now that partnership opportunities with Big Tobacco have been stubbed out, who produce industry-friendly research to lend some intellectual gloss to corporate self-interest.

The industry has its powerful state enablers, too. Despite strong public opposition to pokies (70-80% of those polled want restrictions on their use), state and federal governments adopt feather-touch regulation, unable even to broach a one-dollar maximum bet per spin.

Governments are content to merely require limp sloganising to “gamble responsibly” -- a term devised by the gambling industry precisely because it combines apparent concern with no challenge to the status quo.

The reason for government inaction is not hard to discern. Between 2000 and 2014, state governments received $45 billion in gambling taxes, a not insignificant average of 6% of total state government revenue. Crimp the industry’s profits and the political costs will be huge, including electoral campaigns against pokies-constraining candidates, and ending the flow of political donations to the big parties.

Rooke lays out a compelling case against pokies, but there is an even more damning writ to be served against gambling. For each poker machine, or lottery, or sports wager demonstrates that capitalism cannot provide an adequate income for all.

As with the pokies, so with capitalism -- the few win, the many lose. The only way to beat the pokies is not to play them. The only way to beat capitalism is to reject it.

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