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IN THE EARLY 1970s I visited my first poker-machine venue – Australia’s first legal casino in Hobart. I watched a middle-aged woman sit in silence, feeding money to a pokies machine until she had none left. Then she stayed put, just staring at the machine. I vowed there and then I would never use them. I was certain that this form of addiction could never happen to me. Forty years later, however, I became a poker-machine addict. How did this happen?
I enjoy AFL football. This year, when my team was not playing on free-to-air TV, I went to the local pub to watch the game. Like many other pubs, they have poker machines. Out of boredom, during the half-time break, I started playing the pokies with the few coins in my pocket. I never imagined I could become one of those hypnotised people I’d seen, staring at rotating barrels on a screen, mindlessly pressing a button.
But then, like all players, I began to believe that every time I pressed that button I would have a big win, only to find out I had lost my money – again! So, I would win the next time… And I would lose again. Then I put more money in to chase the money I had lost. And I would lose again. I never seemed to worry about the amount I’d lost. Money ceased to be money; it was just something to gamble with. Surely, eventually, I’d have some good luck and get it all back. But I never did.
I played three lines simultaneously; each time I pressed the button it cost me $3. At first, I only used the coins I had with me. Later, when I ran out of coins, I started using small notes. Then bigger notes. Until I was only using fifties.
Having started by only playing during the half-time break in a footy game, I began betting during the quarter-time breaks also. Sometimes I kept playing even after the game restarted. Then I began to arrive early, to play the machines, and leave late. Early on, I had a few good wins: $200, $300, even $500. I also had a friend who often won big at the pokies. (Perhaps they simply never talked about their losses.)
I knew about machines being programmed to ensure players cannot win in the long-run. Yet I always hoped to repeat my early successes. That hope, plus the excitement of gambling, and greed, made me continue. It’s actually misleading to mention money I ‘won’, because all winnings eventually went back into the machines. One day, I put $26 into a machine and won $250. I kept playing. I lost that $250, plus another $200 trying to recoup my lost $250. In effect, I had ‘only’ lost $226, but to me it seemed like $476. And I was left with a numb, empty feeling.
Of people with serious gambling issues, as many as 80% have a problem with the pokies. They are mainly people trying to bet their way out of their economic circumstances, for the majority of machines are located in lower-income areas. State governments, through taxes, are reaping billions from these machines and do little to help those who become addicted. Governments jail dealers who traffic in drugs of addiction. But they support wealthy venue operators, whose poker machines are just another form of addiction and are just as destructive to communities as drugs and alcohol.
I watched an old-age pensioner recently tell his story on TV: he’d lost his life-savings of $200,000 on the pokies and now struggled to make ends meet. He’s not alone. Just recently, as I was going into a pokies venue, I met an elderly Italian man with a walking-stick coming out. As we passed each other he caught my eye, then pointed back inside the venue with his stick and said: “That’s a very bad place!” I said nothing, but nodded in agreement. Soon I wished I’d walked away with him, because I lost $250. I’m on the pension; I can’t afford to lose that sort of money so quickly.
When did I know that I really had a problem? Probably on a mid-week afternoon. There was no football on. I came out of the Post Office, across the road from the pub, and had to struggle to stop myself being dragged across the road, through the doors of the pub, and into the poker-machine room. I resisted, but was shocked to realise I had been sucked into a whirlpool of addiction. Yet I was still confident I could cope with this problem.
I’m an old seaman. In my youth, I played cards (poker, ironically) on the waterfront and all my mates claimed that I could eat a racehorse for breakfast. But I stopped betting on horses and playing cards for money in the mid-1970s. Now, my only racing bet is a once-a-year crack at the Melbourne Cup. And my only other regular form of gambling is a few Tatts tickets each week. But I suspect the gambling bug that had lain dormant inside me for many years must have woken with a start when it first heard the clink of my coins going into that poker machine.
I was in my bathroom recently and could hear music running through my head, the same music pokies play when anyone has a reasonable win. In bed at night before I went to sleep, and again when I woke in the morning, I would sometimes see images of winning poker-machine combinations. I try to block these images and convince myself I will never go near these cursed machines again. But then, once I’m up and about, I wonder how I can organise my day to get to a pokies venue without my partner knowing. I’ve always been truthful to my partner. Yet I tell myself I’m not lying; just bending the truth a bit by not telling her I have a problem.
I know about addiction. After all, I once succumbed to the disease rampant in the maritime industry: alcoholism. I managed to beat it. Then I found there’s not much difference between being a compulsive drinker and being hooked on pokies. To me, they are both diseases of the brain over which the victim has very little or no control. You can generally pick a drinker because of their smell and exaggerated behaviour. Victims of pokies are less obvious. They’re quieter, more secretive. But just as a boozer will find it hard to pass a pub, a pokies addict cannot walk past a venue if they have money in their pockets. A boozer has to put up with hangovers; pokies players lose their respect for money. I think they actually become scared of poker machines. I know I am. There is also a kind of shame about being weak and a poker-machine addict.
How will I know when (or if) I’ve beaten them? Maybe when I can have money in my pocket but not the urge to feed it into a machine. The last time I went to the pub to watch the footy, I resisted playing until after the end of the game. I won $37: net profit $17. Then I took off for home, scared I might want to play on. Perhaps I won’t really know if I’ve won my battle with the pokies until the footy season starts again next year. (Or should we get Foxtel at home?)
How did I put the brakes on my addiction? Mostly, by fighting to get control of my own brain. When I go down the street I now only take the amount of money I need for shopping, or a coffee, and leave the rest at home. When I’m walking or driving past a venue, I tell myself, “No. No. No.” If I go into a pokies venue my mantra becomes, “Stop. Stop. Stop.” Sometimes this works; sometimes it doesn’t. At other times, I test myself and taunt the devil by walking in and out of a venue without playing a machine. There are days, or nights, when the devil jumps on me for being so cheeky.
Writing this article has helped me become more rational and better understand this addiction. I hope so.
I know about the way machines are programmed to win, in time. And about the way machines keep letting people win small amounts: $3, $5. For players, these are little bonuses. They keep playing. These tiny ‘wins’ dispensed by machines benefit venue operators in another way: it’s like tossing burley into the water when you go fishing. It attracts the fish!
As venue operators do not put any money into the payouts, where do you think the $7000 jackpots come from? You don’t have to be a genius to work it out. It comes from the losses of players. Meanwhile, operators are assured of a constant profit.
You want to know the best and most enjoyable way to win on the pokies? Keep your money in your pocket and use it to buy your grandkids (or any kids) an ice-cream. (I know this, having 14 grandkids and 12 great-grandchildren.) The look on the children’s faces when they receive this gift will give you much more satisfaction than losing your money in an unwinnable battle against an unbeatable machine.
» *‘Ted Hall’, who has previously contributed to The Big Issue, is a pseudonym. He believes he has conquered his addiction, after losing about $6000 in six months. For help, call Gambler’s Help: 1800 858 855. There is also a youth line: 1800 262 376.
This article first appeared in Ed#498 of The Big Issue.