This post is a follow up to this post about poker-machine themed smartphone games in the hands of children. I wanted to offer a more personal response to the issue of gambling and poker machines separate from my exploration of such apps.
Before I became a teacher, I worked for a Rugby-League Football League Club. I won’t say which one or where. For the majority of the 5 years that I worked at the club, I was assigned to work in the ‘gaming lounge’, the polite name for the poker machine room. The time I spent working there confirmed in my mind the absolute certainty that for some people gambling is a sickness, a mental health problem that holds them tightly in its grip, and that pubs, clubs and casinos across Australia target with a predatory efficiency.
There are some people for whom gambling is a casual activity, some for whom it is a social activity, but a significant number for whom it is a compulsion. There were people who came into the club almost every night of every week, often alone or possibly with an equally-addicted partner, and they would play the pokies with the specific and distinct goal of winning money. Often they would play with the distinct intention of winning money, betting as high and as frequently as they could afford. Many people would occupy multiple machines, slapping buttons rapidly and waiting for the sound of the jingle that meant they had scored a win. And sometimes disagreements would break out over ‘ownership’ of a particularly popular machine which was perceived to be ‘luckier’ than others.
The club I worked in employed a number of bonus systems that, like the poker machine apps discussed in my last post, gave people a sense of winning or achievement, even when they were losing large sums of money. I doubt any of these strategies were unique to the club I worked in. Strategies such as membership points that generated meat raffle tickets based on how much money you spent, bonus periods (like ‘happy hour’ at a bar) where a certain combination on the screen won you a $5 bonus (those periods were always frantic and required a large number of staff to handle effectively), and multi-machine jackpots that paid rare bonuses that climbed into the tens of thousands of dollars. Some of those bonuses were in-house, but the largest of them was connected to a state-wide network. One night, when the major jackpot was only a few cents away from it’s maximum possible payout figure, I watched three people desperately sink thousands of dollars into the machines hoping that they would recoup all of their losses in one fell swoop. One of them won it, one of them left the club in frustration, the other one cried a little.
For those not afflicted by the addiction to gambling, the response is often ‘so what’. I’ve heard people make glib statements like ‘they shouldn’t gamble more than they can afford to lose’ or ‘they should just walk away’. But people making those statements often haven’t witnessed, and don’t understand the nature of an addiction, of what it truly feels like to have your behaviour controlled by an unhealthy compulsion. Like any addict, the images aren’t pretty.
In my time working at the club, I saw one man win $2,500 with a lucky jackpot on a machine, but instead of claiming his winnings and going home, he proceeded to play it away over the course of about an hour. When he finally claimed a payout of a couple of hundred dollars he voluntarily told me what an idiot he felt like, and that he had just kept playing because he was trying to win back the $6,000 he had spent over the past couple of days.
I remember married couples having loud arguments over how much they could afford to spend, one particularly brutal shouting match occurred because one partner had come straight to the club after work on payday, and by the time their spouse caught up with them, there wasn’t much left of their monthly paycheck.
On a number of occasions I had to remind people that they couldn’t leave their children unsupervised in the club while they played the pokies.
There were a couple of regular players who would withdraw the maximum amount of cash from their savings accounts and credit cards, and would be waiting anxiously near the ATM’s waiting for the clock to strike midnight, resetting their daily withdraw limit so they could keep gambling into the night.
One night, a man beat his wife quite seriously in the car park after losing a large sum of money. We saw him beating her head against the dashboard of their car, and when security went to intervene they drove off. The staff were horrified when the man was issued with a warning letter by the club, rather than being banned from the premises. It was never stated officially, but all the staff commented on how he was never banned (or reported to police) because he reliably spent over a thousand dollars on the pokies each week. That incident still bothers me today, particularly my naive submission to the club manager’s willingness to let such behaviour slide.
There were also many gamblers who were clearly there because they were lonely. People for whom interaction with the staff was probably the most social contact they had with any person during the day. In a leagues club, the bar staff usually have other jobs to do when not serving customers, but during the late night shift in a gaming lounge, the staff are often a little more free to talk, and I think some people depended on that.
I often wonder about my efforts at ‘good customer service’, being friendly, having casual conversations or even showing some interest when a customer had a win on the machine, how much of that behaviour was ‘good customer service’ and how much was positively reinforcing the act of playing the pokies? Over the years I worked there I became more and more disgruntled with my role in the whole ugly process. Many people took the pragmatists perspective that we were the smallest cogs in a giant international industry, and relatively powerless, or argued that it was ‘just a job’, I still felt a great sense of relief when I finally left there to start my teaching career.
During my time working at the club there were number of initiatives implemented by governments to try to curb poker machine addiction, or to at least have a greater share of the profits. Increase pokies profits taxes, attempts to place increasingly stricter limitations on gambling in clubs, all of which were fought heavily by the clubs and gambling associations. Most of the time the governments would give in to the campaigning of these fairly influential associations, who were not above running misleading and fear-mongering advertising campaigns to make such measures politically dangerous for those members of parliament who supported them.
What did I learn from this experience? number Well, I learned to be more sympathetic to people with addictions and compulsive behaviour (except for the wife-beater, I never found anything to like about that man), and I developed an incredibly cynical view of politics that clearly separates what is legal from what is just. Though to be fair, that view has served me well in my role as a member of the NSW Teacher’s Federation. Ultimately it reinforced my existing belief in the importance of appropriate education of young people to help them make smarter choices in life, and provides some of the motivation that drives me to do well in my role as a teacher.
So, there’s no punchline to this, no final thought. I just wanted to share some of the reasons why I firmly oppose the proliferation of poker machines in our society, and of gambling in general. I would love nothing more for people like Tom Waterhouse to be run out of business, or for any major event from sports to elections to be held without some idiot on the television telling me the gambling odds. I recognise that in the long run, people must have the freedom to choose how they spend their money or free time, but until we have an adequate and free health service to treat gambling addiction effectively, I suspect that the freedom of clubs and casinos to operate their services in predatory ways means that the problem will continue to worsen for some time yet before society says ‘enough’ or a large enough number of politicians value social welfare over the interests of the gambling industry, or of their own political careers.