Misery and lies for problem poker machine gamblers
Daylight and the outside world vanish after the security check. There are no windows, skylights or glass walls in sight – the only light comes from the glowing Roulette and Sic Bo signs, Keno screens, prism-shaped chandeliers and the multicoloured fluorescent lights flashing from the pokies that stand in rows, like an army of armless robots.
Navigating the maze of endless gaming tables and machines in search of The Star casino’s food court is mystifying, but eventually I find it tucked away in a far corner. It’s about half full, tables and stools occupied by all sorts, young and old, eating lunch on this Wednesday afternoon. A few are in groups but most are alone, scrolling through their smartphones or fixated on the cinema-sized Star Lucky Link screen displaying the Mega, Major and Minor jackpots for the pokies.
A middle-aged woman wearing a white blouse and loose black pants leaves a nearby table. She stands back from the closest block of pokies, deciphering which of the six she thinks will bear most fruit. From her white leather wallet she removes a $50 note and feeds it into the machine. Two more are fed in within 10 minutes. I take a seat beside her and ask if it would be okay to speak with her about why she plays. Without taking her eyes from the screen and with a fierce tone in her voice from having been interrupted, she replies: “I don’t have any comment.”
I stroll the maze once more. There are tradies, pensioners, suited businessmen, tourists. Some calmly press the buttons under their fingers. Others angrily slap them, grimacing. On each human-sized, twinkling machine is a thin, forearm-length black-and-white sticker that reads: “THINK! ABOUT GETTING HELP.”
At a Queen of the Nile machine towards the middle of the floor sits Andrew. He looks to be in his mid-30s and is wearing a work ID card around his neck. In four minutes, I watch as he feeds four $100 notes into the machine. He spins on the stool to leave, then decides against it and throws in another $100. And another. And another. Finally he rises, though only to walk to another machine across the way – Lucky 88 – and into that goes another $100. He quickly abandons that machine for one called Dragon’s Legend, where another $200 disappears as nonchalantly as one might throw a pebble into a pond. From it, though, he reaps a $350 win. He claims the win at the cashier’s desk.
“Big win?” I inquire as he walks past.
“Yeah, not bad.”
After a brief chat he agrees to let me shadow him as he continues playing. My presence doesn’t alter his tempo. One after another, hundred-dollar notes are withdrawn from his wallet and fed into the machines. What keeps him coming back is the thrill of betting and all the colours and sounds. There is also the “storyline of each pokie”, he explains. He likens it to a video game. His favourite machine is Outback Jack which, when a player wins a feature, displays a Crocodile Dundee-like caricature zooming around a map of Australia in a desert jeep until he stops at a spot that determines the prize amount.
Andrew, like all those around him, looks as focused gambling as a doctor does performing life-saving surgery. Behind his locked eyes, nothing else seems to matter. When I comment on this, he replies: “That’s the beautiful thing about it – you can get away from all other pressures.” As he sits down to a new machine he counts his remaining cash. In his wallet is a thick wad of hundred-dollar notes. “Fourteen-hundred,” he says. “I’d better be careful.”
Andrew anthropomorphises the machines, talks as if they each have unique traits. “You sort of get to know them and have a suspicion whether they’ll pay or not,” he says, playing the More Chilli machine. Then he moves to an Outback Jack machine, which awards him a few small wins. He laughs. “It looks like it’s trying to do something but really it’s not.” Convinced he can out-strategise them, he’ll often decrease his bet to help his chances or go through 100 spins at one-cent bets, “just to get a feel for what it’s doing”.
The intimacy between Andrew and the poker machines has developed over 15 years of playing them. There was a time a few years ago, he admits, when it was a problem. He was visiting daily and betting far more than he could afford to lose. It’s a time he describes as “painful”. Today, however, he calls himself a thrill gambler rather than a problem one. “I’m more on top of that now.”
An hour later, he tells me he arrived at 10am today. Not long before he had said he was here just on his lunchbreak. When I press him about this he confesses with shame that he didn’t go to work today.
That being the case, I wonder why he is dressed for work. I ask if his wife knows he gambles. “She does, but not how much,” he says. “She wouldn’t approve.”
Andrew seems aware that it’s really the pokies that are playing him, though he expresses no wish to kick his habit. “It’s hard to stop once the hooks are in,” he says, with an air of hopeless resignation. Each time he moves to another machine, he says, “Maybe this one will be luckier.” Often, he adds, “But I doubt it.”
Andrew surprises me when he discusses the government’s inaction on problem gambling. “They know about the problem but don’t do anything because of how much money they get. They target people who are happy to throw away their money.” He doesn’t seem at all angry about this; on the contrary, he defends it. “I guess it’s fair enough given how much debt Australia’s in.”
The face of my watch reads 2pm. Andrew bets more and more and wins less and less. At some machines he goes through $100 in less than a minute before moving on to another. “I don’t get a thrill from betting small.”
When I ask how much he has lost over 15 years of playing, he looks at me and laughs. “Oh, jeez – I don’t want to even think about it. I don’t even try to speculate.” He has kept track of his winnings, which he estimates are $10,000. “Though that’s all gone back in anyway.”
At that point a heavily tattooed and muscular young man approaches and takes a seat beside Andrew while he plays. At first I think the two are acquaintances, although it turns out they’re strangers. This young man has slicked hair and wears a tight black T-shirt, but he’s shiny with sweat, his pupils are the size of a five-cent coin. His whole body is shaking. The man ignores me while he stutters requests to Andrew for $50 so he can get a taxi home, aggressively leaning in. Andrew offers a meek refusal and the young man reaches across him, pressing the “Take Win” button on the machine for the $100 Andrew has just won. A white slip spits out and, to my bafflement, Andrew stands and takes it to the “ticket-in-cash-out” machine. He staggers for a moment trying to slip the ticket in and once again the young man reaches across and takes control. Andrew acquiesces without a hint of resistance. Two $50 notes come out and the young man pockets one and hands the other to Andrew.
“Mate, I really can’t give you 50,” Andrew says listlessly, without any real conviction. It’s as if he’s saying it not to stop what’s unfolding but simply because that’s what should be said.
Eyes down and hands interlocked over his head, the young man erratically thanks him and paces away into the blur of lights. There’s no other word for it than robbery and Andrew seems not in the least concerned.
“Well, you just got to witness that,” he laughs. “He’ll probably put it straight into the pokies.”
I ask how Andrew could laugh at what just happened, frustrated at his apathy. “What else can you do?” he replies. “It’s better than making him angry. Maybe my generosity will pay off.”
At 3pm Andrew stands to leave. No wins have followed. “I guess my luck’s run out for the day,” he says.
I ask what his final count is and he opens his wallet. Left inside is $300. I do a quick sum: Andrew lost $1700 in the time I’ve been shadowing him. But he has as much idea about the day’s losses as the time he arrived. “I think I’m down around $1200,” he says.
I ask where he is going now. “Off to meet my wife before she gets off work.”
This story was modified on May 25, 2015, to make clear that gaming machines in NSW do not take credit cards.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 23, 2015 as "Highs of the machines". Subscribe here.