Spinning and losing: The reality of pokies

01:43, Jan 31 2009
WAITING FOR THE JACKPOT? A bit of entertainment, or designed to addict? An insider's guide to playing the pokies and the effects it can have.

A bit of entertainment, or designed to addict? John McCrone gets an insider's guide to playing the pokies.

Robyn is urging me to go faster, her voice a strangled mix of excitement and frustration: "Come on. You're too slow. Just push the bloody button."

It is Monday afternoon down at the Glenbyre Tavern in Bromley, Christchurch. We are on her favourite pokie machine, Show Me The Money. Show me the sucker, more like.

Resisting the spin: Robyn Haywood has given up playing the pokies, but only after they brought her to the brink of suicide.

It was this machine that brought Robyn Hayward to the brink of losing her house, to the brink, just about, of crime, and to the brink of driving over the edge of the road in the Port Hills in a mist of tears definitely.

She remembers the day four years ago.

"I'd done it again. I was just going to go and spend a little money, but I'd binged. The mortgage money, everything was gone.


"I came out of the pub and I was a mess. I couldn't see for crying. I was saying I'd done it so many times, I was weak, I couldn't effing beat this thing, I was just useless in society, I may as well hara-kiri myself."

A misadventure in a deep gully would look like an accident, sparing her family some shame. But at the last moment, parked up to gather her nerve, Hayward instead phoned an 0800 problem-gambling helpline and was talked back down to earth.

Pokies are just a bit of fun they say.

Francis Wevers, chief executive of the Charity Gaming Association the spokes-organisation for pubs like the Glenbyre is surprisingly frank about it.

Play the pokies and you will lose. No-one should pretend any different. The odds are fixed by law.

According to the Gambling Act 2003, for every dollar you put in, a machine is only allowed to return a maximum of 92 cents on average.

Though more likely the machine will be tuned towards the minimum legal pay-out of 78 cents.

So losing if you play for any length of time is guaranteed.

Yet Wevers says pokies are an entertainment, an excuse to dream, a way to pass a few hours, and where is the harm in that? Players are paying to be amused in comfortable surroundings.

And oh, a fair slice of the profits goes to good causes.

The divvy is that about a third is hoovered up by the Government in taxes, a third pays for the machines, the rent, the expenses, and a third goes back to fund a broad range of community activities.

Check the accounts of pokie trusts and they highlight their support for your local netball team, rescue helicopter, drug treatment clinic, or whatever.

A few zealots and puritans might complain. But at least when we eventually allowed pokies into New Zealand, we created a mechanism to return some of the pokie cash to the pockets from which it came, says Wevers.

Others, like the Problem Gambling Foundation and Salvation Army Oasis centres, see it differently. Pokies are the crack cocaine of gambling they say.

They are evil machines designed by psychologists to get their hooks into you, the flashing lights, spinning reels, little bleeps, blurts and spasms of music turning players into zombies, siphoning money out of their wallets until they are financial husks.

Did I know that 13 per cent of the pokie players are responsible for 75 per cent of the industry's profits, asks David Coom, South Island manager of the Problem Gambling Foundation?

It is the addicted that are keeping these machines in business.

Horse racing, roulette and other forms of gambling can land people in trouble. But 88 per cent of the foundation's clients are seeking help because of pokies.

Quite simply, they are in a different league when it comes to the misery they cause.

And yet we allow them. Perhaps because, unlike an alcoholic or drug abuser, we cannot just look at a problem gambler and tell, says Coom.

It could be you, me, your neighbour, your child, your accountant. The disappearing money can be hidden for a long time.

It is usually not until a person has blown a gaping, smoking hole in their finances, until the banks, bailiffs and police are involved, that the scale of the addiction comes to light.

And then we will blame the weak-willed individuals, not these parasitic machines, he says.

At the Glenbyre, I am pushing the button on Show Me The Money and, of course, not getting it at all.

The machine slurped in my $20 note with impressive ease. None of the fiddling about you get with a parking meter.

Someone has thought through the ergonomics.

But the array of stake options is a little more baffling. I can gamble a few cents or several dollars on each spin, depending on how many lines I play at once, what sort of pay-out multiplier I choose.

On the widescreen overhead, a message is being flashed up about some jackpot pool prize going past $900. That confuses me, too.

Another spin. I think I may have won something judging by the happy noises. Yet was it more than the stake money I just spent?

Little money bags flash and dance. It is all too tedious, so I lock in the maximum bet to get it over with. But for Hayward, it is infuriating that I am even having to pause to think.

This is the benefit of her spending a decade, in stints of eight hours or more, glued to a chair in front of a pokie screen.

Robyn Hayward can see if I have won or lost even across 20 possible line combinations as the reels are dropping into place.

Proper pokie players keep the foot hard to the floor. That is why the machines come equipped with autoplay buttons. No need to even press to start.

"The machines have to have that, otherwise you'd get RSI wrist strain after a few hours," Hayward laughs.

On the pokie next to me is a slight and elderly Maori lady. Bolt upright and neatly dressed. She is certainly up to speed.

Like clockwork, every few minutes her wallet emerges and another bill is sucked into the slot.

Nothing is coming out again. However, she looks only mildly perturbed, a tiny bit furrowed around the eyes.

I watch gob-smacked as enough to cover a week's electricity bill vanishes into the machine.

It is not a wealthy-looking clientele, it is not a wealthy-looking pub, it is a slow Monday afternoon. But all around, dollars are draining away like blood from a cut artery.

So how much did you lose over the years, I ask Hayward? She cannot calculate. However it was easily hundreds of thousands.

Enough that in her job at the bank, she found herself starting to eye those tempting wads of customers' cash.

Who is to blame here? The people with the problem or the machines which they chose to play?

Hayward says she was a good girl from a Christian family. She had no hint she might be susceptible. It seems in life, you cannot predict what will bring you down.

Like me, she found the pokies tedious at first. For her and her girl friends, having a night out at the Christchurch Casino, they were merely a break from the gaming tables.

"I thought they were boring.

"I could see nobody was enjoying themselves. Nobody was talking. People just had their heads down. There was nothing social about it. There was no skill to it. It did not interest me. Until I played and had my first win."

This is a common tale apparently. It just takes a random payout and suddenly it appears the machines can be beaten. Play moves into a higher gear.

Then the losses start to mount and the game switches to chasing those losses.

The choice becomes whether to tell partners and families about the stupid dollars spent or hoping to claw at least a few of those dollars back.

There is also something comforting, pain-numbing, about the fast-flashing lights, the multiple lines of promise every few moments, the erratic jangle of the micro-wins.

There is no great secret to it really. I studied Psychology 101. We used to call it variable-ratio schedule conditioning.

A rat in a box would learn to push a bar to get a reward of a sip of Milo. Lots of small rewards spread out in an even yet somewhat unpredictable fashion created the most long-term and obsessive bar pushing.

Flash a light or sound a buzzer at the same time and these stimuli become secondary reinforcers enough to keep the button-pushing going on their own.

The rats treated them as rewards because it felt they were nearly getting their sweet Milo fix.

Hayward points out that pokies are quite unlike other forms of gambling in the way they trap you in the zone, quite carefully designed to create a seamless flow of betting and losing.

Lotto comes but once or twice a week. A single bet can buy you quite a few days of day-dreams. Back the horses, or even play the roulette wheel, and every race, every spin, is a distinct event. You also feel connected to a crowd, an occasion, a social context.

But look around this suburban gaming den, a dim sideroom of a pub. There are no clocks, no windows, no telling whether it is night or day. We are all together, but each in the private world of our own machine.

And just consider all the secondary reinforcers that the games offer. Hayward, of course, cannot allow herself to play anymore. But all the tinkling and jangling just about has her bouncing off the walls.

Also, see the way that every spin almost always results in a near miss. Something to get excited about and conceal the fact you just lost.

They call that starved reels. The first few reels to come to rest are stacked with winning symbols, the last only the occasional.

Nearly did it that time, so quick, try again, the machine is saying. Those pokie manufacturers really know how to get inside your head, says Hayward.

The room jackpot is another spur they introduced. One of the 18 machines in the room will eventually strike lucky a chance to recoup a whole afternoon of losses. That sure keeps you in your seat if you were wavering.

The free spin feature is yet another clever hook. It seems like a win because for 20 or 30 goes you are playing with someone else's money.

Naturally, anything won is left in the machine as credits. And you are left feeling refreshed, rewarded, ready to get back in with your own money.

The psychology works. Hayward says yes, you know the machines are built to skim your money at a steady, legally-prescribed rate. But no, you cannot really believe it.

If you have invested several hours feeding a particular machine, you become convinced it must spit back something eventually.

You just have to accept the pain of continuing to insert the notes until finally you get the pay-out you deserve.

"If you sit at that machine long enough, you know something is going to have to happen. A jackpot is going to go. Or even if it is only a $20 pay-out, you think, well, it's on a roll now. It's going to start again," she says.

A pokie with a belly pregnant with your money becomes the obsession. There were days when she was eight hours at a machine, got kicked out at 11.30pm when the pub shut, and was waiting at the door at 7am the next morning.

"That's the madness of the whole addiction. I wouldn't be able to sleep that night because I would be laying there wondering about getting back on that machine before anyone else before anyone else could get my money."

Is it right to call it an addiction though? It is certainly an environment designed to distort your thinking, Hayward says.

She gestures across the room to a middle-aged man a little more grim and intent than the rest. Almost as soon as she walked in she had picked him for a problem gambler.

"See, he's just put fresh notes in that machine, even though he still has a couple of hundred dollars in credits. He thinks he can fool the machine that he's a new gambler."

Again I recall Psychology 101. Superstitious behaviour. Rats would start pushing the bar with their back legs, or after twirling in a circle, if the act happened to coincide with a random reinforcement.

Hayward says this is why she feels she must tell her story, why she has joined lobby groups like Focus on Gambling and gone on marches like the recent Gamble Free Day.

The ordinary person, she says, looking sharply at me, cannot see that pokies could be such a big deal, that in a game involving humans and machines, the machines might have the upper hand.

However, just think how much work has gone into refining their hardware and software, and how much it pays the industry to keep improving the grip they can take on a player's mind.

Industry representatives are incredulous at such extreme talk.

The Charity Gaming Association's Francis Wevers flat-out disputes the claims that a significant proportion of regular pokie players could be considered addicts, a danger to themselves.

He says research shows only 1.2% of people are even at risk. The rest of us can take it or leave it.

As with all forms of gambling, Wevers says, there is a social balance to be struck here. And should the problems of a few be allowed to cramp the fun of the many?

Wevers says the industry has taken steps to manage any harm. For a start, a 1.7% levy on all pokie profits helps pay the wages of the small army of counsellors down at the Problem Gambling Foundation.

Pokies are also incredibly tightly regulated. Every machine in the country is now networked back to the office of the Department of Internal Affairs (DIA) in Wellington.

A DIA inspector can reach across the network to unplug an individual machine if something shonky is felt to be going on.

Wevers scoffs at the idea that some suburban pubs have now turned into de facto casinos, depending on the rent from hosting pokies rather than their proper business of selling food and drink. The DIA sees the accounts and can fast shut such a place down.

The DIA is also hot on other abuses, such as landlords who lend money to keep gamblers going. Just last month a Kaiapoi publican was taken to court and fined.

The pokies themselves are getting pop-up screens which break the action every half hour, informing players exactly what they have spent and lost, giving them a chance to walk away.

Staff at pubs and casinos are now meant to be trained to spot problem gamblers, catching them before they get in too deep and even excluding them.

Caleb Taila, manager for host responsibility at Christchurch Casino an 18-month-old position says it is certainly in the venue's own interest to stop clients going beyond what they can reasonably afford.

"We really want to look after our customers to ensure we have a sustainable business. If we take care of our customers, we'll get longevity out of them. Whereas if we do have people who develop issues, we may have to exclude them, and potentially we may may never see that customer again."

Yet the Charity Gaming Association admits in a June strategy report, a look into the industry's future, that public disquiet about pokies is growing again.

There has been some unfortunate publicity about a few trusts which have been doling out a little too much in grants to provide stake money for horse racing.

All perfectly legal under the Gambling Act, yet still being seen as an unseemly case of one form of gambling being used to underwrite another.

And more generally, people are questioning the value of pokies as an entertainment. How can losing money in such a contrived and automated way be fun?

Public opinion could be close to a tipping point: "The Class 4 gaming-machine gambling sector faces its greatest challenge since the introduction of legal gaming-machine gambling in New Zealand 20 years ago," the strategy document warns.

Tuesday evening this week I attended a men's counselling meeting at the Problem Gambling Foundation. In the room there seemed to be a cross-section of Christchurch society.

The men echoed Hayward's stories about how these machines can take over your life. And they snorted at the idea the industry might be now protectively watching over them.

One young chap 47 days clean says he would hit the casino at 1.30 in the morning, within minutes of his week's pay being electronically cleared. How was that normal behaviour?

Yet no-one ever came up to his elbow, asking if he felt he could really afford to be on the machines.

This is the danger, I was told.

The way things are, it is not until your life has imploded, until you have stuffed yourself to the tune of $100,000 or whatever other level is needed to get you arrested, bringing eternal shame and hurt to those you love and respect, that a halt gets called.

In a quiet aside, a man confides how he gambled away a house or three in his time. And last year his wife died of cancer.

If only he had had that money to pay for Herceptin treatment, she might still be here.

Later I step round the corner to check out the casino for myself. Again, it is all new to me, a concept I just do not get.

A fair crowd is pushing money into the 500 machines in the Valley of Treasures and Gallery of Gold. No-one is looking too stressed, but not particularly joyful either.

Just people a little glazed. Zoning out. Something to do on a cold evening.

I consider investing another $20 to discover the allure of the pokie. But really, I cannot be bothered.

Inside five minutes I am back out on the street, walking away from all the gaudy, blinking, irritating nonsense.

Perhaps in the psychology class we also had rats like me poor responders, hard to train up, too baffled to make that first lift of the paw.

The lab technicians out back probably knew how to deal with these useless creatures.

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