Australian Poker Machines Controversy: Are We Missing The Point…?

G’day eh? As a Canadian residing in Australia I have the luxury of
being able to compare and contrast many things that are oh-so-similar
and yet often oh-so-different. Gambling, in particular using
mechanical devices such as slot or poker machines, is one of those
things, and given the current debate around how best to reduce problem
gambling, my thought has turned to how it’s done back on the other
side of the pond. So, here’s my two maple-leaf embossed pennies.

Over there, in the province of British Columbia, where I’m from, the
regulation of slot machines is substantially different than how it is
here in Oz. Firstly, alcohol cannot be served on the gaming floor —
it has to be in a completely separate venue, and you cannot exit from
the venue back to the gaming floor if you have ordered or consumed any
alcohol. No bars just ‘over there’, no ‘having a few’ and then
visiting an ATM before heading for the $10 slots. No gaming machines
in pubs, either.

Of course, all gaming venues would prefer their clientele inebriated.
This is why the pubs here almost universally have poker machines —
they have a built-in advantage. Drunk people gamble more. They gamble
more often, they spend more money. Banning visibly drunk people from
gambling (which, by definition, would include identifying and ejecting
those who make unusually flamboyant or risky bets) is a wonderful
Canadian policy Australia would do well to implement — although the
pubs and casinos certainly won’t like it. But a strong argument can be
made that someone who is drunk is incapable of making decisions in
their own best interests, and as such do not have the legal right to
divest themselves of their money in an rash fashion, and sooner or
later someone who loses big will take one of the big casinos to court
arguing that exact same defence. It is in the casinos best interests
to support legislation that will absolve themselves of any such
liability before that happens, even though the hoteliers won’t like it
— although it should be noted they’re not supposed to serve alcohol
to drunk people, either.

Secondly, individuals in British Columbia have the right to ban
themselves from gaming venues. This is an obvious no-brainer: if
someone feels they have a gambling problem, they can simply direct
their haunt of choice not to admit them at any point in the future.
This should be the right of anyone fighting any addiction — but it’s
far more effective for gamblers than for anyone else, since the venue
tends to be an important component of the addiction. The casinos will
like this policy even less than the no-alcohol one — because it’s
they who would be hurt most by this, and not the pubs, RSL’s and
clubs.

People who gamble recklessly tend to be attracted to the glitz, the
glamour and the feeling of being a ‘somebody’, and a smaller venue
just doesn’t provide that allure. Big casinos do. Big casinos also
offer anonymity if you get drunk, go broke and make a scene. Smaller
clubs don’t. Luckily for the big casinos, most have facial recognition
software in place already to detect cheaters and fraud-artists, and
could easily implement self-imposed bans, as well as impose arbitrary
bans on easily-identifiable problem gamblers, so there’s very little
argument they can provide not to that wouldn’t display a complete lack
of social responsibility. Perhaps this is something they can take on
themselves, without forced legislation — but maybe pigs will also fly
then, and Hell will open an ice-skating rink too.

Thirdly, if you’re on NewStart or other unemployment benefits you
shouldn’t be able to use your dole money for gambling. People who are
already financially vulnerable and subject to depression shouldn’t be
in a position to make both situations worse. Yes, this is the stuff of
a nanny-state, but it’s also the realm of basic social responsibility,
like not letting someone freeze to death in the street. I’m not
suggesting Grannie can’t spend her pension at the pokies — that’s
Grannie’s business — but Grannie’s not likely supporting small
children and/or at risk of not getting another cheque because they
were unable to look for work because they had no bus fare. If the
government gives you money out of the social safety-net, it should
have the right to dictate how you can and cannot spend it, if by
spending it a certain way you place yourself at risk.

In British Columbia, gaming venues are only required to take your ID
and report you to the government if you win over $1000, and so people
who spend their dole money aren’t caught out very often. However, that
system could easily be adapted here to apply to all payments of
perhaps over $100. In the last few years, BC casinos have transitioned
to a paper-ticket system for credits and payouts, making an
individuals wagers and winnings easier to track — another way to
monitor for problem gamblers — and I strongly suspect they’ll be
matching the pictures they take at the cash counters with betting data
soon if they aren’t doing it already. After all, facial recognition is
Vegas’s best friend for a reason.

(It also appears that moving to a paper-ticket system did not send the
gaming venues broke, either — but when a machine takes in over a
thousand dollars a day, that thousand dollar cost to refit it is a
very, very small price indeed.)

Fourth, in British Columbia the machines are apparently required to
display just how much money has been poured into them since they last
paid out, and just how much that last payment was. These tend to be
quite sobering figures, but it should be made quite clear that they do
not discourage the casual gambler who can afford to take the risk in
hopes of hitting a jackpot, in fact quite the opposite, it encourages
them, because they have no expectation of winning. This is the
supposed target audience for this kind of ‘entertainment’, not those
who see the numbers and realise they might inadvertently spend their
rent money before they get any real payout — at least in theory. But
once again, casinos are not in the business of being concerned with
the ability of their patrons to make smart choices.

But, I hear you cry, the poor little clubs and RSL’s won’t survive
with these sorts of rules!

That’s not true at all. Gaming venues in British Columbia still make a
great deal of money even though alcohol is tightly regulated, people
can self-ban themselves from venues, people risk trouble if they
gamble while on the dole, and the machines show how unlikely you are
to keep eating if you spend your grocery money. These are all much
more valuable tools in the fight against problem gambling than
mandatory pre-commitment, a per-bet limit (although the most popular
and likely profitable slot machines in British Columbia tend to have 5
to 25 cent individual bets, not $5) or the elimination of random
jackpots (or ‘features’).

Further, the patronage of clubs and RSL’s tends to be that of the
members of these organisations themselves. Even hotels tend to have a
common, regular clientele they can choose to self-regulate should
someone obviously be in trouble. But to the casinos, people are just
sources of revenue, and there’s no close-knit community (in the case
of the clubs), or unspoken obligation to their suburb (in the case of
hotels), and measures such as these are required to force these larger
organisations to mind their responsibility to the broader community.
It’s reasonable to argue that casinos breed far more problem gamblers,
but that it is the responsibility of the gaming community as a whole
to ensure that the damage caused by addiction is minimised, even if
that means a bit of pain for everyone involved.

To conclude, I strongly suggest that people take a good look at these
strategies and see how they might work to the benefit of the social
fabric in Australia. Sometimes there’s just simply no need to
re-invent the wheel, you just need to glance over your neighbour’s
back fence.

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Australian Poker Machines Controversy: Are We Missing The Point…?

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